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Catastrophe averted?

The leaders of the rich countries went to Washington to save the world from sliding into deep recess

Vincent Cable

Shadow chancellor, Liberal Democrats

By the low standards of economic summitry, the G20 meeting rated quite high. There was a predictable, no doubt pre-written, communiqué, full of the usual banalities. And the meeting suffered from the absence of the world's most important politician, who hasn't yet taken up office. But, these necessary caveats aside, there were important achievements.

The first is that the meeting took place at all. The ludicrous pretence of the G8 (or G7) that the old western powers should set the global economic agenda has been punctured for good. On a purchasing power parity basis, China has the second-biggest economy in the world and India the fourth. It has been clear for some time that China is lender of last resort to the global system (by, in effect, underwriting US government paper) and the main source of global incremental demand (and commodity price inflation). The Chinese self-parody as the pupil sitting meekly at the feet of a dominant, but erring, master defies belief. It is obviously right that China, India and the other main non-G7 countries should be at the top table.

The second achievement was the clear realisation that unless governments hang together they will hang separately. Enough has been learned from interwar history for us to understand the follies of beggar-my-neighbour economics. Perhaps a warning shock was being sent across the bows of the incoming Obama administration not to reinvent the protectionist tariffs of the 1930s in a new guise, directed at China or Mexico in particular, or aiming to salvage the US auto industry through public subsidy. But this new-found concern for open markets has not yet communicated itself to EU or Indian or Chinese trade negotiators, who show no enthusiasm for lifting the block on trade liberalisation under the Doha round.

While trade policy is on the back burner, macroeconomic policy co-ordination is not. With a few exceptions - Germany notably - there is recognition of the need for aggressive monetary and fiscal policy and for large-scale intervention to recapitalise banks. These interventions can be and are being undertaken nationally. But governments acting in isolation attract critical attention from capital markets and currency speculators, as Gordon Brown is discovering. Structures like the G20 are the best safeguard against chaotic, unilateral action.

Will Hutton

Economic commentator

It was remarkable to gather so much economic and political power in one room to address a common agenda. That was the good news - along with commitments to co-ordinate fiscal expansion, to expand the lending power of the IMF and World Bank (Japan's $100bn loan to the IMF will increase the Fund's lending capacity by 40 per cent), to boost cross-border supervision, to tackle credit rating agencies, to reassess mad accounting rules and require member countries to attack the bonus culture in the financial services industry. A year ago such an agreement would have been inconceivable.

The bad news is that much of this is shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Four things have to be recognised: that the world has profound imbalances between high-saving, high-surplus areas in Asia and the Gulf and low-saving, structural deficit countries in the transatlantic economy (Germany excepted); that a system of floating exchange rates and private banks can no longer take the weight of recycling those savings; that unless the system is de-risked and the burden of adjustment is placed on deficit and surplus countries alike, the global system faces breakdown; and finally, that the business model used by the banks to recycle surpluses - securitisation and hedging in the $360trn global derivatives market - is broken.

In plain English, China must accept that its currency must appreciate; Britain and America, that they cannot run their economies on foreign savings; and all players that there has to be a system of semi-fixed exchange rates between the yen, the euro and the dollar.

One tough reality is that, for all their new economic weight, China, Brazil, Russia and India do not have fully convertible currencies - nor do they want to accept the discipline involved in having convertible currencies.

Ann Pettifor

Fellow, New Economics Foundation

Over the past decade, the Group of Eight leaders turned their exclusive annual meetings into jamborees. Rock concerts, protesters and celebrities added populist glitz. However, the real purpose of the meetings - international co-operation and co-ordination - was ducked. At last year's G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, George W Bush and Gordon Brown vetoed Angela Merkel's agenda item for co-operation over tighter international regulation and financial oversight of capital markets. That task, they argued then, could safely be delegated to "the invisible hand". Now that the fantastic, self-regulating machinery of free markets has proved grossly malfunctional, it is good to hear talk of enhanced co-operation and regulation.

But, in places, the joint statement issued by the 20 world leaders borders on the delusional. The phrase "We must . . . ensure . . . that a global crisis, such as this one, does not happen again" implies that they are avoiding the next war when they are still losing this one.

