There was once a president of a republic. At first he was elected, but when the elections went against him, he refused to accept the results. He had followers, though, and they donated enough money for him to raise an army. An actual, serious army. The senate, on January 7, declared that the former president would be named as a public enemy if he didn’t lay down his arms and disband his private army. The former president refused. He and the remainder of his supporters fled the nation, taking refuge in a foreign state.
The former president didn’t show up for a couple of months, when he thought it would be safer.
Just days later, the former president and his army marched on his country’s capital. They didn’t defeat it, but most of the elected senators had to seek refuge themselves, in a different foreign city. The senators might have expected the former president to hunt them down, but he didn’t. Instead, he marched to yet another country, where the head of the military was overseeing the nation’s real army. The former president and his army attacked. Well, actually his army attacked. The former president didn’t show up for a couple of months, when he thought it would be safer.
The former president was able to keep hiring more soldiers, and his army became the equal of the real army. There were battles all over neighboring nations, and the evenly-matched forces traded victories and defeats. This went on for most of the year, until finally the former president returned to his capital city, where he was named Dictator for Life. His actions had destroyed the former republic, but the environment he’d helped create — and inherited as the first dictator — was still poisonous. Violence broke out in unexpected places with little warning. The “Dictator for Life” ended up living only five years until he was himself assassinated. But the republic, with all its expectations of social responsibility and commitment, was gone for good. After the former president became dictator, each leader after him was a dictator too.
Does that sound a little bit familiar? Maybe like something you hope not to see — but worry you might — in the next few years? Well don’t worry too much. It’s a real story, and it all really happened, but more than two thousand years ago, in 49 BC. The former president was Julius Caesar, and the former republic was Rome. Caesar was the one who wrecked the republic and turned it into a dictatorship. The more polite word most people use is “Empire.” But while there’s no clear definition of what an “empire” is or isn’t, “dictator” is pretty clear. The leaders of the Roman nation, after Caesar wrecked the Republic and a series of civil wars trashed all the remaining institutions, were all dictators. There’s even a word, “Caesarism” used to describe the kind of authority Caesar wielded. Unfortunately, “Caesarism” is about as clear as “empire”; it’s been used to name everything from “chaotic rule by warlords” to “the state subjugating the church” to, well, dictatorship (“monarchical absolutism” if you want to be technical.
The idea in a state run by a dictator is that everything — the “universe” of the state itself — revolves around the dictator. If you think about it, that’s a bit like the old “geocentric universe” doctrine that held that the earth occupied the center, and the sun, stars, planets, and everything else revolved around it. This idea wasn’t shared by all the ancient peoples; a basic heliocentric model, where the sun is in the center, can be found in Greek writings as old as 400 BCE. It was in the European Middle Ages that the geocentric model became the accepted, orthodox idea, based on the writings of a Roman citizen centuries later: Ptolemy. He was much too late for the republic; he lived in the Rome of dictators.
Maybe the geocentric idea of the universe agreed so well with the social idea of the Roman dictatorship that it just seemed right to most people. For whatever reason, it became the accepted orthodoxy for a long time. Finally in 1543 Copernicus pointed out that if you actually look at the way things really move in the sky, the idea that everything revolves around the earth doesn’t make much sense. Then in 1610 Galileo, using one of the first of those newfangled “telescope” gadgets, was able to observe some things you can only see with a telescope. Namely, that there are moons orbiting around Jupiter. Today, by the way, is not only the anniversary of the final attempt by the Roman Senate to save their republic, it’s also the anniversary of Galileo’s discovery of the Jovian moons.
Composite image of Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, by NASA.
Caesar’s impact was so important he had things named after him, like “Caesarism,” and “Czars,” not to mention the salad. Galileo’s impact led to the Jovian moons he discovered — Io, Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa — being called the “Galilean moons.” If he had any menu items named after him, though, they’ve since been forgotten. More important, though, is the influence Galileo had on the development of science as a discipline. Albert Einstein called Galileo the “father of modern science.”
But does the structure of the society you live in shape the way you think about other things, like the universe itself? It’s very hard to say. But there are different ways of understanding things, even in science. Nikola Tesla, who died 59 years ago today, on January 7, created some phenomenal and innovative things like phased electrical current and the induction motor, but he had a fundamentally different understanding of electricity (and physics, for that matter) than, say, his rival Thomas Edison. Who, just by coincidence, also made his first forays into motion picture photography on another January 7, in 1894. He made a film (a “kineoscope”) of a sneeze. You can see it here:
The kinetoscope isn’t much to look at, but then observing Jupiter’s moons through a telescope like Galileo used isn’t what most people would choose to do either. Luckily many things get better over time. After all, when the first telephone service was established between New York and London on — well, look at that, it was January 7, 1927 — it didn’t sound anything like a modern NY-to-London call. And modern republics are more resilient than the ones two millennia ago. At least we can hope so.