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Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A Moral Act or Not?

The assassination of Julius Caesar, artist's rendering
 Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BCE, in what is today Rome’s Largo di Torre Argentina, a favorite tourist site and playground for cats. In the guest post that follows, philosophy professor Raymond Angelo Belliotti asks whether the assassination was a moral act, subjecting the murder to 7 moral criteria. Dr. Belliotti is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Fredonia. He is the author, among other books, of Good Sex: Perspectives on Sexual Ethics, and Happiness Is Overrated. This essay is drawn from his Roman Philosophy and the Good Life (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009).
Largo di Torre Argentina
Assassination is morally justified if and only if all of the following conditions are met:
  1.  The tyrant has systematically transgressed against the common good
Caesar wielded power in a few respects reminiscent of tyranny: he appointed numerous public officials; elections were either skirted or pro forma; and he controlled political power in Rome. But he avoided the worst abuses that characterize tyrannies. Both the masses of Romans and the small middle class were somewhat better off economically under Caesar. Although the masses lost the right
to vote for most public officials, the middle class had greater opportunity to attain public office. At his death, Caesar’s generosity to citizens contrasted starkly to the avarice that most unadulterated tyrants embodied.

            Caesar had seized power unconstitutionally. To call him a tyrant in arrival is fair. To call him a tyrant in political practice is contestable. A strong case can be made that the alleged common good that pre-existed Caesar benefited the aristocrats disproportionately. Caesar’s reforms, in contrast, benefited in substance more people.

  1. The assassination will advance the common good

The conspirators, stunningly naïve, were convinced that the death of Caesar would automatically resuscitate the Roman republic. The assassins were so tone deaf to social reality that they never considered that the political liberties of the Roman aristocracy did not define liberty as such. They never entertained the possibility that middle class, poor, and disenfranchised people might have interests other than their own.

            The reason the assassins did not more carefully plan the aftermath of Caesar’s death was that they were sincerely convinced all right-thinking Romans desired precisely what they did. The conspirators harbored a good faith – but deluded – belief that once their deed was understood to be spawned from lofty aspirations, the Roman citizenry would rally to their cause. No plan to reestablish the republic was necessary, they assumed, because there would be no serious opposition.

A return to the old ways – the critical goal of the conspirators – would not have served the interests of all citizens equally. The failure of the conspirators to grasp this, even dimly, invites the accusation that they were culpable for their political insensitivity to social reality.

  1. Assassination is a last resort
           Critics can always imagine further actions that might have been explored prior to
assassinating a government leader: the opposition might have asked for a conference with Caesar, presented him a list of grievances, implored him to arrive at an accommodation with the optimates in the senate, and negotiated in the spirit of compromise. They did not. Perhaps they were right not to bother. Caesar was embarking on his Parthian campaign a few days after the Ides of March. Time was short. If the campaign proved successful, his standing would be enhanced, his political power amplified, and any motivation to negotiate gone. Postponement of the plot would increase the chances of exposure, decrease the possibilities for success, and permit Caesar’s political position to strengthen. Hence the conspirators understood they had to act prior to March 18, 44 BCE, the date of Caesar’s scheduled departure. Thus, the assassination did not violate the requirement that from a practical standpoint the murder must be a last resort.

     4.  Assassination produces the greatest balance of good over evil

          Even if one were to assume the changes sought by the assassins would unambiguously benefit everyone, these changes were not likely. The republic was not going to rise spontaneously from Caesar’s ashes; that was foreseeable in 44 BCE, at least by those not blinded by their class interests, romantic dreams of redemption, or personal vendetta.

            The death of a relatively mild autocrat often results in a worse state of affairs. The result here was 13 years of renewed civil war that devastated the Roman world, doomed the republic, and ushered in centuries of emperors.The conspirators had failed to address the most daunting obstacle blocking political change, the problem of transition: how does a revolution or assassination, if successful, then nurture the political structure its instigators prize?       

In sum, the view that the assassination produced a positive balance of good over evil is unpersuasive.

  1. The assassination flows from morally acceptable motives
The popular view of Brutus as The Noble Roman, who risked everything for principle and patriotism, has a sound basis in his sense of ancestral destiny and commitment to Platonic
philosophy. But that’s only part of the story. Brutus was neither Goody Two-Shoes nor Braveheart. He was an avaricious money-lender. He fought on the side of Pompey, the man who dishonorably murdered Brutus’ father. Upon defeat, he implored the victor, Caesar, for forgiveness. After Caesar had granted clemency and rewarded Brutus with desirable political posts, he plotted against and killed his benefactor.

