In the sphere of politics, a deep complexity underlies the concepts of loyalty and betrayal. You could even say that one cannot exist without the other. Loyalty to and the betrayal of political leaders and parties as well as the state are worldwide phenomena.

Even when we hark back to the time of Julius Caesar, loyalty to the leader is not something that happens automatically as a natural state of affairs. Leaders, in both monarchies and democracies, have always been betrayed by those closest to them.

The concept of loyalty, however, is not a simple matter. The frequency with which divided loyalties occur is common. In democratic states, the electorate and voters themselves are often highly divided regarding their ideologies and their choice of who they would like to represent them. The only time when people tend to collectively agree is when a threat that faces the entire population is universally recognised as endangering the survival of the nation.

The contrast between the concepts of loyalty and betrayal are often seen as stark either or propositions with little middle ground. Loyalty to one group or idea can, as in the case of divided loyalties, be at the cost of betrayal to some other value or group. But unlike many other frequently touted virtues like patience and so on, loyalty is paradoxical. It can easily become a vice when it is pledged to the wrong regime or a dangerous ideology. It is then that loyalty morphs into blind faith and fanaticism.

Was the only solution to Caesar’s supposed ‘crimes’ a stab in the back? Any thinking, rational and reasonable person would say no.

But in cases of betrayal, are people ever thinking straight?

The fall of Caesar

“En tu, Brute, then fall Caesar,” Julius Caesar exclaimed in the Shakespearean play as he was stabbed repeatedly in the back by people whom he once considered friends. In one of the most dramatic, violent and bloody scenes, a group of murderers – including Caesar’s brother-in-law Brutus – gang up on their leader, effectively getting his blood on their hands.

Even you, Brutus?

To ask that loaded and heavy question of your brother-in-law, who is in the process of murdering you, has to be one of the most moving utterances ever made.

But why did they do it?

On the Ides of March in 44 BCE, a group of Roman senators murdered Julius Caesar as he sat on the podium at a senate meeting. Caesar, the general turned statesman, fell bleeding to his death as the rest of the house looked on in horror. The spectators at the scene of the crime did not know it yet, but they were witnessing the last hours of the celebrated Roman Republic.

They–the conspirators–had lured him to the capital, where Caesar went against his better judgment and the pleas of his wife, who had had a dream in which she saw her husband murdered. The conspirators had effectively used flattery and appeal to stroke Caesar’s ego to lure him to his death. Once he was in the building, they surrounded him and stabbed him 23 times.

Caesar’s fall from grace is often attributed to his overarching ambition and desire to become Emperor of Rome. In the Shakespearean play, Caesar speaks about himself in the third person, the only person in the entire play to do so, leading commentators to conclude that his ego had grown too big. A group of senators, which included Caesar’s good friend Brutus, decided that the only solution to Caesar’s unbridled narcissism and ambition was to assassinate him.

Once again, in cases of betrayal–are people ever thinking straight?

The senators encircle Caesar by Carl Theodor von Piloty

The Root Cause of Betrayal

Whether or not an act of betrayal involves lies, deception or infidelity, one important aspect of the experience that intensifies its severity and painfulness is humiliation, or the perception that one has been shamed and treated with disrespect, especially in public.

Betray is a strong word and it is one that is reserved to describe the worst types of people. To betray is to deliver something or someone into the hands of the enemy by treachery. Implicit in this is a betrayal of another’s trust. People who betray others tend to feel the need to hide what they doing or what they are about to do. In politics, in particular, it also comes with the connotation that an individual or a group has led another person or peoples directly or indirectly into harm’s way.

Leaders cannot and have never been able to govern alone. And yet many of history’s most celebrated leaders have either betrayed others or been betrayed by their closest allies. The most common tactics: exile, stripping away their wealth and position, jail time, execution, and in some cases, assassination.

What is to be gained through intra-party political purges? How can a leader or any subsequent leader remain in power after having ousted and antagonised the very people who put him in office?

Leaders of democracies and monarchies typically depend on a coalition of supporters who help to establish and maintain them while in power. These supporters can attempt to elicit concessions from the leader by threatening to withdraw their support if the leader refuses to cooperate.

In democracies, a sufficiently large group of citizens can vote a leader out of office. In monarchies and dynasties, where political power tends to be concentrated close to the leader and where rules of succession can stifle otherwise more viable candidates; small groups of elites do sometimes resort to the use of violent force to remove ‘bad leaders’ from office.

