Should We Celebrate or Mourn the Ides of March?

Today is the Ides of March, the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination. Economist David Henderson asks a question that people have been debating for over 2000 years: Should Caesar have been killed? Obviously, this issue divided Romans at the time, and later generations haven’t agreed on it either.

If the issue comes down to whether Caesar deserved to die, I’d say the answer is yes. He killed or enslaved hundreds of thousands of innocent people during his wars in Gaul and elsewhere. Nor is this merely a critique based on modern values that ancient Romans didn’t share. Some of Caesar’s contemporary critics, such as Cato the Younger, also attacked him on the same basis. The ancient Romans were far from humanitarian when it came to war and slavery, but even some of them were appalled by the scale of Caesar’s atrocities. Unless you believe that killing is never justified, it’s hard to deny that Caesar got what he deserved. We should bury Caesar, not praise him.

If, on the other hand, the issue is whether the assassination did more harm than good, the answer is less clear. Caesar’s death led to several additional rounds of civil war that caused enormous death and destruction. In the end, the Roman Republic was still superseded by a monarchy led by Caesar’s heir Augustus. Had the assassins failed, maybe the same result could have been “achieved” with less bloodshed. We may never know.

As I discuss in this post, the late Roman Republic suffered from structural weaknesses that made it likely that some ambitious general would overthrow it soon or later. That may be one of the reasons why Caesar’s assassins ultimately failed to restore republican government. Other generals, such as Mark Antony, were waiting in the wings ready to follow Caesar’s example. Caesar himself, of course, was not the first Roman general to turn his army against the state. Marius and Sulla had done the same thing several decades earlier (and won). If this analysis is correct, Caesar was actually a lot less important than we usually assume. The Republic’s days were probably numbered even if he had never chosen to cross the Rubicon.