Friday, March 31, 2017

Matthew Perry's Black Squadron

Some of the most riveting moments in history happen when two wildly different worlds meet for the first time. Today, one of the most common tropes in our books and movies is first contact with aliens from another world. But science-fiction doesn’t have to speculate too hard about what mankind’s response to that moment will be like. We already know.

For much of the world’s history, people with differing values, languages, cultures, and religion were largely separated by the sheer size of the world. But as technology advanced, the world began to shrink, and these often-conflicting cultures started to collide into each other, often violently.

A Japanese man aboard the USS Susquehanna
By the 1850’s, Japan had managed to hold the world at bay for centuries, isolating itself in its secluded string of islands, but some weren’t content to let it stay closed off forever. A brand-new nation, the United States of America, decided to take action to bring Japan out of its shell. And they were willing to use force to do it.

The American Commodore placed in charge of the expedition pulled his terrifying, black warships into the forbidden waters of Tokyo Bay, turned his guns toward the Japanese cities lining the shore, and demanded Japan open its doors. The showdown between these two alien worlds began.

This week in history we backtrack 163 years to March 31, 1854, to look at the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships to Japan, and the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa.

The Castaways
In 1841, a 14-year-old fisherman named Manjiro and four of his friends set off in a small fishing junk. A sudden storm caught them by surprise, blowing them far from the shore, and their small boat was torn apart by the angry ocean. The five boys washed up on a small, uninhabited island roughly 250 miles south of Japan.

The boys were in trouble, but being shipwrecked was the least of their worries. They knew that if they were to return to Japan, they’d be executed.

For over two centuries, Japan had sealed itself off from the outside world. Manjiro and his friends had been raised hearing terrifying tales of the barbarians who lived outside of their home islands. They were violent, savage, held dangerous and strange religious beliefs. To insulate the country from the corruption of such backward people, a strict law had been put into place. All other nations were warned in the sternest terms to stay away from Japanese waters. No foreigner was permitted to enter the country, and no Japanese person was allowed to leave. Any Japanese who returned after leaving the country would immediately be put to death.

Manjiro and his friends, by sheer accident, had broken this rigid, long-standing rule, and were now without a country. But returning to Japan wasn’t really an option; castaways on a barren volcanic island, the boys endured five desperate months, eating shellfish, whatever birds they could manage to catch, and drinking rainwater.

Their grim fight to survive was interrupted when a giant ship, the American whaler John Howland, anchored off the island. Instead of being relieved at a potential rescue, the boys were terrified, remembering the legends of the violent barbarians.  They initially hid from the strange men with fur on their faces. At length, the American sailors managed to coerce the boys off the island.

The captain of the Howland was named William Whitfield. Whitfield apologetically told the boys he’d be unable to return them to Japan. Both he and the boys knew if Whitfield attempted to take them home, he was risking his ship and crew, and the boys would likely have been killed for the effort.

So, without another option, the five of them sailed on the John Howland toward Hawaii. On route, Whitfield and Manjiro bonded. Manjiro was genial, curious, naturally intelligent and energetic.  He quickly started to pick up English and was fascinated by the workings of the ship. Whitfield was a kind man who was entertained by Manjiro’s inquisitiveness and was empathetic to his plight. Whitfield started calling the boy “John,” and Manjiro embraced his new, American name.
When the Howland arrived in Honolulu, Manjiro’s four friends disembarked, determined to make a new life for themselves, but Manjiro asked to stay with Whitfield, who happily agreed.

Upon returning to Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Whitfield’s family adopted “John” Manjiro as their own. The Whitfields afforded every courtesy to their new Japanese son. Very few Asians had ever been seen along the American east coast, and absolutely no Japanese. One Sunday while attending church services, the pastor eyed Manjiro sitting next to the Whitfields and insisted that “John” sit in the negro section in the back of the church. William and his wife were appalled, and they left. They soon found a more tolerant congregation who allowed the family to sit together.
With his natural curiosity, Manjiro dove into his studies, mastering English. He learned navigation and coopering. For a time, he studied at Oxford. His understanding of the world outside of Japan had been completely shattered. But he never forgot Japan, his mother who must now think him dead, and he resolved to one day return.

Japan’s Church and State
Returning was going to be dangerous. Japan had been settled in seclusion for generations and seemed determined to remain that way. Their reasons for their isolation were deeply embedded in their history and their cultural and national identity. Their self-imposed exile primarily had to do with religion.
Japan’s religion—like most cultures throughout history—was inextricably intertwined with its culture and government.

In 1274 the terrifying Mongol Empire had set its eyes on Japan. They amassed a huge fleet of black-painted ships to invade the island chain. But as they started to get under way, sudden violent storms arose. Some of the Mongol fleet was lost, and the rest were forced to return to China. Seven years later, the Mongols tried again. This time, as their fleet was navigating Japanese waters, another intense storm suddenly slammed into the black ships. They were battered against coastal rocks, and most sank. Over 100,000 of the Mongol’s massive 140,000-man-army were killed in the storm. The ragged surviving invaders were easily mopped up by the Japanese Samurai.

Ever after, the Japanese looked on both incidents as divine intervention. They reverently called the storms the “divine winds,” the protection of the Gods bestowed upon the chosen people of Japan. The legend was etched in Japanese consciousness so deeply that centuries later when another nation was threatening to invade Japan in a bloody war, young Japanese pilots started sacrificing themselves in suicidal attacks in an attempt to turn the enemy back. The pilots were named after the miraculous storms that had protected Japan from the Mongols. They were called the “divine wind” pilots, or in Japanese, “kamikaze.”

The miracle of the kamikaze was not the only evidence, to the Japanese, that they were favored of the gods. Japan’s state religion was Shinto, an ethnic religion that emphasized balance, connection to nature, and worship of ancestors. According to Shinto belief, the Emperor of Japan was a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess, a living son of deity. The emperor, in practice, held little power (consider him similar to modern-day British royalty), but his role as divine leader of Japan served to unify the Japanese people in a collective, national identity.

Japan’s government was ruled for much of its history by local leaders called Daimyo, who ruled over individual sections of the country, much like feudal lords in Europe. They collected their own taxes and hired their own militaries from a professional warrior class called the samurai. But the Daimyo paid tribute and gave loyalty to the Emperor and true leader of Japan, the Shogun. The Shogun was a hereditary leader who acted as king over the entire nation. In practice, the Shogun reported to no one, but according to Japanese tradition, he ruled at the pleasure of the Emperor.

Japan’s belief in the emperor’s divinity made Shintoism and loyalty to the state indelibly intertwined. Church and state weren’t separate; they were one in the same thing. It was central to their cultural identity, and when that identity was challenged, there was a huge backlash.

Europe, Christianity, and Japan
You’re probably familiar with the “Age of Discovery.” Between the 15th and 18th centuries, explorers—mostly European, but with some notable exceptions like the Chinese treasure fleets—started to spread across the planet. This era kick-started a rush to explore, establish trade routes, and most infamously, to colonize. For the Europeans, all of this was done under the banner of Christianity, and everywhere the Europeans went, they were determined to introduce their religion to the natives.
The first Europeans to arrive in Japan were Portuguese. Explorers were followed by merchants, who were followed by missionaries. Initially, Japan welcomed the new trade warmly. They had been trading with China, Korea, and other Asian civilizations for centuries, and they welcomed the new and interesting goods these strange Europeans were introducing. Within a few years, a taste for European clothing and style stormed across Japan, and both European merchants and Japanese port cities started to see a huge windfall from the new trade.

Portuguese missionaries were meeting with similar success. Christianity (primarily Catholicism, because the missionaries were mainly Portuguese) was avidly embraced by the curious Japanese. The leader of Japan at the time, the famous Shogun Oda Nobunaga, sanctioned the new religion. Within a mere 80 years of the Portuguese’ arrival, it’s estimated that around a half million—10% of Japan’s population—had converted to Christianity.

This was, in part, a pragmatic decision rather than a religious one; Europeans were more likely to do business with local leaders who had embraced Christianity.  Daimyo would often force their entire households of families and servants to be baptized. In a couple of cases, Daimyo commanded entire cities to embrace Catholicism, all to draw the attention and wallets of the Europeans.

Part of the reason the Christians found such success in Japan was in the inherent differences between Eastern religious thought and Western doctrines. Shinto, like Buddhism and most other Eastern religions, tended to incorporate other religious ideas, not compete with them. Many Japanese were Buddhist but saw no problem in also believing in Shintoism and the Emperor’s divinity. So, for many of the Japanese who adopted Christianity, it didn’t occur to them that Christian dogma might supplant or erase their other beliefs.  The local Buddhist and Shinto monks welcomed the missionaries warmly until they started to realize the Christians intended to displace all other faiths.

The European missionaries weren’t exactly known for moderation or meekness. One of the most successful missionaries was a Spanish priest named Francis Xavier, who reached Japan in the summer of 1549. His efforts there became so legendary, that he was eventually beatified, and today is considered by Catholics to be the patron Saint of Japan. Xavier’s approach, pretty common for Catholic and Protestant evangelists of the time, was strident and dismissive of Japan’s traditional religions.

Xavier’s style was noted by historian George Feifer:
“[Xavier] made no effort to understand the religions that were in place when he arrived. . . The soon-to-be-saint saw them as Satan’s work, to be ‘overthrown without compromise or sympathy.’”-George Feifer, Breaking Open Japan
The troubling developments from the Christians became worse when the Daimyo and the Shogun realized that differing Christian sects condemned and competed with other Christian sects. Intense conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, and even between Jesuits and Franciscans, two different orders within the Catholic Church, arose within Japan. The Shogun became increasingly exasperated at the European preachers.

The Japanese revered and worshiped their ancestors and most were either unable or unwilling to believe in the concept of hell—that their forefathers were burning in misery and eternal punishment. This disturbing idea seemed like sheer nonsense to them. The sacredness of a family’s honor and heritage was a closely-held belief within both Japanese religion and culture and was in direct contention with this fundamental Christian teaching.

The Europeans were quickly spreading into all corners of the world, and the Japanese were awakening to the threat they posed. Their trepidation turned to alarm as Spain began to colonize the nearby Philippine Islands, violently subjugating the archipelago’s native peoples in the process.

Japan began restricting trade to specific southern ports, hoping to stem the flow of European influence into the country. One Spanish sea captain, angry that he was being turned away from a now-closed port, warned the local officials that if Japan resisted Spain, they may end up like the Philippines. To add pressure to his threat, the captain showed the Japanese a map of Spanish conquests around the world.
The map was dotted with Spanish-controlled colonies. Alarmed, they asked him how Spain had been able to attain this sprawling worldwide empire. He told them that countries marked for conquering were softened by the introduction of Christian missionaries, “and when they have made considerable progress, troops are sent [with] not much trouble.” (Quote from John Robertson, Japan: From Shogun to Sony 1543-1984)

The growing Japanese suspicion of Christianity became realized when word reached the Shogun that Christian preachers were teaching that spiritual authority (the authority of Catholic priests and bishops) superseded the authority of the Daimyo or even the Shogun.

