Julius Caesar, one of the most influential figures in ancient Rome, was renowned for his extraordinary oratory skills. However, his rise to power was marked by manipulation and deceit, which ultimately led to the suppression of free speech and the imprisonment of his political opponents. This article will explore Caesar’s rise to power, his promises to the Roman people, and the courageous opposition by Cicero and Cato, who attempted to warn their fellow Romans of the impending tyranny.
Caesar’s Promises and the Power of Oratory
In 44 BC, after establishing himself as dictator, Julius Caesar attempted to gain the support of the people by promising to distribute food and money to them, a popular proposal among the impoverished citizens. As Plutarch wrote, Caesar “used the people’s desires for his own purposes, and by leading them on with hopes and expectations of great rewards, he accomplished his purpose” (source: Plutarch, “Life of Caesar”).
Caesar’s Repression of Free Speech
Despite the people’s hopes that Caesar would continue his policies of helping the poor by redistributing the land and wealth of the rich, he instead focused on consolidating power and controlling everything. He repressed free speech by imprisoning and killing his political opponents, including the outspoken Cato.
Cato’s Opposition and the Senate’s Reaction
Cato, a staunch defender of the Roman Republic, opposed Caesar’s first major proposal to distribute public lands to the people. As Cato famously declared, “No one spoke against the law except Cato, and him Caesar ordered to be dragged from the rostra to prison.” The rest of the Senate, though disagreeing with Cato’s position, opposed his imprisonment, forcing Caesar to free him (source: Suetonius, “The Life of Caesar”).
Cato continued to warn the people that they themselves, by their own votes, were establishing a tyrant in their citadel. However, the people refused to listen to reason, too enamored with the promise of free land and wealth in return for their support.
Cicero’s and Cato’s Warnings
Both Cicero and Cato warned the Romans of the approaching tyranny, but the populace was too captivated by the demagogues who promised them land redistribution and wealth. Cicero, in one of his speeches, lamented the state of the Roman Republic, saying, “For how can a state be governed when its laws can be despised through force?” (source: Cicero, “On the Responses of the Haruspices”).
Despite their warnings, the Roman people continued to support Caesar. As Plutarch observed, “the common people were glad to see the foremost men of the nobility fallen into disgrace and suffering punishment; for they hoped that, when the Senate was humbled, they themselves would be relieved of their present miseries” (source: Plutarch, “Life of Caesar”).
The story of Julius Caesar’s rise to power and the struggle for free speech in ancient Rome serves as a cautionary tale for future generations. Despite the warnings of Cicero and Cato, the Roman people were swayed by the promises of wealth and land distribution, ultimately trading their freedom and democratic values for a tyrant’s rule. Caesar’s ability to manipulate the masses through his oratory skills and deceitful promises led to the suppression of free speech and the persecution of political opponents.
As we reflect upon this chapter of history, it is crucial to recognize the importance of free speech and the preservation of democratic values. The courageous opposition of figures like Cicero and Cato reminds us that, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, it is essential to stand up for what is right and protect the liberties that define our society.
By examining the past and understanding the consequences of Caesar’s dictatorship, we can draw valuable lessons that will help us safeguard our democratic institutions and the freedom of speech that underpins them.
- Plutarch, “Life of Caesar.” Accessed from: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html
- Suetonius, “The Life of Caesar.” Accessed from: https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Julius*.html
- Cicero, “On the Responses of the Haruspices.” Accessed from: https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0020%3Atext%3DHar.resp.%3Asection%3D16