It’s the bright day that brings forth the adder
Intro – Julius Caesar is different from other tragedies such as King Lear or Hamlet in that the tragic hero is not immediately clear, though it does have one. It is a more nuanced and ambiguous work, with each character being both good and bad. And while JC is a political commentary, reflecting the worries of civil war and succession in Shakespeare’s own times, it’s also peppered with philosophical reflections. The first time you read it, it may strike you as a “cold” tragedy, as Samuel Johnson said, due to this ambiguity and its less-quotable lines, but ultimately, I found it more enjoyable because of this initial impenetrability.
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Parallels Between the Roman Kingdom and American Colonies
Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write….Let us…read the histories of ancient ages; contemplate the great examples of Greece and Rome…Let us read and recollect and impress upon our souls the views and ends of our own more immediate forefathers, in exchanging their native country for a dreary and inhospitable wilderness…Recollect their amazing fortitude, their bitter sufferings—the hunger, the nakedness, the cold, which they patiently endured…Let us recollect it was liberty, the hope of liberty for themselves and us and ours, which conquered all discouragements, dangers, and trials.
John Adams, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law
Let’s see if this sounds familiar: Rome started as a small city-state, but grew to conquer the European continent and beyond. Internally, the city of seven hills suffered from several major economic crises, civil war and revolts. These problems were quelled by a focus on near constant external war. Eventually Rome not only ceased being a free republic where rulers were elected and the people respected, but also developed a two-party political system, dominated by populist rulers who sought to redistribute wealth and subsidize agriculture. This got to the point where the people would vote themselves bread and circuses. Indeed, their happiness and peacefulness depended on these government benefits.
Over time, it increasingly outsourced its labor and had to find its soldiers from the ranks of non-Romans as they became more and more entangled in wars. In fact, toward the end the swarming population of immigrants rendered its army useless. It even had to debase its currency to keep economically solvent multiple times. Meanwhile, Romans were less and less moral, and instead of honoring deserving philosophers, like Seneca, cults of celebrity popped up around members of the ruling class. Romans stopped fighting for freedom of speech, the right to keep their earnings, or for the rule of law in general. Instead it became a cesspool of sycophancy to the tyrants, materialism, and the pursuit of pleasure.
The United States was, of course, consciously modeled on Rome (see our Constitution, Capitol Hill, Senate, checks and balances on power, etc), and our founding fathers had a number of motivations to do so, some of which were kosher and others not so much. But it’s astonishing how many unintended parallels there are.