BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH

It was about 2,056 years ago this day, (give or take a few calendrical corrections in the interval) on 15 March, 44 BC, known in the Roman calendar as “The Ides” (“IDVS” meaning, most likely, “mid-month”) that the last leader of the Roman Republic, the dictator Gaius Julius Caesar, was murdered by a group of well‐meaning, if arguably incompetent conspirators as the Senate gathered to conduct business in Pompey’s theater in Rome.

These men styled themselves saviors of the Roman Republic and had coins minted which featured the phrase IDVS MARTIVS (The Ides of March) and depicted a “Liberty Cap”, the emblem of a freed slave, hoping to convince the people of Rome that Caesar’s murder had freed them from tyranny. Unfortunately, and quite oppositely, in the wake of the assassination of Caesar, civil strife and chaotic uncertainty dominated the political landscape for years, ending only when Julius Caesar’s adopted son, his nephew Octavius, took control of Rome as the first true Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus.

Under Augustus, Rome’s political situation stabilized and the economy regained its former vigor. Materially, Rome prospered, but her cherished heritage of more than 500 years of civil liberty and republican government had vanished, killed more by decades of short‐sighted petty politics among Rome’s competing factions, coupled with the indifference of the electorate, than by the daggers of Caesar’s assassins.

Whether one admires Caesar or detests him, it nevertheless remains that he’s still a pretty big part of our lives: our calendar is the one he promulgated (with one amendment by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century) and we have the month “July” to honor him (and “August” to honor his heir, Augustus.) Many of the checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution were emplaced by our founders specifically to prevent a modern‐day Caesar from arising here.

Because the name Caesar became so inextricably associated with imperial power, it came to mean “emperor.” The German term Kaiser and the Russian term Царь, “Czar” (or “Tsar”) both derive from Caesar. From early 44 BC when the Senate conferred the status of Dictator Perpetuo upon Caesar, (dictator without a fixed term) until the forced abdication of Simeon II, last Tsar of Bulgaria, in 1946 — nearly 2,000 years — the world was never without a ruler somewhere whose title derived from Caesar’s name!

“Caesar salad”, however, is not named for Julius at all, or at least not very directly: it was created at Caesar’s Hotel in Tiajuana, Mexico during the prohibition era when the Hollywood elite would drive to Mexico for cocktails and dinner. A “Caesar” salad was named for Caesare Cardini, the hotel’s Italian-born proprietor.

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

The strangest poison ever known
Came from Caesar’s laurel crown.

— William Blake

A Revolution In Naval Warfare

History so often vitally depends upon which side wins a battle. A key victory at the right moment can alter all that follows. Of course, some glorious victories, such as that of Henry V’s English longbowmen over the flower of French Chivalry at Aigincourt, or John Churchill’s “famous victory” at Blenheim apparently accomplish nothing more, in the long run, than ending the lives of countless soldiers. But, oddly enough, sometimes a great contest can culminate without a clear winner at all, yet radically alter the course of history all the same.

On 9 March 1862, what is arguably the single most important naval battle of the American Civil War ended in a draw at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Confederate ironclad warship CSS Virginia and the Union ironclad USS Monitor had engaged one another for more than 3 hours without result. CSS Virginia is better known as Merrimac, confusingly, because Virginia had been built on the reclaimed hull of a Union ship. Thus, this battle is generally referred to as the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac.

The two ironclads used steam power alone. Previous steam-powered warships retained traditional sails, as did the very first ironclad, France’s La Gloire of 1859, but the radical designs of Virginia and Monitor precluded such a scheme. Both vessels were heavily armed with powerful guns. Virginia was fitted with traditional broadside ranks, but Monitor had a remarkable, revolutionary revolving turret. Both were heavily armored with iron plates that rendered the most powerful shots harmless. With neither ship able to inflict meaningful damage upon the other in the course of their contest, both withdrew to regroup and repair after the grueling fight.

Both sides claimed victory at the time, but the action has long been considered a draw. The meeting of the two untested, state-of-the-art warships was the truly crucial aspect of the engagement, and the result was undeniably a tie. It is certainly true that on the morning of March 8 the Confederates inflicted great damage to the Union blockade fleet which was bottling up the state of Virginia’s trade. CSS Virginia sank two traditional wooden Union warships and forced a third to run aground. Virginia was initially able to attack at will and with impunity, so the Union losses were about 261 killed to 7 Confederates. This would ordinarily count as a significant tactical victory for Virginia, except that she failed utterly in her mission to lift the Union blockade. The timely arrival of USS Monitor prevented Virginia from inflicting any more damage upon the Union blockade fleet and turned the battle into a contest between the ironclads.

Though the epic clash of the ironclads was inconclusive from a tactical and strategic point of view, it was nevertheless a dramatic turning point in the history of naval warfare. Until 9 March 1862, ironclad warships were an untried experiment, and most tradition-minded naval brass around the world viewed them as novelties. Though France and England had built a small number of ironclads between 1859 and 1862, both navies relied upon and were still bulding traditional wooden-hulled ships. But the news of the battle at Hampton Roads changed everything immediately and irrevocably.

The United States Navy commenced commissioning an entire fleet based upon the design of USS Monitor. The Confederacy could not match the Union’s industrial might, and never again seriously challenged the Union navy. Within days of news of the battle reaching England and France, both country’s navies put an immediate halt to all construction of wooden ships. Other major navies followed suit. Russia ordered the construction of ten “monitors” and newly formed Kingdom of Italy a like number. By year’s end of 1862, ironclads had been added to every major fleet in the Western world, or were under construction. By 1866, in the largest fleet action the world had witnessed in almost 40 years, the Italians and Austrians fought at the battle of Lissa where 7 Austrian ironclads decisively defeated 12 Italian ironclads. The age of sail had effectively ended for naval warfare.

The new iron and steel navies which ran on coal-burning steam engines changed the very nature of global geo-politics. In the age of sail, ships needed little more than periodic replenishment of food and water for the crew, even on extended voyages. And these needs could be met at most any port of call, or even in wilderness. But steam ships required coal, and lots of it. A coal burning ship was limited by her supply line. Suddenly, small and otherwise uninteresting islands became potential strategic resources as coal depots. A scramble for island empires began, and by the end of the century, the majority of oceanic islands across the globe had been claimed by one of the Western powers. Even islands that had previously been independent nations were caught up in this race for coaling stations. In a very real way, the independence of the Kingdom of Hawaii was doomed on 9 March 1862.

The inconclusive battle between CSS Virginia and USS Monitor seemed to have accomplished nothing very meaningful at the time, yet everything that followed was changed by the very fact that it was fought. That no clear victor emerged was, ultimately, unimportant. Wooden ships and sails had been a mainstay of navies for more than 2,500 years; quite literally overnight, they were rendered obsolete. It is perhaps fitting, that the United States Navy christened its first ironclad “Monitor,” which is Latin for “One Who Warns.”

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Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

There was never a good war, or a bad peace. — Franklin