The Death of Caesar, by Barry Strauss
The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination
By Barry Strauss
Simon & Schuster, 323 pages
Julius Caesar was warned several times not to go to the Senate House that morning 2,059 years ago. The omens and his soothsayers were against it; his wife, Calpurnia, had dreamt the night before that she was holding his gored corpse in her arms; and on his way to the Senate, a man named Artemidorus of Cnidus actually handed him a small roll of paper with details of the murder conspiracy. He failed to open it. Instead Caesar listened to his comrade-in-arms, Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, who said that not going to the meeting would make him seem either weak for heeding a woman’s dreams or a tyrant for not bothering to attend a Senate occasion that he himself had called.
Decimus wasn’t just a brilliant young general from a noble family who had been made governor of Gaul by Caesar. He was also secretly the third leader of the murder conspiracy, even more important than his two comrades, Brutus and Cassius, who today are far more famous largely because of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which puts them center-stage. Shakespeare used only one ancient source—Plutarch. Barry Strauss of Cornell University has read them all, and in The Death of Caesar, his gripping yet scholarly account of the assassination, he weighs up the evidence judiciously as a sleuth might evaluate the contradictory accounts of eyewitnesses at a murder scene.
The questions that are often asked about Caesar’s murder are each answered by Strauss with a combination of historical evidence, highly informed guesswork, and a good deal of common sense. How was a conspiracy of 60 people kept so secret (Artemidorus notwithstanding) in a city as gossipy as Rome? Why did no one notice that up to a hundred gladiators had been hired to protect the assassins that morning? How did the conspirators hide their daggers inside their togas? Did Caesar really fall at the foot of his mortal enemy Pompey’s statue, or was that just poetic license? Were the daggers held upwards or downwards in the conspirators’ hands? Why did such a well-organized conspiracy have such a chaotic aftermath and ultimately fail to reestablish a Senate-dominated republic? Strauss goes into all these questions, and many more, with answers that entirely convince. (Needless to say, “Et tu, Brute?” was one of many Shakespearian inventions.)
“Dark-eyed and silver-tongued, sensual and violent, Caesar possessed supreme tactical ability. He used it to change the world, driven by his love of Rome and lust for domination,” writes Strauss as he opens the book with Caesar’s return to Italy in August 45 b.c.e., seven months before the Ides of March. “Caesar’s armies killed or enslaved millions, many of them women and children,” he continues. “Yet after these bloodbaths he pardoned his enemies at home and abroad. These overtures of goodwill raised suspicions—could the conqueror be a conciliator?—but most had no choice but to acquiesce.” Strauss then assiduously sets the scene for what was essentially an upper-class generals’ plot against the man the aristocratic soldiers of the Senate feared would subvert forever the supposed republican virtues of Rome.
Strauss also excels at examining the central part women played in Roman politics of the day and shows that several of them were deeply torn over the plot. Servilia, for example, was Caesar’s mistress, Brutus’s mother, and Cassius’s mother-in-law. Some sources state that Junia Tertia, daughter of Servilia and wife of Cassius, was also a mistress of Caesar’s. When one adds Decimus’s mother, Sempronia—who, Strauss says, “had a reputation for brains, beauty, adultery, and revolutionary politics”—and Brutus’s equally strong-willed wife, Porcia, the daughter of the great Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, into the mix, there is the recipe for a fabulous TV series, not just a deeply researched and pacily written history book.
Strauss is particularly adept at picking and choosing between the sources, all of which he knows intimately from a long and distinguished career teaching ancient history at Cornell, but many of which are incomplete and contradict one another. Strauss uses archeological and numismatic evidence as well in his narrative, but the contemporaneous written evidence is the most compelling. The best historian writing at the time, Asinius Pollio, was a (not uncritical) friend of Caesar’s but wasn’t in Rome then. Livy might well have been, but he was only 15. Strabo too was young, but although we know that all three wrote about the assassination in books, only a capsule summary of Livy’s chapters on Caesar has survived to the present day.
Although the account of orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero survives, it’s only a paragraph long and isn’t trustworthy. So Strauss instead concentrates on the later, abridged, and possibly politically biased accounts written by a Greek, Nicolaus of Damascus, as well as the pro-Brutus Plutarch, who wrote a century later, and Suetonius, who wrote later but had read earlier sources. Appian, who probably consulted Asinius Pollo’s lost account, and Cassius Dio also made important later contributions. “By the standards of ancient history it’s not a bad lineup,” notes Strauss. “But by modern measures it’s thin gruel. Supporters of the Roman emperors had little use for the conspirators, while the emperors’ opponents looked back to the conspirators as role models if not secular saints.”
Nicolaus of Damascus promoted the idea that private grudges rather than public duty motivated almost all the conspirators except Brutus. Certainly, Decimus himself seems to have betrayed his principal benefactor because he felt overlooked and underappreciated rather than out of a sense of republican virtue. Left with his five sources, which are based on secondhand accounts and none of which is impartial, Strauss emphasizes that “the historian has to exercise imagination, ingenuity, and caution.” He himself achieves all three, while at the same time writing a serious work of history that reads like a thriller.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.