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Right to Kill Caesar: A Vindication of Brutus

October 27, 2011

There are more students studying Ancient History at senior levels in NSW than in all of the United Kingdom. This, I was vouchsafed by the Board of Studies. It is a vindication of our government’s decision to introduce history – ancient and modern – at a very advanced level called Extension History in the NSW curriculum. Indeed, a vindication of our school curriculum, the best in Australia.

That was on display last night, when at Macquarie University I joined staff and students to debate the proposition that “Brutus was right.”

I argued that Brutus was a Claus von Stauffenberg in his commitment to block dictatorship and imperialism with a deft public assassination.

My argument was based on the proposition that Caesarism had the following characteristics: 

  • domestic dictatorship,
  • a ravenous love of war,
  • endless wars of imperial expansion,
  • war crimes, in prosecution of these wars.

Thus Caesar provided a template that was adhered to by Napoleon who said on his way back to France after his disastrous invasion of Russia that, “Of course, the death of a million men doesn’t matter to a man like me.” A perfect summation, in fact, of Caesarian orthodoxy. Other exemplars of Caesarism were Hitler and Mussolini: a “great” man, the myth of the political saviour who will rescue his people from the untidy rule of factions and parties and bring glory through foreign conquest.

“We in 2011, looking back on the last 100 years, can surely recognise Caesar’s type and the threat it brings.”

Equally potent arguments were presented by my colleagues Professor Tom Hilliard and student Amy Smith for an audience of 500.

We lost. The cause of the republican liberators went down to defeat. Former Senator Steve Loosley, leading the Caesarian party, was able to claim triumph when the hands were counted by university vice chancellor Steven Schwartz. Damn, I can’t even claim it was close.

There was a devastating argument I might have thrown in, given that my friend Loosley is a former general secretary of the NSW ALP and the public believes he and his colleagues have had some experience in political assassinations. Given the recent history of the office Loosley’s abhorrence of political murder might have been questioned. But even that argument may not have worked. There is too much sympathy for the myth of Caesar, perhaps because he was murdered before he faced his Waterloo and the mob, up till now bribed with handouts and circuses had turned on him.

  1. Alan permalink
    October 27, 2011 12:54 pm

    The much over-rated Roman republic had 2 political parties. Whenever the progressives, by whatever name you choose to call them, took power the conservatives started shrieking in an Abbotesque manner about the mos maiorum and shortly thereafter the progressive leader was dead, whether his name happened to be Marius, Caesar, or Gracchus (twice).It is not necessary to endorse Caesar’s program, although it’s worth noting that the foreign policy of the optimates was no different) It is merely necessary to recognise that a polity where the opposition claims and repeatedly exercises a constitutional right and duty to assassinate its opponents is not an entirely admirable political design.

  2. Peter permalink
    October 27, 2011 3:51 pm

    Great to see a bit of Roman history on your blog, Bob. I’d be in the Loosley camp on this one (something I would not normally do). The privileges of liberty were only shared among a very closed group of families who sent thousands of conscripts to their deaths all in the name of glorifying their families. Interesting how it was the defenders of tradition who resorted to assassination of the Grachhi and Julius Caesar, and who would side with the dynasts like Sulla, Pompey or Octavian when it suited them.
    You should have a read of Allan Massie’s Roman history novels, he captures the spirit and personalities of the time very well. I’m sure that you have read Kiwi historian Ronald Syme – The Roman Revolution is a classic and very much influenced by its times (it was published in 1939).

    • Major Tom permalink
      October 27, 2011 10:01 pm

      I think you’ll find Bob has read Allan Massie- he discusses his novels in the Roman section of “My reading life”

      • Jake permalink
        November 11, 2011 12:40 pm

        Thanks, also Steven Saylor is a great read

  3. scott permalink
    October 28, 2011 3:18 am

    A tough one.

