Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion

  • Rauf Klasra
  • Feb 04, 2024

Human history is full of amazing characters. Such cases exist in history, often astonishing, and the moral lessons derived from them remain relevant even after thousands of years. Such events are repeated in different ways in every era, leading us to say that history is repeating itself. In fact, human nature has been the same for thousands of years; in these situations, humans act and react the same way, and the results are the same as they were thousands of years ago.

Now, read an incident that examines the qualities sought in rulers in ancient times and the expectations placed upon them. In 62 BC, during the era of Roman general Caesar, he was on the rise. Having conquered Gaul, Caesar accomplished the feat that all Roman generals or rulers dreamed of. Although there was no explicit order to conquer Gaul, Caesar was advancing into those areas, thinking, ‘What was the harm in trying?’ Despite some past military attempts having failed, Caesar pressed on.

After the conquest of Gaul, the senators feared Caesar’s growing power might transform Rome from a republic into a dictatorship. This fear led to the murder of Caesar, sparking a civil war in Rome. Mark Antony, Caesar’s friend and general, declared war against Brutus and other conspirators, ultimately defeating them. Brutus, feeling defeated, committed suicide by falling on his sword.

Before Caesar’s murder, his first wife had arranged a festival dedicated to a goddess, where she was to be worshipped. Only Roman women could attend this festival, and men were not allowed. However, a commotion arose when a man arrived wearing a dress meant for girls. He was soon identified and captured.

During this time, it was widely thought that the young man was actually the lover of Caesar’s wife and had come there in disguise to meet her. There was much gossip about it, though there could have been a possibility that the young man was there for not his wife and some other woman. Caesar felt that some doubt has been raised about his wife’s character. Most people were talking about his wife, or even if they were not, who could stop people’s tongues? If not spoken openly, they would talk in their hearts that Caesar’s wife was not virtuous. Caesar contemplated for a few days on what he should do, even though there was no clear evidence. But there was no restriction on people’s thinking. Caesar felt that his wife was now questioned. Right or wrong, doubt had arisen, and it is not good for a general or a ruler to have his wife talked about by people. Thus, Caesar decided to divorce his wife, and the reason he gave became an immortal example in the annals of history.

Caesar said: “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” This phrase became famous in the coming centuries, highlighting the expectation that the wife/family of a ruler or a famous person should not be doubted in their integrity.

In the coming times, many explanations were given for Caesar’s decision. Why did he go to the extent of divorcing on the basis of mere suspicion when there was no evidence against his wife? If he had evidence against his wife, it would have made sense, but Caesar’s thought was different. People’s attention went there because the man attended the gathering of women solely to meet his wife. Now, this doubt would grow in people’s minds, and they would look at him with strange and bizarre eyes. “Look at the Roman general, whose wife has an affair with someone.” This would not only tarnish his reputation, but his own moral strength would also be compromised. Thus, to maintain his moral authority, Caesar believed it was necessary that his family members should also be of exemplary character.

Caesar was a leader and a ruler. The leader himself and the people around him should not adopt the gait of ordinary people. The state had to remain stable by looking at his character, ensuring people’s trust did not waver in their leader. Ordinary people become subjects of the state based on their leader’s reputation, giving the state the right to rule over them and decide their life and death.

If the leader or his wife begins to exhibit moral corruption, then any ruler loses the justification for his rule, burying the honour of his leadership. Leaders have people’s eyes on them; they are in the limelight. People look to them for guidance, considering them role models who are superior in character. Thus, the burden on the ruler increases to maintain their character in the right direction, not only for themselves but also for their family members. The state subjects should not doubt that they (rulers) are involved in any kind of fraud or corruption. If such suspicions arise about the rulers, society and the state start to unravel, and anarchy begins to take root. The importance of law diminishes, as ordinary people no longer respect the authority they believe has fallen into money or immoral actions.

Now, imagine that even in the society of two and a half thousand years ago, people were so sensitive about the character of the ruler, how their ruler should be, and how their ruler’s wife should be. Her character should be such that no one can doubt that she can do any wrong. If doubt arises, Caesar will divorce her, realizing that if people point fingers at the ruler’s wife, his moral authority over them will weaken. He will not be able to look them in the eye, and he could not control his wife.

Caesar could have defended his wife if no one had any evidence. So, when the trial of the young man started, Caesar did not present any witness or evidence. But now that the matter had come out, Caesar divorced his wife, reiterating that Caesar’s wife should be free from all kinds of doubt and suspicion. Caesar’s wife’s corruption is a far-fetched thing; she should not even be suspected of corruption. Only a Roman Caesar could establish such an incredible standard for a ruler and rule thousands of years ago.

Klasra White

Rauf Klasra

The author is a senior Pakistani journalist and anchor. He posts on X as @KlasraRauf

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