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Death of a dictator

How Caesar’s murder set the template for political assassination.

The assassination of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44BC (“the ides of March” by the Roman system of dating) is the most famous political murder in history. Caesar had recently been made “dictator for life”, and he was killed in the name of “liberty” by a group of men he counted as friends and colleagues. In the aftermath, the assassins issued coins with a design specially chosen to celebrate the deed and press home the message: it featured the memorable date (“EID MAR”), a pair of daggers and the image of the small hat, “the cap of liberty”, regularly presented to Roman slaves when they were granted their freedom. This was liberation on a grander scale, freeing the Roman people from tyranny.

Several of the characters whose biographies feature in Plutarch’s Lives – Caesar, Brutus, Cicero, Antony, Pompey – had a role in the story of the murder. Julius Caesar was the victim, his dying moments vividly described by Plutarch. In this account, there were no famous last words, “Et tu Brute?” or whatever; after a futile attempt to fight back, Caesar pulled his toga over his head and took the 23 dagger blows that killed him. Brutus was the leading figure behind the assassination, a frankly messy business, as Plutarch makes clear (with several of the assassins “caught in friendly fire”, accidentally wounded by blows from their own side), and he was soon more or less forced to leave the city.

Cicero, the Roman politician, philosopher, poet, wit and orator, was not party to the plot but was very likely an eyewitness of the murder, and was straight away consulted by the assassins about what on Earth to do next (one of their main problems was that they had not thought ahead). Antony was Caesar’s right-hand man, gave the address at his funeral, and tried to take on the role of Caesar’s defender and successor – though he soon found an even more powerful rival for that position.

Pompey was already dead by 44BC. He had been killed four years earlier in a civil war, leading those Romans who had then been prepared to resort to pitched battles to resist the growing power of Caesar. But his shadow hung over the assassination. Caesar was murdered in an expensive new meeting hall whose building Pompey had funded, and he fell in front of a statue of Pompey, splattering it with his blood. It was as if Pompey was finally getting his revenge.

 

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The death of Caesar has provided the template for assassination ever since and has been the focus of debate on the rights and wrongs of political violence. In 1865, John Wilkes Booth used the word “ides” as the code word for the planned date of the assassination of President Lincoln. Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, largely drawing on an early translation of Plutarch’s biography, used the events of 44BC to reflect on the nature of political power, ideology and moral conscience. Others have seen the assassination as a useful reminder of the futility of such attempts at direct action. For what did it achieve? If the assassins had really wanted to quash the rise of one-man rule in Rome, if they had wanted to kill the tyranny as well as the tyrant, they were strikingly unsuccessful. More than a decade of civil war followed (a major theme in Plutarch’s biographies of Brutus and Antony), but the end result was that Caesar’s great-nephew – “Augustus”, as he was later known, and the man who rivalled Antony as Caesar’s heir – became the first Roman emperor. He established autocratic rule on a permanent basis. So much for the return of “liberty”.

In the long history of Rome – founded, as the Romans calculated it, around 750BC – the murder of Caesar, for all its later notoriety, was just one of many political crises, which became particularly intense and violent in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. This was a period of expansion, political change, even revolution. There were vast Roman conquests overseas and, as a consequence, an enormous influx of wealth into the city. Gleaming marble from Greece, rather than local brick and stone, began to be used for temples and other public buildings in the city; slaves started to make up the majority of the workforce; and so many people flocked to Rome that its population topped a million, the only Western city of that size until London in the early 19th century.

But this age also saw repeated outbreaks of civil war at home, political disintegration, mass pogroms of citizens and the final fracture of what had once been a more or less democratic system of government. As a leading politician, Caesar was almost typical in coming to a violent end. None of the men I have mentioned died in their beds, nor fighting some “barbarian enemy”. They were killed in conflict with other Romans, by Roman hands, or on Roman orders. Pompey, for example, after losing in battle to Caesar, was decapitated by an Egyptian eunuch, ably assisted by a couple of Roman veteran soldiers; Cicero was put to death in 43BC in one of the pogroms, on Antony’s instructions, his head and hands later pinned up in the centre of Rome as macabre trophies for the crowds to leer and jeer at. A little over a decade later, Antony ended up killing himself after he lost in battle to Caesar’s great-nephew and successor.

The Romans described and fiercely debated the stresses and breakdown of their political system, trailing all kinds of explanations and possible solutions. For this period was also one of intellectual revolution in Rome, when the rich tradition of Roman literature began. Starting in the early 2nd century BC, Roman writers for the first time tried to tell the history of their city, to reflect on its problems and on how they thought it should be governed; and they used writing, too, for political attacks, insults in verse, self-advertisement in public, and personal letters in which they shared their aspirations, fears and suspicions.

