The Lesson of the Ides (Part II)

Patrick McCorkle
3 min readMar 17, 2024

It’s hard to add to the discussion about Julius Caesar. His remarkable life has been studied for centuries and will continue to be, as long as people are interested in ancient Rome.

Many find him magnetizing two thousand years after his death. As I detailed a couple of years back, he accomplished much in his 56 years on this planet. Ultimately, his fall contains just as many messages as his rise. The more powerful he got, the more he wanted. Despite claiming the title of dictator in perpetuum, he failed to stop the assassin’s knife on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. (The idus was roughly the midpoint of the month in the Roman calendar system)

Caesar was deified upon his death and his followers, including his heir and future emperor Octavian, engaged in civil wars to run the Roman world. Many tried to emulate Julius for years to come.

In the 3rd century BCE, the Roman Empire had an awful series of civil wars. There were 50 some emperors or usurpers in 50 years. Provinces broke away from Rome’s authority and set up their parallel empires. Suffice to say ‘the crisis of the Third Century’ was absolute chaos.

Eventually, capable men emerged to restore order. Emperor Diocletian’s reign formally marked the end of the crisis. As any capable administrator would, Diocletian began thinking about how to avoid repeating the crisis. He concluded that Rome had gotten too big to govern for a single emperor and that emperors needed more training prior to their reign.

Diocletian developed what is known as the tetrarchy, that is “rule of four.” A senior emperor would be the supreme power in Rome’s west and east, with a junior emperor underneath them. Considering Julius Caesar’s reputation, you might think that the title of the senior emperor would be Caesar. After all, the far more modern Russian tsar and German kaiser derive from it.

Instead, Diocletian named the senior emperor Augustus, in honor of the first emperor Octavian. In many ways, Emperor Augustus was more polished than his more famous great uncle. While Julius Caesar may have led a more interesting life, Augustus was a far more capable administrator, ruling for over forty years.

While the institutions of the Republic no longer held power in his day, Augustus insisted on always paying them respect. He never referred to himself as dictator perpetuo, rather as ‘princeps’, a title dating back to the Roman Republic that meant first citizen. Some of the finest instances of political theater in human history must have been Augustus claiming that he didn’t want power and the Senate begging him to take it.

One could argue that Caesar’s assassination was necessary for Augustus to realize his limitations. And that may be true. Yet, it would have been easier to act like Caesar instead of carefully walk a tightrope between who pretended to rule and who actually ruled.

Ultimately, while Julius Caesar might continue to be the most famous Roman, his heir Augustus deserves to be studied as much or more. Although 99.9% of us will never have to make the choices Caesar or Augustus made, there’s a lesson from their lives and the Ides of March.

What does it matter how much you conquer if you don’t live long enough to enjoy it?



Patrick McCorkle

I am a young professional with keen interests in politics, history, foreign languages and the arts.