Even more questionable is the call for continued "economic growth". In a world of finite resources on a planet with limited capacity to absorb toxic emissions, and with bushfires encircling Los Angeles, we would have hoped that world leaders had some awareness of the threat of climate change and of the limits to economic growth. But no. The gravest threat to global security - our rapacious attitude to the earth's resources - is once again whipped up with talk of "market principles, open trade and economic growth".

Jesse Norman

Senior fellow at Policy Exchange

One might have thought the G20 summit a good moment for some straight talk from the Prime Minister. Instead, the political wind machine was cranked up to full blast. The summit would be a second Bretton Woods. Gordon Brown would forge a new global consensus on co-ordinated intervention to stimulate growth (while, of course, leading reforms to prevent the banking crisis from ever recurring). Luckily virtually none of this was true, or the summit would have been a hopeless failure. With fiscal measures already widely adopted, the G20 hardly needed Brown's leadership. No surprise that he returned empty-handed.

Labour has moved from despondency to a manic desperation to remain in office. The result is that the ever-fragile concept of truth in politics has wholly been cast aside. Thus the humiliating bank nationalisation has been dressed up as an act of far-seeing economic statesmanship. And a sensible warning from the shadow chancellor that current economic policy puts sterling at risk has been condemned for breaching an irrelevant semi-convention dating from the time of fixed exchange rates.

Alex Brummer

City editor, Daily Mail

There is a golden rule of international financial meetings. The larger the "G" number, in other words the more countries involved, the less likely it is that any worthwhile or binding decisions will be taken. So while it was wholly encouraging that the G20 summit brought a number of emerging market leaders to the top table of finance, including China, Brazil and Russia, there was never any real prospect of the event becoming the new Bretton Woods.

Furthermore, the summit took place in the final days of the lame duck administration of George Bush. Once it became clear Barack Obama was going nowhere near the confab, the event became even more of an irrelevance.

European leaders may like to blame Wall Street and Anglo-Saxon capitalism for the credit crunch and the recession now spreading through the Group of Seven like wildfire, but there is no hope of concerted international action without the new White House and Federal Reserve on board.

Almost all that was agreed could have been decided before the leaders left home. The commitment to reviving the Doha trade round is pure motherhood and apple pie. The prairie populists on Capitol Hill are unlikely to be enthusiastic.

At the core of the proposals was the commitment to use fiscal measures, tax cuts and public spending to kick-start global economies. But despite Gordon Brown's enthusiastic embrace of a new Keynesian big-spending approach - as advocated by Nobel prize-winner Paul Krugman - he neatly forgot to mention that such big-spending ways were only for those countries with a "policy framework conducive to fiscal sustainability". The UK with its ballooning budget deficit, which could hit £100bn or more next year, is clearly in no such position.

It is hard to fathom in what way the G20 was "historic", as the Prime Minister claimed in the Commons. There is little original in a bunch of old ideas designed to remove risk from the financial system and control executive pay. That is what regulators should have done before the banks ploughed into the iceberg.

James Buchan

Author and financial commentator

What is the Financial Stability Forum? What is "mitigating against pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy"? What, if anything, has the G20 summit in Washington on the weekend of the 15 November achieved?

Nothing very much, is the answer to all three questions. In the twilight of a discredited US administration, and with President-elect Barack Obama absent, the meeting was never likely to achieve a great deal or generate excitement in the US. Yet the final declaration, drafted with suspicious ease by the delegations on Saturday night, has something for everybody but not enough of anything to scare the financial horses.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president whose idea the whole thing was, gained some support for more institutional government of trade and finance, but no super-gendarme international of the type that has been directing financial traffic in the French imagination since the 17th century. As Jean-Pierre Robin wrote in the Figaro: "Those with fantasies of supranational supervision will need to change therapist." The US, jealous of its commercial sovereignty even when it is going about without its shirt, put paid to those Gallic dreams and also gained some platitudes about free trade.

The new commercial powers, not only Brazil, Russia, India and mainland China but also rich oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, received diplomatic recognition of their deep pockets. "The world's geopolitical structure has a new dimension," the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said. "There is no logic to making any political and economic decisions without the G20 members - developing countries must be part of the solution to the global financial crisis."