            History has been less kind to Cassius. That Cassius despised Caesar is uncontested.  Moreover, Cassius was tougher, more aggressive, and prouder than Brutus. He treasured his dignitas as profoundly as did Caesar himself. Yet he too was an aristocratic patriot in the Roman tradition, inspired by the heroic sagas of his youth. He was forged from harder steel than Brutus, but the two men shared political vision.

            The requirement that assassination is morally justified only if the motives of the perpetrators are appropriate and grounded in reality must not be upgraded to a demand that the motives be pristine and uncontaminated. Viewed from the prism of their aristocratic mindset and Roman socialization, the main conspirators against Caesar do not clearly flunk this test. Their motives were mixed, but such is the case in all tyrannicides.

      6.  The asssassins employ the least wicked means

            Other things being equal, assassins should not inflict gratuitous suffering on their
political victims. Caesar’s death was bloody and terrifying: 23 knife wounds to his torso amid enormous panic and confusion. Did his murderers minimize the evil of their method of execution?

            Lacking firearms which would have rendered the deed quicker and less traumatic, the most
Stabbed 23 times.  Gratuitous suffering?
obvious alternative to a dagger attack was poison. Poison, though, was risky. Slow to act, easy to detect, and susceptible to antidotes, it was an unreliable method of killing. Poisoning an intended victim also involved wider subterfuges which might be exposed. Death by dagger was surer and swifter where access to the target was assured. Accordingly, I conclude the assassins met this “least-wicked means” requirement.

      7.  The assassins subject their actions to legal processes, if practical

          The utter chaos that followed the death of Caesar prevented efforts to submit the assassination to due process of law. An agreement in the senate brokered by Antony and Cicero – that included ratification of all of Caesar’s decrees and appointments; a public burial for Caesar; and no official retaliation against the assassins – was reasonable and necessary. Later, when Octavian assumed political control, the assassins were formally outlawed and condemned. So Caesar’s murderers never had a genuine opportunity to submit to the due processes of law.
In sum, the assassination was not justified

Judgmental Dante
             The assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar was morally unjustified. The act did not bring about worthy consequences, and this is true from the vantage points of Caesarians and republicans alike. Civil war was the actual and foreseeable result of the assassination. The assassins therefore were morally culpable for their delusional conviction that the republic would arise spontaneously from the ashes of Caesar’s body. Their mindless refusal to plan for political transition is morally blameworthy; they bear responsibility for much of the carnage that ensued. Dante Alighieri was merciless. He consigned Brutus and Cassius to the lowest rung of hell to suffer the endless torment of having their torsos nibbled on by a ravenous Satan. This is a pitiless and disproportionate punishment.

Surely the two main conspirators deserve a lesser retribution: To sizzle in hell’s fires until Caesar, with his mercy strained, grants a reprieve.

Raymond Belliotti

P.S.  RST recommends Bo Lundin's story of the one-eyed cat of Torre Argentina. 




1 comment:

Anonymous said...

jus·ti·fied ˈjəstəˌfīd/ adjective having, done for, or marked by a good or legitimate reason. The assassination of Brutus was justified for a couple of reasons. The assassination was justified for a couple of reasons. The first, because Caesar went against Ancient Greek and Roman beliefs throughout his term. Also, Caesar was changing the government to dictatorship, which was against the people’s values.

To begin, Julius Caesar declared himself a god. Nonetheless, this went against Ancient Roman and Greek values because gods are gods, and people are people. They are discrete. An online article expounds, “42 BCE: The Senate declared Julius Caesar a god in the Roman religion.” Although this excerpt says Senate, the real decision was made by Caesar himself, because back then the senate was decided by the ruler. Ergo, the senate usually supported the emperor and his/her wishes because they were blinded by their superiority over the average person (s).

Additionally, Caesar was changing the form of government. PBS states, “Caesar scored some early victories and, by 46 BC, was dictator of Rome.” This shows that after Caesar defeated a number of troops, he was named dictator. Previously the empire had an emperor, therefore also having other parts of government that had input on the decisions that were made. The senate might have felt threatened by this sudden change of directorate. Thus, resulting in the assassination.