“A Kinges Ransoume” for a “Croune of Paper”:
Charisma in Pre-Modern Europe, Part II


“Let the dice fly high,”[2] [2] Julius Cæsar Crosses the Rubicon, Adolphe Yvon

2,659 words

Part 2 of 3 (Part 1 here [3], Part 3 here [4])

“A God Who Has Appeared Among Us for the Salvation of Mankind”:[1] [5] Cæsar vs. Rome

The image above shows the awful (in the archaic sense of the word) nature of Cæsar’s rise to power. With the world held out in the palm of his hand as if presenting it to the Roman people and their posterity, he begins his triumphant invasion of Italy. In place of a classic saddle, a tiger skin representing his foreign expeditions lies royally draped across the back of his warhorse, the steed trampling underfoot the men and women in his way. A mother with a screaming child clings to a broken pillar with the word “patria” inscribed on its side. Two terrible white-shrouded forms in grave cerements, ushers of destiny and death, begin to plow, rather than row, the boats of “progress” forward and across a dried river bed strewn about with skulls. One of the more common orders Rome’s commanders had issued whenever their armies met with a resistant populace was: Spare no one.

Behind Cæsar, a multitude of awestruck captives and soldiers follow in his wake. A war-Fury with outstretched torch and sword leaves behind the ruins of battle and promises civil war ahead. Dante Alighieri would later rank Cæsar first among the virtuous non-believers, while he condemned his leading murderer Brutus to the fires of hell; Mark Twain, meanwhile, would argue that Cæsar waged his wars against the barbarians, not because those tribes threatened to harm Rome, but because “he wanted their land, and desired to bring the blessings of civilization upon their widows and orphans.”[3] [6]

The imagination of William Shakespeare would depict a great man and a tyrant, both. And in the painting, we see this complex nature of history’s remembrance of that long-ago, but often longed-for empire. All the things Alcibiades once wished for — the conquest of the Peloponnesus, the Italian peninsula, Persia and Carthage and Libya — they belonged to Cæsar. The Dream of Rome was glorious and nightmarish, and Cæsar was not a man, but a demigod — beyond good and evil — and a populist come to demand the reins of state from a deeply patrician government. If ever there was one who possessed raw and pure charisma, it was this consul of Rome. “Danger,” he intoned, “knows full well / That Cæsar is more dangerous than he. / We are two lions littered in one day, / And I the elder and more terrible. / And Cæsar shall go forth.”[4] [7]

It is easy to forget that not only was Julius Cæsar perhaps Rome’s greatest military commander, but he had also occupied the highest priesthood in the land. Some claimed that he was a descendant of Ares and Aphrodite sent among the people to save the Romans from want and class conflict. For centuries the plebeians, the free common people of Rome, had chafed beneath burdensome service obligations, grain tributes, and mounting debt; some even had to submit to enslavement in order to repay their creditors. Drought and famine were regular problems that the wealthy patrician families could weather, but these calamities ground the noses of the plebeians further into the dusty Italian soil. Cæsar spent lavish sums on the people, distributing food, money, and entertainment. When he won the post of surveyor of the Appian Way, “he disbursed, besides the public money, a great sum out of his private purse; and . . . he provided such a number of gladiators, that he entertained the people with three hundred and twenty single combats, [throwing] into the shade all the attempts that had been made before him.”[5] [8]

After defeating Pompey and forcing the submission of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, Cæsar held a grand festival in the capital. He rode “in a chariot drawn by four white horses and surrounded by dozens of lictors bearing the fasces before them.”[6] [9] Curiosities from abroad were paraded before the crowds, including the chief attraction, Vercingetorix — the Gaulish king who’d once led a noble, futile resistance against the onslaught of Cæsar’s centurions. Finally beaten, Vercingetorix had been forced to call a meeting of his officers, saying that he “had not undertaken this war [against the Romans] for his own interests but to serve the common cause of freedom.” Yet now “he had no choice but to yield to fortune, and he offered himself to his fellow Gauls for whichever action they chose: they could take his life to appease the Romans or hand him over alive.”[7] [10] After having waited six years for the end, Vercingetorix spent the last moments of his life in a cage, his tumbril rolling to the place of his execution. When Cæsar made a sign to the axe-man, the people felt no pity for the “barbarian” from the north.

The patricians and senators of Rome looked on these bread and circus displays with a more skeptical eye. Indeed, many of them murmured, “I do fear the people / Choose Cæsar for their king.”[8] [11] Rumors swirled through the hot streets and open windows of the city that “as Cæsar was coming down from Alba to Rome, some were so bold as to salute him by the name of king; but he seemed to resent it himself, and said his name was Cæsar, not king,”[9] [12] an ironic turn-of-phrase for us, knowing as we do that the “name of Cæsar” would soon become and remain ever-after the very meaning of “king.”

