On this day 2,062 years ago, Rome’s first emperor, Julius Caesar, was stabbed to death by a group of senators who hoped to restore the Roman republic. These senators were led by Brutus, who was married to Cato’s daughter, an avid student of all schools of philosophy, including the Stoics. Caesar was stabbed many times as he stood there, in the shadows of the Theatre of Pompey, though an autopsy would later show only one wound was fatal. It would be Shakespeare who would add a theatrical flourish to Caesar’s last words, “Et tu, Brute?” and condemn Brutus to history in the role of the betrayer.
The assassination of Caesar is a fascinating one because it captures so many themes essential to Stoicism, and so many contradictions too. Who was more Stoic, the senators who defied Caesar and tried to kill him, or Seneca, who a generation later, would accept the existence of an emperor with Stoic resignation? Who was more responsible for Rome’s decline, the active Caesar who wanted power and change, or the obstinate Cato, who held every matter hostage to his principles despite the desperate and urgent need for reform? Was overthrowing a tyrant the right thing to do, even though it caused a civil war that killed many people and failed to restore republicanism to Rome? Was Cato’s suicide—his refusal to live under Caesar—brave or pointless, and could he have made a difference had he lived instead? Should we be inspired by the conspirators or see them as a cautionary tale?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but that’s sort of the point of philosophy and the study of history. The questions are meant to hang there, to serve almost as Zen riddles. At different times and at different situations, they should prompt different interpretations. There is no real clarity about the momentous events that happened on this day those many centuries ago because there rarely is clarity with life. And certainly, when it comes to history, the reason that our interpretations always change is that although the events are fixed, we are not—we change, as Heraclitus said, like rivers and are constantly in flux.
So think about these questions today and see what you come up with. Then compare them to where you end up a year from now and see how things change.
P.S. This was sent on March 15th, 2018. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.