Leaders, therefore, have as much or more to fear from disloyal elements within the regime than from any external source of opposition.

In light of all the ploys, conspiracies and intrigues–why would anyone even lead or want someone to lead them?

Cleopatra and Caesar (1866) Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme


Julius Caesar was immensely popular with the people of Rome. He was a successful general who expanded the Roman Republic to include parts of what is now present-day Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. Caesar was also a popular author who wrote about his travels, theories and political views.

Many Romans feared the power that Caesar had amassed. In theory, Rome was a constitutional republic. In practice, however, Rome had teetered on the brink of military dictatorship for decades. Caesar is said to have effectively become Rome’s first king in all but name. He had even sired a child with Queen Cleopatra of Egypt.

Many members of the Senate, who were a group of appointed political leaders, resented Caesar’s popularity and arrogance. After Caesar attained the status of dictator for life, these officials decided to strike the ultimate blow against his hold on power. While Brutus’ blow has been singled out as the most painful of the 23 stabs that Caesar received in the back, there were many who wanted Caesar gone–from his protege to his nephew.

Unfortunately, the death of Caesar had the opposite impact of what his conspirators had hoped. The populace came to hate the senators for the assassination and a series of civil wars ensued in its wake. In the end, Caesar’s grandnephew and adoptive son Octavian emerged as Rome’s leader. His reign would mark the end of the Republic and the start of Empire.

Acts of betrayal involve a common, underlying theme. Specifically, a disruption in the power balance between two, interdependent parties. When a betrayal has been accompanied by deceit or humiliation, the betrayer effectively assumes a “one-up” position to the betrayed, who has successfully been duped and demeaned.

The betrayed party is now disadvantaged relative to the betrayer, who has put his own interests first and discounted the needs and concerns of the betrayed party–which in the case of Caesar’s assassination is both the dictator himself as well as the Roman public which later turns on them.

The Real Culprit

While Brutus’ betrayal has gone down in the public imagination as the biggest stab wound in Caesar’s back; it was, in actuality, a much lesser known general by the name of Decimus who was the real ringleader. It was Decimus who swayed Caesar’s mind and convinced him to go to the Senate despite the pleas of his wife not to. It was Decimus who said, “What do you say, Caesar? Will someone of your stature pay attention to the dreams of a woman and the omens of foolish men?”

It was Decimus’ track record and behaviour which reveal just how well-organised and tactical the conspirators actually were. Decimus was Caesar’s protege. In the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Brutus and Cassius had supported Pompey, and then later changed sides. By contrast, Decimus had backed Caesar from the start.

At some point, however, their relationship changed. It is not known why it happened but it presumably had more to do more with power rather than principle. Decimus’ letters to Cicero reveal a polite and terse man with a nose for betrayal and a capacity for vengeance. What we can surmise is that there were many factors: such as Caesar’s regular flouting of Roman customs, the appointment of Octavian as his second-in-command as well as Decimus’ own personal ambitions which were repeatedly ignored by Caesar.

As the only conspirator in Caesar’s inner circle, Decimus was an indispensable mole, able to report on as well as influence what Caesar was thinking. Furthermore, Decimus controlled a troupe of gladiators, who played a key role on the Ides. He was, in essence, both the plotters’ chief of security and their leading spy. The depiction of Brutus as Caesar’s beloved friend, while great for theatrical effect, is also historically inaccurate.

The plot to assassinate Caesar ‘succeeded’ because of its planning and execution. With the backing of those from the high echelons of society who resented Caesar, one would expect nothing less than success. The assassins chose to end Caesar’s life themselves rather than by hiring killers – a decision that showed their single-minded seriousness of purpose. By striking at a Senate meeting, they made it a public act rather than a private vendetta.

For all its theatrical and strategic brilliance, Caesar’s assassination did not prove to be the panacea that the assassins hoped it would be. While they had succeeded in killing Caesar, their assassination only expedited the end of the Republic. Civil war broke out and before they knew it, the Republic that they claimed to defend died and was reborn as an empire.

Perhaps it was not so much that the conspirators were patriots or that their political acumen did not match their military skill. Perhaps they were after the power that Caesar had. They most likely thought that by killing him, their own personal power would increase. Once again, in cases of betrayal–are people ever thinking straight?

History, however, as one of the great teachers of life reminds us that sometimes our attempts to subvert order can only end up enabling the very thing we most want to avoid.

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