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How to be civil in an uncivil world



On 23 October 42 BCE, Marcus Junius Brutus killed himself. His action followed that of his mate, Gaius Cassius Longinus, on 3 October that same year.

Chris Johnston cartoonBrutus and Cassius were among the scores of assassins (or tyrannicides, take your pick) who had dispatched Rome's leader two years prior to their deaths. Both had been soundly beaten in battles by avenging generals Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) and Marc Antony, who duly went on to prolong their own uncivil civil war.

The demise of the Roman Republic and the growth of the Roman Empire is one of the most documented historical transitions; largely it stems from the death of one man. The lessons for us today are still salutary.

As you'll recall, when Julius Caesar wandered in to start senate proceedings, in the Curia of Pompey back in 44 BCE, the dictator was met with a wide selection of very sharp daggers. There were many motivations behind the assassins' numerous thrusts. Jealousy. Ambition. Kinship and patron/client obligation. Political ideology and partisan adherence to tradition and accepted practice. Cuckolded husbands, shamed brothers, lovers and others. Resentful sons of some of Julius' mistresses.

Thwarted career paths. Resentment. Patriotism. Old, old scores to settle. There was undoubtedly deep anger at Caesar's ego and perpetual defying of convention, exhibited by gallivanting around in royal purple, a series of grandiose titles and statues and (unprecedented for a live Roman) coins minted bearing his likeness.

Perhaps the strangest factor in the mix, however, was the hatred that many of his assassins harboured at Caesar's famed policy of clemency. Key assassins, such as the aforementioned Brutus and Cassius, had been spared and forgiven by Caesar years beforehand; their benefactor had gone from the first man in Rome to reign as the republic of Rome's seemingly permanent dictator, and their bitter anger grew with each breath they took.

As William Blake described ire, in A Poison Tree: 'I was angry with my friend/I told my wrath, my wrath did end/I was angry with my foe/I told it not, my wrath did grow. And I waterd it in fears/Night & morning with my tears/And I sunned it with smiles/And with soft deceitful wiles ... '


"As my children put the doctrine, ever so eloquently, we can all choose not to be a dick."


As two-faced as the Roman god, Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, powerplayers and decisionmakers still walk the land. Thankfully words, rather than jagged metal, are the contemporary weapons of choice.

The political football that is the ABC, the demise of large industries, the abandoning of any genuine climate policy, the misadventures of dual citizenship, the ambitions of the powerful and once powerful ... all these and other issues, for all intents and purposes, are overshadowed by the hideously uncivil debate about whether LGBTIQ Australians deserve to be seen and treated as equal to heterosexual Australians under Australian law; entitled to be legally wed.

In 2017, we have had one of the most uncivil years in living memory, with verbal and physical assaults against politicians, against institutions, against entire demographics. The postal survey on same sex marriage, an affront on many fronts, will be finalised next month and may or may not be followed by legislation and decisive action.

What can Australian punters learn from antiquity? The obvious lesson from Rome's post-Caesarian civil wars is that internecine conflict is inevitably punctuated by further conflict and wrestling for power. You may kill someone's primacy — cast them down from their lofty heights as first man in Rome — but the shadow of their revenge will still cast a funeral pall over proceedings.

Cast whomsoever you wish as Julius, or as Brutus or Cassius, Octavian or Marc Antony etc. The metaphorical daggers are close at hand, and more than one potentate may still fall on their political swords.

I am inclined to pay due heed to Edward Gibbon, whose six-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire pointed the finger at the loss of civility (civic virtue), and the ensuing success of barbarians at the gate and in the very entrails of empire. Gibbon thought Christianity with its subsequently elusive notion of pacifism also played a crucial part. Pax Christi overtook Pax Romana.

That's where, I would hope, many churches still have some relevance and role to play, if they can find the strength of character and political, corporate will to venture past moribund adherence to literalism and join those churches and faiths that are supportive of the yes movement for equality under the law.

The guiding light not present in Australian politics could be the acquisition and sharing of empathy. The golden rule to treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated — found in so many traditions before and after Christ — would go a long way to promoting civil dialogue and, even better, revive that long-lost notion of forbearance. Forbearing: choosing not to speak when to do so would only reveal ignorance and inflict pain on those spoken of ... As my children put the doctrine, ever so eloquently, we can all choose not to be a dick.



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.


Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Julius Caesar, Rome, marriage equality



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Existing comments

"To treat others as we ourselves would wish to be treated". This is always a curly one Barry. As parents, the times when we've had to say no to our children or have had to explain that certain behaviour is not appropriate, sometimes causes discomfort to both parties in the discussion. We want to be kind but to be kind we have to encourage other courses of action. We base our decisions on proven methods and values seen to be beneficial over the years, but we keep in touch with the fact of human existence at this particular time in history. Lots of dialogue, lots of example, lots of empathy, but at the same time needing to restate in a communicable way Christ's Holy Word. There's more than just empathy required in today's world.

Celia | 13 October 2017  

Thanks Celia, yes - it's not an easy process, making our own decisions according to the dictates of conscience and our best understanding; let alone doing our utmost to guide our children through ethical crossroads, impasses and cul-de-sacs. Post-Enlightenment, 'proven methods and values' tend to be demonstrably self-evident, or they are discarded for other methods and values through social and institutional change. Personally, I find looking to Christ's words and actions is a brilliant entry point to pursuing, embracing and practising empathy. If our moral compass is set on empathic engagement, perhaps we'll end up traversing Christ's path.

Barry Gittins | 13 October 2017  

I agree, Barry, that the debate in our society over changing the definition of marriage has been very uncivil. When there are passionate views on either side it can be difficult to attain reciprocal civility. I smiled at your final sentence. Yes, we can choose to be something other than antagonistic and idiotic. Forbearance (patient self-control) is a fine quality: if only it were a mandatory requirement for dialogue.

Pam | 16 October 2017  

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