I suspect the winner is Gordon Brown. The next meeting will be held under his presidency in London in April. The Washington ragbag of proposals to reform or tinker with the current system, such as reminding us about the Financial Stability Form and mitigating against that regrettable pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy, appeals to his technical vanity and plays to his technical strengths.

Paul Mason

Economics editor, Newsnight

There was a sense in Washington, despite the throbbing engines and bulletproof glass, of powerlessness. The communiqué was stronger on the causes of the crisis than on co-ordinated solutions. Policymakers are right to stay focused on the near-term dangers: these are country-level debt default, the rising cost of borrowing for non-financial companies, rapid job losses and - via feedback - further destabilisation of the banking system. We are moving into the phase of fiscal stimulus but there are powerful technical arguments that say without "quantitative easing" - that is, printing money to stimulate demand - it doesn't work. The same people who told me it would come to recapitalisation, that the TARP (troubled assets relief programme) would not work, are now saying: nationalise the banks and print money.

Despite the urgency of the focus on near-term dangers, what was obvious at G20 was the lack of vision as to the future growth model of capitalism. The problem was seen as a failure of regulation; the solution a pretty weak brew of re-regulation that will get diluted even more as the lobbyists begin to have influence. But the problem is more fundamental: the growth model based on high debt instead of high wages has failed and will be hard to revive.

Peter Mandelson

Secretary of State for Business

We have been caught in a global whirlwind of extraordinary force.

It has brought with it a fear that has gripped the world economy and taken hold here at home. We are seeing it every day, with fear among consumers that is depressing demand; fear among banks that is inhibiting them from lending; fear among small- and medium-sized businesses that banks are just about to cut off their credit lines. The choice facing us and governments around the world is this: do we act decisively to counter and overcome this fear, or do we become paralysed by it and fail to act?

The government has already shown its willingness to take the bolder course as the first mover in setting about stabilising the banks. What is needed now is action to stimulate the demand essential for recovery. The UK economy, like economies in the rest of the world, needs a shot of adrenalin.

The Bank of England has already made a significant cut to interest rates. This monetary stimulus now needs to be matched by a fiscal stimulus. And because this is a global crisis this is best done if the benefit of the measures taken nationally is maximised by the same measures being taken around the world. That was the message from the international conference in Washington, as governments recognised the need to take the action necessary to stimulate their economies.

People will say, "But you are resorting to borrowing in order to deliver the stimulus that's needed." My answer to that is, what is the alternative? We certainly haven't heard one from the Conservatives.

David Cameron and George Osborne, trapped by their desire to oppose everything the government does, refuse to accept the scale of the challenge the world's economies now face and the prescribed international action. Their stance appears to be, if the rest of the world disagrees with us, it is because the rest of the world is wrong. The result is incoherence and an Opposition at sixes and sevens. One minute this is "do all it takes" and the next it is - as we heard this week - leave the recession to "take its course".

Sitting on our hands watching houses repossessed and businesses go to the wall is certainly not the approach being urged on me by people I have been speaking to up and down the country. They want their government to act to stimulate demand in the economy here and now. With all due prudence, that is what we are going to do.

Diane Coyle

Author and economist

The G20 meeting confirmed a robust and rapid response (by past standards) to recession, even in the US operating under a rump free-market administration. Policymakers around the world have been shaken to see the financial system at the brink of collapse - on their watch.

Yet it is difficult to predict how severe the recession will be. Bank lending to businesses and individuals is virtually frozen. In many (but not all) areas of the economy, activity has come to a halt. The last financial boom and bust, ending in 2001, had surprisingly little impact on jobs and growth, as the financial bubble had become increasingly untethered from anything real. Today's vicious circle of evaporating liquidity is much more serious, but lower interest rates and bigger government deficits will help. The underlying trends are easier to outline. Some challenges are clearly unaltered, such as climate change and our ageing society.

The technological opportunities are still there, too, in communications, the internet and biotechnology. Globalisation will be less driven by finance in future, but it will not be unwound. It would take a generation to turn back the clock on economic linkages, and the cultural impacts are permanent. In fact, the crisis has underlined our interdependence across national borders.

