Tyrannicide or Treason?

by Michael Parenti

Book Excerpt

November 17, 2003

Cover photo of 'The Assassination of Julius Caesar.' Jacket design by Alan Hill

Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome, The New Press, New York, N.Y, 2003; ISBN 1-56584-797-0. $24.95 (hc); 276 pp.

This book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in October 2003.

[Ed. note: This excerpt -- part of the introduction, p. 1-4, hardcover edition -- is published by permission of the author. The Table of Contents is appended to this excerpt.]

        O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!
          Then I, and you, and all of us fell down,
          Whilst bloody treason flourish'd over us.

On the fifteenth of March, 44 B.C., in a meeting hall adjacent to Pompey's theater, the Roman Senate awaited the arrival of the Republic's supreme commander, Julius Caesar. This particular session did not promise to be an eventful one for most of the senators. But others among them were fully alive to what was in the offing. They stood about trying to maintain a calm and casual pose -- with daggers concealed beneath their togas.

Finally Caesar entered the chamber. He had an imposing presence, augmented by an air of command that came with being at the height of his power. Moving quickly to the front of the hall, he sat himself in the place of honor. First to approach him was a senator who pretended to enter a personal plea on behalf of a relative. Close behind came a group of others who crowded around the ceremonial chair. At a given signal, they began to slash at their prey with their knives, delivering fatal wounds. By this act, the assailants believed they had saved the Roman Republic. In fact, they had set the stage for its complete undoing.

The question that informs this book is, why did a coterie of Roman senators assassinate their fellow aristocrat and celebrated ruler, Julius Caesar? An inquiry into this incident reveals something important about the nature of political rule, class power, and a people's struggle for democracy and social justice -- issues that are still very much with us. The assassination also marked a turning point in the history of Rome. It set in motion a civil war, and put an end to whatever democracy there had been, ushering in an absolutist rule that would prevail over Western Europe for centuries to come.

The prevailing opinion among historians, ancient and modern alike, is that the senatorial assassins were intent upon restoring republican liberties by doing away with a despotic usurper. This is the justification proffered by the assassins themselves. In this book I present an alternative explanation: The Senate aristocrats killed Caesar because they perceived him to be a popular leader who threatened their privileged interests. By this view, the deed was more an act of treason than tyrannicide, one incident in a line of political murders dating back across the better part of a century, a dramatic manifestation of a long-standing struggle between opulent conservatives and popularly supported reformers. This struggle and these earlier assassinations will be treated in the pages ahead.

This book is not only about the history of the Late Republic but about how that history has been distorted by those writers who regularly downplay the importance of material interests, those whose ideological taboos about class realities dim their perception of the past. This distortion is also manifested in the way many historians, both ancient and modern, have portrayed the common people of Rome as being little better than a noisome rabble and riotous mob.

In word and action, wealthy Romans made no secret of their fear and hatred of the common people and of anyone else who infringed upon their class prerogatives. History is full of examples of politico-economic elites who equate any challenge to their privileged social order as a challenge to all social order, an invitation to chaos and perdition.

The oligarchs of Rome were no exception. Steeped in utter opulence and luxury, they remained forever inhospitable to Rome's democratic element. They valued the Republic only as long as it served their way of life. They dismissed as "demagogues" and "usurpers" the dedicated leaders who took up the popular cause. The historians of that day, often wealthy slaveholders themselves, usually agreed with this assessment. So too classical historians of the modern era, many of whom adopt a viewpoint not too different from the one held by the Roman aristocracy.

Caesar's sin, I shall argue, was not that he was subverting the Roman constitution -- which was an unwritten one--but that he was loosening the oligarchy's overbearing grip on it. Worse still, he used state power to effect some limited benefits for small farmers, debtors, and urban proletariat, at the expense of the wealthy few. No matter how limited these reforms proved to be, the oligarchs never forgave him. And so Caesar met the same fate as other Roman reformers before him.


· · · · · ·

Introduction: Tyrannicide or Treason?
  1. Gentlemen's History: Empire, Class, and Patriarchy
  2. Slaves, Proletarians, and Masters
  3. A Republic for the Few
  4. "Demagogues" and Death Squads
  5. Cicero's Witchhunt
  6. The Face of Caesar
  7. "You All Did Love Him Once"
  8. The Popularis
  9. The Assassination
  10. The Liberties of Power
  11. Bread and Circuses
Appendix: A Note on Pedantic Citations and Vexatious Names
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Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome, The New Press, New York, N.Y, 2003; ISBN 1-56584-797-0. $24.95 (hc); 276 pp.

New Press book orders are fulfilled by W.W. Norton and Company via a secure server. The book can be ordered on-line at http://www.wwnorton.com/orders/np/084797.htm.
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Michael Parenti's The Assassination of Julius Caesar - Book Review by Gilles d'Aymery


Michael Parenti is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is one of the nation's leading progressive political analysts. Parenti received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University in 1962. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, in the United States and abroad. Parenti's most recent books are To Kill a Nation (Verso); The Terrorism Trap (City Lights); and The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome (New Press). Parenti also contributes an occasional column to Swans. You can find more information about him at michaelparenti.org. This excerpt is published with the kind authorization of the author.

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Published November 17, 2003
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