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On the Ides of March, Caesar and Other Killings That Changed the World

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The death of Caesar, detail (Photo by: Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
‘The Death of Caesar in the Roman Senate’ by Vincenzo Camuccini. (Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

 

Rome’s dictator for life Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by numerous members of the Roman Senate on March 15, 44 B.C.—an event that ensured the modern world remembers the Ides of March (a part of the Roman calendar that essentially meant “the middle of the month“).

The assassination changed Rome, just not in the way the conspirators hoped. Instead of restoring the Republic, Rome saw Augustus crown himself emperor. Here are other killings that left the planet a little different, albeit not always in the manner the killers intended.

King Philip II of Macedon. In 336 B.C., the man who was conquering Greece and potentially looking to expand his power beyond the region was assassinated by his bodyguard. The motive for the murder remains unclear: possibilities include everything from avenging a sexual assault to foreign intrigue involving the ruler of Persia. One suspect favored by historians is Philip’s own son, Alexander, who had motive to ensure his succession. (There were a number of potential candidates, as Philip had seven wives.) At just 19, Alexander took power. Alexander died just 13 years later—under circumstances that were suspicious but can’t be confirmed as murder—but not before he conquered the known world, pushing the empire beyond the wildest dreams of Philip. Alexander ensured he would be remembered by naming dozens of cities after himself (as well as one after his horse).

Abraham Lincoln. Reconciling the nation after the Civil War would have been difficult under any circumstances, but doubtlessly would have gone better with Lincoln in charge. Instead, Andrew Johnson took the helm. Johnson proved to be a spectacularly divisive leader as he strove to deny rights to recently freed slaves, fought constantly with Congress, and barely avoided being thrown out of office after becoming the first president to be impeached.

William McKinley. As with Lincoln’s death, McKinley’s assassination led to a very different sort of man taking over the White House. This time, many would argue it was an improvement. Teddy Roosevelt’s efforts as a progressive leader in New York led state Republican leaders to scheme to get rid of him. They did this in a unique way: they decided to make him Vice President. In theory, they would increase his national prominence but limit his actual power. But the plan horrified other members of the party leadership, as Mark Hanna noted that T.R. was a “madman” and told McKinley, “Your duty to the country is to live for four years from next March.” McKinley’s shooting by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition undid all that careful planning. Teddy took office and promptly doubled the number of sites in the National Park system, signed into law the Food and Drugs Act, gained a reputation as “trust buster,” and generally antagonized the New York Republicans who’d conspired against him.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The killing of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire on June 28, 1914 by a Serbian nationalist is credited as the trigger for World War I. Thus this death directly led to 17 million more of them.

Mohandas Gandhi. The Mahatma (or “Great Soul”) was 78 at the time of his 1948 assassination, and was only beginning to see his dreams fulfilled. India had gained independence in 1947, but Gandhi’s hope to keep the nation united failed, as it was partitioned into India (a primarily Hindu country) and Pakistan (a primarily Muslim one). With religious tensions at their highest, Gandhi’s murder eliminated a man seeking to bring peace to what remains a volatile region.

John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy. Each individual could warrant a spot on the list separately, but with these assassinations occurring in a period of under five years between 1963 to 1968, the tragedies will be forever linked in the public mind. Another factor uniting them: The extreme youth of each man. JFK was the oldest of the four at just 46; his younger brother was 42; MLK and Malcolm had yet to reach 40. Cumulatively, the four killings reshaped the course of American history over the following decades.

John Lennon. It was a brutal act that seems more shocking considering the peaceful philosophy espoused by the former Beatle. (The assassin Mark David Chapman said he found his inspiration in Catcher in the Rye.) Just months later, the world witnessed a shooting offering an equally bizarre motivation with the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr., who said he was motivated to impress actress Jodie Foster, who he became obsessed with after seeing the movie, Taxi Driver. (For those unfamiliar with the movie, this becomes even more disturbing when it’s remembered Foster was only 13 at the time of the film’s release.)

Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. Technically, no one was ever convicted of these 1994 killings. (Though Nicole’s ex-husband O.J. did lose the civil trial and is currently incarcerated on other charges.) Captivating the nation at the time and forever changing how we discuss race in the American judicial system, these deaths still have a hold on us. Proof? In the last year, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson earned two Golden Globes and nine Emmy Awards while O.J. Simpson: Made in America won the Oscar for Best Documentary.

Ahmad Shah Massoud. Two days before 9/11, al-Qaida carried out another atrocity with the assassination of Massoud. Known as the “Lion of the Panjshir,” he had spent a lifetime at war. First he fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, then participated in the civil wars that followed in the 1990s, and finally led the resistance to the Taliban. Many believe with his death Afghanistan lost the leader who could have defeated the Taliban once and for all.

—Sean Cunningham for RealClearLife