Friday, March 12, 2010

"Beware the Ides of March"

Thus the soothsayer warned Emperor Julius Caesar on the 15th of March, 44 B.C. On that day, Caesar, who had overturned the Roman republic and made himself a tyrant, was assassinated by a group of Senators, including his friend, Brutus. In the eponymous play by William Shakespeare, the Senators begin to stab Caesar, who tries to resist the assault until he sees Brutus also wielding a knife against him. "Et tu, Brute?" ("And you, Brutus?"), Caesar utters in disbelief before collapsing.

The figure of Brutus--the assassin of the tyrant--cast a long shadow over American history. In setting up their own republic, the American Founders looked to the Roman republic as a model and the Roman Empire embodied by Caesar as a portent of what they feared the republic could become. Americans feared that liberty was fragile and that the republic could be undone by the ambition of one man.

"Brutus" became the pseudonym of one of the most famous Antifederalist authors (probably Robert Yates of New York), who wrote essays in opposition to the proposed Constitution of 1787, which he believed dangerously consolidated power in the central government. The Framers of the Constitution were also wary of the rise of a Caesar and designed the presidency with great care in an effort to prevent any abuse of executive power.

The assassin of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, saw himself as an American Brutus, who was serving the cause of liberty by killing a president who had assumed tyrannical powers. Booth famously called out, "Sic semper tyrannis!" ("Thus always to tyrants!") after shooting Lincoln at Ford's Theater. This phrase was the state motto of Virginia and had been attributed to Brutus himself. Booth was a famous American actor at the time of the assassination and only months before had appeared as Mark Antony in a production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (see the picture to the left: from left to right are John Wilkes Booth and his brothers Junius, Jr. and Edwin).

Booth's self-association with the figure of Brutus has tarnished the use of the Roman's name by those who oppose concentrated government power. Still, the story of Brutus and Caesar retains its power today in the United States, particularly in light of the rise of a strong executive that some have dubbed "the imperial presidency."

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