The Ides of March – by Peter Eisenstadt

The Ides of March

Today is the Ides of  March. All I can say is, “beware, beware, beware.”  You don’t have to be an soothsayer in the market  to have a sense of impending catastrophe.   We still have a senate.  We still have (lower case “r”) republican institutions that are badly fraying. And we still have would-be strong men who seek to take advantage of the situation, phony tribunes of the people, and a would-be dictator (which was an office in Republican Rome, which Julius Caesar occupied in his last months.)  Just to be absolutely clear, I am not drawing any further parallels, or anticipating or advocating for anything bloody or untoward. It’s just that the Ides of March is a day for looking at where we are, and where we are going.

In the Roman calendar, the ides either fell on the 15th of the month (for months with 31 days) or the 13th (for the other months.)  Romans did not refer to days as we do, by their ordinal number, such the 13th of March, the 14th of March, or the 15th of March. Instead, it was “2 days before the Ides of March,” “the day before the Ides of March,” the Ides of March. It gave the Ides of March a big buildup.  It was a day for sacrificing sheep at the Temple of Jupiter in the Forum.  It was thought to be an unlucky day, not a day for getting married or big business transactions.

What has long impressed me about the assassination of  Julius Caesar is that it is first real date in history.  He was assassinated on 15 March, 44 BCE.  No other date, before that, is so precise, or seems as normal.  This makes sense, I suppose, since the  calendar itself, the Julian Calendar, is named after him and he (with the aid of a few astronomers) helped create.  And he has, and presumably always will have, something named after him that our current president can only covet, an entire month.

For two thousand years and more, historians and commentators have looked to the decline of the Roman Republic as a lesson in how republican and representative institutions can erode and be placed by a strongman.   This happened in Roman less by “cleaning the swamp” and creating new institutions, but by draining the old ones of any power and influence.  Rome, under the Empire, continued to have a senate, and continued to have consuls and other Republican offices.  But they had no real role in the government.

Rome had become an “empire” before it became an Empire, and much as today, there were questions about citizens and non-citizens, and the mixing of peoples and religious beliefs.  Some appreciated the mixtures; others abhorred it, wanting a return to strict old Roman values, but  trying to make “Rome great again” as the conspirators against Caesar wanted, like most restorationist projects, were indulging in a fantasy.  There were worries about how homosexuality was destroying the moral core of Rome.  There were great concerns at the time about religions from the Middle East coming to Rome, the cults of Cybele, Isis (not to be confused with ISIS), and, above all, the cult of Judaism, but that is another story.   In many ways, the problems that confronted  the Romans, c. 44 BCE, how to manage a big, open, diverse, heterogeneous world, is very much our own.

Today, we will see how Geert Wilders, the Dutch fascist, fares in elections in the Netherlands, and we will see if the rising tide of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment has another victory.  Israel, like a crustacean retreating ever further into its shell, continues to harden itself against the rest of the world.  And we all know what struggles we are facing in the United States.

Is there a lesson for the Ides of March?  Don’t  do stupid things, as Obama liked to say. Don’t be rash. Leave your daggers at home. Plan for a long struggle.  Neither discard the old or embrace the new unthinkingly. “The fault, dear Brutus,” as Cassius said, “is not in the stars but in ourselves.” Don’t blame history.  Nothing is fixed, nothing is inevitable, we can change things, but only if we are sufficiently self-critical.  It is not a time for fear, whatever the old soothsayer says. It is a time for rational, careful action.