What has changed is the political economy of globalisation. In the triad of efficiency, fairness and freedom which dominates political choice in democracies, fairness will take priority in the years ahead, and the drive for ever greater productivity gains will retreat. The semi-nationalisation of the banks has started to shift the boundary between public and private domains; we will have to think more carefully about how to govern private choices that have big social spillovers. The G20 did not touch on this profound question of governance.

Iain Macwhirter

Political commentator

The G20 was largely a throat-clearing session and was never going to put in place the foundations of a new international financial system. Progress on the stalled Doha trade talks is encouraging but provides no guarantee that protectionism will not raise its head in the coming economic slump.

It is inevitable that countries faced with financial collapse will try to defend their economies by any means possible. Britain is already far down the road of "beggar my neighbour" economics by the "managed" devaluation of the pound, a crude attempt to boost UK industry by lowering the prices of British exports and creating a de facto tariff wall around imports from abroad. It won't work because Britain does not make much of anything any more except debt, and the world has plenty of that already.

But the collapse of the pound will seriously damage what is left of UK financial services. No one in their right minds would put money into the UK economy now, with the property market collapsing, UK banks insolvent and government borrowing likely to reach £100bn in the next 18 months.

Gordon Brown seems to believe that sterling is like the dollar, and that people will buy our dud pounds whatever the likely losses. However, as we are discovering, sterling is not a reserve currency and unlike the US we cannot force other countries to pay our debts. The future for our battered island is likely to be hyperinflation punctuated by appeals to the International Monetary Fund for emergency aid. Forget about spending our way out of recession - the UK government simply lacks the resources to fund the huge borrowing that would be required. Something will have to give. Brown will have cause to regret being so beastly to the Icelanders.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos

James Carville, the hardened political aide to Bill Clinton, said that if he was reincarnated he'd want to come back as the bond market: "You can intimidate anybody." Right now it seems odd to think of any financial markets threatening anybody. But it is one of the ironies of the current economic situation that the capital markets still have some serious muscle.

Western governments, faced with recession, need to throw a lot of money at their ailing financial institutions - money that can be raised only by selling Treasury debt, mostly to the capital-rich investors of the Far East. For Gordon Brown, this is likely to become a more difficult sell, as Prudence is given the push and the pound takes a nosedive. Even national exchequers invite sceptical scrutiny in this new, nervous world.

The financial crisis is at heart a loss of faith. The word credit derives from the Latin credo - "I believe". When the Titanic of the financial world - in the shape of Lehman Brothers - was allowed to sink, the bonds of trust stretching around the world were snapped. In an instant, everyone stopped believing in each other.

A number of sensible measures should be on the agenda when the G20 reconvenes next year, including legislation to ensure bonuses in financial services are paid on the basis of five-year performance; new "pro-cyclical" provisioning rules requiring finance houses to increase their store of capital in economic upturns; and tougher, independent regulation of the rating agencies whose doe-eyed assessments of banks built on a mountain of paper helped get us in this mess.

There is, however, no quick technical fix for such a dramatic loss of confidence. Trust can be lost in the blink of a market-trader's eye - but it will take years to rebuild.

TEN THINGS THEY ACHIEVED

  • 1 Created a road map aimed at stabilising the world economy and overhauling the banking system with targets for the end of March 2009
  • 2 Advocated Keynesian big-spending
    “fiscal stimulus”
  • 3 Expanded from a small club making world decisions to recognise the importance of the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China
  • 4 Agreed to reform international finance institutions, including better transparency and supervision of credit ratings agencies
  • 5 Agreed that the Financial Stability Forum should include emerging economies
  • 6 Banks and hedge funds to hold increased levels of capital and cash
  • 7 Recommended “supervisory colleges” for all major cross-border financial institutions
  • 8 Return to the Doha round – trade ministers to meet in Geneva next month
  • 9 Instructed G20 finance ministers to draw up plans and timeline
  • 10 Agreed to meet again, in London next April

. . . AND FIVE THEY DIDN’T

  • 1 Agree a future growth model for capitalism. Instead they reconfirmed their “shared belief in market principles”
  • 2 Agree detailed plans for regulatory reforms of banking
  • 3 Establish a plan of action for achieving the already endangered Millennium Development Goals
  • 4 Set up an international supervisory body with sufficient power to control global markets
  • 5 Halt the run on sterling, which fell sharply against the euro and dollar

Alyssa McDonald

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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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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