Caesar’s Enduring Influence on Western Civilization

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“Beware the Ides of March!” So heard Gaius Julius Caesar, Rome’s just-declared Dictator for Life, as he walked to meet the Senate on this day in 44 BC. Hours later, Caesar lay dead, murdered by a group of senators conspiring to rid Rome of his tyranny. In death Caesar became larger than life; declared a god by his contemporaries, his prominence today among figures of antiquity is second only to Christ himself. And it is the image of Caesar that, however far from historical reality, still has import for us today—especially as Catholics and Americans.

For English speakers, it is William Shakespeare’s eponymous play that shaped Caesar’s legacy and opened our imagination to it. “Beware the Ides of March!” and “Et tu, Brute?” are Shakespearean—not Latin—quotations. But Caesar’s grip on our world today extends beyond even the powers of the English bard. “The die is cast,” “crossing the Rubicon,” and “I came, I saw, I conquered” are all popular phrases that, taken from Caesar’s military career, convey decisive action. A jeep model is named for his crossing the Rubicon River, and a calendar still in use—the Julian—takes its name from him. Even the manner by which so many of us are born into the world—Caesarian section—is named for how Caesar was supposedly (but almost certainly not) born. (The famous salad, by contrast, takes its name not from the Roman but from Tijuana.)

Who is Caesar, and what has made him so memorable, so important, and so fascinating? Caesar was born in 100 BC to a noble but marginal family who claimed descent from the goddess Venus and Aeneas, the exiled Trojan founder of the Latin race. Young Gaius reportedly was extremely ambitious for political and military prestige from his earliest years. One story, most likely apocryphal, illustrates this: as a young man, Caesar was captured by pirates, who demanded a ransom of 20 talents. Caesar was insulted by so low a bid: He told them they should demand 50 talents because of who he was, and that, once ransomed, he would come back and crucify them. After his ransom, Caesar returned with a flotilla of ships and did just that.

Caesar got his political break when he became consul in 59 BC thanks to some back-room dealings with Rome’s power brokers. He then spent ten years adding Gaul—modern France—to the Roman Empire through a series of conquests and wars of dubious legitimacy. In 55 BC, Caesar and his men became the first Romans to cross into Great Britain. The victorious general wrote a very elegant Commentary on his campaign in Gaul that is read even today by high school Latin students and is the source of that other famous line from Caesar: “All Gaul is divided into three parts.”

 

When his commission in Gaul was finished in 49 BC, rather than face certain arrest for crimes he committed as consul, Caesar “cast the die,” “crossed the Rubicon” (the territory marking the outer boundaries of Rome from the northern provinces), and marched on Rome. He defeated his elder rival Pompey in 48 BC in the civil wars, had a brief and famous romance with Cleopatra in Egypt the following year, and then returned in triumph to govern Rome, where he was named Dictator for Life—an unprecedented event in Roman politics.

This power grab was too much for many of Caesar’s envious senatorial rivals, who, led by Brutus and Cassius, the self-called Liberators, orchestrated his murder on the Ides of March. This day endures in infamy for both the event itself and for the mysterious portents that preceded it: Caesar’s declaration that the best type of death was an unexpected one; his wife had a dream warning him not to go to the Senate on this day; and a roadside prophet told him to beware the Ides of March. When a doctor examined Caesar’s corpse after the deed, he opined that only one of the twenty-three stab wounds he received was fatal.

Though hated by many aristocrats, Caesar was loved by the common people, and his legacy rose to epic levels immediately after his death. Each Roman citizen received a small sum of money from Caesar’s estate. In his will, he named his grandnephew Octavian his adopted son and heir. Octavian then took the name “Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.” The famous orator Cicero called him “the boy who owed everything to his name.” Octavian would eventually do what his famous uncle could not: solidify dominance over the entire Roman Empire. He took a new name as Rome’s first emperor: Imperator Caesar Augustus.

For Catholics, Caesar’s name is prominent in Sacred Scripture. Caesar Augustus was the ruler when Jesus was born and the one who had called the census that sent Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. When asked whether the Jewish people ought to pay their taxes, Jesus responded, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Later, Peter called Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” in Caesarea Philippi, a city named for Augustus Caesar and built on a rocky area, symbolic of the new Rock of the Church. On Good Friday, the crowd demanding Jesus’s crucifixion shouted, “We have no king but Caesar.”

Hence, in the Bible, the name “Caesar” is the symbol of Roman and temporal authority, and it is deliberately contrasted with God’s spiritual authority. As debate over the proper relationship between temporal and spiritual powers raged through the centuries, the former was always represented by Caesar.

Caesar has captivated art, literature, and drama for two millennia, sometimes appearing as a hero, other times as a villain, depending on the sensibilities of a given age. Dante, to name but one artist, placed Caesar in limbo along with Abraham, David, Homer, Aristotle, Virgil, and other famous men of antiquity. By contrast, Dante placed Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle in Hell, the place for betrayers of their patrons and benefactors, along with Judas Iscariot and Lucifer.

Unlike Dante, our Founding Fathers saw Caesar as the greatest possible enemy, and they revered Brutus and Cassius as liberators from tyranny. In arguing against the Stamp Act in 1765, Patrick Henry invoked Caesar’s fate to warn King George III: “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I had his Cromwell, and George III may profit by their example.” John Adams and Thomas Jefferson each pejoratively compared Alexander Hamilton to Caesar. And Hamilton, for his part, was quick to throw the “Caesar label” to tar his own rivals: “If we have an embryo-Caesar in the United States, ‘tis Aaron Burr.”

As a general, politician, and as a man, Julius Caesar was ruthless, cunning, and pragmatic but also generous, charming, and humorous. Such is the multifaceted personality—and hence the fluctuating legacy—of history’s most famous ruler. The indelible stamp he left on the Roman world has spilled into eternity due to his influence in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Shakespeare’s Cassius declared: “Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Caesar’s political fate was hastened by his personal faults. Yet, over 2,000 years removed, his star burns bright in our imaginations. For this, we owe Caesar a toast on this, his ironically special day.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Murder of Caesar” painted by Karl Theodor von Piloty in 1865.

David G. Bonagura Jr.

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David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches classical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism (Cluny Media).

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