But that wasn’t even the worst of it; according to the Christian preachers, the followers of Jesus were to believe only in the Christian God, and no one else. Xavier’s insistence that Shinto, Buddhism and other closely held beliefs were “Satan’s work” had a particularly insidious ramification for the Japanese. Christians refused to believe that the sacred emperor of Japan, the descendant of the Sun Goddess, herself, was divine. They dismissed him as a pretender, a fake. No belief could have been better designed to subvert and damage Japanese society and national identity.
When the Shogun learned of these dangerous Christian doctrines, he declared that the missionaries were “pernicious, most undesirable.” He expelled all foreign missionaries from Japanese shores, forbidding them to return.

Initially, only the European preachers were forbidden, but Christianity had begun to degrade Japan’s entire social structure, and conflicts increasingly arose between Japanese Christians and the local Daimyo. Clearly, something had to be done, and Japan had just been given a Shogun willing to take drastic steps to fix the problem of Christianity.

Country in Chains
In the early years of the 17th Century, a new family rose to power in the shogunate and began the Tokugawa dynasty.  The third shogun of the dynasty, Tokugawa Iemitsu, instituted draconian measures to quell any further outside contamination into Japanese culture. Not content with the expulsion of the foreign ministers, the new Shogun outlawed Christianity entirely. Any person who would not repudiate their beliefs was executed. But this was only the warm-up. In 1635, he issued the Sakoku Edict.

Sakoku, in Japanese, means “closed country,” though some have interpreted it as “country in chains.” The edict barred all Europeans from entering into Japan and officially ended trade with almost all foreign nations. It instituted strict penalties for the practice of Catholicism and other forms of Christianity and even offered a bounty for those willing to turn in Christians practicing in secret. The edict forbade all Japanese from leaving the country, under pain of death. Japan’s brief exposure to the outside world had been extremely destabilizing and Tokugawa was doing all he could to deny any more foreign corruption.

Two years later, a peasant rebellion began to grow in and around Nagasaki. It’s known to history as the Simabara Revolt. The revolt happened to take place in the south, where Christianity had been most prevalent. When they began to revolt against the government, the Christians among them felt free to come out of hiding, and as they met Japanese troops in battle, they made battle cries to Jesus and Mary while wearing crucifixes and crosses. The revolt was not religious in nature; like most moments of civil unrest, it had more to do with access to food and a sluggish economy. But seeing the brazenness of the Christians among the rebels convinced Tokugawa that it had been a religious uprising. The Shogun’s forces demolished the rebels, and nearly some 37,000 people were killed.

Thousands of the dead were thrown into a giant mass grave. The Shogun directed that a sign be hung above it. It read:
“So long as the sun shall warm the earth, let no Christian be so bold as to come to Japan; and let all know, that the king of Spain himself, or the Christian’s God. . . if he violate this command, shall pay for it with his head.”
So Japan receded in the world’s view. They only traded with China, Korea, and, interestingly enough, Holland. The Dutch were generally anti-Catholic, which was welcome news to the Japanese, but even better, they were considered an unassertive trading country content to mind their own business. Still, no Dutchman was allowed to enter the country, itself. All trade was limited to a single port in Nagasaki and was carefully monitored by local authorities.

In isolation, Japan had something of a cultural renaissance. With Tokugawa’s strict social order and extreme isolationist foreign policy in place, the country began to see a great deal of economic growth, and with it, a flourishing of art, drama, music, and other cultural achievements. The nation remained at peace for what one historian has suggested to be the longest single period of peace in humanity’s history. It seemed that putting the “nation in chains” had been a wise decision.

For over 200 years, Japan remained solitary and aloof. To the outside world, a mystique arose around this exotic, mysterious nation, but they also perceived it as backward and cowardly. Even in Holland, Japan’s lone European trading partner, very little was known about the island nation. Curiosities were piqued, and as the world grew, unwanted guests inevitably started knocking on Japan’s door.

Shell and Repel
As the 19th Century dawned, Japan was still tightly tucked behind their laws, and largely remained unaware that the outside world was changing radically. Occasionally, their Dutch trading partners would bring them reports of what was happening in the world, but Japan placidly ignored most of it, content to remain separate.

But the rest of the world was being remade in the Industrial Revolution. International trade, which had been a huge part of the global economy for centuries, exploded exponentially. New technologies resulted in new kinds of cloth, new styles of clothes, new ways of transporting perishable goods, new machinery that made farming and industry more efficient. Faster, larger ships were built to deliver all of these goods across the world. The capital city of Japan, Edo (the city we now know as Tokyo) had long held the distinction of being the largest city in the world. (Though it’s fairly unlikely any residents of Edo were actually aware of that fact.) But with all the new technology radically altering daily life across Europe and North America, populations were exploding. London quickly passed by Edo in size, and hardly hesitated in its growth for years. Paris and other European centers of industry weren’t far behind.

A Japanese watercolor of the American whaler Manhattan
Unsettlingly, Japan started to feel results of these changes. The number of foreign ships spotted from Japan’s shores seemed to be growing exponentially. Fishing and especially whaling was progressing to an industrial scale, and Russian, British, and American whaling ships were constantly trawling the stormy waters off of Japan’s northern islands in pursuit of precious whale oil.

Most alarming, though, was the increase in traders and official diplomats trying to gain entry into Nagasaki and elsewhere, hoping that the centuries-old Sakoku policy might be reconsidered. Within a 75 year period, Japan turned away 72 ships. By 1807, ten of those ships had been sent by the newly-established United States of America. Japan rejected them all, but as more ships came, the Shogun determined to enact sterner measures. In 1824, he instituted the Edict to Repel Foreign Vessels, which directed the Japanese to drive away foreign ships by any necessary means. It soon became colloquially known as “shell and repel.”

The edict reiterated that all foreigners who landed on Japan soil “must be arrested or killed.” The Shogun reminded his people why that was necessary:
“All Southern Barbarians and Westerners, not only the English, worship Christianity, that wicked cult prohibited in our land. Henceforth, whenever a foreign ship is sighted approaching any point on our coast, all persons on land should fire on and drive it off. . . Never be caught off guard.”
During this time, Japan maintained a thriving fishing economy, but to be a fisherman was a dangerous proposition. The government had long forbidden the construction of boats large enough to sail across the sea. This meant that the further a Japanese fisherman ventured from the shore in pursuit of a catch, the less safe their small fishing junks became. The junks, which were usually flat-bottomed and had a shallow draught, could not handle rough water at all.

Japanese depiction of the Morrison.
In 1837, the American merchant ship Morrison stumbled upon shipwrecked Japanese fishermen on a small island off the coast of China. The Japanese sailors were hesitant to return to Japan on a foreign ship, knowing they could be executed. But the Americans saw in the castaways another opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the Japanese, and maybe open up trade.

With six Japanese men on board, the Morrison confidently set sail for Edo. When they neared the town of Uraga near the mouth of Edo (now Tokyo) Bay, a shore battery opened fire on them without warning. The captain of the Morrison turned his ship as fast as he could and left. Reports of the incident eventually reached Washington DC, which incensed the Americans; the Japanese would fire on an unarmed, peaceful ship trying to return its own citizens? It was stupefying.

But the Americans would have more chance for outrage; in 1846, five years after young Manjiro was saved and adopted by Captain Whitfield, the American whaler Lawrence was caught in a violent gale and sank. Seven of the crew managed to survive and clung to wreckage until they finally washed ashore Japan’s northern coast. The American sailors were immediately arrested by the Japanese.

One of the sailors reported his experience:
“They threatened to cut off our heads, because they thought we were English, whom they hate; but when we told them we were Americans, they said nothing more, except to ask of us what religion we were. Upon our telling them we worshipped God, and believed in Jesus Christ, they brought a cross bearing the image or our Saviour, and had we not tramped upon it at their request, they would have massacred us on the spot."
The sailors were eventually released to the Dutch, who returned them to home to the U.S., where their story drew ire at the barbaric and inhumane treatment. In response to the Japanese treatment of the Lawrence survivors and the attack on the Morrison, President Andrew Jackson dispatched Commodore James Biddle to Asia, first to establish a trade treaty with China, and then to conduct an audience with the Shogun and open diplomatic ties to Japan.

Fresh from a successful trip to China, Biddle arrived with two American warships. Their armaments were so overwhelming that the Japanese shore batteries didn’t dare fire on them. But immediately, several of the largest Japanese junks, (all of which were dwarfed by Biddle’s ships) maneuvered in his way, preventing further entry progress into Edo Harbor.

Biddle's ships USS Columbus and USS Vincennes in Edo Harbor
Biddle was peaceful, apologetic, and respectful. He weighed anchor and respectfully requested an audience, saying he had a letter to deliver from President Andrew Jackson to the Emperor. (It’s unclear how much the Americans understood about power dynamics in Japan, but little effort was made to negotiate with the Shogun, the true ruler of Japan) Biddle allowed the Japanese to come aboard and tour his ships. His submissive, friendly attitude achieved little. The Japanese officials in charge brusquely demanded Biddle leave at once. Biddle calmly stated he’d happily leave, once he was granted an audience with a representative of the emperor.

Finally, the Japanese agreed and arranged a meeting on a Japanese ship in the harbor; the Americans were not permitted to set foot on land. Biddle graciously accepted, and on the next day, in full dress uniform, he and some of his sailors boarded a rowboat and proceeded to what they thought was the junk arranged for the conference. They had the wrong boat. It was a small harbor patrol ship, and the Japanese sailors were alarmed as the Commodore and his boat of Americans pulled up. Neither the Japanese sailors nor the Americans had an interpreter with them. Thinking he was going to meet the delegation, Biddle tried to step on board and a sailor roughly shoved him back into the rowboat, and then threateningly drew a sword. Biddle immediately returned to his ships, thinking the delegation had decided to snub and insult him.

For his part, the Shogun ordered gifts sent to the Commodore before he left, assuring him the guard would be punished. But Biddle left without any more attempts at diplomacy. The perceived insult stoked American fury like nothing else had.
In Japan, it offered them a sense of security. It convinced many Japanese leaders that Westerners—Americans in particular—could be easily handled.

