Copyright, November, 2014
“Julius Magnus, please, a word,” Decius called loudly as Caesar rounded the corner into view. Decius’ fellow liberators stiff with terror, steeled themselves. The irony wasn’t lost on Caesar. All Rome knew him a man of supreme confidence and above such base flattery. He needed no superfluous title. The title “great” went to the grave with Pompey.
The moment didn’t feel right.
“It is a matter of necessity. Your life is in danger. Please, in here.”
Caesar knew. But the necessity of history urged him forward.
Calpurnia’s pleading this morning. The rumors and predictions. Today’s date. He knew. And yet he followed into the portico. Caesar refused to admit fear even at this, his final moment. The first blade barely missed his neck. Caesar dodged and grabbed Cimber’s arm.
“Brothers, help me,” Cimber cried. The second blade struck a rib. The liberators moved in. His purple toga was ripped. There was confusion. And fear. And blood. It flowed and made the polished marble floor slippery. Senators slashed and stabbed all while trying to maintain footing. There were screams and savage grunts.
The great man fell.
As Julius Caesar died, the glorious Roman Republic died with him.
The birth of Rome was not announced by crashing cymbals and lightning strikes. No gods or goddesses as Livy and Plutarch would have us believe. It was a humble wattle and daub village of hardy Latin pig farmers on the side of the Palatine. The rival Sabine tribe of salt traders lived on the next hill over, the Capitoline. Somewhere around 750 B.C. the Latins of the Palatine and the Sabines of the Capitoline hills merged and became one. In this first combination can be seen the model by which Rome prospered and grew throughout the rest of its history. Many parties brought different strengths and the whole became greater than the sum of its parts.
By the end of the Bronze age, lower Italy was a tapestry of various peoples roughly comprised of Etruscans lying to the center and west, north of the Roman hills, Sabines north east and Latins to the south with a few Greek colonies on the southern coast and in Sicily. The Etruscan confederacy of small city-states was the most advanced culture in the region. The rustic Latin pig farmer viewed the city dwellers with suspicion. The Etruscans began an aggressive expansion to the south. The Latin villages south of the Roman hills formed their Latin League in response to Etruscan encroachment. The small outposts of Latins and Sabines were trapped between. They merged themselves under one king to defend the villages of the Roman hills.
The Etruscan tide rolled south over the Palatine. They introduced formal dress, magisterial symbols, ceremony and ceremonial trappings, engineering and architecture skills and religious ritual. All things that would later project Rome’s majesty to the world. Finally, the Etruscans seized Rome and a series of harsh Etruscan kings ruled. Utilizing their engineering skills, the Etruscans drained the unused low-lying marshland between the Palatine and Capitoline hills and created a market for trading cattle and sheep, the Forum Boarium. Also, a central market and meeting place, the Forum Romanum. In later years the Forum became the center of the world; the spot to which every far-flung Roman road eventually led, and history’s most famous meeting spot. But it was a power from the east who was to become Rome’s big brother/mentor. Greece furnished qualities of the mind and heart that Rome valued most of all: literacy, drama, philosophy, mythology and religion. Above all things, the ancient Roman treasured education and religion. During this era Rome evolved from a wattle and daub Palatine village to a more complex city-state with stone architecture, fortifications and roads. A temple dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (borrowed from the Greek Zeus) was built on the Capitoline and this served as the center for Roman religion for the next thousand years until it was replaced by a new religion. The College of Vestal Virgins was inaugurated. Vesta was the goddess of the hearth. These unadulterated women were symbolic of the cloistered mother tending the home fires. The Virgins tended the sacred flame of Rome which was never allowed to extinguish. The College of the Vestals and its well-being was regarded as fundamental to the well being and security of Rome and no expense was spared by Rome and its citizens to see to their comfort.
Though the kings were harsh, wealth grew and became concentrated in a handful of clans supported by the king’s patronage. These Roman citizens became the father “Patrician” leaders of Rome. The Senate was created to advise the king, and senators were appointed from the wealthy clans by the king. Those who were not Patricians were called plebs, and were called upon by the kings, along with slaves, to build roads, bridges, sewer systems, defensive fortifications and other grueling municipal work. It was crushing labor and it was said of Rome that it was built upon the back of slaves. It was in this that time seeds were laid for civil discord between the classes. Because there was no written law, the wealthy Patricians enslaved the poor in debt and manipulated the courts in their favor.