In a manner similar to the Athenians, Romans loved to wax lyrical about their unique political system — in their case, a republic. During the sixth century BC, Romans had abolished their monarchy. They designed the Republic to “deny power to individuals and to prevent, through the means of shared power, checks and balances, any single man from becoming a tyrant.”[10] [13] It was their proudest achievement and formed the basis for a powerful lineal charisma. As outlined in an unwritten constitution, the Republic’s structure was somewhat complex. Citizenship was a prerequisite for almost any participation. Various committees and legislative assemblies composed of such citizens elected consuls, while the military assembly (comitia centuriata) appointed magistrates with powers of imperium. And, of course, there was the Senate: an august body of patricians who were not elected, but obtained their spots through birthright.

Perhaps the Roman Republic’s most fascinating feature was, as Carl Schmitt later observed, that in times of acute crisis (usually war), when things simply needed to get done and without delay, Romans chose a temporary dictator from among themselves and disbanded the constitution. When the emergency had passed, the dictator stepped down, and the normal rule of law that governed the land returned. The “Roman Way” had a talent for “moulding” her people to fit her designs, and all of her “men of letters” and senators were Romans first, before anything else. One of these principled men was Marcus Junius Brutus, an admired member of the Senate, and — so the rumor went — possibly the love-child of Julius Cæsar. And Cæsar had all but announced that he would be the primate consul of an empire, indefinitely. Just as Alcibiades gestured to tradition in order to enact a radical agenda, so Cæsar referenced the old custom of emergency and dictatorship. His own ancestors, after all, had been monarchs of nearby Alba Longa when Rome was still just “a village of refugee cowherds.”[11] [14] Why should he deny himself the title of rex populi?

Whether due to the knowledge that Brutus may have been his son, or simply because of the close friendship the two had once shared, Cæsar seemed to indicate that he wished Brutus to succeed him as Rome’s leader upon the older man’s death. Plutarch speculated that “Brutus might have been first in the city with none to dispute him, could he have endured for a little while to be second to Cæsar, suffering his power to wane and the fame of his successes to wither.”[12] [15] Regardless of his true parentage, Brutus knew that he was a descendant of the ancient Brutuses who had deposed the Tarquin kings and established Roman freedom from tyrants. And now anonymous graffiti carved or drawn on the statue of his ancestor — the man who had thrown off the yoke of oppression — pricked his sense of pride. The people opposed to a Cæsarian dictator appealed to the lineal charisma belonging to Brutus, the senator — perhaps the only force that could counter the Julian takeover. Every day he read scrawled messages on the marble: “Oh that we had thee now, Brutus!”; “Oh, that Brutus were alive!”; and, “Brutus, art thou asleep?” Eventually, these taunts and the urgings of others convinced Brutus that to save Rome and his reputation, Cæsar must die.

But could mortals kill a god with the charismatic magic of divinity flowing through his veins? Cassius, another member of the jealous Senate, emphasized the importance of Rome’s institutions and lineal inheritance, while scoffing at Cæsar’s supposed godhood:

I was born free as Cæsar; so were you, [Brutus!];
We both have fed as well, and we can both
Endure the winter’s cold as well as he.
For once, upon a raw and gusty day,
The troubled Tiber chafing with her shores,
Cæsar said to me “Dar’st thou, Cassius, now
Leap in with me into this angry flood
And swim to yonder point?”
Upon the word . . . I plungèd in
And bade him follow . . .
The torrent roared, and we did buffet it
With lusty sinews, throwing it aside . . .
But ere we could arrive the point proposed,
Cæsar cried “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”
I, as Æneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Cæsar. And this man
Is now become a god . . .
I did mark how he did shake.
’Tis true, this god did shake.
His coward lips did from their color fly,
And that same eye whose bend doth awe the world
Did lose his luster . . .
You gods, it doth amaze me
A man of such a feeble temper should . . .
Bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus . . . .
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods! . . .
O, you and I have heard our fathers say
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
Th’ eternal devil to keep his state in Rome . . .[13] [16]

Cassius and Brutus were scions of the “great ancestor” Æneas, the Trojan prince who became a Roman legend — the charismatic source of their rights as free Roman citizens. The common rabble might have been taken in by Cæsar’s glory, but neither he nor Brutus owed him bended knee, for both men had seen that the consul was very human, that he felt fear and suffered fevers; that he had cried out for warmth and water “like a girl.” Where was his vaunted charisma then that so bewitched the masses? There was no magic in “tired Cæsar,” whose eyes flashed forth no Jovian lightning, but instead had lost their “luster” to the “torrent” of blustery Tiber.