The relationship between America and Japan deteriorated further when, only two years later, yet another American whaler, the Lagoda, wrecked off the coast of Hokkaido. Fifteen American survivors were taken prisoner. They were tied up and thrown into cramped cells. Three of the men died—one by suicide and two from malnutrition. The Japanese suspected they were spies, or worse, missionaries. But after several weeks they became convinced the Americans were genuine castaways and allowed them to leave with Dutch merchants as well.

Interestingly, the Japanese thought they were being lenient and accommodating to these foreigners. They did not execute the Americans, as their laws dictated. Instead, they housed them, fed them, and arranged safe passage home. The necessity of detainment was simply to ensure Japan’s security. It hadn’t occurred to them that the Americans would have been angered by these small exchanges. But resentment in America continued to grow, and plans began to develop to take a stronger stance against this backward, insolent Pacific nation.

Manjiro’s Return
Nakahama Manjiro
At the age of 25, John Manjiro had found success. With the help of his adoptive father, he had managed to be placed on the crew of a whaling ship. After two years, he returned to Massachusetts with $350 in his pocket—roughly $10,000 by today’s standards.

He adored America, his family, and the life he’d carved for himself, but his thoughts often returned to his mother and the life he’d been ripped from in Japan. He was determined to return, regardless of the risk. As he made arrangements to find passage back to his homeland, word came out of the recently-acquired California Territory that gold had been discovered not far from the small coastal town of San Francisco. Never one to pass up on an opportunity Manjiro sailed to California, hiked into the mountains, and after a few furious months of prospecting, managed to extract $600 worth of gold dust.

He booked passage to Honolulu where he was reunited with his old friends and fellow castaways. He told them his plan to return to Japan. Finally, two of them decided to risk returning home as well, and the three Japanese men bought a small boat and arranged with a whaling captain to travel to Japan. In February of 1851, they arrived off the coast of Okinawa, a small island in an archipelago that tails off Japan’s southern coast. Manjiro and his two friends boarded their small boat and island hopped northward, finally after a 400 mile trip, the three men reached Japan, setting foot on home soil for the first time in over a decade.
They were immediately arrested.

The American Plan
A year later, in 1852, the head of the Dutch East India Company sent a letter to the Shogun in Edo. Word had reached the Dutch traders that the Americans were concocting another trip to Japan. He wrote:
“According to these rumors, an envoy will be sent . . . with a letter from the President [of the United States] to the Emperor of Japan. The envoy will . . . ask that one or two Japanese ports be opened to trade and that coaling conveniences be provided for steamships on route from California to China.”
The Dutch weren’t the only voice of warning. India, too, sent word to Japan that the Americans were hatching a scheme to coerce Japan to open.

This, of course, was nothing new; the Americans were trying, once again, to petition for trading rights. Their desire for coal was a little confusing—didn’t North America have coal? Why would they need to import it? But the Shogun, a man named Tokugawa Ieyoshi, was distracted by personal health problems and seems to have completely ignored the warning. The memory of Biddle’s trip must have mollified any fears the Shogun and his ruling council had; maybe the next American could be pushed out of Edo Harbor with a single shove, just like the last. But the Americans’ plans wouldn’t be pushed aside so lightly. The U.S. had learned from Biddle’s experience seven years before and adjusted their tactics accordingly.

It’s now commonly taught that America’s primary goal was to open Japan for lucrative trade, but Japan had something else they wanted more: coal. The industrial revolution had revolutionized naval technology and design, and by the mid-19th century, America’s naval fleet was slowly being transformed. The newest ships to enter service still had the iconic tall sails and rigging that had adorned naval vessels for centuries, but they also sported cylindrical smokestacks, and amidships,  huge, round paddle wheel churned the seas white. These were the first steamships, and they were changing the world.

Steamships were faster, and their speed more reliable than sailing ships. They could sail at speed directly into the wind. To naval navigators of the day, it was miraculous. The only problem was, in order to create the steam to turn their oversized paddle wheels, they went through a lot of coal. The reason the new steam frigates still had sails was because it was generally impossible to get across an ocean—especially the expansive Pacific—and back without loading up with coal.

The United States liked the prospect of opening a new trade market in Japan, but they were more excited by the trading opportunities presented in China. In order to do that efficiently, though, they needed to set up coaling stations across the Pacific. The recently-established relationship with the kingdom of Hawaii had given the Americans one coaling station, but they needed another reliable source in the western Pacific. Coal was Japan’s most plentiful natural resource, and those heaps of coal just so happened to lie right on the route to China.

The President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, determined to send a squadron of ships to the Pacific to establish diplomatic ties with the Japanese. Their primary goal was, of course, Japan’s coal, but they were also to demand better treatment for shipwrecked American sailors and request a trade agreement.

Like any political plan, it was met with mixed opinions. One US senator complained it was an unnecessary show of force, something for the bloated and restless military to occupy their time. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, though, called Perry’s mission a “great national movement” and one of the “most important ever.”

One journalist was less enthused about the plan:
The narrative of opening Japan up for religious reasons was also
a consideration, though the Japanese weren't aware of this intention.
“A fleet composed of several steamers, backed by a frigate and one or two corvettes, is by no means a peaceful demonstration; and we fear that the effect of the arrival of these ships in the waters of Japan will be to frighten the poor Japanese out of their seaport towns, and out of their wits at the same time, so that it will be impossible to bring them to terms in good faith. They may be driven by their alarm into a treaty of some sort, which they will feel at perfect liberty to violate [as] soon as the vessels of war shall have been removed."-New York Times, February 24, 1852
Adding Horror to the Horror-Stricken
In 1853, fishermen off the shore of Honshu started noticing strange vibrations in the water. Their unease gave way to terror when four massive, black ships came into view. Two of the ships were spewing black smoke into the sky. Were they on fire? Most alarming, they were making headway against the wind. It was the American squadron. (The two sailing ships, the USS Plymouth and the USS Saratoga were being towed by the steamships Mississippi and Susquehanna.)

The fishermen fled to the shore as fast as they could and sent word to Edo ahead of the four behemoth frigates. The warning rushed through Japan, and it caused a general panic. The Japanese had long been nervous of foreign ships invading their waters and had confronted them several times, but this was something new, entirely. These ships were, without a doubt, warships, and the most massive ships any of them had ever seen. The USS Susquehanna, Perry’s flagship, was nearly 260 feet in length—it was more than 20 times larger than Japan’s largest ship. One Japanese man described them as “staggeringly large apparitions. Another said they loomed “as large as mountains” and that they sailed “as swiftly as birds.”

Japanese depiction of one of Perry's steamships.
Worst of all, the Japanese had never before seen a steamship, with their awe-inspiring smokestacks, massive paddle wheels, and the unnatural, reverberating rumbles that emanated from their hulls. The Japanese could only speculate as to their destructive capacity. The ships were painted black, just like the invading Mongol fleets of the 13th Century. Any one of them could lay waste to any city along the shore, and there were four of them.  The Japanese could only interpret the squadron as a battle fleet come to invade their country.

The American ships neared a warning sign posted prominently outside of Edo Bay, in French, it read, “Depart Immediately and Dare Not Anchor!” They passed it without slowing.

Word spread to the surrounding area for warriors to assemble in Edo, and for all males age 15-60 to join the militia. Within hours, Japanese soldiers poured into the city wearing ancient armor, sporting a wide variety of weapons: everything from halberds, to samurai swords, to muskets. They manned the few batteries of cannon that were dotted along the bay, but they correctly guessed that firing on the ships would have no effect and start a battle they’d badly lose.

All the cities lining Edo Bay were thrown into chaos as soldiers rushed in, and desperate citizens fled. A Japanese observer wrote:
“[Edo] seethed like a cauldron. . . Rumors of an immediate action . . . added horror to the horror-stricken. The tramp of war-horses, the clatter of armed warriors, the noise of carts, the parade of firemen, the incessant tolling of bells, the shrieks of women, the cries of children, dinning all the streets of a city of more than a million souls, made confusion worse confounded.”-Nitobe Inazo
Inazo went on to say: “Commoners . . . are evacuating the young and old of their family, and . . . they themselves are planning to flee to the country as soon as fighting breaks out. . . Government officials, whose state of consternation is indeed beyond description, seem to have been really awed by the military might of the formidable foreign fleet. . . Mothers were seen flying with children in their arms and men with mothers on their backs.”
The New York Times’ prediction that the “poor Japanese” would be frightened out of their wits was fully realized. And it was exactly the response Commodore Matthew Perry had wanted.

Commodore Matthew Perry
Matthew Perry was a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican American War. He was an aggressive and decisive commander. In the Mexican-American War, he’d forced a quick surrender from the Mexicans at Vera Cruz by bringing his ships in precariously close to the shoreline and battering them with withering broadsides. In 1832, he had sailed an American squadron into the Bay of Naples in (what is today) Italy. The King of Sicily had refused to pay hefty debts he owed to American merchants. Perry came within range of the king’s palace and threatened to start firing if the king didn’t pay up immediately. The king quickly obliged.

It was just part of who Perry was. He was dour and serious. One of his sailors described him “as if suffering from a permanent toothache.” Unlike the American commodore that preceded him, Biddle, Perry had no time to waste on pleasantries and politeness. He was brusque, pompous, and determined to show the Japanese what he called his “overwhelming superiority.”

“The Policy of the Commodore,” he wrote (he wrote his journals in the third person, which is somehow perfectly fitting), “is to assume a resolute attitude toward the Japanese government.” Elsewhere, he was less euphemistic about his plan. He intended to “alarm the authorities and induce them to give a more favorable answer to my demands.”

Remembering Biddle’s ineffective courtesy, he wrote that he planned “to demand as a right and not to solicit as a favor those acts of courtesy which are due from one civilized nation to another to allow none of those petty annoyances which have been unsparingly visited upon those who had preceded them.”

His approach wasn’t all posturing; Perry was perfectly ready to retaliate if the Japanese so much as drew a sword. In the worst-case scenario, he could simply position his ships outside the range of Japan's antiquated cannons and shell the city until they capitulated.

The four ships formed into a battle line at the mouth of Edo Harbor, some 60 miles south of the city, and weighed anchor. Perry ordered his ships to fire away from the city into the sea, as a “salute” to the Japanese. The Japanese would never have interpreted them as anything but warning shots, and Perry had to know that. The guns fell silent, and Perry felt his initial impression had been made. Night settled on Edo Harbor.

The American sailors watched as Japanese militiamen started amassing along the shoreline; some 5000 of them were deployed from Edo to the nearby city of Uraga, where the ships had anchored. As night fell, the land was dotted with so many fires that one American sentry noted their campfires looked like a swarm of fireflies. But not all of them were campfires; the Japanese had lit huge bonfires along the routes toward Edo and especially the Shogun’s palace to block the roads from any invaders.