    In that Caesar was trying to find a way to get Rome to work, because the traditional system had clearly broken down; really the Republic was in crisis in the 130’s BC and it had muddled through with various civil wars. Brutus and his conspirators didn’t have any answers to Rome’s problems, which is why after Caesar’s death the Republic totally imploded.

    Always good to have a Roman blog or three. Keep em coming, Bob. I’m glad that you brought in the Ancient History thing into NSW schools.

  4. Jeffrey FRANCIS permalink
    October 28, 2011 4:50 am

    I don’t like the Spartans, they could have been the template for Cromwell and the present day tea party in the USA. This idea of rural life being morally superior and that breeds conspiracy theories about carpetbaggers and decadence in big cities etc.Most small country towns are hotbeds of jealously, greenlights for things like consensual incest (a game all the family can play) etc.Drunken racist anglo saxon thugs.I could go on and just wish I could flee this arsehole of a colonial backwater.Austraya.

    • Jake permalink
      November 11, 2011 12:40 pm

      Hopefully you can when you are no longer sectioned.

  5. Paul permalink
    October 28, 2011 7:56 am

    “The lack of any serious interest in public affairs on the part of Brutus is manifest not only in his complete lack of grip on the issues, but also in his inability to maintain a single view of his reason for killing Caesar. His real reason he cannot confess, so he shifts his ground as it suits him. He cannot really see anything wrong with Caesar, as he admits in his orchard. He finds a rationalisation for the assassination in his romantic stereotyped picture of the proper role of a Brutus when he reaches out for a crown. But the crown is almost entirely a figment of his imagination and is not a serious issue in the action. It is to Brutus’ romantic picture of his role that Cassius appeals, using it to guide the appeal to envy. The Brutus who really is noble, without pretentions, emerges at the end [of the Shakespeare play], after the deaths of Cassius and Titinius have restored him to his senses.” – WHC Eddy. The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (Sydney, WEA, 1959).

  6. Peter Pando permalink
    October 30, 2011 8:13 am

    Dear Mr Carr,

    Martin Luther King Jr was convinced that the ends of power were entailed in the means, that is, how a group achieves power is how they will attempt to retain it. You can see the potential result by the method. Your argument to protect people by killing one person is how would-be tyrants all over the world justify building their armies and their tyrannies. “It is better one man die for the good of the nation than the whole nation perish” is an ancient mistake of power. Problems with it include the difficulty which arises for those who kill opposition to think straight and not wipe out good p-eople and their own intelligentsia out of paranoia. One alternative culture – which suggests that you need to be “be as innocent as a dove yet as clever as serpents” – is the one that has survived countless tyrannical regimes. Indeed, it is the bedrock of deomcratic respectability, isn’t it? The pattern of intelligent innocence will with time defeat those whose attempts to command modern English-speaking democratic civilization is built on at the failed Roman Empire.

  7. Linda permalink
    October 30, 2011 8:51 pm

    As a student who just sat the 2011 HSC Ancient History exam, studying sections on the Fall of the Republic and focusing on the personality of Julius Caesar, I really wanted to watch that debate at Macquarie University — unfortunately, I had study plans instead!

    For my part, I’m afraid I don’t agree with you, Mr Carr: it’s easy to deem the late Republic as a democratic institution but in reality, they were an oligarchical group of senators who were seeking to retain power within their own social caste. Caesar undertook a swathe of reforms during his dictatorship that sought to defeat poverty and social listlessness. Yes, undoubtedly, Caesar was authoritarian. But it was an improvement upon the ineffective and corrupt group of people who dominated the political environment during the end of the Republic.

    • Jake permalink
      November 11, 2011 12:42 pm

      Linda, what a great post, and if you are a 2011 HSC graduate, you are a credit to the course and school.
      Today all of them would have been locked up (Caesar for killing 1/3 of Gaul’s population, Cassius etc for corruption). While we look at the similarities (hot water, organisation etc) Rome is far less like us than we would like to think.
      Excellent discussion, Bob. No wonder NSW kept voting for you

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