Meditation on the Ides of March

By Sachin Maini

Longtime student and enthusiast of antiquity writing about the history of ideas, cultural evolution, and complex adaptive systems.

The Ides of March recently passed. I normally take this as an occasion to re-read Shakespeare’s masterpiece Julius Caesar, or Plutarch’s Life of Caesar, which Shakespeare used heavily to inform his play.

This year, however, I thought I’d spend a little time writing about why an event that happened so long ago looms so large for me around this time of year.

March 15 is a day laden with meaning to me not only because, of course, of the inherent drama of the events that transpired on that date in 44 BC — the assassination of Julius Caesar by a conspiracy of 60 senators — but because it leads me to reflect on what might have been.

What might have been if Caesar had listened to his wife Calpurnia’s dire misgivings the night of March 14 and stayed away from the senate-house?

What might have been if Brutus and Cassius, who both accepted Caesar’s pardon for fighting against him in the Civil War and were generously entrusted with high office in his regime, didn’t turn on the man who had spared them in an act forever immortalized as symbols of treachery later writers like Dante and Shakespeare?

What might have been if Rome’s most gifted general had not been stricken down almost at the very moment of his greatest triumph, and had been allowed to pursue his campaign against the Dacians and Parthians that he was on the verge of initiating before he was assassinated?

What might have been if the Roman Republic had been allowed to heal from the preceding long period of political turbulence, spanning from just before Caesar’s birth in 100 BC until his triumph in the first Roman Civil War at the battle of Thapsus in 46 BC?  What if the benevolent dictatorship of a ruler who by all accounts was highly competent, generous of spirit, and unusually tolerant of dissent had been allowed to continue until he died of natural causes?

My first instinct is to say that this counterfactual timeline would have looked quite different from the one we inhabit — and that few single events in history would have had a comparable impact, given the significance of Julius Caesar’s life. 

In 44 BC, at the age of 56, Caesar was as energetic as ever. He was still unbeaten in battle, despite having faced dire odds against very capable enemies, including fellow Romans, across three continents.

In the decade of the 40s BC alone, having freshly conquered Gaul, he beat his former colleague, ally, and son-in-law Pompey the Great at the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece in 49 BC. He then defeated Pharnaces II of Pontus at the Battle of Zela in 47 BC (the occasion of his famous phrase “Veni, vidi, vici”), before becoming entangled in a civil war in Rome’s client kingdom Egypt between Cleopatra and her brother-husband in the siege of Alexandria from 47-46 BC. He was victorious yet again, despite being vastly outnumbered, and managed to turn Egypt into a Roman province in the process of installing his new mistress Cleopatra on the throne (it had previously retained some autonomy). 

Next he defeated his most determined political rival throughout his political career, Cato the Younger, at the battle of Thapsus in 46 BC, along with a vast senatorial army that included a significant number of elephants. Finally, he fought and defeated the sons of Pompey in Spain at the Battle of Munda in 45 BC, which was so desperately fought that he had to risk his life himself by rushing to fight at the front line and rally the troops at a critical moment.

This last battle, which finally broke the power of the Pompeian faction, effectively ended the first Roman Civil war in Caesar’s favor, and he returned to Rome as Dictator — an office granted to him in perpetuity. But although around this time he adopted the iconic victor’s laurel wreath as a kind of crown, perhaps to hide his advancing baldness, he was far from content to rest on those laurels.

Some of the things that Caesar was in the process of doing when he was assassinated:

  • Draining the marshes near Rome to create more arable land and reduce disease
  • Reforming the calendar to a system very similar to the one we use today
  • Sending out Roman colonists to underpopulated provinces
  • Addressing inequality by redistributing arable land
  • Planning a campaign against Rome’s greatest threat in the East, the Parthian Empire, to avenge the defeat of his ally Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, in which Crassus was reportedly executed by having molten gold poured down his throat.

This is just a sample of the projects Caesar had been engaged in before his life was prematurely cut short; there are likely many others that we will never know about. Yet, from his lifetime of energetic and effective reforms as a statesman and as an invincible general in war, it would be safe to guess that, had Caesar not been prematurely killed, the Roman Empire’s political apparatus would have been sounder, and its territory greater, than it otherwise became. 

Even his gifted successor and adoptive son, Gaius Octavius, who became known as Augustus when he became Rome’s first emperor, was no equal to his prodigious energy, logistical talent, inspired showmanship, and military genius. From a foreign policy standpoint, in particular, I think it is fairly clear that Caesar’s continued life would have led to the growth of the Roman Empire far beyond the extent it ultimately reached in this timeline.

The Parthians, who ultimately reached a peace deal with Augustus, were a constant threat on Rome’s eastern border — one of two enemy peoples (the other being the Germans) whom the Romans never managed a decisive victory against.

Augustus was a capable administrator but not much of a general and had to delegate many of his most important military decisions to his friend and subordinate Marcus Agrippa, who won the pivotal Battle of Actium against Mark Antony which ended the second Roman Civil War and irrevocably ended the Republic in the process.

Because of his deficiencies as a general, Augustus was unable to undertake grand campaigns against foreign adversaries — letting his generals gain too much glory and too much military power would have been a threat to his nascent rule. This led to a pivotal disaster — the battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD — which resulted in the slaughter of three legions. This defeat preserved the independence of the Germanic tribes who would later destroy the western Roman Empire and bring about the Dark Ages, and convinced Augustus to adopt a policy of consolidation instead of conquest.

By necessity, Augustus, therefore, set the boundaries of the Roman Empire at the Rhine and Danube rivers in Europe and negotiated a settlement with the Parthians in the East. The former proved durable almost until the end of the Roman Empire in the West, while the latter was the source of constant fighting for centuries in a series of conflicts known as the Roman-Persian Wars, which endured well into the Byzantine Era.

