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Sunday, February 26, 2012

ET TU Part Six OVER THE EDGE

I don't wish to overstate things, so speaking conservatively, the year 45 B.C. was one of the most revolutionary years in all of human history. To begin with it was a last year of the old Roman calender, and the year in which Julius Caesar was elected dictator of Rome for life. Could it have been a coincidence then, that this revolutionary year was also the last year of Julius Caesar’s life?
When Cesar conquered Gaul the minute had yet to be invented, the second was a useless abstraction, and the hour a generality. The Romans marked time using the moon. The new moon was the first day of every month, on which bills were to be paid, known as the accounting book day - in Latin, the Kalends. Five to eight days later, on the half moon, was the Nones, and every day between was numbered as 'so days before' the Nones Eight days after the Nones came the full moon, which was called the Ides, or the half. The Ides was followed by a count down to the next Kalends.
The biggest problem with this seemingly simple system was that the months were of equal length, and the year was only 355 days long.  Even two thousand years ago the earth took 365 days to orbit the sun, and those ten missing days caused season creep. This was supposed to be addressed by adding a 13th month, the Mensis Intercalaris, every other year, usually in the dead of winter. But the decision of when and where to add the Mensis Intercalaris was left up to the Counsels, who were the executives who ran Rome and were elected to serve for one year each. And being politicians, most managed to justify stretching out their terms in office for that extra month. So, Rome was soon suffering from additional seasonal creep. By the time Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, on January 12, 49 B.C., instead of that date happening in the winter, it was just the middle of autumn. Something ought to be done.
The story goes that late in 48 B.C., at a party in Alexandria, Cleopatra 7 introduced Julius Caesar to her court astronomer, Sosigenes. And it was during their conversation that Sosigenes suggested the Romans dump the moon and start telling time by the sun. Well, Caesar agreed in theory, but he was first and foremost a politician, and not that interested in theory. But he filed it all away for future reference. After defeating the Senate aristocratic forces in Asia Minor, Tunisia and Spain in 46 B.C., Caesar finally turned his attention to fixing things in Rome.
First he swamped the Senate with 300 new Senators, including some from outside of Italy. This gave him the votes to do just about anything he wanted. He wanted to be elected dictator for a year. This position had been created before, but Caesar immediately used his new majority to make the jump to Sosigenes's new calender. Now, his reason for doing this was of course purely practical. In order to bring the seasons into harmony before switching to the new calender Caesar inserted two adjustment months; Intercalaris Prior and Intercalaris Posterior. Adding these 66 days meant that Caesar's year as dictator lasted 445 days, giving him lots of time to get the Senate to vote him dictator perpetuo - dictator for life - which they did in in February 44 B.C. And if as of January 1st, 44 B.C., instead of an intercalaris month inserted every other year, the new Julian calender required only one extra day be inserted every four years, that was merely a happy side effect
For the poor little rich boys, like Senator Marcus Junius Brutus, and his brother-in-law Senator Gaius Cassius Longinus, the changes were not so happy. So many aristocratic Senators had been killed trying to stop Caesar, that the blue blood in the Senate was running thin. Then Caesar had diluted the Senate membership by 50%, by appointing a bunch of rubes and boobs - at least it seemed so to Brutus and Cassius. The  Senate chambers had now acquired all the unpleasant aspects of the audience at the Red Neck comedy tour.
And then, even worse, Caesar cut the welfare rolls by half. Those tossed off the public dole were offered the chance to live overseas in new cites, like New Carthage in Africa and New Corinth in Greece, or Seville in Spain. You would have thought the aristocrats would have cheered this development, but they had gotten so used to denouncing the angry mobs of poor people right outside their doors, that now that the angry mobs were reduced, they missed complaining about them. Almost in reflex they denounced the expense of building all these new “welfare” cities. Caesar was doing this, they said, just to increase his popularity.