When Plutarch in the early 2nd century AD was writing these biographies, he could base his narrative on plenty of contemporary material from the age of Caesar. Some of this we can still read, including Caesar’s one-sided account of his campaigns against the tribes of Gaul and later against Pompey (one of the very few eyewitness descriptions of ancient warfare to have come down to us) and volumes of Cicero’s political speeches, philosophical treatises and hundreds of his private letters, made public after his death by his loyal heirs. This writing helps us to understand what lay beneath all that chaos.

The rapid growth of the Roman empire was a crucial and destabilising factor. For us, why Rome grew in a few centuries from a small, moderately successful town in central Italy to one with control over more of Europe and the Mediterranean world than any state before or since is one of history’s big puzzles. Most modern observers put it down to some unfathomable combination of greed, a highly militaristic ideology, a dose of good luck and a happy knack of converting those they conquered into Roman citizens, and so into new soldiers for the Roman cause. The Romans were less puzzled on this score, pointing to the support of the gods, their piety and a succession of defensive rather than aggressive wars, in which they intervened to protect allies under threat. They were more troubled by the consequences of overseas growth for society and politics back home.

Despite their popular modern image, the Romans were not simply thoughtless and jingoistic imperialists. Some worried that the wealth and luxury that came with conquest overseas undermined what they saw as old-fashioned Roman austerity, a few about the cruelty of conquest (there was even
one, perhaps not entirely serious, proposal to put Caesar on trial for genocide during his conquest of Gaul). Others faced the question of how to adapt the traditional structures of Roman government to cope with new imperial demands. For how could you control and defend a vast empire, stretching from Spain to Syria, with a power structure and a system of military command developed to run nothing more than a small town?

That was one of the big issues behind the revolutionary changes of this period, and one of the factors that promoted the rise of dynasts such as Caesar. The political traditions of Rome, going at least as far back as the end of the 6th century BC, had been based on the principle that power was only ever held on a temporary basis and was always shared. The citizens as a whole elected the city’s officials, who combined both military and civilian duties, held office for just one year at a time, ideally not to be repeated, and never had fully independent decision-making power.

That there had always been not one but two consuls (the most senior of these annual officials) is a clear sign of that long-established commitment to power-sharing. But it was a principle ill suited to governing a far-flung empire and to fighting wars that might take place several months’ distance from Italy; you could hardly travel there and back in the regular year of office.

The Romans improvised various solutions to that problem: sending men out to the provinces, for example, after their year of office in Rome. But increasingly the Roman people voted more and more power into the hands of ambitious individual politicians on an almost permanent basis, even though those votes were often ­controversial and sometimes violently resisted.

 

 

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Caesar was not the first to challenge the traditional model of power-sharing. Despite leading the traditionalists against Caesar in 49BC, Pompey had, only 15 years or so earlier, been granted unlimited power for years on end across the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, first to deal with the pirates and human traffickers operating on the sea, then to deal with one of Rome’s remaining enemies in the East, King Mithridates of Pontus (in modern Turkey). Cicero was one of those who successfully spoke up, in a speech whose text we can still read, to quell the opposition to this grant, which was regarded as a dangerous step in the direction of one-man rule.

Even Brutus, despite his fine slogans on the subject of “liberty”, seems not to have been entirely immune from similar dreams of personal power. The coin celebrating Caesar’s assassination may have displayed the daggers and cap of liberty on one side. But on the other was an image of the head of Brutus. In Roman eyes, heads of living people on coins smacked of autocratic ambitions: Caesar was the first to risk such a display at Rome, Brutus the second.

So one side of the age of Caesar, richly documented in Plutarch’s Lives, was a series of “big men”, bankrolled by the vast profits that followed imperial conquests, competing for personal power. And that competition often came down to open fighting – whether in the streets of Rome, where there was no police force or any form of peacekeepers to maintain order, or across the empire more widely (the final battle in the Roman Civil War between Caesar and Pompey was fought in northern Greece, and Pompey was brutally finished off on the coast of Egypt). As the coin of Brutus hints, Caesar’s murder came too late to put the clock back to old-fashioned power-sharing. If Augustus had not established permanent one-man rule, Antony or some other rival would surely have done so.