I think it’s plausible that Julius Caesar, who was on the verge of setting out for Parthia, would have either conquered the Parthians or dealt a serious blow that would have allowed the Romans to negotiate a much more favorable and stable Eastern border.

Who knows how far this could have gone? There’s a famous story about Caesar weeping in front of a statue of Alexander when he was a young man in Spain because at that age Alexander had already conquered the known world, while Caesar was still a struggling young politician.

Certainly, he would have been tempted to follow in Alexander’s footsteps if at all possible, and maybe exceed them. We know from his incursion into Britain that Caesar was greatly attracted to the idea of extending Roman dominion into parts of the world that had not yet been discovered. If Alexander made it to India, would Caesar have pushed on into China, and have connected the great civilizations of the East and the West in a way that was not achieved until Genghis Khan? It’s unlikely, but not impossible.

A more tangible counterfactual is the fate of the German tribes, whom Caesar’s great-uncle Marius fought and defeated when the tribes of the Cimbri and Teutones had invaded Roman territory and threatened Rome itself for the first time since Hannibal. During his campaigns in Gaul, Caesar found time to cross the Rhine and conduct a punitive raid against the Germans in 55 BC in retribution for their attack against him under the chieftain of the Suebi, Ariovistus.

Caesar would have been unlikely to let the Rhine remain the border between the Roman frontier and the Germanic tribes. He pioneered bridging the Rhine and was experienced campaigning against Germans, who he understood well (his ethnography of Germania in the Gallic Wars is one of the earliest examples in the genre, and was quite detailed). Given its later significance in Roman and European history, this would have had profound consequences — and perhaps the incorporation of the Germanic tribes into the imperium Romanum would have forestalled the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

On the domestic front, I suspect that Caesar’s assassination was a tipping point in the destabilization of a Roman Republic which was already on its last legs as a political system.

The preceding century had seen one constitutional breach after another. There had been many acts of political violence, from the killings of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus to the bloodthirsty mobs of the rival politicians Clodius and Milo. There had been successful coups, such as that of Sulla, and failed ones like that of Catiline. There had been immensely threatening rebellions, such as that of Sertorius in Spain or Lepidus’s in Italy. And there had been countless close calls.

That’s just counting conflicts between people who saw themselves as Romans, ignoring other upheavals like the slave rebellion of Spartacus or the rebellion of the Italian allies in the Social War. Caesar grew up in this milieu of constitutional uncertainty and was almost killed by it when he married his first wife Cornelia, drawing the ire of the dictator Sulla who had him hunted down and almost put to death when he refused to get divorced.

Caesar’s final victory in 45 BC in the first Civil War could have put an end to all of this turmoil. The trade-off that presented itself to the Roman people at this point was to tolerate his extra-constitutional, unprecedented power as a necessary evil to steady the rudder of state, or to risk a continuation of the wars and chaos that had plagued the Republic for the past 80 years, dating back to the attempted reforms of the tribune Tiberius Gracchus and his brother Gaius.

Brutus, Cassius, Casca, and the other senatorial conspirators choose to gamble on the latter option when they murdered Caesar on March 15, 44 BC. Instead of restoring the Republic, as intended, they plunged it into an even more devastating round of Civil Wars. Thousands of soldiers and hundreds of senators were killed in the battles and proscriptions that ensued, and the indisputable casualty when it was all over was the Roman idea of representative self-government — an idea that would not be resurrected in Western Europe for a thousand years.

Yet, despite my instinctual belief that the world would look much different had Caesar not been assassinated, it’s by definition impossible to prove.

Although I feel confident that the geographic extent of the Roman Empire would have looked quite different, with profound ripple effects throughout the three continents it straddled, sober reflection makes me wonder if the internal fate of Rome was not already sealed.

Was the Republic already at the end stages of a terminal illness by the time Caesar was killed, or did his death (or life) put it over the edge? Was the first Civil War the one that ended the Roman informal constitution (the accumulated political customs of centuries, known as the mos maiorum, or “Way of the Ancestors”), or was it the second?

Was it Sulla’s dictatorship and proscriptions, or was it the use of the senatus consultum ultimum to overthrow the Gracchi generations before Sulla’s military coup?

Or did the very scale of the Roman Republic after the vast expansions of the second century BC make its demise inevitable?

My colleague Caleb points out a few other plausible scenarios that also bear thinking about:

  • Caesar could have effectively brought the principate into existence sooner than later (although I would argue this would have happened with less needless bloodshed if it did happen and may have been more reversible as a result).
  • Augustus could have been better set up for success if Caesar had lived because there would have been more competent aristocrats who hadn’t been killed in the Second Civil War. 
  • If the empire’s borders had been extended, it might have shortened its lifespan (if you believe that the empire over-extending itself is what ultimately contributed to its breakup and demise, which I don’t think is true).

However, the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that even a gifted statesman like Caesar, even with the help of his frenemy Cicero, could not have helped the Republic avoid its fate, and that the causes of the fall of the Roman constitutional order were much deeper and began much earlier than his life or death. But that is a subject for another time.

For now, I can only lament the needless blood that was spilled by the second Roman Civil War, which, coming on the heels of the First, was necessarily more brutal and devastating. I can only curse the perfidy of Brutus, Cassius, Casca, and the conspirators who assassinated Caesar despite benefiting from his tolerance and clemency — and who achieved the exact opposite of their intended goal (the salvation of the Republic).

And I can only approve with dark satisfaction of Dante’s portrayal of Brutus and Cassius languishing in the deepest circle of Hell.