FROM THE MAGAZINE
We moderns admire the idea of a merciful victor — in theory. So too did the ancients, and their admiration was just as qualified. The Roman general and dictator, Julius Caesar, whose name has become almost a synonym for leadership undone by overreach, attempted to practice a bold form of clemency soon after his accession to power. As historian and classicist Barry Strauss points out, however, mercy can be a very dangerous policy — read his penetrating essay here.
Probably the most quotable account of political intrigue in the West, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is the story of a great leader who deftly mastered the art of public approval and faux rejection of ambition, but ultimately trusted in his momentum too much. But Julius’ crowning moment does not last too long before his legendary betrayal on the Senate floor baptizes a new era of Rome in the blood of its first would-be Emperor. Enter Octavius, the namesake of this publication, and the rest is literal history. The great “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” speech delivered by Octavius marks the pivotal moment where charged, inspired emotions turn public opinion within the mob of Rome against the conspirators who kill Caesar despite that same crowd just moments ago affirming their support for a cool, rational speech delivered by Brutus, who delivered the final stab wound to Caesar, that justified the end of Caesar’s political excess.
There’s a reason why Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar has achieved a new vogue since Donald Trump ascended to the White House riding on the back of a campaign which prided itself on irrational, emotionally charged demands for political vindication and a violent end to government corruption. Let’s just hope we can skip the Civil War stage of that conundrum which both Caesar’s contended with.
Winner of the highest prize at 2012’s Berlin International Film festival, Caesar Must Die is an Italian film that melds fiction and documentary. The premise: inside the high security prison in Rebibbia, just outside Rome, a cast of real life convicts are preparing to stage Julius Caesar. Is it uniquely charming to watch men who probably have real life experience living as thugs and mafia captains reprise roles as belligerent strong men and violent conspirators? Yes, it is — especially when the inmates seem to understand at a deeply intimate level what it means to live a life like the Romans did, with honor, power and authority paramount.
The director instructs the actors to embrace their regional Italian accents instead of correcting them towards something more Roman and imperious. And the solemn, constantly rehearsed assassinations and disposal of Caesar’s body in the prison yard — shot, like most of the movie, in black and white — never loses its haunting touch. Shakespeare has been reinvented in a million different ways at this point in human history, but this is definitely a highlight.
The Ides of March, or March 15, was a date on the Roman Calendar significant for multiple religious events and — symbolically important, given that Caesar was killed on this day in history in 44 BC — a deadline honored among the Romans for settling debts. The short history lesson here is that, through the ensuing chaos related to Julius Caesar’s death, the Roman Republic collapsed and a new status quo of rule by Emperor, instead of consuls and senators, began. Whereas the Roman Republic gave us the Punic Wars, Cicero and rigorous ideals of civic virtue, the Empire would become known for a whole mess of new characters and themes: aggressive new military campaigns against the Barbarians, the spread of Christianity; Virgil, Livy and Tacitus, the last of whom had some grim visions of Rome’s newest political epoch; insane Emperors like Caligula and now legendary accounts of carnal excess. After the Empire came the less auspicious fall of Rome, although the total collapse of the Empire didn’t happen nearly as fast as its creation following the assassination of Julius Caesar. Rome was not built or dismantled in a day, but it still took only one decisive murder in one moment to completely redefine its future.