This Week In History: March 12 – March 18

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This week in History, we look at Ancient Rome, Germany, and Africa. Illustration by Kaitlyn Tran

“Everything good must come to an end,” or so goes the modernized proverb supposedly written by the famed English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. Of course, the job of any historian is to remember things long after they inevitably end, so this week we’ll be taking a look at some momentous conclusions! Let’s begin! 

Why would the most powerful man in Rome need to fear for his own safety? After all, Julius Caesar had already beaten back his enemies, established himself as a near-emperor and long held undeniable control of the government. Caesar was undeniably the new face of Rome — nobody would dare to challenge that. 

Except for a bold few who remembered the past.  

Caesar’s personality cult was first opposed by the equally dictatorial Pompey, who engaged in a bloody civil war to eliminate Caesar. In the course of these battles, one thing mattered more than any senatorial decree: military power. The man who controlled and had favor of the legions was the man who ruled Rome, as simple as that. 

While backed by most of the senate who respected Pompey’s political background more than Caesar’s militarism, Pompey’s total defeat and eventual death following the brutal Battle of Phalarsus in 48 B.C. proved that legions conquered, not politicians. Caesar then after ruled Rome and the senate were at his whim. In 44 B.C, Caesar made himself “dictator perpetuo:” dictator for life. The tactic of those remaining loyal to the republic then shifted, and they had to cut the head off the snake.  

In the minds of three prominent Romans — Cassius, Brutus and Decimus — Caesar wasn’t only going to destroy Roman politics, he was going to destroy their way of life. All three had a livelihood bound to Roman political life and each sought to rekindle the importance of the senate and plurality of governance.  

Out of either naivety or political tact, the three dissenters rallied a group of 60 conspirators who plotted on how to eliminate the growing Caesarian threat. They proposed rallying behind Cicero, an elder statesman, but instead opted for what occurred this week on March 15, 44 B.C.: the assassination of Julius Caesar. Despite conquering so many others and even being warned of the possible conspiracy, Caesar was brutally murdered on the marble floors of the Theater of Pompey, named after his own defeated rival. 

As popularized by William Shakespeare, Caesar’s blood was spilt around the first full moon of March, known in the Roman lunar calendar as the “Ides of March.” So, now that the dictator was dead, would the Roman empire come to an end? Not exactly. The conspirators now faced a power vacuum which dissolved any sense of unity amongst each party.  

Known as the Liberator’s War, Brutus and Cassius committed suicide after losing to Caesar’s successors, Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son) and Mark Antony, in the Battle of Philippi. Of course, the Roman Empire was soon to eclipse the republic in nearly every way, but perhaps a democratic way of life was lost in the process. 

Next, if one were to ask you what events of historical importance come from a region of beautiful coastlines and scenic landscapes, what would you say?  To a degree, wouldn’t you hope that events of compassion and human respect come from a land with Earthly marvels? Sadly, South African history proves that no matter the beauty of a region, human division and brutality are just as likely to be present. 

For centuries, native African populations had been forced out of their homelands due to encroaching European settlers; first the Dutch then the English. Consequently, the wondrous country was split down the middle by segregationist and prejudicial policies by ignorant colonizers. Yet, it becomes hard to imagine that on March 17, 1992, only 30 years in the past, Apartheid — the political manifestation of centuries of racism —  finally was put to a fair referendum.  

By fair, I mean only to white male voters, who were to determine the fate of their far more populous African brethren. The referendum came in a series of appeals to growing African dissent and unrest by a white government hoping to linger in power as long as possible.  

Well, what was the precise question for the referendum? The Nobel Prize winning state-president, Frederik Willem De Klerk posed the carefully worded prompt, “Do you support continuation of the reform process which the State President began on Feb. 2, 1990 and which is aimed at a new constitution through negotiation?” 

Ironically it was white voters who answered the question and put an end to their own system, voting against the continuation of Apartheid by a nearly 68.7% majority. To this day, many speculations arise as to what caused such a change in the ruling classes of South Africa. While some argue it was outside pressures and negative reactions from the rest of the world, others argue that it was due to the coalition of nationalist pro-Apartheid parties which was aiming to take down the moderate government of De Klerk, spelling disunity for the country. Regardless, the event was monumental in the course of South African history, paving the way for the election of Nelson Mandela two years later — the first elected Black president in a post-Apartheid South Africa.  

The last event of the week is rather brief, but equally as conclusive. On March 18, 1990, East Germany held its first free elections in nearly 60 years. In tandem with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the Soviet Union’s grasp over Eastern Germany faded by the end of the 20th century. 

As a divided country, Germany reflected the duality of world politics throughout the duration of the Cold War. Western Germany thrived and rebuilt to become an economic hub of Europe, while East Germany was little more than a Soviet puppet state, struggling to grow or develop economically. By 1989, the end was clear. In November the Berlin Wall had collapsed, and East and West finally connected freely. Politicians stammered in the East for a free election, and the powerless Socialist Unity Party had to cave in to these demands.  

While remaining in power for decades, the Socialist Unity — renamed to the Party of Democratic Socialism — struggled, coming behind two populist democratic parties: the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party. The democrats elected from the new free parties united, and in October of the same year solidified the reunification of Germany. East Germany and Soviet rule in Europe was coming to an end. 

And that, ironically, concludes This Week in History! Of course spring break is upon us, so take this time to rest and prepare for the end of the spring semester! If you’d like to learn more about Ancient Rome, I highly recommend the YouTube channel “Historia Civilis” and its video on Caesar’s assassination! See you next week history buffs! 

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