“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
So begins the most famous eulogy ever written: Marc Antony’s stirring tribute to the assassinated leader of Rome, Julius Caesar. With words carefully chosen, some subtle, others inflammatory, Antony cleverly praised Caesar — his aim was to rally the audience to take vengeance upon the conspirators who knifed the beloved world conqueror on March 15, 44 BC.
In fact, Marc Antony never spoke these words. They were written in 1599 by William Shakespeare for the production of his play, “Julius Caesar.” Delivered first by an actor at the Globe Theater in London, England, and countless times in theaters around the world over the last four hundred plus years, the mesmerizing poetry clings to Antony in popular imagination only.
History indicates that Antony did deliver an oration prior to Caesar’s public cremation, an oration profound and motivating enough that it inspired consequence upon those who plotted Caesar’s murder, but none of what he declaimed has been preserved.
As is true about many seminal historical events, the mixture of truth and fiction is a potent blend, not easily parsed.
There is one truth about Caesar’s bloody demise that is unquestionable: he was definitely not struck down so that his wife, Calphurnia, or anyone concerned, could cash in on a death benefits windfall. No one at that time, not even the mighty Caesar, owned a life insurance policy.
Surprisingly though, the origins of our modern insurance system date to that time in Rome.
In addition to having a sophisticated understanding of military and political structures, Romans also were highly evolved in death related affairs. They formed burial societies, based on voluntary dues for those associated by religious beliefs, occupational pursuits, and familial ties, so that when a passing occurred, these groups handled appropriate burial and post-burial (sacrifices, banquets) functions. Thus, the costs of burial were reduced for the members. These societies are the first evidence of a communal pool of death funds being set aside for use by survivors.
How ancient burial societies, in due time, transformed into life insurance is a complex and convoluted story.
Throughout the ages, distributing risk connected to goods has been a fairly straightforward proposition — Chinese and Babylonian traders perceived the importance of this protection, especially for goods in transit.
But the need for property insurance asserted itself in the face of one major human disaster, the Great Fire of London in 1666 (fifty years after Shakespeare’s death). Although the loss of life was, luckily, not substantial, more than thirteen hundred structures were destroyed. The four day event changed the way natural tragedies were viewed.
Nicholas Barbon, MD, whose middle name was “If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned,” responded to the conflagration by opening up the “Fire Office,” the first disaster insurance firm ever. To protect his five thousand initial clients, Barbon had his own firefighting team — they covered only the buildings which the company had insured. Soon, other insurance companies emerged.
Life insurance was a trickier business because it required a mathematical assessment of risk — no reliable data about life span was available.
That is, until former haberdasher, John Graunt, drew up his first life table: Graunt was able to analyze data to calculate probabilities of survival to a certain age.
In 1693, Edmond Halley, a trained man of science, refined the statistical work to a level that the British government could confidently begin to sell life annuities. Halley is one of the fathers of actuarial science.
Life insurance could be purchased in the United States in 1760, but it took an American Tragedy, the Civil War, to stimulate the process. By the end of the war, life insurance sales topped six hundred million dollars – less than ten years later, that total was more than two billion.
Today, the US is the largest insurance market in the world. Just under sixty percent of the population owns life insurance and total premiums written exceed a trillion dollars.
A Final Note: Aside from her brief, pivotal turn in Shakespeare’s play, little is known about Caesar’s wife, Calphurnia. She was a noblewoman by birth and had an arranged, childless marriage to Caesar. Upon his death, Calphurnia turned Caesar’s war chest over to Marc Antony so that the assassins could be caught and destroyed (all of the chief collaborators met dire ends). Caesar left the majority of his estate to the Roman people.
Sources indicate that Calphurnia retained a small share of inheritance and some political province. A shy person, she never remarried and was essentially written out of history after Caesar’s passing.
Perversely, Calphurnia has recently staked a darkly humorous role in pop culture. She has been featured in comedy sketches (in one, she squawks out her lines in a Brooklyn accent) and her portrait is shown on a household wall in the 1991 film, “The Addams Family.”
Of course, Calphurnia retains perpetual significance in “Julius Caesar” — “I have never stood on ceremonies,” she famously professes. She does, however, stand immortalized in a timeless work of art, not a bad fate, with or without life insurance benefits.