But what Caesar did with the banking system in 45 B.C. really ticked off the aristocrats. The country was drowning in debt, mostly owed to the aristocrats in the Senate. They were about the only people with money, and they were getting even richer because of it. In a typical example, Brutus had made a loan to the town of Salamis in Sicily, charging 48% interest. They could never pay that off. But in 45 B.C. the dictator Caesar had wiped out all interest due on any principle already paid. With that one decree, one quarter of the amount owed by the 99% of the population to the top 1% was wiped out. The economy took a big breath of relief. But the 1% were outraged. Caesar was a tyrant, they said. He wanted to be King, they said.
Caesar also rebuilt the Roman forum, including starting a new Senate House to replace the one burned down in 50 B.C. Nearby he built a new market that spurred business investment and profit in the city. He cleared out the vast wooden Subura slums and rebuilt them in cement, which put an end to the fires which regularly threatened to burn down the entire town. Caesar rebuilt the port of Ostia into a vast grain store house, to stabilize the price of bread in Rome. This ticked off the aristocrats in the Senate who had made money manipulating the price of wheat. He set term limits for Roman governors, and established new rules to reduce graft in the provinces. This ticked off the aristocrats who had made profited from that graft. He granted Roman citizenship to millions in Italy, Spain and North Africa, which made Rome something they would all fight for. But that also gave these people rights and protections under the law against rapacious money lenders – also known as the aristocrats in the Senate. Caesar the tyrant not only wanted to be King, he wanted to be made a god, the aristocrats said.
And then Caesar did the one thing which sealed his fate. As election day 45 B.C. approached, Cassisus, Brutus' brother-in-law, was expecting to be nominated for Praetor, mayor of Rome, for 44 B.C.. Instead, Caesar nominated Brutus again. Cassisus was insulted, infuriated and frightened. His veiled hatred of Caesar was well know in the Senate chambers, but he had not thought Caesar knew. Now he must have suspected that Caesar suspected. And Cassius knew what he would do if he were in Caesar's position. Something had to be done.
Cassius knew if he struck back at Caesar himself, he would have little support. Even his brother-in-law
Brutus (above) knew how much he hated and feared Caesar. But Cassius also knew who Brutus was. Cassisus knew Brutus could be led to act if an abstract argument could be justified in concrete terms. So he took a coin out of his purse.
The design of Roman coins was determined by three men,  called the “tresviri monetales”, the 'three money men'  who decided what face or images would be carved into the molds used for the aureus (gold), denarius (silver) and the as (copper) coins used in every transaction from buying political office in Judea to a loaf of bread in Britain. One denarius was roughly the equivalent of fifteen U.S. Dollars, and traditionally they carried the images of gods and demigods representing traits the politicians wanted to be seen as embodying. But in February of 44 B.C. a new denarius was released, bearing the face of Julius Caesar (below).
It was the first coin ever created carrying the head of a living Roman. The coins were being stockpiled for Caesar's coming attack on Parthia. It had been almost ten years since Caesar's mentor and ally, Crassus, had been killed on the field of Carrhae. And it had been his death that destroyed the balance of power in Rome and brought on the civil war. It was common knowledge that Caesar was to leave Rome in a few short weeks to avenge Crassus' death by invading Parthia. And the coins bearing his face, would remind the local “barbarians” of the images of Alexander the Great who had swept aside the Persian Empire, three hundred years before. The coins were a bit of political-economic theater, and their intended audience was in Parthia, where the coins were going to be distributed. .
But, to a Roman audience, such coins spoke of arrogance and presumption. Worse, it spoke of stupidity.
No Roman politician would dare to release such coins and then leave town.  Only a fool or a child would not realize Caesar's intended use for these coins. But remember it was Brutus, who had been described as having the mind of a man but the emotions of a child.
When Cassius pressed one of Cesar's new coins into Brutus palm, his argument for the elimination of Caesar was easy to make. He just had to avoid giving Brutus time to think things through.
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