Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Ides of March

I was going to make a joke to the effect of "otherwise known as 'Stab a Dictator Day'" but I didn't want one of my fellow Wisconsinites deciding to take it as a call to action. :\ Still, I'd like to take a moment to reflect on the great event.

2055 years ago 60 senators stabbed Gaius Julius Caesar to death.

Why do we still know this?

It certainly wasn't the first time the Roman Senate had gotten their hands bloody. You'd think we'd all remember Tiberius Gracchus, that revolutionary Roman who figured out ways to game the Roman system and so angered the Senate with his appropriations of what they considered their prerogative that they eventually murdered him and many of his followers. Tiberius Gracchus was (as far as I know) the very first Roman to be murdered by a pack of senators, but few moderns have ever even heard of him.

In fact, Tiberius Gracchus's heir and younger brother Gaius met basically the same fate a decade later. You'd think two brothers being beaten to death and thrown in the Tiber River by an irate Senate ten years apart would be more impressive than one man getting stabbed to death.

And as for generals getting crazy with the dicatorship, Caesar had nothing on Sulla.

So what was it about Caesar's death that made it such a big part of world history that it resonates down to today?

Two things.

The first is Caesar himself. The man was a master of the cult of personality - at least, he was with the lower orders. With the Senate, not so much. Still, he was a charismatic person with strong goals and the will to achieve them, who was not afraid of hard work or battle, who was incredibly clever and tenacious and not afraid to take risks. In short, Caesar was the man every man dreams of either following or being.

Not that he was perfect. He was arrogant and greedy for honors and prestige, among other things. He had a weakness for women and was on many occasions forgiving of his enemies when he needed to be ruthless.

Dynamic and flawed, Caesar is a perfect main character.

The second thing that keeps the Ides of March so alive in modern societies is that it kicked off the fall of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. I won't go into the whole story here, but all that stuff with Octavian (later Augustus), and Marc Anthony and Cleopatra? That all happened because 60 senators decided Caesar had gotten too big for his britches.

The Ides of March is one helluva hook. From there you have stirring speeches and political theater. You have Anthony and Octavian working together against the senators only to turn on each other once the mutual threat was vanquished. You have the great love story, the fabulous locales and lavish feasts, the pitched battles, the impending doom and the tear-jerker of the lovers' committing suicide rather than falling into the enemy's hands, and the underdog triumphing despite all odds to go on and found one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen.

Of course we're all still talking about it!

This is good storytelling on an epic scale! And even better, it actually happened!

Even if you, young writer, take nothing away from learning about these events in regards to politics or the broader impact on history, it's worth studying for no other reason than learning about what makes a gripping story. These events happened over two thousand years ago, and we're still fascinated. We're still finding new ways to tell the story. It's that good.

Now go forth and make your own stories just as epic.

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