By 509 BC, chaffing under Etruscan rule, Rome was prime for revolution. The rape of noblewoman Lucretia, at the hands of Sextus, son of King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and her subsequent suicide, provided the trigger. The Romans had had enough. The monarchy was overthrown and the Etruscans driven out. The Romans first considered Greek democracy as the model their new government, but decided, instead, upon a republic with three branches of government.
In 509 BC the Roman Republic was born. At this time the key Roman character trait of Virtue emerged. The Romans called it “Virtus.” It manifested as manliness, courage, temperance and ethical behavior among Roman men, and chastity and circumspection among Rome’s women. The family unit formed the cornerstone of Roman society. Virtue and the confidence and resolve that flowed from it guided the trajectory of this great city state for centuries. Whether in battle or construction of a gravity defying aqueduct, there was no such thing as defeat, and the concept of failure was alien. There were only temporary setbacks. On the field of Mars the Roman fighting man was the most brave and disciplined warrior the world had ever seen. If he lost his battle today, he went home, tended his wounds and was back the next season. Roman resolve wore down all enemies. The Romans believed the gods had pre ordained Rome’s greatness. The Republic built roads which projected Roman soldiers, architecture, management skills, organization and power outward. Her presence brought resistance. The Gauls, Carthage and Macedonia to name just a few challenged Rome and all fell. The victories weren’t easy, and there were moments all seemed lost. Slowly, under the iron of Roman will and sword, one by one, Rome subdued first the Italian peninsula then Asia Minor and north Africa. Romans were energetic and innovative. It co-opted ideas, means and modes of conquered peoples and improved them. Rome had an endless capacity for adapting to circumstances, learning from enemies, absorbing, welcoming and even offering prized Roman citizenship to conquered peoples as long as they abided by Roman law and spoke its language. This constant influx kept Rome fresh and viable, while more rigid and homogeneous contemporary cultures like the Etruscans and Greeks remained static and eventually withered. On the home front the sanctity of the Roman matron and daughter was above reproach. The Pater was absolute law (Pater Familias) within his home including the power over life itself. Clear ideas of right and wrong; good and evil pervaded the Roman collective consciousness and guided Rome’s behavior at home and abroad. Mos Maiorum, loosely translated as “the mores of the elders” was the principle to which all Romans adhered.
Nonetheless, there was trouble. Of all the threats Rome faced during its Republic, it was internal discord which threatened to pull Rome apart. An economic downturn in the 5th century BC had a magnified impact upon the plebians because of Patrician abuses. The plebs threatened to secede. Among the plebs were craftsmen, soldiers, farmers and artisans many of whom had accumulated considerable wealth. These were the people who made Rome work. In response the magisterial office of tribune of the plebs was created. The tribunes represented the common man. They were not subject to the Senate and had the power to veto on the people’s behalf. Their persons were sacrosanct and no hand could be laid upon them. The flame of populism had been lit and would only grow stronger in time as Rome struggled with the question of what to do with its poor.
Also at this time Roman law was codified and promulgated on twelve stone tablets. The laws were written in simple language and posted for all to see. The laws made it harder for the Patrician to manipulate the courts and thereby ended the war between the classes. But populism lived on. Some legitimately fought to better the plight of the poor. Others saw the power of blackmail in the form of manipulation of the mob for favorable legislation. The wealthy Patricians feared the mob and sought to placate them. At the suggestion of the populist tribune Gaius Gracchus, Rome built great granaries and subsidized wheat distributions to all Romans. Land reforms unpopular with the wealthy were promoted. This was a zero sum game. Subsidized land grants to the poor came as an expense to the rich. The Gracchi brothers paid with their lives. The great warrior, consul and uncle to Julius Caesar, Gaius Marius was also a populist who had some success with land reforms for the poor. But, by far, Rome’s greatest populist of all was Julius Caesar. Arguably ancient history’s greatest leader, Julius was wildly beloved by the poor including many who had served with him during his brilliant campaigns, and for his successful legislation awarding massive land grants to Roman soldiers. A man of immense intellect and energy by March 15, 44 BC Caesar had a vision for a new Rome with greater freedoms for all and power divested away from Rome back to local municipalities creating instead a universal Rome with Roman citizenship for all deemed worthy. He had seized the reins and combined in himself the powers of both the tribune and the consul to effect these changes for Rome.