Meeting of Minds
Japanese envoy aboard the Susquehanna
After a tense night, the Japanese sent an envoy to the American ships. The Japanese messenger, a policeman from Uraga, first demanded the American ships leave immediately. Perry scoffed at the suggestion, and the messenger then directed the U.S. fleet to Nagasaki, as that was the only port Japan allowed for trade and interaction with other nations. Perry calmly said they would stay exactly where they were until he met with a representative of the Emperor. Perry also informed the envoy that he would be meeting with Japanese officials on land, not in the bay. He then abruptly ended the conversation, telling the flustered messenger to report back to his leaders, and from then on, the Americans would refuse to negotiate with anyone but an Imperial officer.

Several more Japanese officials attempted to negotiate with Perry aboard the Susquehanna. But Perry refused to meet with them, telling his officers to send them back. He continued to make fire “salute” broadsides into the sea.  

The Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, had suffered a “heartstroke”—probably a mild heart attack—only a few weeks before and was slowly dying. This left his chief counselor, Lord Abe Masahiro, and the Shogun’s Council of Elders which Abe led, to deal with the crisis. Abe had been the one to receive warnings from India and Holland about the impending American fleet. He had long felt Japan needed to build up its defenses against foreign naval power, so was dismayed, but unsurprised at the American’s arrival.

Abe was nearly everything Perry was not. He was circumspect, gentle, dignified and quiet. He had come from humble circumstances and was often pensive, rather than decisive. After heated debate among the council, Abe finally directed the governors of Uraga and Edo to negotiate with the Americans, but in the city of Uraga, not in Edo.

Perry agreed to the meetings and On July 14, Perry’s ships carefully aimed their cannons toward Uraga and were ordered to general quarters, the highest state of readiness. Ordering the ships to quarters was a bit like telling them to hold their finger on the trigger. With the city and the Japanese soldiers lining the shoreline in their sights, Perry and 300 American sailors and marines started rowing toward the shore.

This took some guts on Perry’s part. His men were well-armed but once they were on land, they stood no chance against the thousands of wary Japanese militia who stood at readiness. But the Commodore was betting on his ability to impress and intimidate the Japanese to ensure his safety. Perry had insisted the navy band accompany him, and they played American anthems as the Americans strode toward the meeting in the city. He also handpicked two of the tallest and most muscular navy stewards, who were black, to act as his bodyguards. The Japanese had never seen black men before and gawked. The black sailors dwarfed even the other Americans, who were on average much taller than the Japanese.

Japanese Portrait of Perry
Perry was greeted by the governors of Edo and Uraga, who introduced themselves as representatives of the Emperor. They bowed deeply. Perry simply looked at them, casually took a seat in a nearby chair, and said nothing, waiting for them to begin the negotiation. It was the height of insult, and Perry likely knew exactly what he was doing.

The negotiations didn’t go more smoothly. The governors couldn’t initially understand the Japanese of the American interpreter, and they didn’t have an interpreter who spoke English. Eventually, they had to resort to translating from Japanese to Dutch. An American sailor who knew Dutch would then translate into English. This had to be an agonizingly long process and the double-translation likely garbled parts of the conversation.

Perry presented the governors with President Fillmore’s letter to the Emperor. Fillmore’s letter to the emperor began “Great and Good Friend!” The letter introduced Perry and assured their only intention was to establish trade and a good relationship with Japan. He wrote:
“The Constitution and laws of the United States forbid all interference with the religious or political concerns of other nations. I have particularly charged Commodore Perry to abstain from every act which could possibly disturb the tranquility of your imperial majesty’s dominion.”-President Millard Fillmore
The Japanese could only have gawked at the apparent hypocrisy. The past few days had been anything but tranquil, and Perry’s conduct deeply disturbing.

Perry then presented his own letter, which was far less friendly than Fillmore’s. In it, he voiced outrage at Japanese treatment of shipwrecked American sailors and implied that if others were similarly mistreated, American steamships could be in Japanese water within two weeks (a huge bluff, but the Japanese had no way of knowing that.)  Perry also insisted Japan open itself for trade and that it provision American ships with coal. He reiterated peaceful intentions, but the underlying implication was that if the Japanese were unwilling to meet America’s demands, the Americans were willing to start firing on their capital city.

Another Japanese portrait of Perry,
portraying him as a Tengu, a
destructive demon.
To drive home the threat, Perry presented the governors with two white flags. He explained that, if ever the unfortunate circumstance of fighting arose between Japan and the United States, the Japanese would only need to raise the flags, and American guns would immediately stop firing. His message was clear, even through the double-translation.

The governors informed Perry the only reason he’d been received outside of Nagasaki was to avoid insulting the President of the Unites States and then told him, “as this is not a place wherein to negotiate with foreigners, so neither can conferences or entertainment be held. Therefore, as the letter has been received, you can depart.”

Perry glibly informed them he’d leave within two or three days, but that he would return within a year’s time to receive the Emperor’s response to the president. Alarmed, they asked if he intended to return with the same number of ships. He responded that he’d be returning with the full squadron—these four were only a portion—but didn’t specify how many ships that meant.

Before Perry left, he presented the governors with several gifts, Wine, seeds, and several other items. Then he and his escort returned to the ships.

They lingered in Edo Bay three more days. At one point, the Mississippi brazenly sailed deeper into the bay, within ten miles and easy sight of Edo. The Japanese breathed a sigh of relief when it returned to the other American ships, and again when all four sailed south. The night the Americans left, a large crowd of soldiers gathered near the shoreline at Uraga and burned the gifts Perry had presented to the governors.

The Interim
Lord Abe Masahiro
Lord Abe Masahiro and the rest of the Shogun council were mired in anxiety and disagreements. Many of the council felt that they should rush to arm themselves and prepare to attack the American fleet when it returned the following year. They were deeply insulted and felt the fat American commodore had dishonored the country and their emperor. But Abe and others were more pragmatic and knew there was little they could do in a year to defend against such advanced and well-armed ships. And Perry had warned he was bringing even more ships when he returned.

To complicate things further, eleven days after the Americans’ departure, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyoshi finally died. The council kept the death secret. Tokugawa’s son and heir, Iesada, was mentally handicapped. He could hardly speak and barely walk, and the Shogun’s council considered him incapable of handling this American crisis.
Some Daimyo learned the Shogun had been warned about the American fleet and were furious he had done nothing to protect the country. If they learned of his death, or of his heir’s disabilities, it was likely some of them would try to overthrow the Tokugawa dynasty, altogether. The threat of civil war was looming of Edo.
Abe inadvertently made the situation worse when he polled Japan’s Daimyo about their opinions on the matter. This was unprecedented. The Daimyo had traditionally never weighed in on national policy. Their responses were inconclusive. Roughly a third wanted war, a third to capitulate to the Americans, and a third offered vague, non-committal responses.  Not only was the poll not helpful, the Daimyo (correctly) inferred that the shogunate was weak and possibly vulnerable.

It put Abe in an impossible situation:
“To acknowledge incapacity to resist [American] aggression would be to invite the ruin of the Tokugawa house; to resist, on the other hand, would be to invite destruction of the Empire.”-George Feifer, Breaking Open Japan
The council didn’t know what to think of this American threat. What was clear was that Perry seemed perfectly willing to start firing if his demands weren’t met. So, they saw only two options: they could either capitulate to Perry’s demands or they could fight. They knew they couldn’t build up a defense in time for Perry’s return, and he could level Edo without losing a single man. But capitulating meant ending Japan’s long-held isolation. It would make the Shogun look weak and invite other nations to use the same tactics.

The council was wracked with indecision because ultimately, they knew nothing about this upstart country that wasn’t yet eighty years old. But there was someone in Japan who knew America intimately.

After being arrested, Manjiro and his two friends had endured months of questioning. They were turned over to the Daimyo that ruled over their village. He permitted them to return, but they were forbidden from ever leaving the town again. Nearly twelve years after he last left, Manjiro was joyously reunited with his mother and siblings. The Daimyo was impressed with Manjiro and hired him to start lecturing at a local school about his world travels.

The Daimyo eventually granted Manjiro a title, elevating him to the elite ruling/warrior class, making him a samurai. He was also permitted to choose a family name (at the time, lower classes were permitted only one given name). Manjiro had risked his life and spent years dreaming of returning to his hometown. He named himself after his city, Nakahama Manjiro.

Lord Abe learned of Manjiro’s experience and summoned him to report to the council. When he arrived in Edo the leaders bombarded him with questions about America. Speaking more frankly than any of them might have expected, Manjiro told the council he felt Japan’s isolation was damaging and backward. Worse, it was perceived by the rest of the world to be inhumane and irrational. He expressed his consternation at the “extraordinary fuss” that had been made in response to Perry’s visit. He assured the council that Perry’s squadron wasn’t made up of warships—just ships used for exploration—and insisted the Japanese had wildly overreacted. He patiently described the United States in intricate detail. The council listened in rapt attention.

No doubt thinking of his American family, Manjiro spoke glowingly of his adopted country. He said Americans were “born to be gentle,” that they were “physically perfect and beautiful . . . virtuous and generous and do no evil.” They “hold loyalty and modesty in high esteem.”

Manjiro’s profile of the Americans couldn’t have contrasted more with the unabashed pompousness and disdain Perry had demonstrated, but many of the council breathed with relief. Perhaps America’s intentions were peaceful, after all. Some were suspicious of Manjiro’s hyperbolic praise for the Americans, though, and suspected he might be a spy. Regardless, the young samurai’s testimony managed to bring the council to a consensus: because the Americans’ intentions seemed genuine, and they couldn’t be bested in combat, anyway, there would be no attack when Perry returned.

The Treaty of Kanagawa
Depiction of the negotiation for the Treaty of Kanagawa
Perry’s fleet spent the winter and spring, first in Okinawa and then Hong Kong, but returned to Edo much sooner than had been promised, on March 8, 1854. The promise he did fulfill was bringing more firepower. No fewer than ten American warships—roughly a quarter of the entire United States Navy—was seen steaming toward Edo Bay.

Though both sides remained wary of each other, there was none of the panic that had seized Edo on Perry’s first arrival. Perry, with his trademark bravado, strong-armed the Japanese negotiations, coercing them into granting more concessions than they had initially intended. Manjiro was involved as well. Unable to directly participate in the discussions as a translator because some of the Lords of the Shogun’s council didn’t trust him, he still was able to give Lord Abe valuable insight and advice. On March 31, 1854, the Americans and the Japanese government signed the Treaty of Kanagawa.

