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The Ides of March by Thorton Wilder

The Ides of March by Thorton Wilder

4 mins
March 21, 1998

I've reread Thorton Wilder's The Ides of March many times, always with the equivalent of a slight mental frown: Why do I like this book so much?

It is by no means a suspense novel that races (or even lopes) toward its climax. In fact, it deals with one of history's best-known stories: the events surrounding the assassination in 44 B.C. of Gaius Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome. Wilder does not so much tell this story as meditate on it. Each of the book's four sections returns to the same unfolding drama, but within successively wider frames, like a movie camera dollying back to reveal more context.

As it does so, we enter into the life of Rome as republican government is giving way to empire. (It was supposedly to save the republic, of course, that Brutus, Cassius, and the others killed Caesar.) Some giants move across that landscape: Cicero, Cato, Catullus, Cleopatra, and the amazing matrons of republican Rome.

At the center, obsessing their thoughts, dominating their ambitions, stirring their hatreds is Julius Caesar, one of history's most commanding minds. Wilder's portrait of that mind arrested the attention of the philosopher Brand Blanshard, one of our era's rare academic champions of reason. (Many readers will recall that The Objectivist Newsletter recommended Blanshard's Reason and Analysis, a critique of trends in epistemology.) In the title essay of a collection of his talks, In Defense of Liberal Education (Open Court, 1973), Blanshard comments that, in Wilder's portrait of Caesar, he finds

something not only fascinating but almost frightening in the man. That extraordinary intelligence so permeated everything he did that the ablest statesmen and generals of his time, when they tried to oppose him, looked as you or I would look if we played chess against Bobby Fischer. He was a great man of action, but he was so because his action embodied the precise and lucid mind that wrote the Gallic War, a mind that saw every detail, saw them all in perspective, seized the essential as if by instinct, and conducted a campaign with the economy of a superb artist. And through it all there was so little sign of strain that Caesar almost seemed to be lounging through life.

Plans for a new harbor at Ostia, the tyranny of religious superstition, the subtleties of Cleopatra, the plots of his enemies, the romantic sufferings of Catullus, the witticisms of Cicero—Caesar's mind penetrates them all.

On Cleopatra's visit to Rome:

I do not expect a literal obedience to the regulations that I have laid down governing her visit here. The Queen is incapable of complying precisely with any direction that may be given her. . . . I must expect this. I confess I am charmed by this invariable variation, though I have been obliged before now to show her a stern face.

On the isolation of the ruler:

This is what it is to be a Dictator: no one asks him a question about himself. I could hop on one foot from here to Ostia and back and no one would mention it—to me.

On the burden of religious superstition:

I can cope with the other enemies of the order: the planless trouble making and violence of a Clodius; the grumbling discontents of a Cicero and a Brutus, born of envy and fed on the fine-spun theorizing of old Greek texts; the crimes and greed of my proconsuls and appointees; but what can I do against the apathy that is glad to wrap itself under the cloak of piety, that tells me that Rome will be saved by overwatching Gods or is resigned to the fact that Rome will come to ruin because the Gods are maleficent?

The Ides of March cannot be called a historical portrait. At one point, Wilder labels his genre a "fantasia" and at another "a suppositional reconstruction." The reason is that, although Wilder narrates the entire story through documents—letters, journal entries, reports, graffiti—they are fictional, Wilder's brilliantly imaginative reconstruction. (The only exceptions are the poems of Catullus, in Latin and in translation, and a final passage from Suetonius's The Lives of the Caesars.) Through these documents, Caesar and every other character in The Ides of March speak with scintillate mental clarity. Nothing is dull or fuzzy; nothing is out of focus. In a sense, nothing is trivial because we are seeing this world through minds that are always traveling down pathways of implication.

In the last analysis, perhaps, that is why I can pick up this book again and again, and enter into its world.

[Editor's Note: Some books prompt one to read more by the same author; some to read more about the same topic. The Ides of March is definitely among the latter. It is not a question of admiring a dictator, but of admiring stature. As the nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt said, Caesar was "perhaps the most gifted of mortals. Compared with him, all others who are called great were one-sided." Recently out from Basic Books is Caesar: A Biography by Christian Meier. The Ides of March is available on Amazon.]

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"Walter's latest book is How Philosophers Change Civilizations: The Age of Enlightenment."

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