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Why Did the Conspiracy Fail?

Over two thousand years ago, a group of aristocrats surrounded Gaius Julius Caesar at a meeting of the Roman Senate and stabbed him to death, having conspired to overthrow a dictator and reestablish a republic. Within a few years of their action, all of the conspirators were dead, and Caesars ruled the world for centuries. Caesar's staying power is visible even today. Among the otherwise-mindless topics "trending" on Twitter today, this morning was filled with trending topics including "Julius Caesar" and the "Ides of March", while a current trending topic is #ReasonsYouGetStabbed. I find this utterly remarkable given that I think you would be hard-pressed to find another person outside of Jesus Christ who has been dead for so long, or for even half as long, and is still so alive in the public imagine. It's a testament to how much the conspiracy of Brutus and Cassius failed in its mission to end Caesar. While there are a multitude of reasons that the Republicans were unable to overcome the Caesarians, these three mistakes from the offset really doomed their dreams:

1. The refusal to include Cicero in the conspiracy was a major mistake. Cicero's gift of oratory surpassed even Caesar's, and he was regarded as one of the most intelligent and patriotic men in Rome--the only other Roman other than Caesar to receive the honorific title Pater Patriae for his defeat of the Catiline Conspiracy. He was the voice of reason. However, Cicero was vain and ambitious, and a wishy-washy flake on top of it. If he were to join the conspiracy, he would want to be in charge of it--and he may have been too queazy to go along with its final mission. In Shakespeare's telling of the tale, Brutus also objects to Cicero's inclusion because he does not want the conspiracy to be led by reason; he wants it to be led by honor. The goodness of the conspiracy's goals should not have to be explained; it should be self-evident. However, by refusing to include Cicero, they lost out on his wise counsel and were also unable to employ him in the ensuing arguments with the Caesarians for the public mind.

2. The failure to kill Mark Antony, Caesar's trusted lieutenant, was a huge oversight. Cassius--and Cicero--said that the man ought to die alongside Caesar, for he was too dangerous to be kept alive. But, the conspirators--again, guided by honor and not reason--did not want to come across as butchers. Brutus would not allow it; if Caesar was dead, they thought that the drunken and vulgar Antony would be unable to do much. They greatly underestimated Antony's power, anger, and ambition, something I am sure that Brutus and Cassius realized as Antony's army wiped their own out.

3. Finally, allowing Antony not only to live but to speak was a huge blunder, and Shakespeare shows that well. There is no historical record of Antony's actual speech, but the effects of it are exactly what Shakespeare described. Antony, speaking at Caesar's funeral with the permission of victorious Brutus, turned the mob against the conspirators and ran them out of the city. He set the public interpretation of the assassination into stone, and his control of the story lasted for centuries. Even in Renaissance Italy, the conspirators were looked upon with hatred--Dante puts Cassius and Brutus on either side of Judas in the mouth of the Beast on the deepest level of Hell. Without Cicero's silver tongue to combat the passionate cries of Antony, who played up the mutual love between Caesar and his people, the conspirators were hopeless and were forced to give up the very thing they sought to keep: Rome.

Of course, there are other factors at play---Cicero's miscalculation of Octavian's skill and ambition, the formation of the Second Triumvirate, the too-far-gone degradation of Roman political society. Nonetheless, these three things doomed the conspiracy from the beginning. However noble their intentions, they failed. They did not murder Antony, and they could not give a proper defense of why they could murder Caesar and not Antony. The result is that two thousand years later, Caesar is still looked at with ambiguous awe while Brutus very much tends to be associated more with betrayal than with patriotism or liberty. High-minded, noble, patriotic Brutus was a good man in an impossible situation, and he could not (or would not) bring himself to do what was practical (and, perhaps, ignoble) in order to defeat Caesar's name, and for that he and his cohorts all met rather unpleasant ends. That's the tragedy of the Ides of March right there. 
Categories > History

Discussions - 8 Comments

Someone should write a counterfactual history in which the conspiracy succeeds, by avoiding the above mistakes, and thus saves the republic from Ceaser. Then the question becomes, how long could the republic last? That's the question I'd want our top-notch historian to explore.

Of course, Strauss suggested in On Tyranny that the answer is "not very long." Rome with its corrupted populace and over-extension needed Caesarism. Indeed, given what Rome had become, Ceasarism would be "just." From what I know about Dante, 90% of which comes from the excellent notes to the Hollander editions of Inferno and Purgatorio, he felt the same way.

Brutus was a stoic, Cassius an epicurean. The first was too idealistic, the second too cynical. Brutus thus could not do the hard things that needed to be done, Cassius could not counter Brutus, for he was too compromised.

Much more interesting if you consider killing Cicero.

That's a great thumbnail, richard reeb.

Thanks, Mr. Scott. My late wife taught English at the local high school for 20 years, including the reading of Shakespeare's plays. I would read them with her and discuss them. We both benefited from the commentaries of Harry Jaffa and Allan Bloom, and their students.

Why have you conceded the supposed "nobility" of their intentions?

It is as likely they were motivated by their having been humbled as it is they were motivated by some high regard for Rome. They could hardly come right out and declare their life intolerable living in the shadow of the greatness of Caesar, so much so that they resolved to murder him. It was necessary, absolutely necessary, that they veil their murderous intentions under the cloak of something respectable, such as their regard for the Senate and the people of Rome.