The treaty granted Perry nearly everything he wanted. It ensured peace between Japan and the United States. The council pledged to not imprison shipwrecked foreigners and to treat them humanely. Japan agreed to open the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate for trade with the Americans, and agreed to allow foreign merchants freedom of movement within those cities. An American consulate was established, and most importantly to the Americans, the Japanese agreed to provision American ships with coal, food, and other supplies.

The Treaty of Kanagawa broke the seal of Japan’s isolation. Within four years, Japan had signed similar treaties with France, Russia, Great Britain, and another with the United States, granting even more concessions.

In the short term, both sides were satisfied. The Japanese, and especially Lord Abe, were relieved they managed to navigate the precarious situation and come out without a shot fired. Perry was thrilled at his success, and so was congress, which granted him a gift $20,000—a preposterous amount of money for the time—in gratitude for his service to the United States. Manjiro, in particular, was thrilled the two countries he had called home had been finally been connected.

The Aftermath
But internally, the system that had ensured over two centuries of Japanese peace was destabilizing. Perry’s aggressive approach and advanced technology prompted Japanese leaders to lift the severe restrictions on military strength to try to catch up with the rest of the world, militarily. As individual Daimyo began building up their local forces, their loyalty to the relatively weak Shogunate started to wane. There was also outrage from across the country at the Shogun’s weakness in capitulation to these foreign barbarians.  A political movement reoriented power back into the hands of the Emperor, who had opposed the treaties.

Ultimately, Japan was thrust into a violent period of transition called the Bakumatsu or “closing curtain.” A civil war broke out in the years following the Treaty of Kanagawa, and in 1868, the final Tokugawa Shogun abdicated his powers to the 17-year-old Emperor Meiji, who moved from Kyoto to Edo. Meiji renamed the city Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”), and ushered in a long period of modernization and progress for the country now known as the “Meiji Restoration.” Japan’s exposure to the outside world brought progress and change but brought to a close over two centuries of uninterrupted peace.

Japan’s Delegation
In 1860, Japan sent an official delegation to the United States of America. They sailed across the Pacific on board the Kanrin Maru, the first steamship in Japan’s navy, recently purchased from Holland. Virtually no Japanese sailor had experience on the open ocean, and during a storm, most of the crew, including the ship’s captain and admiral, got violently seasick. A friendly Samurai, serving as the delegation’s translator, willingly took command of the ship and brought it to port in San Francisco safely. It was Nakahama Manjiro.

One American sailor who had participated in Perry’s expedition wrote:
“[Manjiro] knew the American people. . . He was the channel through which, by a kind of preordination, American ideas filtered into Japan.”
One Japanese contemporary wrote that Manjiro “contributed more than any other person in the opening of Japan.”

Statue of Nakahama Manjiro
The terrifying ordeal Manjiro had endured as a 14-year-old castaway set him on a path would radically alter not only his life but influence the relationship between the two countries he considered his own. And today, in Ashizuri-Uwakai National Park in Southern Japan, a large statue of the Samurai reminds people of his legacy.

Perry’s legacy would be more complicated for Japan. A bust of Perry sits outside the historic site where the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed, but there has remained a residual resentment of Perry’s bullying tactics. The impression Perry left behind helped formed the Japanese impression of Americans, in part, as violent, oppressive, and willing to intimidate to get their way. That kind of cultural impressions don’t easily fade, and ninety years later, when the Japanese were convinced the Americans were trying to once again bully them, they decided to respond in force, sparking the Pacific conflict of World War II.

The end of Japan’s self-imposed isolation and the subsequent changes are generally celebrated today. But it raises some interesting questions. Even if Perry hadn’t shown up, how long would it have been possible for Japan to stay closed off? If the progress of the Meiji Restoration is considered a good thing, were Perry’s actions and the subsequent violent conflict in Japan justified? It raises questions about religion, trade, self-determination, and much more.

These questions are ultimately unanswerable, but pondering them can help us understand our world more, and perhaps help us improve it.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Ides of March

Up until only about 60 or so years ago, history was primarily taught from a perspective sometimes called “great man” history.  I’m not a fan of great man history. When we focus too closely on the individuals, they tend to become inhumanly powerful, unrealistic and unrelatable. Also, “great man” history tends to ignore the lives and decisions of the millions of people whose names haven’t survived through time, the people that followed and fought and empowered the “great men” we’re so obsessed with.

But the story of Julius Caesar is unique; Caesar’s story has been a recurring theme in just about every western culture since he walked onto the world stage over two millennia ago. As far as stories go, it’s a pretty compelling one. It’s filled with themes of betrayal, loyalty, patriotism, violence, freedom, ambition, corruption, and war, all things that are pertinent in our societies and countries today.

Whereas great man history works from the premise that “great men” periodically show up and history bends around them, I believe skilled, shrewd men and women in history have been able to recognize the bends in history and step into them. Julius Caesar had the skill to do that, but when he did, he was swept up in a pattern that eventually destroyed him and destroyed the greatest republic the ancient world had ever known.

This week in history we backtrack 2061 years to March 15, 44 BC, to look at the death of Julius Caesar and the fall of the Roman Republic. Beware, the Ides of March.

Life and Pressures in the Roman Republic

The story of Julius Caesar and the role he played in the Roman Republic’s collapse has captured imaginations ever since it happened. He’s shown up again and again in our collective consciousness. There are good reasons for that. Foremost, it is a high drama story full of intrigue and amazing, three-dimensional characters. It’s got action, murder, sex, betrayal. And we have an unusual amount of records and histories for a time so long ago, so we have a uniquely intricate and accurate view of the players, the events, and the crisis they found themselves in.

But the series of dominoes that started to fall that would eventually lead to the assassination of Caesar and the demise of the Roman Republic had been pushed long before Caesar entered the scene; they started falling before he was born.

In order to understand how all this went down, we have to look at the trouble brewing in Rome in 130 BC, 30 years before Caesar was born.

Like almost every society ever, Roman society was broken into classes. At the top of the pyramid was the smallest of all of Rome’s social groups. They were called the patricii, the Patrician class, or the noble class. These people were Rome’s aristocracy, the elite. They were the leaders of Rome. Because being a patrician was a hereditary right, the individual noble families were extremely mindful of the Roman leaders their family had produced over the generations.

Most patrician families had death masks of significant family members in a room in their homes. So if you had an influential grandpa or uncle that was a senator, or a great-great-great uncle that was a consul, their mask was up in your home. Kids were raised with tales about these ancestors and told they were expected to do as well or to even beat them. It engendered in the youth of this noble class a kind of pressure and ambition that we in modern western society will probably have a tough time understanding.  To these Roman kids, honoring the family heritage and having an honored place on the wall of their kids and grandkids was everything.

The Roman Republic had existed for roughly 400 years, and it was an intricate legal system. At the top was the senate. The Senate was made up of roughly 300 (the number varied a lot) of men--it was always men--who were holding or had previously held some kind of high public office. Once you were in, you were in for life. And it was a nice gig; Senators didn’t have to pay any taxes, which could be pretty hefty. Also, they were kind of celebrities in Rome. Being in the senate was for many young patricians, the ultimate goal.

At the top of the pecking order were Rome’s two consuls, which were the executive officers, kind of like the presidents of Rome.  There were two of them so they could check each other's’ ambition. Among other things, they could veto laws passed by the Senate, were responsible for enforcing laws, and presided over political meetings.

The consuls, the senators, the military commanders, and most other public positions were filled by patrician families. The Senate oversaw elections and usually ensured that the candidates were from good patrician families. There were exceptions, but they were really rare.

"Cicero Denounces Cataline" by Cesare Maccari
Cicero is still regarded as one of Rome's finest orators.
One of the leading senators through much of the time we're going to discuss was Cicero. We’ll get back to him later, but once Cicero was trying to explain why having a hereditary aristocracy was a great thing. He suggested that having an aristocracy prevented the Republic from becoming a plutocracy, which is government run by money.

There was a problem with Cicero’s thinking, though. While some noble families were better off than others, the patricians were extremely wealthy compared to the rest of Rome. And they were getting more so all the time.

There were a few ways the senate and other politicians ensured that the wealth was constantly flowing upwards toward the high classes.  First, the senate was in the habit of constant deficit spending, spending more than they were bringing in. There were no banks at this time, and so the senate took loans from wealthy private citizens--the patricians. The moneylenders would charge oppressively high interest rates, and so as the debt and interest payments rose, the senate would raise taxes (and, remember, the senators themselves didn’t have to pay taxes), and so take more money from the lower classes to pay the debts.

Over time, life for the lower classes was getting tougher. The main middle/lower class were a group called the plebii, the plebeians, or “plebs” for short. (Note: there are other class distinctions like equestrians and proletariat, but they’re not important for our purposes here.) The quality of life for the plebs kind of waxed and waned throughout the centuries, for about a century or so before Caesar’s birth, it was definitely waning.

Rome is famous for its military conquests. We often talk about the Roman Republic being replaced by the Roman Empire, but it’s a little more nuanced than that because the Roman Republic by this time already was an empire. They held territory along most of the coast of the Mediterranean, including Spain in the east and Greece in the west. And they had an absolutely massive military they used to conquer and control this territory, which required a huge amount of men.

To fill the ranks of the army, Rome had long had a conscription requirement for any Roman owning land to give time to the army.  The problem was, that there was no limit on how long the army was going to keep you; sometimes it was just a few years, but if you were involved in one of Rome’s nearly-constant wars of conquest, it could be for a decade or even longer. This made it so that if you were a poor farmer with a small plot of land, you essentially had to leave your family behind on the farm and hope your family could make do while you were away. Pay for soldiers was small and inconsistent, and often not enough to support a family back home.

So, to get around the conscription requirement, plebs started selling their land and moving into the city. This caused land values to plummet, and wealthy land-owners eagerly started buying up as much land as they could.  There had been a long-standing law that limited land ownership in and around Rome to a little over 300 acres, or roughly half a square mile. Wealthy people had been getting around this by buying land under false names, but eventually, they started doing it openly. And because the people doing it were either the leaders of Rome or the close friends and family of the leaders of Rome, the law wasn’t enforced.

When the plebs moved into the city, it was a pretty grim life. Here’s what author and historian Michael Parenti wrote about their living conditions:

"There being no public transportation, the proletarians [working-class plebs] had to be housed within walking distance of work sites and markets. The solution was to pile them into thousands of poorly lit inner-city tenements along narrow streets. Such dwellings were sometimes seven or eight floors high, all lacking toilets, running water, and decent ventilation. The rents for these fetid, disease-ridden warrens were usually more than the plebs could afford, forcing them to double and triple up, with entire families residing in one room."