Those dreams and Rome’s most famous citizen, lay in a heap on the senate floor and died that day. Caesar was killed by elements of his own government to whom he was a threat. The world, even today, might look very different if he had been successful. The Roman Republic faded away and was replaced by the Roman Empire ruled by a series of emperors, some good, some benign and some destructive. The momentum and energy generated during the Republic lifted Rome further. The Roman empire grew to encompass every corner of the known world at that time from the furthest reaches of Britannia across Europe down through the Balkans, Asia Minor, Egypt and back across North Africa. The Roman empire became the world’s lone super power; a scattered population of roughly 90 million ruled by a governing body no bigger than the administration of a city such as Dallas or Houston. Whereas, during the Republic, the Roman military fought mostly defensive wars, during the empire, the Roman war machine engaged in endless conquests for the resources, food and manpower to operate the empire. This brought many more Egyptians, Greeks, Syrians and others from across the empire to Rome in search of opportunity. At the same time a hollowing and cravenness stole from within. Human nature has always and will always remain the same, but the baser impulses of human nature had been kept in check during the centuries of the Republic.
The murder of Julius Caesar was the pivotal point for Rome. In the shadow of Caesar’s murder and the century that followed, we see the precipitous death of virtue, the birth of cynicism and rise of amorality; an increase in the material wealth and comfort for a small percentage, the disappearance of the middle class and crushing poverty for most. Decay in the reliance on the Roman gods and religion left Rome decadent and morally bankrupt. The once proud Roman man allowed himself to be bought by his daily ration of government subsidized grain. The Roman woman gained new freedoms as social morays (mores) changed. Tens of thousands of Roman women became prostitutes to support themselves as the empire advanced. Afflicted by rampant inflation caused by intentional currency debasement, Rome grew ever poorer. As a means of diversion from the troubles, Roman leaders provided ever more garish and gory entertainments in gladiatorial games and staged naval battles as its welfare state grew. Crime rose dramatically as wave after wave of unwanted barbarians mostly Nordic and Germanic peoples, many displaced by invading Huns, descended upon Rome. Many didn’t bother to speak the language and were a drain on an already fragile system. Crushing taxes, an abusive government and hordes of strange foreigners left Romans bewildered, frightened and confused. Toward the end of Rome’s multicultural experiment, one would have been hard pressed to find a real, Latin Roman. As a new religion challenged the faith of Romans, the college of Vestal Virgins was shuttered and its eternal flame which had burned almost a thousand years was extinguished in 394 AD. Rome descended to urban squalor.
Historians point to many reasons for the collapse of the empire. In 1780, in his monumental work, “The Rise and Fall of The Roman Empire,” Edward Gibbons listed five marks of the dying Roman culture:
1. Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth.
2. Obsession with sex and perversions of sex.
3. Art became freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original.
4. Widening disparity between very rich and very poor.
5. Increased demand to live off the state.
In the end the thing that had been Rome’s greatest strength early on, became its undoing. Immigrants overwhelmed the system. August 24, 410 the Visigoths lead by Alaric walked in and sacked Rome. There wasn’t even a fight. In the aftermath of Rome’s collapse, travel became too dangerous. Trade across Europe ground to a halt and literacy disappeared among the people of Europe as the continent descended into a thousand year period of darkness, poverty, disease and despair.
Julius Caesar’s murder was both the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end for Rome. It was the pivotal moment of change.