Another important side of the period was the increasingly intense debates about what we would call “civil liberties”. How was it possible to protect the rights of the individual Roman citizen in this violent turmoil? How were the rights of citizenship to be balanced against the safety of the state? This came to a head almost 20 years before Caesar’s assassination, in 63BC. As Plutarch and others described it, Cicero was consul and believed that he had uncovered a terrorist plot, masterminded by a bankrupt and desperate aristocrat named Catiline, to eliminate some of the leading politicians, Cicero included, and to burn down much of the city. Once he had frightened Catiline out of Rome, Cicero rounded up those he believed were his accomplices and had them all executed without trial, even though they were Roman citizens and, as such, had a right to due legal process. “Vixere” (“They have lived” – that is, “They are dead”), he said in a particularly chilling euphemism, as he left the jail after super­vising their execution.

Not everyone at the time approved. Caesar was among those who stood up and objected. He was what we can still recognise as a classic populist, combining – as many have since – aspirations for dictatorship with a knack for popular rhetoric and an ability to appeal to the interests of the people (though, unlike some more recent examples of his kind, he also had a strong sense of popular justice). But in general Cicero was hailed as a hero who had saved the state from destruction.

The approval did not, however, last for long. Despite claiming the protection of an ancient equivalent of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Cicero was banished into exile, on the charge of executing citizens without trial. He was recalled within a few months but, during his absence, his house had been demolished and a shrine to the goddess Liberty had pointedly been erected on the site.

The rights and wrongs of this case were debated ever after. How far, the Romans wondered, were elected officials allowed, or obliged, to transcend the law to save the state? We now debate very similar issues; how far the interests of homeland security make it legitimate to suspend the rights and protection that citizenship ought to ­offer, or how far we can stomach the idea of detention without trial, or summary deportation, if it prevents the “bad dudes” from doing us harm. That is why this is one of the Roman causes célèbres that speak to us most directly.

 

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The age of Caesar, then, was one of political murder, street violence, constant warfare both inside and outside Rome and fundamental disagreements about how the state should be run, how democracy and liberty might be preserved, while the demands of empire and security were met. It is impossible not to wonder what it was actually like to live through – and not just for the elite, rich and male political leaders who were the leading characters and celebrity victims in the conflicts and the focus of all ancient writers. What of the ordinary men and women who were not in the limelight? Did life for them go on much as before, while the big men and their armies fought it out? Or did the violence and bloodshed touch almost everyone?

It is hard to know and wrong to generalise. Just occasionally, Plutarch does take his eyes off those at the top of the pile and throw a fleeting glance at ordinary people carrying on with their lives more or less as usual in the chaos around them. We meet in passing Cicero’s wives and his daughter, Tullia who, like so many women in the Roman world, died from complications of childbirth, along with her infant son. We have a glimpse of an enterprising trader from northern Italy, a man called Peticius, who in 48BC just happened to be travelling in his ship along the coast of Greece when he spotted Pompey, on the run after his defeat by Caesar – and gave him a lift south.

Most engagingly of all, thanks to information he had picked up from his grandfather, Plutarch gives us a tiny but vivid insight into the practices “below stairs” in the kitchens of the palace in Alexandria that – to the horror of many Romans – Antony eventually came to share with Queen Cleopatra. Apparently, the cooks were so concerned about preparing the wild boar to perfection, whenever the company upstairs decided to eat, that they had eight boars roasting, each put on to cook at a different time, so that one would be sure to be just right when dinner was summoned (do the cooks at Mar-a-Lago or, for that matter, Balmoral have the same problem?). It is a nice image of ordinary people living in their own world and dealing in their own way with (and maybe laughing at) the capricious demands of the world leaders they served.

But not all were so lucky. One memorable story told by Plutarch, repeated and made even more famous by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, tells the fate of an unfortunate poet called Cinna. This man was not quite as ordinary as Peticius or the cooks in Alexandria; he was a friend of Caesar but he was not in the political mainstream. A couple of days after the assassination, he went to the Forum to see his friend laid out for his funeral and fell in with a crowd of Caesar’s mourning and angry supporters. These men mistook the poet for a different Cinna, who had been one of the assassins, and so tore the poor man limb from limb.

The message of the story is clear. Assassinations have innocent victims, too. Simple cases of mistaken identity (and there must have been many of those at Rome, in the absence of any form of official ID) can leave a blameless bystander dead. Shakespeare’s plaintive line “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet” is a haunting reminder of the many who must have been caught in the crossfire when the leaders of the Roman world clashed.

“The Age of Caesar: Five Roman Lives” by Plutarch, translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Romm, is newly published by W W Norton

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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