So if you were holed up in these rate-infested buildings, your chances of catching some deadly disease like typhus or typhoid skyrocketed. But if you managed to survive the diseases, there was still plenty of danger. These tenements were hastily and terribly-made. And it was extremely common for them to collapse or burn down. It happened all the time.

Senator Cicero owned a few buildings like this and described their collapse to a friend: “Two of my shops have collapsed and the others are showing cracks, so that even the mice have moved elsewhere, to say nothing of the tenants. Other people call this a disaster, I don’t call it even a nuisance.... There is a building scheme under way . . . which will turn this loss into a source of profit.”-Cicero

Bust of Crassus in the Louvre
Another patrician who plays an important role in this story, a guy by the name of Crassus, made his fortune by hiring a fire brigade and charging extreme amounts of money to try to extinguish the fires. When they failed to save the building, Crassus would immediately offer to buy the land (offering, sometimes the money he just earned by fighting the fire). He’d then build a new tenement and charge high rents to pay for it.  This and other businesses made Crassus one of the most wealthy men, not just in Rome, but in the entire ancient world.

If a pleb managed to survive the horrible living conditions, they often had a difficult time finding work. Rome’s constant military expansion resulted in the capture and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people. Historians estimate that about a third of the entire population of Italy was made up of slaves. Patricians who owned these massive plantations outside of Rome would often fill most of their workforce with them. Because slaves were an expensive investment, the more dangerous work would often go to the plebs, because they were disposable. And if they died, the rich guys didn’t need to pay them.

Of course, this led to a pretty disgruntled (and pretty huge) lower class. But they had ways to address their problems. Rome had two public assemblies. The assemblies were where the citizens of Rome gathered to nominate and vote for candidates for high office. The assemblies were “calibrated”--we may call it gerrymandered today--so that the votes of higher-classes were higher than those of lower classes, but every Roman family had a vote (they voted in blocs as families.)

The other check built into the government that protected citizens was the tribunate. Rome had ten elected officials called tribunes whose entire job was to represent the common people of Rome. They were the closest thing Rome had to a democratic office or a representative republic. Tribunes had to be from a plebeian heritage. They had the ability to veto legislation passed by the Senate, but there were ten of them to dilute their ability to do that. Unlike other public offices in Rome, tribunes were not made part of the senate when they were left office. In order to keep the tribunes in line, senators would often bribe them with prospects of other elected offices. This would give those tribunes a rare opportunity to jump to the ruling class, so it was an effective way for the senate to nullify any potential problems from the tribunes.

Roman Power Struggles: Populares vs Optimates

The conflicts that eventually led to the fall of the Republic and the assassination of Julius Caesar started with the Tribunes and the public assemblies. There’s so much history here, that we could get mired down, but I’ll be brief. A political movement started to take hold among a lot of tribunes and other politicians starting about 130 AD. They were called populares, today we’d call them populists. They were tribunes who actively sought social reform for the plebs.

Among other things, the populares wanted to:
  • Recalibrate the way voting worked to allow the plebs a more significant voice in the assemblies.
  • Offer Roman citizenship to non-Roman Italians (most Italians weren’t Roman citizens at this time.)
  • Introduce debt reform and even debt cancellation.
  • Give freed slaves the right to vote.
  • Redistribute Roman land to the poor.

The senate and patricians were largely opposed to these ideas, often violently (as we’ll see). They formed a powerful opposition called the optimates. The optimates, simply put, wanted to keep the status quo and keep power in patrician hands.  They looked at the average pleb as unintelligent, violent, dangerous, and fickle. They viewed the plebs as a mass, a mob that had to be placated and kept in its place. This fear of mob rule was so prevalent and entrenched in the writings of famous Romans like Cicero, that it has influenced political thinkers for centuries, including the U.S. founding fathers.

So the populares wanted to reform Rome, and the optimates thought their reforms would destroy Rome. In 130 BC, one populare Tribune named Tiberius Gracchus was frustrated with the optimate-controlled Senate, and so started introducing and passing laws directly through the citizen’s assemblies. This hadn’t ever really been done but wasn’t strictly illegal. When the senate felt like things were getting out of hand, they sent a group of mercenaries to attack the Tribune and his followers. 300 people, including Tiberius Gracchus, were killed.
Ten years later, Tiberius’ little brother Gaius Gracchus became Tribune. He was even more popular and started using similar tactics to bypass the senate. Optimate leaders thought he posed a risk not only to themselves but to the entire Roman system. They hired mercenaries to kill him and his followers. Over 3300 people were massacred.

This disturbing pattern started showing up regularly in this time period. Populare leaders (usually tribunes) would show up, harness the popularity of the Roman people, and start undermining the power of the senate and the ruling classes. The optimates would respond violently, genuinely thinking this kind of action threatened the country, and treat the leaders as if they were in rebellion to the republic.

Crucially, during this time period, army policy also changed. Because fewer and fewer Romans actually owned land, it was getting increasingly tough to get enough manpower for the armies, which Rome relied on. A populare consul and former general instituted reforms to the military that let any Roman citizen join the army. More than that, he started promising his own troops that they would receive land after they were done with their enlistments. Between the policy change, the promise of land, and the fact that troops tended to get a ton of war loot when they successfully conquered a new territory, Roman soldiers became far more loyal to their generals than they were to Rome.

This gave rise to an actual rebellion and civil war in 88BC. Yet another one of these populist tribunes started using the same tactics to bypass the senate, but the senate officially struck down some of his bills. The Tribune argued they didn’t have the authority to do that and were so upset, he and his followers began to riot. They started intimidating and even killing optimate leaders. He then started using the assemblies to eject (fire) senators from the Senate and dismissed so many that the Senate didn’t have enough men to form a quorum. This rogue Tribune then voted to replace the general of one of Rome’s main armies, a traditionalist named Sulla, with a populare general.

This story gets really complex, but essentially, Sulla was so fed up with what was happening, he took his army and marched on Rome. He put the city under martial law and started to systematically kill anyone who even sympathized with the populares.  It can’t be overstated just what a huge thing this was. Troops were strictly not allowed in Rome, and Sulla’s march into Rome was incredibly illegal, and even the optimate senators were upset about it.  But, because he was cleaning up the crisis, they allowed it and even voted to name him a dictator.

The role of dictator was a rare office that the senate could give someone in the time of an emergency. But it was strictly understood that a dictator only held that title for six months, or until the crisis was over, whichever came first. Sulla’s march on Rome, though, sparked a civil war, and the Senate saw fit to keep voting him extensions as dictator. Sulla the dictator won the war easily. He executed anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 Roman citizens he thought posed a threat to the senate and the republic. Two years later, he stepped down as dictator and died shortly thereafter.

Optimate general and dictator Sulla
While he was dictator, Sulla rolled back all kinds of populare reforms and changed the political system. He minimized the tribunes by taking away their power to veto and denied the assemblies the power to pass laws. This essentially took away decades of progress made for the average people of Rome, and also had taken away any of their supporters. His unprecedented march on Rome and his extended dictatorship were also extremely consequential. Sulla’s choices set the stage for Julius Caesar and ultimately the fall of Rome.

While he was executing all his political enemies, Sulla targeted a young patrician for execution, a guy about the age of nineteen. His only crime was that his father-in-law and an uncle had been significant leaders in the faction that had opposed Sulla. Some friends managed to convince Sulla not to execute the young man, though Sulla was wary of him, fearing the young man posed a threat to Rome. The young man left for Greece, just in case Sulla changed his mind.

That young man was Julius Caesar.

Gaius Julius Caesar

Caesar was kind of a Roman’s Roman. He was extremely intelligent, handsome, well-spoken, had incredible ambition, and came from a distinguished patrician line that descended from the Goddess Venus. Unlike many of Rome’s elite, he didn’t really set out to make life comfortable for himself; he moved way too quickly for that. He seemed to ignore anything that might be a distraction from his ambition, although we’re told he was really conscientious of his clothing and started to set trends in a society that was known for its traditional way of dressing. Most important of all his qualities, Caesar was bold. He was extremely confident and was comfortable trusting his instincts and in his own luck.

When Sulla died, Caesar left Greece to return to Rome. On his way across the Adriatic, though, he was captured by pirates. Piracy was widespread at this time, and the victims were often sold into slavery. But recognizing Caesar was a patrician, the pirates thought it would be more profitable to ask for a ransom. Here’s Plutarch’s account of the story.

First, when the pirates demanded a ransom of twenty talents, Caesar burst out laughing. They did not know, he said, who it was that they had captured, and he volunteered to pay fifty.
Then, when he had sent his followers to the various cities in order to raise the money and was left with one friend and two servants among these Cilicians, about the most bloodthirsty people in the world, he treated them so highhandedly that, whenever he wanted to sleep, he would send to them and tell them to stop talking.
For thirty-eight days, with the greatest unconcern, he joined in all their games and exercises, just as if he was their leader instead of their prisoner.
He also wrote poems and speeches which he read aloud to them, and if they failed to admire his work, he would call them to their faces illiterate savages, and would often laughingly threaten to have them all hanged. They were much taken with this and attributed his freedom of speech to a kind of simplicity in his character or boyish playfulness.
However, the ransom arrived. . . and, as soon as he had paid it and been set free, he immediately manned some ships and set sail from the harbor of Miletus against the pirates. He found them still there, lying at anchor off the island, and he captured nearly all of them.
He took their property as spoils of war and. . . crucified the lot of them, just as he had often told them he would do when he was on the island and they imagined that he was joking.

That confidence was endemic in who Caesar was. Several years later, while he was serving in a political position in Spain, there are accounts that he was looking at a statue of Alexander Great, or maybe reading about Alexander’s life and he burst into tears. Confused friends asked him why he was crying. Plutrarch records his response.

“‘Do you think,’ said he, ‘I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?’” 

You mix Caesar’s bold confidence and innate skill with a little Roman-bred ambition? You’ve got the recipe for an imposing historical figure.

Caesar’s Rise to Prominence as a Populare

Caesar served in several lower political positions in Rome and elsewhere with distinction, but he started to make waves at the age of 47 when he ran for Pontifex Maximus, which was basically the high priest of Rome. It was a lifetime position, and it typically went to some venerated, old senator looking to retire. While he wasn’t young, Caesar was seen by many to be too young for this particular position. To make things worse, Caesar actually ran against two prominent, powerful senators and he won.

Though he didn’t win honestly. Bribery and vote buying was extremely common in Rome by this time, and Caesar took every advantage he could get. It was also common for politicians to cry corruption when their opponents did it, but they were more than willing to overlook ethics when they or their friends were running for office.

Plutarch wrote, “[Caesar’s election] excited among the senate and nobility great alarm lest he might now urge the people to every extreme of recklessness.”

