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Death of a Tyrant

by Ricardo Pachon
4 minutes read

The assassination of Julius Caesar two thousand years ago is so firmly embedded in the history of the West that it’s hard to imagine a different ending for the Roman leader. His violent death on March 15 now seems like an inevitable tragedy, yet the events surrounding it were far from predictable: Caesar was popular among the populace and adored by the troops, the civil war had finally ended, and in three days, he was set to depart for Parthia on a new military campaign.

One can imagine the shock that must have rippled through Rome when the news spread of what had happened that morning at the Theater of Pompey. And the surprise that must have overtaken Mark Antony, when he realized that Gaius Trebonius wanted to keep him away from Caesar to prevent him from stopping the assassination. And the astonishment that must have gripped Cicero when he saw his fellow senators rush in a pack, daggers drawn, to stab the perpetual dictator 23 times. And the astonishment that must have overwhelmed Caesar himself, when he felt the wound inflicted by Brutus, his adopted son.

It is quite an accomplishment of the new production of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Bridge Theatre in London, that this well-known story still manages to surprise a modern audience. In this version, Caesar wears a suit and tie and is surrounded by advisors and bodyguards. When we first see him enter the stage, he is wearing a red cap with a slogan that might as well read “Make Rome Great Again,” alongside a disheveled Mark Antony, who reminds us somewhat of Steve Bannon. We also see Cassius Longinus, this time portrayed as a cunning senator in a suit and heels, who understands that the power Caesar has gained can no longer be stopped without violence.

The first half of the play reminded me of one of those spy movies by John le Carré, where the action unfolds amid fog and paranoia. The dialogue takes place on a dark street under the rain, in the messy apartment of one of the conspirators, in a drab government office. At the center of the plot is Brutus, an aristocratic intellectual with a fragile appearance and surrounded by books, tormented by the sight of Caesar turning into a tyrant and consumed by doubt about what he must do.

In the past year, “Julius Caesar” has been staged several times in major productions in England and the United States, and it would not surprise me if we continue to see it prominently featured in theaters in other countries soon. The questions Shakespeare raises in this play seem more relevant than ever and resonate in a world where there is a general feeling that something is wrong with our republics.

In most Western countries, we are far from having any leader who has amassed as much power as Caesar did, although I’m sure there are at least a few who match him in ambition. Our systems of checks and balances, though bruised and always under attack, remain as dams holding back the surge that our modern populists could bring. But there is a sense of uncertainty about how much these will hold, and a feeling that just around the corner, everything could change dramatically.

In the introduction to his excellent book “The Storm before the Storm,” Mike Duncan tries to answer a frequent question he gets asked as a classical historian: If one could draw a parallel between Rome and the United States, what part of ancient history would correspond to the time we currently live in? Duncan’s answer is that we would not be in the fall of the empire, nor even in the birth of the Empire during the times of Caesar and Cleopatra. We would likely be a couple of generations before, after the destruction of Carthage and during the time of the Gracchi brothers in the mid-2nd century BC, when political tensions moved from the periphery to the heart of the Republic to be exploited by a group of cunning leaders, who found the key to seizing control of the state. What Churchill might have identified as “the end of the beginning.”

I am optimistic about the future of our republics but also cautious, and I know that in the coming decades we will subject them to greater pressures. But when the time comes to face tyrants again, what path will we have to take? The anguished reflections of Brutus and Cassius offer us no comfort, perhaps just a bit of company.

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