The Republic had collapsed, and had collapsed prior to Caesar and Pompey squaring off. Sure the forms were still somewhat extant, but many of those forms had become by then wholly partisan, wholly obstructive.

Such as the role of the Tribune of the Plebs for instance. The power of the Tribunes of the Plebs rested with their veto authority. But they had become almost entirely corrupt, and their veto authority was consistently misused. Important reforms, important public works, important improvements for the people, for the Legions, for Rome itself, were not accomplished all because of the corruption of those Tribunes. Moreover, custom dictated a single term for each Tribune of the Plebs, but custom was not binding, as we saw with Gracchus gaining himself a second term.

Following the miraculous evacuation of the bulk of the British Army at Dunkirk, General Alan Brooke commanded remaining British forces in France, and in a passionate phone call with newly installed Prime Minister Churchill, he urged their immediate evacuation. Churchill disagreed and told him his presence there was to inspire the French to greater efforts. The General replied you cannot "breathe life into a corpse."

In a similar way, those that murdered Caesar were never going to be able to breathe life into the corpse of Republican Rome. It was dead, and it wasn't coming back.

As for the three mistakes you mentioned, those men knew Cicero, knew him well, which is exactly why he was not brought into the conspiracy. Cicero's nerve would likely have failed him. These men were playing with fire, they were staking everything, and they knew it. It was not the time for amateur hour.

Antony had never demonstrated the slightest ability to manage anything. If you recall, Caesar left him in charge of Rome while he went to the East. Antony made an absolute botch of the job. As for letting Antony speak, ---- when had he ever shown such powers of persuasion, let alone the powers he revealed at that time?

The real question is whether it would have been better for Rome had Caesar lived, and had he been allowed to impose the reforms he had in mind.

Sounds close to what I have read, I wonder more about Cicero's manuevers.

You might be right about Brutus and Cassius, maybe they were just misguided. A third possibility between yours and ROB's is that they believed in the cloak of respectability that they fashioned. Brutus believed in the idea of a republic.

I agree that Caesar had some bold reforms.

I also agree that tribune of the Plebs was broken down...somewhat.

But Cicero was not amateur hour. He wasn't the hand that held the dagger, but he was its cloak.

Cicero communicated with everyone and had eyes and ears everywhere. He had a hand in a lot of pots, and he knew about plots. These went forward if an aspect of the plot favored him, and fell short if it was to his advantage.

Cicero almost certainly knew about the plot to kill caesar, and may have even goaded Brutus's honor in that direction. Cicero was encouraging vice in those inclined to it, and virtue in those inclined to it, and playing these off against each other in a madening thicket of plots. Cicero was busy encouraging partisanship and obstruction as it suited him. Cicero was a champion of due process, until the point that such due process might prevent him from tying up loose ends. So he kills the worst elements of the Catiline conspiracy...swiftly.

Brutus was also right to let Anthony live and speak. More bloodshed would have just increased the leverage of Cicero, who would have found a substitute vehicle for the same message on stronger facts. So Cicero was behind Anthony and this explains the so called powers of persuasion revealed at that time.

Rome would have been better off if Caesar lived, maybe... But if you also kill Cicero you unwind a great deal of obstruction, and also push public sentiment for the cloak of "ideals" Cicero represented. You get a stronger republic under Caesar with reforms that make sense.

If you do kill Cicero, history is impoverished. A good deal of what is known of Rome is written by Cicero or about him.

Cicero couldn't prevent the final breach between Caesar and Pompey, couldn't shut up Cato who was always too apt to run off his mouth.

Nor when the war started, was Cicero able to allow Pompey to pursue his strategy unimpeded by the yelpings of the Senate, especially Cato. Had Pompey simply been allowed to pursue his strategy of slow strangulation of the forces of Caesar, he would have prevailed.

Lastly, wasn't it Cicero who deluded himself he could handle and control young Octavian, only grasping when it was way too late that Octavian had played him?

Was Cicero a good stylist? Sure.

Was he well connected? Yea, but he was talkative, and nervous.

"[A] madening thicket of plots," an interesting turn of phrase, but recall that the war had ended, those in the Senate had made their peace with Caesar, and had themselves vested him with the legal authority of the state. As such, their actions against him later were treasonous. Which is why posterity has always taken a dim view of their conspiracy to kill him. With the rules of the game as they were, which Caesar didn't create, he had won, he had defeated them all, and spared most who had surrendered to him, he had indeed become the "First Man in Rome."

They asked for their lives, and they gladly received them from his hand. They had no claim to mercy, but far seeing statesmanship by Caesar they little appreciated, and even less understood.

Within his beneficence to them they saw only additional humiliation. That's how they bitter they were!

What could they possibly have hoped to accomplish? Establishing once more the situation that obtained ante bellum? But that was a Rome where the pursuit of power was a bloodsport, where an uneasy balance of power had broken down by the political idiocy and maneuverings of men like Cato?

It's also well to recall that we know more about this episode of Roman history than any other. But we must be cautious not to take Shakespeare's version as the definitive one, entertaining though it is.

To the extent that Cicero participated in the conspiracy, or furthered it along, to that same extent is he blameworthy for the chaos, the carnage that followed.

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