The Ides of March/Red Nose Day

15 Mar

GUYS

I totally forgot until now but today is the Ides of March. Supposedly, according to Shakespeare and before him, Livy, Suetonius and a bunch of others, Julius Caesar was warned by a soothsayer that he would not see the end of this day in 44BC. At any rate,  soothsayer or no, he was definitely murdered brutally by a bunch of senators while the rest of the Curia (that’s the Roman senate house) stood by. These days, the site believed to be where he died is a cat sanctuary in the centre of old Rome, not far from the Coliseum.

The story is that Caesar looked up at his attackers as they descended on him and realised that one of them was his buddy and protégé, Brutus. Caesar was so dismayed he asked (in Latin), ‘et tu, Brute?’, or, in translation, ‘you too, Brutus?’ (‘Brute’ is the vocative form of Brutus – it is not pronounced like the English word ‘brute’!). There is some disagreement here, though. Some historians report that Caesar actually said και συ τεκνον (for those of you without Greek but hoping to impress somebody with this story later, that’s pronounced ‘kai su, teknon’), which means ‘you too, child?’.

That’s an interesting reflection on what Caesar, Brutus and all their subsequent chronologists thought about their relationship to each other. There was even a rumour, popular at the time, that Brutus was the illegitimate son of Caesar, although rumours around the same time reported Caesar had sold his virginity to the king of Bithynia and used to wax his legs with a hot nutshell (Catullus, the poet, wrote a crackingly vicious poem or two about Caesar and his cronies). Basically, don’t get carried away by rumours. The Romans didn’t have the Daily Mail, but if they did, they would have loved it.

Caesar’s murder in the middle of March, 44BC, reignited the civil war that had barely died down three years previously. The following bloodshed culminated in the Battle of Actium in 31BC, between Mark Antony, a Hellenised Roman with much of Greece, Syria and Egypt on his side and Octavian, the nephew of Caesar and the man in control of the centralised Roman army. Octavian was a bit of a wimp but luckily one of his best mates, Marcus Agrippa, was an excellent general, and the sea battle was won by team Caesar. (If you’ve ever been to Rome and seen the Pantheon, you’ve seen a dedicatory inscription by this same Marcus Agrippa – it says ‘M. Agrippa cos tertium fecit’, or ‘Marcus Agrippa built this in his third consulship’).

It would be easy to say that 31BC marked the decisive change from sort-of-democratic government to an empire, but that’s not strictly true. Octavian – who changed his name to Augustus in 27BC, basing his new moniker on a line of religious foundation poetry by the writer Ennius – did not have a smooth ride. Riots, protests, war abroad, a terrible massacre in Germany, grain shortages, infrastructure problems, family drama – something like the West Wing meets Coronation Street. Nobody could have predicted that a teenager with a dead uncle would have been able to take power and manipulate the Romans into thinking he would give it back whenever they asked.

Augustus died in 14AD. That’s pretty good going, all things considered.

Now. Imagine, for a moment, that – eg – Colonel Gaddafi is ‘Caesar’ (if you watched the recent BBC televisation of the RSC’s Julius Caesar, this’ll be easy). Think how long that means Libya might be in some serious shit before a contender for making a viable peace comes along. Thirteen years of vicious civil war before a decisive victory. Four more years of an uncertain constitution. And then however much longer it takes for that constitution to establish itself to reach some sort of stability. Doesn’t sound great, does it? Nope. Well, it’s also Red Nose Day. Maybe my little history lesson will encourage you to put your hands in your pocketses.

All right, sermonising over. Today’s lessons: don’t be a tyrant, and give to charity. Simples!

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