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The Death of Caesar

A vivid portrait of one of history’s most momentous conspiracies.

A huddle of conspirators walks away from the lifeless, bloodied body of Julius Caesar, having stabbed the great Roman general and statesman 23 times on the Ides, or 15th, of March, 44 BC.

Caesar had recently been declared dictator perpetuo by a Senate fearful of its rumoured abolition in a series of reforms by Caesar, who had a substantial following among Rome’s Plebeians. Senators, of whom Cassius and Brutus were most prominent, had formed themselves into a grouping, the Liberatores, in an attempt to restore the Republic.

Caesar had recently announced his impending departure on a military campaign to subdue the Parthian Empire. If action was to be taken by the conspirators, now was the moment.

The setting for Caesar’s assassination was to be the Theatre of Pompey, where Brutus had organised a series of gladiatorial contests, to which he had invited the dictator. Caesar had been warned of various plots on his life, but Brutus persuaded him that the Senate would be disappointed if he did not attend. His ally Mark Antony, similarly suspicious, tried to intervene, but he was detained outside the theatre by the plotter Servilius Casca.

On his arrival, Caesar was presented with a petition by Lucius Tillius Cimber for the return of his exiled brother. When Caesar refused, Cimber manhandled Caesar, pulling down his toga. As Caesar cried ‘this is violence’, Casca thrust a dagger at his neck – and then the mob struck. Blinded by the torrent of blood that poured from his wounds, Caesar fell on the steps of the Curia.

His last words have been subject to centuries of speculation. He did not say the Shakespearean ‘Et tu, Brute’, but he may have uttered, as the Roman chronicler Suetonius claimed, ‘You too, child’.

Nothing to fear but Russia itself

Rodric Braithwaite | Published 21 June 2019
Mark Smith has written a fluent meditation on Russian history, a gallant attempt to reason with those who believe that Russia is condemned to an endless cycle of failed reform and resurgent authoritarianism because Russians have despotism and imperialism ‘in their genes’. He offers two central propositions. The first is that the Western world (not Asia, Africa, or Latin America, where perceptions are quite different) has, for perhaps 500 years, been gripped by what he calls ‘The Russia Anxiety’ – a cycle of fear, disregard and contempt. It is entirely understandable that Russia’s neighbours fear a country which has so...Read more »
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Thatcher Breaks Consensus

Assessing Margaret Thatcher’s premiership: a radical decade and a divisive legacy. 

Margaret Thatcher  and Conservative  Party Chairman Cecil Parkinson, celebrating the Conservative election victory, 9 June 1983 © Getty Images

When asked who has been the most controversial and radical postwar British prime minister, many historians and academics incline towards Margaret Thatcher. Taking office 40 years ago, and in power between 1979 and 1990 as the UK’s first female prime minister, the circumstances she faced in office gave her the opportunity to stamp her mark on British life – and this she did. When she departed from 10 Downing Street, she had become the longest-serving continuous British leader of the 20th century. Her divisive legacy has been debated ever since.

On assuming the premiership, Thatcher preached harmony, social unity and conciliation, quoting St Francis of Assisi as she stood on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street for the first time in May 1979. She did so in the wake of a divisive decade. The 1970s had been plagued by political and social instability, economic turbulence and trade union unrest. However, Thatcher’s radical policies and her solutions for resolving the UK’s postwar economic decline meant that harmony was unlikely to be realised in the years that followed. This would become apparent in the controversial decisions she took during the 1980s. Consequently, in the almost 30 years since the end of her rule, successive governments have had to grapple with the issues and problems that are the legacy of her own specifically divisive policies.

 

Apocalypse Then: When The World Didn’t End

Despite the religious rupture caused by the Reformation, fear of the Apocalypse remained common to both sides of western Christendom. But older, classical ideas of an eternal return were at work, too.

A detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1500 © Bridgeman Images

In 1624, the poet and cleric John Donne declared in a sermon that ‘creatures of an inferiour nature, are possest with  the present; Man is a future Creature’. With this remark, Donne managed to encapsulate the apocalypse fever that had been steadily overwhelming European society for 200 years. Europeans from across the social spectrum were obsessed with the future, both on an individual level (concerning the soul’s entry into Heaven or Hell) and in a collective sense. Millenarianism was rife in a continent consumed by disease, civil war and religious division. Every plague or thunderstorm could be interpreted as a sign that the end of the world was nigh. The years 1450 to 1650 represented a period when many people believed that the world could end in their lifetime. However, while scholars often describe the Second Coming of Christ as the main form of apocalypse in the early modern period, there is evidence that other kinds of end times were explored, too. Amid the fervour which envisioned the world of humanity engulfed in fire and brimstone, there was also the idea of ‘eternal return’ or ‘eternal recurrence’, which predicted that the entire universe was following an endless cycle of destruction and rebirth.

The Book That Can’t Be Read

Despite recent claims, the Voynich Manuscript remains one of history’s biggest mysteries. 

A detail from a ‘balneological’ page from the Voynich Manuscript © akg-images

The past is full of unsolved mysteries. Gaps in the historical record leave countless details unknown and tantalising puzzles to be solved. Some puzzles, however, seem to fall more readily into the preserve of enthusiasts – or ‘scholar adventurers’, as Richard D. Altick termed them in his 1950 book of that name.

For those working in the field of medieval manuscripts, perhaps the most notorious of these mysteries is the so-called Voynich Manuscript, a late medieval book of modest proportions, written in an undecipherable script. We do not know who wrote the manuscript. Nor do we know why or for whom it was written, or what it is about.

It was acquired in 1912 by the antiquarian book dealer, Wilfrid Voynich, and it is by his name that the manuscript is now commonly known, although he referred to it as the ‘ugly duckling’ of his collection.

