At a meeting of the Roman Senate on this day in 44 B.C., a group of his fellow senators surrounded Julius Caesar and stabbed him to death. While his assassins claimed to have freed the Roman Republic from a tyrannical Dictator for Life, Caesar equally could claim to have freed it from them. Popular reforms he’d successfully put through as dictator had effectively ended the long and brutal rule of strictly self-dealing elites in the Senate.
Two thousand years later we are witnessing a similar struggle for power in the American Republic, as a president pledged to reform battles our own entrenched elites. As the adversaries struggle also to assert opposing political narratives, understanding what is happening depends on whose version of events we believe.
Nor in Caesar’s case did this all-encompassing conflict ever abate. Even when he’d defeated them, the leading Roman senators never accepted Caesar’s rule because these men considered themselves the only legitimate Roman rulers. They held that Caesar had broken the law when in defiance of his Senate-recognized authority, over a single Roman province, he crossed its boundary at the Rubicon River to confront his political masters in Rome with an army. When his army prevailed over theirs, and Caesar had packed the Senate with his reforming supporters, the enemies (whose lives he’d spared) charged that Caesar had replaced their government of laws with one-man rule.
But many more than Caesar held that the Roman Republic was no longer worthy of that name. Gradually the elites who were its guardians had implemented public policies that benefited only themselves, making wars of conquest abroad and hoarding wealth and power at home. Decades of such policies had disenfranchised all other social classes and discredited not only the elites who made them but also the very Republic they represented.
Yet until Caesar’s army defeated theirs these discredited elites still controlled all the levers of power, just as ours do today after decades of similar policies and despite the surprise election of President Trump to challenge them. The ongoing and increasingly bitter struggle in Washington is for the power to reform—or preserve—public policies that benefit our elites at everyone else’s expense.
Caesar’s victory in that struggle meant new policies to serve the whole republic and not just a favored part. He curbed the appeal of foreign wars by claiming from the Senate the administration of new colonies, which had become a path to private wealth in the same way that American wars in the Middle East serve private rather than public interests. At home, Caesar slowed the concentration of wealth and power by capping interest on debt and restricting slave labor and land consolidation, three ways the elites had undermined the traditional self-sufficiency of the Roman middle class.
Nor were these reforms one-sided. By recognizing existing debts and property rights, Caesar refused to deprive the elites of what they owned or were owed. The balance he struck proved lasting; indeed it was preserved by the emperors who followed Caesar as the basis of their political power.
Today we might say Caesar’s balanced approach amounts to running the country like a business, which is evident in every major public-policy reform President Trump has passed or proposed. A plan to keep out illegal immigrants with a border wall comes with more leniency for some illegal immigrants already here. Cutting corporate taxes and regulation comes with pressure on companies to bring back off-shored manufacturing, and new tariffs to redress trade imbalances come with a willingness to renegotiate existing agreements. And at least so far a major military build-up has come with fewer wars of foreign conquest, along with a willingness to pursue diplomatic solutions, as with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
However, we do not yet have a government for the whole republic. The president is still grappling with our entrenched elites, who since his election have been using the mainstream media and the federal bureaucracy—two levers of power firmly in their control—to try and dislodge him before he can dislodge them.
In similar circumstances the Roman elites badly overreached. Caesar defeated them with the support of the Roman public as well as the Roman army, and through his reaction to their overreaching as much as by his own premeditated planning. President Trump, too, is as much a skillful improviser and strong reactor as a plan-maker. Like Caesar, he is a charismatic individual who is loved and hated by his supporters and detractors with equal ferocity and perhaps even blindness.
But it’s the larger framework around both men that really matters in this comparison, and we should consider not only what President Trump but also his threatened opponents will do. It was the Roman elites in the Senate, not Caesar, who first acted outside the law to deny him earned political victories and prevent his planned reforms; only then did Caesar cross the Rubicon.
What will American elites do to preserve their policies which they have made ours? What have they done already? First and foremost it is their volatile behavior that should concern us in Trump’s America as in Caesar’s Rome.
Image credit: “The Death of Caesar,” by Vincenzo Camuccini/WikiCommons