The motorcade made a hard left off Houston Street on to Elm Street. The Dallas Book Depository loomed overhead on the right. U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had visited Dallas one month earlier and was jeered, jostled, hit by a sign, and spat upon. There was turmoil in Dallas. Kennedy had big plans in the works. Executive order 11110, signed June 4th, 1963 laid the groundwork to abolish the Federal Reserve. Many, including Jackie, said America’s pullout from Viet Nam would have come in his next term. Kennedy believed the CIA had become too powerful, and formed a “shadow government within the government,” which he believed threatened America. He planned a major reorganization of the CIA, but he had to get reelected to see the processes through. Kennedy and Johnson had barely won Texas, and had lost Dallas. Kennedy wanted to start his ’64 campaign in Dallas, Texas. Stevenson and others warned him not to go, but Kennedy refused. The tide of history moved him forward. As his sleek black Cadillac limousine slid into Dealy Plaza our handsome president and his beautiful wife smiled and waved to adoring worshipers. Shots rang out and the president’s head erupted in a profusion of blood and brains. Nothing could be done to save him.
As John F. Kennedy died, the great American republic died with him.
The birth of the American Republic was not announced by a blue angels flyover with a huge fireworks display and the singing of our national anthem. America had a humble start with small European outposts on the eastern seaboard, in Florida, and in the southwest. Like Rome, America overthrew its oppressive monarchy and formed the American Republic with three branches of government. We codified our laws in our constitution. Also, like Rome, virtue, religion, education and family values were the core beliefs which made America strong. One room schools and one room churches built the greatest society since ancient Rome. Like Rome, America embraced its legal immigrants who brought new ideas, creativity, added to the ingenuity pool of America and constantly refreshed and revitalized this country. From its inception as a Republic, America has been the most dynamic, energetic and innovative country the world had seen since ancient Rome. America believed its destiny was manifest and blessed by God. We, too fielded the bravest soldiers the world had ever seen. Like Rome, America dealt with class strife and fought a civil war, ostensibly to repair wrongs to a class of citizens. We, too, have always had a strong strain of populism. And like Rome, many of our populists, Abraham Lincoln, RFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others paid the ultimate price. Also like Rome, America grew into a welfare state.
John F. Kennedy’s murder was our pivotal moment.
After the assassination of John F Kennedy, widespread disillusionment precipitated the rapid decline of public Virtue, religious adherence, education and the destruction of the nuclear family along with a commensurate rise in moral ambiguity and malaise. Women enjoy greater freedoms, yet endure greater hardships often as the single parent. These impulses may well have been present before his murder, but they were held in check during the Republic. The lapse in civic virtue had its corollary in political virtue.
Soon after Kennedy’s murder America decoupled the dollar from gold, and simultaneously linked it to oil. Now instead of a gold backed the dollar, America had an oil backed dollar; All energy transfers, no matter who the parties, must be conducted in American dollars. This fact combined with the dollar’s reserve currency status, conferred upon America global financial hegemony, and thus, the American empire was born. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the American empire became the world’s lone super power. Today America’s reach extends to every point on the globe and impacts every living person. The American empire has engaged in endless war for resources and to protect its petrol dollar. Any world leader, Hussein and Gaddafi, for example, who threatens the petrol dollar, does so at mortal peril. America engages in predatory currency manipulations to bring enemies to heel.
While wealth and material comfort has increased for a tiny minority, it has steadily declined for the majority in the middle and lower classes with the expansion of the empire. The value of our currency has declined by nearly 100% over the past century. This empire, like the Roman is today inundated by uninvited immigrants who overwhelm the system. Americans are bewildered and confused by an oppressive government who intrudes upon, taxes and regulates them into oblivion while offering little or no protections. The American empire government of today bears no resemblance to that of Truman or Eisenhower of the old American republic. Today those guide posts Gibbons provided for the decline and fall of Rome seem written for American culture, and there can be no doubt a similar fate lies ahead for America.
Virtue is the strength of nations. Family, morals, ethics, circumspection, a free and fair legal system and some form of religion, whether it be Jupiter Optimus Maximus or Jesus Christ is necessary for a strong and healthy civilization with a positive trajectory. When these are compromised, a nation becomes unmoored and loses its way. Upon Caesar and Kennedy was placed the collective hope of their people. Their untimely murder destroyed that hope and produced profound disillusionment which poisoned the well of virtue.
When Virtue is lost, a nation has crossed the Rubicon.