The essence of government is power, and power, lodged as it is in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. — James Madison

Augustus: His Life and Work - Rene Francis




The Master of Rome

We have no real reason to suppose that Caesar foresaw what was to be the extent of his power. At first his sole aim had been a great command, as the fashion was at the time. Then circumstances had, step by step, forced him to fight against his rivals, until eventually he found himself in sole control.

He had, so to speak, worked imperially throughout. That was in his nature. He could not conquer Gaul without organizing it, nor could he look on—as did Pompeius—at the general disorder in Rome without attempting to organize that. Though it was only in 47 B.C. that he was entirely alone in his power, he had been—perhaps unconsciously—building up the structure of that power for the last five years or so.

It remained afterward for Augustus to systematize all that Caesar had done.

Caesar's first task was to convince Rome that he had no intention of being a second Sulla. He was exceptionally lenient, and had no thought of proscription. In his allotment of lands to his veterans he took especial care not to evict or in any way persecute existing landholders.

He had formerly seemed to be lavish in the extreme toward the mob. He now established a proper control over the doles of corn, and all else that concerned the populace.

He, with his fellow-potentates, had restored their power to the Equestrians. He now instituted a species of censorship of that order, and purged it of evil and over-rapacious and unjust judges.

He worked hard to repopulate the wasted lands of Italy. He put forward a scheme for the draining of the Pomptine Marshes and the Fucine Lake, and projects for changing the course of the Tiber and the creation of a great Apennine road.

The provinces were not regarded by Caesar in the light of fields for exploitation. He began on them the work which Augustus completed. He had his plans for the frontiers—eastward, from Gaul, to the Rhine and to the Elbe, northward, from Italy to the Danube. He had his notes for the possible reconquest of Parthia. He had already allied all Gaul to Rome.

As to his own position, he saw nothing for that save absolute control—not merely because he possessed the legions, but because he perceived that unless everything were in his own hands no efficient result could be attained.

He solved the difficulty by naming himself perpetual Imperator and Dictator. The dictatorship was after all the only office that could fall in with the old Republican traditions and at the same time ensure the proper control and ordering of the State.

Caesar had everything in his hands. He appointed his own legates, wherever a sub-ordinate appointment was necessary; they were responsible to him and to him alone. He held the entire control of all the revenue. He allowed no other authority of any sort save his own to exist in the State. And, in sign of this, he wore the laurel wreath of the Imperator and held the sceptre of the imperium, or supreme command.

Naturally enough, he concentrated in his person the proconsular authority, which meant the complete control of Senate and magistracy. He also held the tribunician power, thus having, besides their goodwill toward him as their protector, the command of the plebs.

It is difficult—even impossible—to imagine how else Caesar could have regularized the situation. What he might have done had he lived is mere conjecture. The work of setting Rome and Italy—not to mention the provinces—in order was more than enough to occupy all his energy and faculties. And the factors of the constitution hardly seemed to be worth consideration. Senate, Equestrians, tribunes, populace, all alike were corrupt and useless: at least they did not dispute anything that Caesar chose to do. He was far too great; and, besides, he was working purely in their interests, never selfishly for his own!

Who, then, were his opponents? Cicero, to a certain degree. Cicero had been the champion of the middle order, the 'New Men'; but, far more than this, he worked for the restoration of the old order, the ideal republic whose traditions he loved. He was a speaker, a writer, a poet, and a student—a 'moderate' man, never an adventurer. He had—in his own estimation—once before restored the Republic, in the days of Catiline; he had then been expelled and outlawed by Clodius, and had again returned, to be again welcomed by the Republic; and he still hoped to see it established yet a third time. He never would wholly accept Caesar, even though he, with all his ideals, could see that Caesar alone was capable of ensuring and preserving order in the State.

The worth of the other 'Republicans' is hard to estimate. No single one of them, with the exception of Decimus Brutus, seems to have any striking abilities, or even strength of character; nor do they appear, either before or after their deed, to have more than a very misty and half-hearted idea of the kind of regime they wished to institute. They had not even the vigour and initiative of their philosophical leader Cicero; and it is difficult to imagine what they would have made of the State even with his help.

They really had reason to be grateful to Caesar and to value his life and his favour, inasmuch as, in spite of all their professions of republicanism, they were all more or less nominees of his and owed to him such posts as they occupied in the State. The very provinces which they allotted to themselves after his death had been assigned to ahem directly by him.

But they were jealous of him and they disliked the sight of his perpetual power. So they furbished up their academic ideas of the Republican constitution, and pleaded hard with themselves that this endless dictatorship was unconstitutional. At last they persuaded themselves that it was a tyranny in the ancient Greek sense of the word, and that it must be ended: they would be noble in the sight of Rome if they succeeded in ending it. The old Republic would, somehow or other, come to life again, thanks to them.

They must have noticed, moreover, that that ending would not really be difficult—though we must hope that they kept their higher motives more in prominence before their eyes.

Caesar, confident in his own strength and popularity, never troubled about escorts or guards or any other precautions. He would have been the first to disdain them; rather he would have said that if he could not walk about Rome unarmed it was high time for him to go! A writer, the late George Warrington Steevens, from whom we quote later on, puts these very words into his mouth in an imaginative but deeply suggestive sketch.

Caesar and Assassins
THE ASSASSINATION OF JULIUS CAESAR.


And so the 'Liberatores,' the would-be champions of the ancient traditions of Rome, plucked up their courage and gathered their numbers together and surrounded Caesar in the Senate House. We know the rest—dramatic, highly philosophical according to those fine ideals, and possibly excusable had Caesar been anything but what he was! On the Ides of March Caesar fell: and with him fell the Republic also, once and for all.

And yet perhaps he was 'happy in the hour of his death.' Old age might have made him into a real tyrant, or it might have unnerved him until the sceptre slipped from his grasp. As it was, he died at the very moment when all Rome could not but lament him, and condemn, or at least deplore, his slayers.