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The Ides of March

March 19, 2017

Written by Theodore W. Palmer, March 15, 2017  Revised March 16, 2017.

2060 years ago  Julius Caesar was killed by 23 stab wounds as he sat in his golden chair in the Senate.

(There is no year zero: 1 BCE was followed immediately by 1 CE, hence 2060 not 2061. Because of calendar reform it is not a real anniversary, but we keep the date.  The Julian Calendar was decreed by Julius Caesar and took effect on January 1, 45  BCE.  It had a leap year every fourth year.  Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian Calendar with 97 leap years every 400 years.  Ten days were subtracted from the old date.  The Gregorian Calendar differs from the precise astronomical year by one day every 3,030 years.  Impressive!  [[Please see note at end on Gregory XIII.]])

A coin issued by Brutus with the cap of liberty and two knives or short swords over the date.




I regard this event in two ways:

(1)  A man who was becoming a dictator was removed.

(2)  A great man was assassinated.

I celebrate the first and regret the second.


His whole life shows what a great man Caesar was.  From his earliest years he always succeeded far better than he should have, although often blocked by those who feared him.  He was killed by aristocrats who did not approve the limits on their corrupt power he was trying to institute.  But there is no doubt that he wanted dictatorial power.  He probably convinced himself that he wanted it to do good, but  “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” as Lord Acton observed.


For most of European history political/historical events were always compared to Classical examples.  The Ides of March has reminded me that this is still possible today.


Early political decisions in Europe were made by all the adult men in the small groups of people living together.  To GREATLY simplify, as the groups got larger this was no longer practical, so a subset of adult men selected by power, wealth, genealogical heritage, strength, fighting ability, leadership ability or wisdom and insight, made decisions on a basis of rough equality in an informal fashion.  The Athenians found ways to extend this semi-democratic form of government to MUCH larger and more complex groups.  They and their sister states learned about tyrants overthrowing democracy.


About 509 BCE the Romans overthrew their monarchy and established a republic which lasted until 27 BCE.  The republic worked pretty well (with ups and downs) until the last few decades.  It spread its rule over Italy by making alliances until the beginning of the Second Punic War in 218 BCE.




From then it became an empire with increased danger of corruption from more concentrated power.  At first all the power was held exclusively by the patrician families but over time plebeians were allowed to hold even the highest offices.  What finally proved fatal was the increasing power of money and the corruption this encouraged.   Julius Caesar accumulated much power (as a tyrant) in the year or two before his assassination and tried to reverse this trend.


I now look at my own life and times.  The USA Constitution was a daring compromise among aristocrats.  It worked better than anyone could have expected for about a century, even surviving civil war to remove its original sin of slavery due to the will and political wisdom of Abraham Lincoln.  The high tariffs needed to pay for the Civil War were kept after the end of the war because they aided the manufacturers in the North who won and were opposed by the agrarian South that lost.  This corrupted the USA government more and more.  During the same time private wealth was accumulated in concentrated form.  Theodore Roosevelt was able to ameliorate some of this at the very beginning of the 20th Century, but his reforms broke down leading to increasing dominance of money and precipitating the Great Depression.  Because of the desperation of the situation, FDR was able to correct things to a large degree.  In about the last three decades money has again dominated our government at an increasing rate.


I hope we do not face another Augustus ready to overthrow our government.


Slightly related note: Gregory XIII (1502/01/07-1585/04/10) Pope from 1572/05/13 is probably my favorite Pope with the possible exception of our present Pope Francis.  He was a thoroughly good and scholarly man who judiciously adopted a remarkably accurate calendar.  He attracts my attention even more because he commissioned the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican in 1580, finished in 1583.  Next to the first atlas “Theatrum Orbis Terrarus” published May 20, 1570 (a date which I always celebrate), it is my favorite collection of maps.




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