And Caesar didn’t disappoint. He introduced a bill to the senate that was supposed to set aside Roman lands for poor veterans. The army had been promising land to veterans for a long time now, but often offered land in the far-flung areas within the newly-conquered territories. The fight over giving Roman land to troops was a really common one between the populare and the optimates, and the optimates hated it.

Stature of Cato in the Louvre
One of the primary reasons populare land proposals were so hated was that they typically proposed to re-appropriate land from existing landowners and give it to the soldiers. Caesar’s bill, though, wanted only to use existing public land or land owners were willing to sell to the state for a fair price. Some senators begrudgingly thought that it was a fair compromise, but other optimates stood firm and struck the bill down.

Optimates were becoming nervous about this charismatic upstart and were alarmed at his increasing popularity. Famous Roman senators like Cicero and Cato were at the center of those who opposed Caesar and started to look for ways to minimize the threat he posed.

But Caesar continued to climb the social ladder. He was elected as governor of a province in Spain, an extremely prestigious and lucrative position. But his campaign for Pontifex Maximus had left him in deep debt, and his creditors were threatening to have him arrested if he left Rome without paying. So Caesar turned to the richest man in rome, Crassus (who we mentioned earlier). Crassus was impressed enough with Caesar that he either paid or guaranteed most of Caesar’s debts, and Caesar was able to proceed to Spain.

The First Triumvirate

It was while he was in Spain that Caesar started forming the most significant political alliance in Roman history. It’s known as the triumvirate. The triumvirate was an unofficial alliance between Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey the Great.

Statue of Pompey
Pompey was Rome’s greatest living hero and most successful general. He had spent years conquering areas in the middle-east, including Jerusalem. He’d also cleared the Mediterranean of an extremely rampant pirate problem. He came back to Rome with all the booty and spoils of war (an absolutely huge amount of money). He was an incredibly celebrated hero and a common household name. If Rome had rockstars, they were the generals. And Pompey was the biggest. The Senate gave him a Triumph, which was basically like declaring a public holiday, complete with parades and feasts. The general and his troops (the only time troops were allowed in Rome) got to march in a parade with examples of the animals they found, the loot they brought back and even the prisoners they’d captured. It was the height of honor for a Roman.

Thing was, the senate was terrified of Pompey. The memory of Sulla and his reign of terror was really fresh in their minds, even though Sulla had been on the side with most of the senators, as an optimate. The idea of a general far more successful and loved than Sulla was unnerving; Pompey, with almost the tilt of his head, could seize all power in Rome. Luckily, Pompey made a much better general than a politician and he disbanded his troops when the Triumph was over.

The Senate was still wary of him, and so when Pompey came to them with a few requests, including land for his veterans, the Senate turned him down flat, probably to assert their authority. Caesar heard all this and so reached out to Pompey, to fill out this three-way alliance, and even gave Pompey (who was six years older than Caesar) his 18-year-old daughter Julia to marry.

Quick note about women, here. Michael Parenti wrote, “Wealthy men such as Julius Caesar treated women from well-placed families as disposable strategic assets.” Romans, like most other cultures in world history, were horribly chauvinistic, and Caesar was no exception. Technically adultery was against the law, and Caesar even divorced his first wife for adultery. But the practice was widespread, and men were rarely punished for it. Caesar was famously lecherous and had countless trysts and affairs with women.
Daughters, like Julia, were named after their fathers (Pompey had a daughter named Pompeia, for example). If there were multiple daughters, they often went by their relative age, or even a number (Julia the elder and Julia the younger.) Caesar gave Julia to Pompey just a few days before her planned wedding to another man. Julia obediently went, and so sealed Pompey’s connection with Caesar, now his father-in-law.

So, with Crassus’ money, Pompey’s popularity and military might, and Caesar’s political acumen, they were unstoppable. Caesar returned from Spain with a score of military successes under his belt, and he ran for and won a Consulship, again with the help of extensive bribery and even intimidation by some of Pompey’s followers.

Caesar’s Consulship and Governance of Gaul

Caesar immediately introduced another land bill, which the senate promptly voted down. He then bypassed the senate and passed his bill through the assemblies, even though the practice had been outlawed by Sulla. Based on recent Roman history, this was a potentially dangerous thing to do, but Caesar persisted.
Caesar’s co-consul was a guy named Bibulus, who was solidly in the optimate camp. Bibulus vetoed the land law, but some of Pompey’s thugs started to intimidate and threaten him which frightened Bibulus so badly, he shut himself up in his home, rarely leaving again for the rest of his tenure as consul.

These strong-arm tactics infuriated the senate, especially Cato and Cicero. They were determined the minute Caesar was out of office, to start dragging him through the courts. This was a common tactic leaders used to attack their political enemies. They would use the courts (bribing the judges, of course) to discredit their enemies and even get them exiled, which was the worst punishment they could legally give a Roman citizen.

Caesar knew this was coming, but as consul, he enjoyed political immunity. He couldn’t be sued as long as he held high office.  The problem was, consulship only lasted a year, so with Pompey and Crassus help, he managed to convince enough senators to vote him as Governor of Gaul (modern-day France), which also kept him immune to lawsuits.

Portrayal of one of Caesar's many victories as military governor of Gaul
As governor of Gaul, Caesar was placed in charge of four legions--roughly 24,000 men. He wasted no time pushing further and further into Gaul, winning a score of battles and the unquestioning loyalty of his troops, who loved him. He eventually was able to push all the way to the English channel and to the Rhine River, more than doubling the size of Rome’s holdings in Gaul. He wasn’t content with resting, though, and he crossed the English channel and began Rome’s invasion of England.  All of this was making Caesar one of the most famous men in Rome.

And if the Senate hated him before, they were terrified of him now. This was a man who, as consul, had openly defied their authority. Caesar’s popularity was starting to rival Pompey’s, He was getting dangerous and they started to talk about what options they had to deal with him.

But not everything was going Caesar’s way; the triumvirate that he’d used to thrust himself into power was dissolving.  Crassus, trying to get a little military glory, himself, died in the middle-east fighting the Parthians. Pompey, too, was starting to switch allegiances against Caesar. His wife Julia (Caesar’s daughter) had died in childbirth along with the baby. Strangely for a Roman, he had truly loved her, and the loss was deep. At her death, Caesar immediately offered the hand of his niece (ignoring the fact that she was already married), but the heartbroken Pompey turned him down.

In Rome, Pompey was nominated consul, and another of these problematic populare tribunes was stirring up trouble. Without going into detail, the Tribune, a guy called Clodius, started bullying the senate and manipulating the assemblies with a highly organized street gang--think Al Capone in a toga. There was no police force in Rome, and troops weren’t allowed inside the city, so initially, optimate senators responded by backing a rival street gang. Violence between the two kept escalating until one day, the Tribune was killed. When he died, all hell broke loose in Rome.

Open street battles spilled all over the city. Clodius’ gang started killing anyone they suspected of opposing the populares. The plebs in Rome were enraged yet another populare tribune had been killed, and an angry mob burned down the senate building.

This went on for days, and finally the senate offered Pompey “extraordinary powers.” (though they didn’t make him dictator, since it hadn’t gone well last time) They declared him the sole consul and gave him permission to bring troops in the city to deal with the problem. Within a few days Pompey’s troops had quelled the rebellion. He kept them in Rome to keep the peace.

Crossing the Rubicon

Finally, as Caesar’s ten-year rule as Governor was coming to an end, the Senate commanded Caesar to leave his army and return to Rome. Caesar knew all-too well that returning to Rome meant he would stand trial, be exiled, and probably even bankrupted. There was even a distinct possibility he might be assassinated, especially because Pompey’s troops were still in Rome.

Caesar responded he’d be happy to return to Rome, and that he would disband his army as long as Pompey disbanded his. Pompey was actually fine with the idea. He gives the impression that he really didn’t want a civil war, and maybe even didn’t want to become Caesar’s enemy. So he responded back that he would disband, as long as Caesar disbanded first. They responded a few times insisting the other disband their armies first. It kind of reminds me of two cowboys holding guns to each others’ chest, screaming for the other guy to “drop it!”

TheSenatee was putting Caesar in an impossible situation. He couldn’t stay in Gaul, because that would have been de facto exile, and the senate would stop paying and reinforcing his troops.  He couldn’t go to Rome alone because he’d be sued or even assassinated, and he couldn’t take his troops because that would be an act of treason.

The Ssenate was debating about what to do about the situation when two tribunes, one of whom was Mark Antony, stood to defend Caesar. Senators threatened their lives and expelled them from the senate. Fearing assassination, Antony and a few other friends of Caesar fled Rome and joined him in Gaul.

When Caesar heard of this, his mind was made up, and he even felt he had a legal reason to take his troops to Rome. His justification sounded reasonable:

"I merely want to protect myself against the slanders of my enemies, to restore to their rightful position the tribunes of the people who have been expelled because of their involvement in my cause and to reclaim for myself and for the Roman people independence from the domination of a small clique."-Caesar

Taking about 6,000 of his men, Caesar marched toward the border between Italy and Gaul, which was marked by a small river called the Rubicon. Caesar said, “The die is cast,” and crossed the river. The moment he did, he had committed treason. News of Caesar’s move got to Rome almost immediately. Fearing he didn’t have enough troops to deal with Caesar, Pompey and most senators fled, eventually going to Greece to consolidate Pompey’s forces. Caesar marched into Rome without taking a single life.

Caesar’s move was right out of Sulla’s playbook. But he also learned from Sulla’s mistakes. Instead of threats, violence, and execution, Caesar began to practice a radically new strategy: mercy. He announced that he considered anyone not actively standing against him to be his friend. He offered clemency to captured senators and soldiers, alike. He said, "Let this be the new style of conquest, we grow strong through pity and generosity."

This was definitely a political strategy, (at other times, Caesar had no scruples about brutality against his enemies) but it paid off really well. With almost the entire senate out of Rome, the assemblies declared Caesar a dictator and then elected him consul. But despite his new role and his merciful approach to the invasion, Julius Caesar had sparked yet another Roman civil war.

Civil War

The war lasted four years, and it was a bloody affair. In pursuit of Pompey, Caesar took his forces and crossed the Adriatic to Greece in the middle of winter. Storms were bad, though, and he was only able to get about half his army across the sea before the ships weren’t able to sail anymore. This left Pompey with an amazing opportunity to end the war.

The two Roman armies met at the Battle of Dyrrhachium. Some spies offered Pompey information about a potential weakness in Caesar’s line and Pompey exploited it, causing Caesar’s men to fall into retreat.  But Pompey, fearing that the retreat was a ploy, didn’t pursue Caesar’s army, and so missed the opportunity to put a quick end to the war.

