The Ides: Caesar’s Murder and the War for Rome
By Stephen Dando-Collins
John Wiley & Sons, 288 pages, $25.98
No assassination of a politician has had a greater influence on Western history than the murder of Julius Caesar by sixty-seven senators of the Roman Republic on March 15, 44 b.c. For in its wake the very development that the assassins had most sought to avoid—the establishment of a dictatorship—came to pass, made permanent by their poorly thought-through murder. Moreover, once imperial throne and Christian altar were united after the conversion of Constantine in the early fourth century, Western civilization came to be dominated by the ideal of an oxymoronic Christian Caesar, an ideal that did not die out definitively until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. But republican ideals also never died out, as attested by the care that the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution took both to emulate Republican Rome and to avoid its structural flaws.
Given its vast impact, there should be no surprise that opinion on the morality and wisdom of Caesar’s assassination splits right down the middle, with Dante regarding the murder as akin to the execution of Jesus (he bizarrely put its two leading instigators, Brutus and Cassius, right next to Judas Iscariot in the bottom rung of the last circle of his Inferno), and Shakespeare drawing from Plutarch’s admiring account of the “Liberators” (as they styled themselves) to make his character of Caesar come across as arrogant, foolhardy and—perhaps most damaging of all—uxorious.
A noted historian of Rome’s ancient armies and author of several technical books each on Caesar’s Sixth and Tenth Legions, Nero’s Fourteenth, and Mark Antony’s Third Gallican Legion, Stephen Dando-Collins’ sympathies are clearly with the Liberators. He of course admits the sheer amateurishness of the conspiracy and the conspirators’ fateful (and fatal) lack of a plan once Caesar was dispatched. But for the man who fell to the assassins’ daggers on the Ides of March, he has only contempt. He even diagnoses bipolar disorder along with Caesar’s well-documented epilepsy: “That mania would have made him a workaholic, charismatic, and self-confident to the point of ultimately feeling indestructible. Mental illness also could have given Caesar a belief that he knew best and that rules and laws did not apply to him.” Dando-Collins is lucky it’s not really up to his near-namesake Dante to determine who gets to go where after death. As is Shakespeare.
—Edward T. Oakes, S.J