'The Last Front' of the Freikorps

Events in the Baltic States at the end of the First World War had serious long-term consequences.

German soldiers look out over Riga’s old town from the tower of St Peter’s Church, 1917 © Bridgeman Images

In the summer of 1919, as the victorious Allied powers were hammering out the terms of the peace settlement after the First World War, the Allied press began to pay closer attention to an area of Europe that had hitherto played little part in the deliberations of the peacemakers in Paris. In a series of reports despatched from midsummer until the late autumn, a special correspondent for the Yorkshire Post reported on the unfolding events in what had been Russia’s Baltic provinces: Estonia, Livonia and Courland. His first despatch, sent on 10 June from the port of Libau in Courland (now the Latvian town of Liepāja), was startling. 

‘The situation in this part of the world is so tangled that it is no easy matter for a newcomer to get his proper bearings’, he confessed. There seemed to be a hazy notion in Britain that the Germans were a beaten people and that their troops in the east were there in obedience to the mandate of the Allies to fight the Bolsheviks. But, the correspondent wrote, ‘I understand that the German troops in the east contend that they have never been beaten’ and, ‘whatever pleasing theory is held elsewhere, the fact of the matter is that the Germans are masters to all intents and purposes’. Although there was a Royal Navy presence in the town, sailors were not being allowed ashore for fear of clashes with the German soldiers. Five Royal Navy officers had been arrested by the Germans at the end of May, an action for which no subsequent apology was forthcoming.

Under the Spell of the Druids

Historical facts about the Druids are few, yet this very lack of tangible evidence has allowed their image to be reworked and appropriated by the English, Irish, Scots and Welsh for over 500 years.

'The Druids; or the conversion of the Britons to Christianity'. Engraving by S.F. Ravenet, 1752, after F. Hayman.

'The Druids; or the conversion of the Britons to Christianity'. Engraving by S.F. Ravenet, 1752, after F. Hayman.

The word ‘Druid’ was one given to experts in magical and religious practice by the peoples speaking Celtic languages who inhabited northwestern Europe around 2,000 years ago. That is all that can definitely be said about it. Those who have tried to say more have relied on two different groups of sources. The smaller, but more famous of those groups consists of the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans. These have the virtue of being the work of people who lived when Druids still existed. Their problem is that almost all relied on secondhand information of unknown quality, much of it very old even by their time. Moreover, none wrote more than a few sentences about Druids.

The only one of these writers who could have encountered them himself was Julius Caesar, who conquered Gaul – present-day France, Belgium and the Rhineland – for the Roman Empire. In a famous passage he describes the Druids of Gaul as having great power and learning and being united in a national organisation under a single leader. No other ancient author credits Druids with this degree of sophistication. Furthermore, his famous description of them is isolated amid detailed accounts of the wars in which he conquered Gaul. If the Druids had been anything like as powerful and well organised as Caesar insisted them to be, they should have featured constantly in those wars, yet they never appear in them at all. Many modern authors, therefore, have charged him with exaggerating the importance and organisation of the Gallic Druids. By doing so he made the Gauls seem more dangerous and more worthy as adversaries and so his own conquest more glorious.

Appeasement: Britain's Political Turning Point

‘Hitler wants Hogg’: children with placards supporting A.D. Lindsay, Oxford, 27 October 1938.

In his parliamentary by-election address at Oxford in 1938, A.D. Lindsay hoped to represent ‘men and women of all parties who are profoundly disturbed at the outlook before us and the policy which the present government seems to propose to follow’.

Standing as an ‘Independent Progressive’, Lindsay only narrowly lost to the Tory candidate, Quintin Hogg, who managed to maintain the Conservatives’ hold on the constituency. Lindsay, who had never stood for election before, racked up an impressive 44 per cent of the vote share, attracting the support of the young Edward Heath and Roy Jenkins, who were Oxford students at the time and would end up on opposing sides in their distinguished political careers.

Beth Fisher | Published 12 June 2019
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Published in
Volume 69 Issue 6 June 2019

On the Spot: Niall Ferguson

‘What will future generations judge us most harshly for? Losing the Second Cold War to China.’

Niall Ferguson.
Niall Ferguson.

Why are you an economic and political historian?
I also try to be a social and cultural historian. The idea of dividing history into specialisms strikes me as mistaken. The key is to be able to relate, for example, shifts in financial institutions and markets to political events. This has been a recurring leitmotif of my work.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
That most decision-makers operate with skewed theories about history. A review of Philip Zelikow’s book on Suez is on the money: ‘It is a rare quality in world leaders to be able to make historical analogies without fully embracing them, thereby becoming trapped.’ Most get trapped.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

What book in your field should everyone read?
Collingwood’s Autobiography.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
2 August 1914, when Britain’s Cabinet decided on war. Like the Ghost of Christmas Future, I would offer a vision of what they were to do to their country, not to mention their sons.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Norman Stone, when I was starting out my D.Phil. And A.J.P. Taylor, though we never met. As a schoolboy, I learned from him how to write history.

Speaking My Language

Barnaby Rogerson | Published 04 June 2019
Arabs is a dazzling achievement, born of a historian’s passionate affection for his subject. It is a labour of love, achieved after a lifetime spent in Arabia, running simultaneously on two tracks: a grand narrative of Arab history interwoven with a study of the evolution and spread of the Arabic language. So, as well as hearing the tales of such brilliant political operators as the first Umayyad caliph Muawiyah and the brutal al-Hajjaj, we also follow many lesser known tracks across the Arabian lands. For Arabic was not just spread by the sword, but accompanied the bales of merchants, the...Read more »
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