About a month later, the two armies met again at the Battle of Pharlasus. Caesar was in enemy territory running low on provisions with about 22,000 men. Conversely, Pompey, coming off a recent victory, had roughly 45,000 men and home field advantage. Pompey really didn’t need to fight, though. He had arranged a massive blockade that kept Caesar and his troops from retreating back to Italy. Pompey knew if he just waited, doing only enough to keep Caesar’s forces from escaping, Caesar’s army would soon run out of supplies and collapse. Several senators including Cato, though, pressured him to make a decisive blow, so Pompey obligingly agreed.

In the battle, Pompey ordered his cavalry to attack Caesar’s cavalry. Caesar’s cavalry retreated and were chased. But Caesar had a trick up his sleeve. He had hidden a fourth line of infantry who were crouching on the ground. When their own cavalry had passed by, the men leaped up with their spears and started stabbing at the enemy cavalry’s horses.  This was devastatingly effective and left Pompey’s flank unguarded. Caesar reacting quickly, was able to turn Pompey’s flank and routed the army. It was the first time Pompey had ever been defeated in battle.

The loss was so complete that Pompey abandoned his troops entirely, leaving the country for Egypt, where he hoped to raise more forces.  Egypt was in a civil war of its own at this time--it was still technically independent from Rome, though Rome would claim it only a few decades later.  Egypt’s teen Pharaoh, Ptolemy XIII, was fighting against his wife--and sister--for the throne. Her name was Cleopatra. Ptolemy had heard about Pompey’s defeat in Greece and thought it would be to his benefit to be on Caesar’s good side. He directed assassins to kill Pompey.

When Caesar showed up in Egypt a short while later, hot on Pompey’s trail, the Pharaoh had Caesar presented with a box. He opened it and was horrified to see Pompey’s head. Plutarch wrote that Caesar refused to look at it and immediately began to shed tears.

It makes me suspect Caesar had planned clemency for his old friend and former son-in-law. You get the feeling that they genuinely respected and thought fondly of one another, though circumstance and that overwhelming Roman ambition forced them onto opposite sides of a line.

"Caesar and Cleopatra"
Whatever the case, Ptolemy’s goal of getting on Caesar’s good side backfired in a huge way. Caesar soon met with Cleopatra and the two of them struck up a passionate love affair, and when he returned to Rome, victorious, Cleopatra was at his side. He couldn’t legally marry her (and not just because he was already married--it was illegal for a Roman citizen, especially a patrician, to marry outside of Roman citizenship. Technically, adultery was illegal--it was the reason, after all, Caesar had divorced his first wife--but it was so widely practiced that anyone who was faithful to their spouse was seen as a prude, a weirdo.

Caesar did nothing to keep his affair with this Egyptian Pharaoh a secret. He placed her in an expansive villa just outside of Rome. Many of the Patricians saw her as an interloper, a foreigner and, worst, royalty who had a bad influence on the man in charge of Rome. Later, when Caesar changed their calendar to more closely reflect Egypt’s, (and our current, modern calendar as well) his enemies took it as a sign that Caesar wanted to emulate Egypt’s entire system, including their monarchal government.

The civil war lasted four years in total and finally ended when Caesar’s forces defeated Pompey’s sons and the last of his forces in Spain. The war was so devastating that it’s estimated the population of Rome dropped by at least a third. Every last citizen had been affected; the war had shaken Rome to its core.

Aftermath of War

When he returned to Rome, Caesar put on a Triumph. Normally, Triumphs were celebrations of Roman’s strength and conquering of some foreign land or people.  But this Triumph was celebrating the dominance or Romans over other Romans. In the parade, there was an image depicting the suicide of Cato, and as it passed we’re told that Romans were devastated with grief.

For all Caesar’s talents, he demonstrated a surprising tone deafness after he returned to Rome. The Senate, most of whom, remember, sided against him during the war, were quick to try to ingratiate themselves with this leader, and so a majority of them managed to vote him in as dictator, first for a period of ten years, then as dictator in perpetuo, for life.
This was the most extreme power given to any Roman leader in centuries, and while most Romans adored Caesar, even they were unsettled by the unprecedented power thrust onto Caesar.

At one point, in front of one of the assemblies, Mark Antony tried to declare Caesar a king and tried to place a diadem (basically a crown) on Caesar’s head. But instead of cheering, the crowd remained deathly still.  Caesar (likely reading the dynamic) loudly announced that Rome had only one king, and that was Jupiter. The crowd went wild.

While Caesar was a populist reformer and loved by the plebs, the idea of a Roman king was still anathema to your average Roman citizen. And it seemed to many, Patricians in particular, that Caesar was threatening to do exactly that. Caesar had transgressed most of their time-honored traditions and principles, and now that he was poised to break their most fundamental principle, to become a king, a conspiracy began to form to end Caesar’s reign.

Brutus and the Conspirators

At the center of that conspiracy, of course, was Brutus. Brutus and Caesar were extremely close friends. The fact that they were such close friends is interesting, because politically, Brutus was an undeviating optimate, and most often opposed the populare causes that Caesar championed. Brutus had actually sided with Pompey in the civil war, but Caesar had granted him clemency along with most the other senators who had opposed him. Their close friendship despite the political differences has led some to believe that Brutus was actually Caesar’s illegitimate son. I personally find that unlikely, but all we really know is that after Caesar’s death, Caesar named two successors, the first and main successor was his great-nephew Octavian. The second was Brutus, so it’s clear the men were close.

Probable Bust of Bruitus
Brutus had descended from a family line from the man who had killed Rome’s last king, a man who was also named Brutus. Because of the Roman focus on family glory and heritage, this would have been hugely influential on Brutus, and would likely have made him feel it was his family’s responsibility to protect the Republic from being ruled by one man.

But if Brutus had any reservations in standing against his close friend, he had to overcome them quickly, because the conspirators were working under a deadline. Caesar was planning to leave Rome and go to war against the Parthians--the same people who had killed Crassus. If he left, he’d be gone for years, and worse, if he was successful in his war, Caesar would come back a hero with even more popularity and prestige. The conspirators had to take him down before he left. somewhere around 60 men were implicated in the plot, and rumors were starting to run all over the city.

According to Plutarch, Caesar was forewarned about the plot by a wise old man. You can hear a section of Orson Wells’ radio play in the podcast.

Whether or not the warning “Beware the Ides of March” was actually given to Caesar, it’s interesting that Shakespeare did not invent the idea of the soothsayer; he lifted it from the history of Plutarch.

The day before Caesar was supposed to leave for the east, the conspirators summoned Caesar to a meeting of the senate. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia was supposed to have some terrible premonitions and begged him not to go. Caesar wasn’t feeling that well, anyway, and decided not to go, but one of the senators in on the conspiracy talked him into attending, insisting it would be an insult to the Senate if he were to leave without meeting with them once more. So, Caesar went to the senate.


The night before, Mark Antony found out about the plot and was desperately trying to reach the Senate to warn Caesar. But the conspirators had anticipated this, and at least one of them was assigned to delay him at the door.

While Caesar was listening to some petitions, one senator stepped behind him and pulled Caesar’s toga off his shoulder. It was the sign. Caesar yelled, “Why, this is violence!”

A senator named Casca raised his dagger and stabbed at Caesar, but Caesar managed to grab his hand and yelled, “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” Casca desperately cried for the other conspirators to help, and they descended on him. Initially, Caesar tried to run, but he tripped and fell to the floor, still fighting against the assassins.  But when he saw Brutus holding a dagger, he stopped fighting and covered his face with his toga.

Et tu, Brute?

Accounts differ on what Caesar’s actual last words were, but it definitely wasn’t et tu, Brute, as Shakespeare has made famous. Most accounts say he said nothing, but a few suggest when he saw Brutus, he said: “You too, child?” (Which is the primary reason some think Brutus was Caesar’s son.) We’re also certain Brutus didn’t say “sic semper tyrannus,” as has been popularly taught, and as was repeated by John Wilkes Booth upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Caesar was stabbed 23 times. When the deed was done, Brutus stood, probably to address the senate, but when the rest of the Senate saw what was happening, they initially stood staring in dumb shock and then ran. The word spread quickly through Rome. The streets were soon empty; people feared there was going to be more widespread violence. The conspirators walked through the streets yelling, "People of Rome, we are once again free!" They thought they had liberated Rome from bondage.

Ever since, people have pondered on these men--particularly Brutus--and speculated whether or not they're actions were justified. In Dante’s “Inferno,” Brutus is shown in hell, alongside Judas, being eternally chewed in the mouth of the devil for the sin of betrayal. In Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Gulliver meets Brutus and the book says: “I was struck with a profound veneration at the sight of Brutus, and could easily discover the most consummate virtue, the greatest intrepidity and firmness of mind, the truest love of his country, and general benevolence for mankind, in every lineament of his countenance.” In Shakespeare, Brutus is portrayed as an empathetic character who is tortured over the conflicting duties, loyalties, friendships, and principles.

Many historians suggest Brutus and the other assassins were not working under some kind altruistic, patriotic principle; they simply were looking out for their own welfare. Others argue they were being selfless and thinking of the greater good of Rome.  The fact is, it can be both; for the assassins, the patriotic, ethically right thing to do probably was also the thing that restored their power and the system that had benefitted them. Literature loves a villain, and so in most accounts where they appear, Brutus is the villain and Caesar the hero, or vice-versa. But the reality is, Brutus and Caesar, optimates and populares, and most opposing figures in history genuinely feel they’re doing the right thing. So the assassins probably had good reason to walk through the streets of Rome announcing “We are once again free.”

But free, they weren’t. Because despite their hopes that Rome could just resume life as normal, the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination threw Rome into yet another civil war, this one between the men who wanted to fill Caesar’s throne. Brutus was killed, along with most of his fellow conspirators. Cicero, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra all died as well. In the end, Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted son Octavian was successful and changed his name to Augustus Caesar. Augustus established a permanent empire; the Roman Republic was dead.

The assassination of Caesar hadn’t ended the Roman Republic, though. The Republic had died long before that, probably long before Caesar crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome. Historians get preoccupied trying to find the one choice or the one moment when that was ultimately responsible for the collapse. But the truth is, a myriad of small factors piled one on top of another, and the Roman system was ultimately not resilient enough to cope with those pressures.

Caesar’s legacy and death still fascinates today. It raises the question, how much damage can one powerful man do to a society? Or, conversely, how much abuse and manipulation can a system take before a single man can give the final blow that knocks down the entire house of cards? And does the murder of dangerous political enemies actually make life more or less dangerous? All these questions are relevant throughout history and even today and are worth our contemplation.