David R. Henderson  

Should Caesar Have Been Killed?

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Is this a day to celebrate or to mourn the death of Julius Caesar? That's the question for the Ides of March. Here's what Wikipedia says about his policies:

When the triumph was over, Caesar set forth to passing an unprecedented legislative agenda. He ordered a census be taken, which forced a reduction in the grain dole. Then he mandated that jurors could only come from the senate or the equestrian ranks. Next he passed a sumptuary law which restricted the purchase of certain luxuries. After this, he passed a law that rewarded families for having many children, in an effort to speed along the repopulation of Italy. Then he passed a law which outlawed professional guilds, except those of ancient foundation, since many of these were subversive political clubs. He then passed a term limit law applicable to governors. Next he passed a debt restructuring law, which ultimately eliminated about a fourth of all debts owed. The Forum of Caesar, with its Temple of Venus Genetrix, was then built among many other public works. Caesar also tightly regulated the purchase of state-subsidised grain and reduced the number of recipients to a fixed number, all of whom were entered into a special register. From 47 to 44 BC he made plans for the distribution of land to about 15,000 of his veterans. The most important change, however, was his reform of the calendar. The calendar at the time was regulated by the movement of the moon, and this had resulted in a great deal of disorder. Caesar replaced this calendar with the Egyptian calendar, which was regulated by the sun. He set the length of the year to 365.25 days by adding an intercalary/leap day at the end of February every fourth year. To bring the calendar into alignment with the seasons, he decreed that three extra months be inserted into 46 BC (the ordinary intercalary month at the end of February, and two extra months after November). Thus, the Julian Calendar opened on January 1, 45 BC. This calendar is almost identical to the current Western calendar.

Shortly before his assassination, he passed a few more reforms. He established a police force, appointed officials to carry out his land reforms, and ordered the rebuilding of Carthage and Corinth. He also extended Latin rights throughout the Roman world, and then abolished the tax system and reverted to the earlier version which allowed cities to collect tribute however they wanted rather than needing Roman middlemen. His assassination prevented further and larger schemes. He wanted to build an unprecedented temple to Mars, a huge theater, and a library on the scale of the Library of Alexandria. He also wanted to convert Ostia to a major port, and cut a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth. Militarily, he wanted to conquer the Dacians, Parthians, and avenge the loss at Carrhae. Thus, he instituted a massive mobilization.

Now, changing the calendar: that's serious stuff. The writers of Wikipedia would have you believe that that's more important than trying to conquer other people.

By libertarian standards, there appear to some good and some bad. My quick take is mainly bad. What do you think? Reasons (stated briefly) appreciated.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

COMMENTS (17 to date)
SB7 writes:

Like you say, some good and some bad outcomes. But the process was entirely bad by circumventing Rule of Law. By undermining republican institutions he made Rome too dependent on having the "right" ruler in charge. That's great when you've got Augustus, and ... not so great when you've got Caligula.

Sign me up for the Brutus-was-a-hero camp.

Littleoleme writes:

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OneEyedMan writes:

Normally I'd say that wars of foreign conquest are sufficiently terrible to dig a hole that Julius could never climb out of. But the governments he conquered were as a general matter horrible, and some rights under Roman rule may have been better than none under domestic tyranny. Still, when I think of all those people who died in those wars, plus the resulting rape and enslavement, and I again have to regard Julius as on balance mostly a butcher, thug, and tyrant.

Various writes:

Almost all bad. What a control freak this guy was! To be more thoughtful, he essentially created institutions and laws in his own image. Institutions and laws that support dictatorial policies, as opposed to republican and democratic policies.

I also got a chuckle out of the calendar description. Makes me think the author is biased, and therefore the substance of Caesar's actions probably worse than the author's depiction.

Doug writes:

On the margin would the world be a better or worse place if Rome had conquered more or less territory. I think it's pretty damn hard to make the case that the world would have been better if Roman influence in the Mediterraneans/Europe has been less. Especially when at the time of Julius Caesar you weren't even talking about other civilized Mediterranean folks like the Etruscans or the Greeks, but barbarian tribes like the Huns or Gauls.

Gabriel rossman writes:

The part that amused me was term limits for provincial governors. Talk about living in a glass house and throwing stones.

Blakeney writes:

Did he invent Daylight Savings Time? If so, then yes, he deserved to die.

John Goodman writes:

A timely post and a good question. I linked to it at my blog here:


ThomasL writes:

The act that is widely thought to have prompted his assassination was his circulation of coins stamped his image -- a few of which with a ribbon (the mark of royalty) tied around his forehead.

Never in the history of Rome had the image of a living Roman been on the coins, much less one dressed as a king.

The assassins thought it was their last chance to save the Republic. As in most these reluctant situations, in truth their last chance had gone by long before, they just didn't realize it.

For all that, I'm not too sympathetic to Brutus. After he fled Rome, what did he do? Founded his own city-state and struck his image on the coins.

Lars P writes:

The new calendar was far from the most important thing at the time, but since it is essentially the same calendar the whole world uses 2056 years later, it has proven to be the most important decision over the centuries.

pandaemoni writes:

Whether it was a good or a bad decision to kill him depends on many factors. In some ethical systems, like Kant's ethics, clearly not. For me, the answer would depend on whether he intended to declare himself emperor or king. He hadn't done that at the time he was killed, it was just feared that he might. Worse, that he was so generally beloved by the "wrong" (non-patrician) types that he might succeed.

When he dies he was "dictator", but many men (including Caesar himself) has been dictator in the past and when their time ended, they walked away. So, 2,000 years on, I have no idea what Caesar planned.

Jacob AG writes:

Remember to base your answer on the counterfactual, what would have happened had Caesar not been assassinated, not on whether he was or wasn't a good guy.

My guess, based on what little Roman history I learned studying three semesters of Latin and reading "I, Cladius" and "Claudius the God" (great books by the way), is that killing Caesar was probably a very bad idea. What followed was an exceedingly violent period of civil war, the end of the Republic, and an era positively devoid of anything like civil liberties or even physical security, even for the aristocracy... not exactly a libertarian paradise.

Rich writes:

"Now, changing the calendar: that's serious stuff."

If Obama decided to invade Libya, some Americans would support the decision, and some would oppose it.

If Obama decided to institute the Obama Calendar, with (say) 10 months in a year instead of 12, everyone would say the man was crazy.

From a public choice perspective, changing the calendar is serious stuff!

John V writes:
English Professor writes:

None of this is relevant. For fifty years or so the Romans had been suffering through an intermittent civil war. Caesar was simply the victorious general who managed to kill off most of his competitors. He was a tyrant. Even in ancient philosophical writings it was thought laudable to kill a tyrant and attempt to restore freedom to the people. Caesar was an astonishing man--brilliant general, brilliant orator, great writer--but no one who loves liberty should shed a tear for tyrants.

Salem writes:

Ironically, I just finished reading a new biography of Caesar, so I was thinking about this a lot. Ultimately, the Republic was in terminal stage anyway, and rule-of-law was almost nil before he took power. What on earth about the Republican system was worth saving by the 40s BC? It was going to be necessary to forge a new system of government, and Caesar was at least going about this in the right way, in terms of pardoning his enemies and trying to unite the polity. The fact that his enemies then took advantage of this to murder him meant that there could be no peaceful reconciliation, and led directly not just to the renewed civil war, but the mass proscriptions of 43BC etc.

Besides which, Caesar's assassins weren't trying to return "freedom to the people" in any modern sense of the words. They were trying to preserve aristocratic and senatorial privilege.

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