Denarius (42 BC) issued by Cassius Longinus and Lentulus Spinther, issued by the military mint in Smyrna
Today, March 15th, is the infamous Ides of March. On this day in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Senate by a group of political conspirators. More than 2,000 years later, he remains the most famous Roman ruler. His story has been adapted many times — by people as varied as William Shakespeare, Hollywood screenwriters, and Las Vegas casino moguls. It's what he represents, rather than who he actually was, that we're exploring today.
Interior of Gaius Matius's House by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1836 – 1912
Caesar was born to a patrician family, an elite social class who lived in single-family homes (as opposed to plebians, who lived in multi-unit buildings). Lawrence Alma-Tadema's painting, shown above, is a 19th century depiction of the home of Gaius Matius, a contemporary and friend of Julius Caesar. It illustrates the airy courtyards and rich decorative details typical of a patrician Roman home.
As a young man, Caesar earned a prominent position in the Roman army and was awarded a laurel wreath for valor. When he returned home from war, he began his life in politics. He was known for making strategic decisions — like marrying to form political alliances — and he went into debt in his attempts to gain public favor by renovating buildings and staging grand events.
Detail from a mural in the villa of the wife of Emperor Augustus, ca. 30 B.C
Caesar was eventually elected consul, the highest office in Rome, which he shared with Marcus Bibulus. He strengthened his political power by forming a pact with other political leaders, an alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Caesar leveraged his political power to pursue military campaigns and earn popular support while he edged out Marcus Bibulus. He became governor of Gaul, defeated tribal leaders throughout Europe, conquered the lands that now make up Italy, and took Rome by force.
In Rome, he was appointed dictator and named Mark Antony his second in command. As dictator, he ordered a census, passed laws restructuring debt, started public works projects, and reformed the Roman calendar to the 365-day cycle we pretty much still use today.
The Death of Caesar by Jean-Leon Gerome, 1867
Caesar continued his military campaigns, pursuing his enemies to Alexandria. While there, he made an alliance with Cleopatra, who he installed as ruler of Egypt. He moved onto North Africa and the Middle East. While he spent long stretches of time at war, political conspirators made plans in Rome.
When Caesar returned to Rome, he arrived at the Senate to attend a March 15th meeting. He was surprised by a group of assassins — led by Marcus Junius Brutus — who stabbed him to death and seized power. Caesar's abolition of the Republic, his rise to power, and the turbulent years following his death preceded the expansion and later the fall of the Roman Empire.
Restoration Hardware's contemporary interpretation of the Greco-Roman X-bench
Today, Caesar is associated with the decadence of the rising Roman Empire, as well as its impending fall. Shakespeare's famous phrase from Julius Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March," is spoken by a fortune-teller who warns him of his death, an omen Caesar ignores. The phrase is often quoted as a warning that abuse of power leads to a bad end, i.e. 'pay attention to the doomsday signs before it's too late.'
(Random sidenote: "The Ides of March" is also a new movie scheduled to be released in late 2011. Directed by George Clooney and starring Clooney and Ryan Gosling, it's a political thriller set in contemporary Washington, DC.)
Lobby of Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas
All that said, it's kind of ironic that Caesar's persona is used for the over-the-top glitz of a place like the Caesar's Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Which, by the way, includes a 4082-seat Colosseum, a huge high-end mall known as the Forum Shops, and five towers of hotel rooms, casino space, shops, and entertainment venues. I'll leave you with one last quote from Shakespeare's Caesar which, out of context, seems kind of appropriate: "You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!"
OTHER STYLE ICONS
Photos: (1) Wikimedia Commons, (2) La Nostra Italia, (3) Wikimedia Commons, (4) Mark Chamberlain, (5) Library of Congress, (6) Wikimedia Commons, (7) Wikimedia Commons, (8) IMDB, (9) Restoration Hardware, (10) Wikimedia Commons