Brutus and his conspirators chose the Ides of March to carry out their murder plot. That morning he girt himself with a knife and concealed his weapon beneath his senator’s robes. As Cæsar entered the chamber, “the conspirators surrounded him in a body. Casca, who stood behind him, drew his dagger and gave him the first stab, not a deep one, near the shoulder.” Cæsar cried out loudly, “Impious Casca, what doest thou?” By that time, he had “received many blows and was looking about and seeking to force his way through his assailants.” All of a sudden, he saw Brutus too, “setting upon him with drawn dagger. At this, he . . . covered his head with his robe, and resigned himself” to the knives. Such was the murderous frenzy that “the conspirators, crowding eagerly about the body . . . wounded one another, so that Brutus also got a [cut] in the hand as he sought to take part in the killing, and all were covered with [gore].”[14] [17] When Brutus raised his injured hand, he saw his mentor’s blood mingle with his own, and it began to tremble.

The assassins had decided beforehand not to murder anyone else (and they would come to rue their decision not to do away with Mark Antony), but to summon all to the celebration of their lineal rights. “Stoop, Romans, stoop,” Brutus exhorted his fellows, “And let us bathe our hands in Cæsar’s blood / Up to the elbows and besmear our swords. / Then walk we forth, even to the marketplace, / And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads, / Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom, and liberty!’”[15] [18] Indeed, the senators believed the sight of ruby drops staining their arms and togas would renew on the altar of sacrifice the ancient compact of the Roman Republic; would reinstate the old bureaucracy; would reinvest the Senate as the office blessed with the charismatic grace necessary to lead the people. But by killing a mortal man and showing the mob a garment besmirched with red and rent with knife-holes, they had ensured the triumph of Cæsar’s pure charisma. They had sanctified his blood and created a dynasty of “Colossuses” who would “bestride” the earth, complete with relics and holy shrines. The lineal charisma that had been inherent in senatorial offices and in Brutus’ genealogical line had passed to those claiming the bloodline of the Julians.

When Mark Antony read aloud his chief’s will in the forum, “it was found that [Cæsar] had left a considerable legacy to each one of the Roman citizens, and when his body was seen carried through the market-place all mangled with wounds, the multitude could no longer contain themselves within the bounds of tranquillity and order.” A great comet tore through the sky and “shone very bright for seven nights after Cæsar’s death, and then disappeared.” But the dimness of the Sun, “whose orb continued pale and dull for the whole of that year, never showed its ordinary radiance at its rising,” and gave off but a weak and feeble heat. The air consequently was “damp and gross, for want of stronger rays to open and rarify” its breath. The fruits and harvests never ripened, and began to wither. It seemed the “murder was not pleasing to the gods.”[16] [19] The would-be saviors of Rome and her institutions had condemned her to infertility, themselves to be hunted by Cæsar’s avengers.

Brutus, the last “honorable man” of his line, ended his life by falling on his sword. His heartbroken wife resolved to join him, and she removed three hot coals from a fire, then swallowed them whole. Like Alcibiades before him, Brutus died far from his native city and with his good name all a-tatters. The only other man whose treachery casts a longer, more infamous shadow in the popular imagination is Judas Iscariot. Even after the conspirators’ deaths, the people enjoyed no peace of mind until a young man, also bearing the name of and claiming blood kinship with Cæsar, arrived at the Roman gates to the clamorous flock of his subjects.


The Death of Claudius Cæsar Nero, Konstantin Makovsky

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[1] [21] An inscription honoring Cæsar and written by the Ephesian Greeks of Asia Minor.

[2] [22] Sometimes translated as “the die is cast,” this quote is what Cæsar calmly said as he began to ford the Rubicon.

[3] [23] See Philip Freeman, Julius Cæsar (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 2.

[4] [24] William Shakespeare, Julius Cæsar [25] (The Folger Shakespeare Library), II.ii., 47-51.

[5] [26] Plutarch, The Life of Julius Cæsar [27]” in Parallel Lives (Loeb Classical Library Edition, 2018).

[6] [28] Freeman, 328.

[7] [29] Julius Cæsar, The Landmark Julius Cæsar: The Complete Works, Kurt A. Raaflaub, ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 2017), 266.

[8] [30] Shakespeare, Julius Cæsar, I.ii., 86.

[9] [31] Plutarch, “The Life of Julius Cæsar.”

[10] [32] Emma Southon, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome (New York: Abrams Press, 2021), 12.

[11] [33] Freeman, 330.

[12] [34] Plutarch, “The Life of Julius Cæsar.”

[13] [35] Shakespeare, Julius Cæsar, I.ii., 104-169

[14] [36] Plutarch, “The Life of Julius Cæsar.”

[15] [37] Shakespeare, Julius Cæsar, III.i., 117-122.

[16] [38] Plutarch, “The Life of Julius Cæsar.”