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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Masters of Their Fates?

By the final decades of the Roman Republic, the aristocrats who traditionally made up the ruling class were calling themselves optimates (the best men) and boni (the good men). These terms implied a moral or social superiority over those of lower class who had gradually gained a partial stake in the operations of government.

With the rise, however, of the equites (cavalrymen or “knights”) as a political force, claims of superiority for the senatorial optimates were undercut. From then on more ambitious politicians were prepared to use the people rather than the senate as a political base.

The self-proclaimed populares (men of the people) often used citizen assemblies to ensure passage of their and argued for extension of voting rights, relief of poverty, and reform of agrarian laws.

Their optimate opponents dismissed the populares as dangerous demagogues who aimed at ending any representative government and imposing tyranny in its place.

Indeed, politicians could use populares methods to gain optimates ends. Several aristocrats in the age of Caesar and Cicero eagerly used the power of the people to manipulate the system, not to improve it.

These were not organized political parties in the modern sense, but rather factions: groups of politicians usually gathered around an unofficial leader with aims that often shifted in the face of changing conditions. A member of one faction could easily transfer himself to another, or a faction as a whole could adopt measures it previously opposed.

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare invites us to decide how much Caesar is either a populist or a tyrant, how much Cassius and the other conspirators love liberty or seek to reserve power only for themselves.

The Flatwater Shakespeare Company presents the tragedy of Julius Caesar in the open-air Swan Theatre at Wyuka Cemetery and Park, 3600 O Street in Lincoln, beginning Thursday, September 10, at 7:30 p.m. Performances continue Friday - Sunday, September 11-13; and Thursdays - Sundays, September 17-20 and 24-27. Tickets: (402) 473-2897; $18 Adults; $15 Seniors; $10 Students.

(Historical information adapted from The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd ed. [Clarendon P, 1970].)

Photo: Rob Burt as Antony, Brad Boesen as Brutus, Dick Nielsen as Caesar, and Nathan Weiss as Cassius in Flatwater Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Photo by John Nollendorfs.


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