The Lesson of Julius Caesar For Trump Haters

The New York Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” is making news, mainly for turning the play into the assassination of Donald Trump complete with the main character’s wearing of a yellow wig, having a wife who speaks with an eastern European accent, and assassins played by women and minorities. The controversy has caused some sponsors to pull backing, others to pledge their continued support. It’s worth remembering the facts of the actual assassination of Julius Caesar, facts that would likely cool the excitement the play has engendered among Trump-haters.

Like Trump Caesar was a populist who disparaged the ruling elite even though he was born into it, a member of the Julia family which claimed descent from the Trojan prince Aeneas, the son of the goddess Venus. Caesar went on to build an illustrious career as a general and was popular with his men. His political career also endeared him to the common people so that when the Senate tried to arrest him for treason, he descended upon Rome with his troops and took power and his Senate opponents led by Pompey fled. He hunted them down but pardoned his political enemies who stayed behind in Rome.

The Roman Senate was nothing like its US counterpart. Few people had the right to vote and those that had it faced a list of selected candidates by the elite. Voting in a Roman election wasn’t meaningful to the male Roman citizen who did it other than to repay the debt to his patron, usually the neighborhood politician who he owed a favor to. In fact the patronage system that operated in Democratic Machine-era cities of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia would be very familiar to ancient Romans.

Caesar cut deeply into the power of the ruling elite, so it was only a matter of time that the enemies he pardoned allied with his former friends worried about the power he was concentrating into his own hands. The conspirators evidently believed their own propaganda. They thought they were fighting to save the liberty of the republic and that the common people would view their murder of Caesar as an act against tyranny. They believed they would be celebrated as liberators of Rome and even made a coin commemorating the event.

Unfortunately their murder of Caesar backfired. The people were so distraught by his murder that at his funeral pyre they began to tear wood off buildings and grabbed furniture from nearby dwellings and threw it into the fire. Instead of being applauded for their heroic act his assassins were hunted down in the streets by angry mobs. Suetonius writes, “Immediately after the funeral the commons ran to the houses of Brutus and Cassius with firebrands, and after being repelled with difficulty, they slew Helvius Cinna when they met him, through a mistake in the name, supposing that he was Cornelius Cinna, who had the day before made a bitter indictment of Caesar and for whom they were looking; and they set his head upon a spear and paraded it about the streets.”

The elite had lost touch with the common people and simply assumed that they felt as they did, that Caesar had taken power away from them without understanding that the common people had no power, and Caesar’s edicts had benefited them more than those made by his elitist predecessors. Within three years all of Caesar’s assassins were dead and the elites that opposed him destroyed, their property confiscated.

The parallels are eerie. A man of the people born of the elite. An out-of-touch elite who doesn’t understand the popularity of their object of hatred. Their drive to destroy him at all costs. How far will these parallels go?

But let me end with this: Trump is not Julius Caesar and America is not Rome. Julius Caesar had complete power when he died, Trump can’t even get a travel ban enacted. America has a system of checks and balances that no president can destroy whereas the government of Rome laid completely at Caesar’s disposal. Portraying Trump as Caesar not only shows the ignorance of the play’s producers about Roman history, it proves their ignorance about American civics, and it makes Trump look much more powerful than he is.

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