Scientists have pinpointed an Alaskan volcano that affected weather in ancient Rome, CNN reported. Extreme weather followed Julius Caesar’s assassination, and until now a volcano was merely suspected. Caesar’s death previously set the stage for unrest.
A volcano in Alaska and the modernization of post-Caesar Rome seem like they couldn’t be farther apart, but scientists are finding a surprising link between them. “In the years after the assassination of Julius Caesar in ancient Rome, historical accounts paint a picture of unusual cold, food shortages, disease, and famine that accompanied a pivotal moment in Western history,” the CNN article said.
It goes on to say that historians long suspected volcanic activity was to blame, but they didn’t know which one until now. Alaska’s Okmok Volcano appears to be the culprit. “Crop failures, famine, and disease resulting from the eruption likely exacerbated social unrest and contributed to political realignments.”
However, the spark that lit this fire was the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Duty Turned to Dictatorship
From 49 BCE to 46 BCE, Rome was embroiled in a civil war that kept Romans’ minds off Caesar’s increasingly long political career. All that changed at the end of the war.
“Caesar was now indisputably the sole ruler of Rome, but given the Romans’ long-standing hatred for kings, he had to find a way to rule Rome as one person, but somehow avoid appearing like a king,” said Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete, Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. “While his attention was mainly focused on winning the civil wars, he had simply gotten himself elected consul over and over again; but after a few years, this provoked resentment among Roman aristocrats because he was monopolizing one of the two available consulships.”
Knowing he couldn’t legally keep power forever in the consulship, Caesar looked back to Roman tradition and found that in times of extreme national emergency, one Roman was appointed to the special governmental post of dictator. A dictatorship in Rome could only legally last six months, so Caesar got himself chosen for this position multiple times.
“Finally, on February 14, 44 BCE, Caesar arranged to be given the dictatorship as a lifetime appointment,” Dr. Aldrete said.
The Ides of March
Now a king in all but name, Caesar drew much ire from his senators. Even his long-time ally, Brutus, turned against him. Brutus’s family had rebelled against the last Etruscan king, Dr. Aldrete said, so he was the person to whom Romans looked.
“Rome was a society in which family, the past, and tradition possessed enormous power, so Brutus really had no choice. In 44 BCE, a conspiracy of 60 senators, which included both former Pompeians as well as some previous backers of Caesar, coalesced around Brutus. They determined to kill Caesar, and chose to make the attempt on March 15 when Caesar would be attending a meeting of the senate.”
On the Ides of March, the senators waited for Caesar to take his seat and approached around him as though they were presenting a petition. Then they drew their daggers and stabbed him. Oddly enough, Dr. Aldrete said, the killing itself proved to be more than a little awkward.
“It seems to have been a clumsy murder, with many inflicting only superficial scratches, and several accidentally stabbing each other, but in the end, Caesar lay dead with 23 stab wounds,” he said. “The conspirators had carried out their assassination, but they do not seem to have had much of a plan for what to do if they actually succeeded.
“In the immediate aftermath of the murder, they delivered self-congratulatory orations to the people, in which they declared they had freed the Roman Republic from tyranny, and they symbolically displayed the red cap worn by slaves who had been granted freedom.”
Sometimes history proceeds strangely. With a fumbling assassination and a volcano erupting halfway around the world, the modernization of Rome proves it.
Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete contributed to this article. Dr. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his BA from Princeton University and his master’s degree and PhD in Ancient History from the University of Michigan.