On the night we would call March 14, 44 B.C., Julius Caesar went to a dinner party at the home of his friend Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in Rome. After dining on squab, eels and oysters, six or nine guys lounged around on couches, drinking wine.
Caesar was asked to choose the topic of discussion for the night. That’s how Caesar and his posse partied in those days. And between you, me and the universe, I think it’s a better way to party than the way we do it today.
Caesar posed the question: “What is the best death?”
His own answer was: “sudden and unexpected.”
Lounging on a nearby couch was one of the men who would kill him as the Senate assembled the next day: Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. (No, not that Brutus. You’re thinking of Marcus Junius Brutus, he of the “Et tu, Brute?” Though the two Bruti were distant cousins.)
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s old news, Bob. What does it have to do with us today in the United States?”
Bear with me a moment.
Decimus, then 37, had sided with Caesar in the Civil War against Pompey, for which Julius rewarded him by appointing him praetor, a sort of honorary bodyguard: one of the highest honors to which a Roman could aspire. So Decimus owed a lot to Caesar.
And how did Decimus thank him? Well, the next day, the Ides of March, Caesar told the claque who attended him at breakfast each morning that he did not intend to go to the Senate that day, as his third or fourth wife, Calpurnia, had dreamed that she saw blood spurting from a statue of Caesar, and Romans drenching their hands with it.
But Decimus cajoled him, in words I shall translate on no authority: “Naw, that ain’t an omen, Jules; it’s a metaphor. It means that Rome shall revive to new life, from the springs of your blood and valor.”
So Caesar, flattered, consented, and allowed Decimus to escort him to Pompey’s Theater, where the Senate was meeting. Where Decimus, the two Bruti and a host of others stabbed him to death. At least 60 senators were in on the plot.
So Caesar got his wish, in a sense. He was spared the arduous military campaign he was preparing, and all the sufferings he and his legions would undergo. He died suddenly and unexpectedly. Then the empire descended into 14 more years of civil war: neighbor against neighbor, cousins against cousins, brother against brother.
Republics die, as Hemingway said of bankruptcies, in two ways: little by little and then all at once.
Caesar was right. The best death probably is sudden and unexpected — for the dead guy — whether it’s our own death or the death of our republic.
It’s certainly less painful than a slow and agonizing strangulation. Such as we are suffering today.
The Republican Party is strangling our republic, front-loading us for a quick death — which will not be unexpected. Voters no longer elect Congress; congressmen and -women select their voters through gerrymandering. You cannot seek our highest office, if you belong to the Republican Party, unless you can get 40,000 people to give you money. Craven politicians, from school boards all the way down to Congress, are banning books, many of them by Nobel Laureates. The Supreme Court has become a dirty joke. A Republican officeholder, claiming to defend his idea of morality, just flew a 16-foot penis at a Little League game, with “Fuck Biden” as his noble slogan.
Beethoven said, “Most men are worse than their fathers.” (Beethoven was an exception, though he never claimed to be.) But certainly, far too many U.S. politicians are not only worse than their fathers, they are worse than the people they force to elect them.
I shall conclude this dreary memo by praising two politicians, the Philaeni brothers, diplomatic envoys from Rome to Jugurtha, king of Numidia, in the Jugurthine War in northern Africa (112-105 B.C.)
It seems that Rome and Jugurtha could not agree on where their boundaries lay, so they agreed to send envoys to one another, and where the envoys met would be the border, and so prevent a war. The Philaeni brothers set off posthaste, but Jugurtha dallied.
Before he knew it, the Philaeni brothers were in Africa, striding south. Jugurtha asked the Romans to stop walking toward him. The Romans said, in words I translate on no authority, “Get outahere.”
So Jugurtha said, according to Sallust: If your envoys allow themselves to be buried alive where they are, I will accept that place as our mutual border. And the Philaeni brothers accepted it. They let themselves be buried alive, to protect Rome, and prevent war.
My fellow Americans: Can you imagine any of our politicians today accepting a deal like that?
Hell, no. Name one senator or congressman or governor who would sacrifice anything at all for the republic. Show me one example. They’re in it for themselves. Patriots, my ass.
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