This Day in History: Julius Caesar Assassinated March 15, 44 BCE

BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH!

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

Veni, vidi, vici! This was the simple message the Roman commander Julius Caesar sent to the Senate in Rome after a resounding victory in the east against King Pharnaces of Pontus – a message that demonstrated both arrogance as well as great military competence. “I came, I saw, I conquered!” also represented his future as leader of the Roman Republic. Although praised at first for both his military skills and ability to lead, he gradually began to bring fear into the minds of many of those inside as well as outside the Senate. Finally, a plot arose; friends soon became enemies and a brutal death came to a dictator.

Military Success & Reforms

Gaius Julius Caesar had returned to Rome in triumph, hailed as a hero. During his time as a Roman general, he claimed to have killed almost two million people in fifty decisive battles.  Although loved by the citizens of Rome, he caused, in many ways, worry among those in the Roman Senate – especially the old elite, the Optimates. The man who was soon to be hailed as dictator for life (dictator perpetuo) transferred his skill as a military commander into the ability to lead the Republic. Seeing the need and demonstrating that he truly loved the people of Rome, he decreed a number of significant and necessary reforms – reforms that further endeared him to the Roman citizenry. Always loyal to his army, one of his first endeavors was to offer land to seasoned veterans. Next, he gave grain to the urban poor and planned to move these same poor to the newly acquired colonies in Anatolia, Greece and North Africa. He limited the terms of the provincial governors while increasing the size of the Senate. He created a new calendar (still in use today), and provided both gladiatorial games and banquets as entertainment. The city of Rome had suffered violence and corruption, and was plagued by high unemployment. Caesar not only provided jobs through public work projects but also cleaned up the dangerous city streets.  He even built a public library.

While these reforms made him popular among the commoners, they brought panic to many of his enemies and even some of his friends. To these men their beloved republic no longer existed, especially after Caesar was named dictator for life in February 44 BCE – a completely unconstitutional act. They believed they no longer had a voice as Rome was quickly coming under the control of a would-be tyrant. Caesar’s extreme arrogance and vanity (he was very self-conscious about his balding head, for example) offended many in the Senate. This arrogance was most evident upon his victorious return to the city after the defeat of fellow Roman commander Pompey (also a member of the First Triumvirate) in Spain. Adorned in triumphant garments and a laurel crown – something many people saw as unnecessary – Caesar rode into the city. Wars in the east had been against foreigners, but his victory in Spain saw the deaths of what many considered as their own sons and daughters. One tribune Pontus Aquila even refused to rise as Caesar passed – something that angered the conquering hero.

Caesar’s Honours & Perceived Arrogance

Despite the feelings of some, numerous honors were given him: he was awarded the titles of liberator and imperator; his birthday was made a public holiday; his birth month, Quinctilus, was renamed in his honor – Julius (July); and lastly, he was named both the father of his country as well as a consul for ten years. In all processions an ivory statue of Caesar was to be carried alongside the statues of the Roman gods – and all this was done without objection from Caesar. This arrogance became increasingly more evident as time passed: he sat attired in the purple regalia of the ancient Roman kings on a specially built golden chair while attending the Senate, often refusing to rise out of respect to any member who approached him. Further, he constructed a private palace on Quirinal Hill. Even those who knew him best came to believe he was losing his judgment – something his friends said was due to being overworked, tired, and troubled by his epilepsy.

Although those around him suffered through his arrogance, others believed the conquering hero was becoming more of a divine figure than a ruler which was in stark contrast to many traditional Roman beliefs.  It is to be rembebred that the concept of an imperial cult was, as yet, several years in the future. Among friends, as well as enemies, there was a growing sense of animosity, questioning why the Senate allowed what appeared to them as blasphemy. Did Caesar actually believe he deserved this praise? To many he appeared to be more of a king than a ruler, someone no longer answerable to both the people of Rome and the Senate.

This heightened sense of self-worth was best seen during the annual February festival of Lupercalia.  The Roman commander and always loyal Mark Antony attempted to place a diadem — a wreathed laurel — on Caesar’s head while the “king,” adorned in the usual purple robe, was seated in the Forum on his gold throne, but Caesar pushed it away, refusing the gesture, stating that only Jupiter was the king of the Romans. Unfortunately, not everyone considered him to be sincere in his refusal.  Many even believed he staged the entire event. Whether or not Caesar actually considered himself king, he always denied the title if called by it.  The Roman orator and author Cicero — an individual who had supported Pompey and known for his dislike for Caesar — said that this was the beginning of the end for Rome.

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The “Tusculum portrait”, one of two surviving busts of Julius Caesar made during his lifetime.

A Conspiracy rises

The time had come to save the Republic from this would-be king, and thereby a conspiracy was borne. However, a plot not to just overthrow but to kill Caesar was a dangerous mission. Who would dare plan to kill the dictator for life of the Roman Republic, knowing if they failed, they would be branded as traitors? Of course, there were the usual, old enemies of Caesar – friends and supporters of Pompey who sought both high office and profit. Next, there were those who many believed were friends of Caesar, people who, while being rewarded for their loyalty, disliked many of his policies, especially his hesitance to overthrow the old, conservative Optimates. Further, they disapproved of his peace-making attempts with Pompey’s supporters. And lastly, there were the idealists – those who respected the Republic and its ancient traditions. Individually, their reasons varied, but together, they believed the salvation of the Republic depended on the death of Caesar.

The Ringleaders

The four leading men of the conspiracy were an unusual mix of both friends and enemies.  The first two men believed they had not been rewarded substantially enough for their service to Caesar: Gaius Trebonius served as a praetor and consul and had fought with Caesar in Spain; Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus was governor of Gaul and had been victorious against the Gauls. The next two conspirators were obviously not friends of Caesar: Gaius Cassius Linginus who had served with both Crassus and Pompey as a naval commander and who some believe conceived the plot (Caesar certainly did not trust him), and lastly, the greedy and arrogant Marcus Junius Brutus who had also served under Pompey and who was the brother-in-law of Cassius.

Brutus was the son of Caesar’s mistress Servilia (some mistakenly believed he was Caesar’s son) and married to the Roman orator Cato’s daughter Portia. Marcus Porcius Cato (or Cato the Younger), a strong supporter of Pompey and outspoken critic of Caesar, had committed suicide in 46 BCE while in North Africa. He had refused to surrender to Caesar after the commander’s victory at Thapus. After Cato’s death, both Cicero and Brutus wrote eulogies in praise of the fallen Roman. To Cicero Cato was the height of Roman virtue, a statement that angered Caesar. Despite all of this, Caesar believed in Brutus, forgave him, and supported him for a position as a praetor, which was a stepping stone to a consulship. There were other conspirators of course: Publius Servilius Casca, a tribune, who would strike the first blow against Caesar; Gaius Servilius Casca (his brother) who supposedly struck the final blow in the  dictator’s ribs; and lastly, Lucius Tillus Cimber, governor of Bithynia, who signaled the start of the attack. To these men power had to be, at any cost, wrested from Caesar and returned to the Roman Senate.

The Plan

Brutus believed there was considerable support for Caesar’s assassination. These men met together secretly, in small groups to avoid detection. Luckily for the conspirators, Caesar had dismissed his Spanish bodyguard in October of 45 BCE, believing no one would dare attack him. The conspirators realized the attack had to be soon and swift as Caesar was making plans to lead his army on a three-year campaign against the Parthians, leaving on March 18. But where and when should they strike? Should they attack as Caesar rode on the highway the Appian Way or in a public place; could they attack while he was walking home on the Via Sacra (the Sacred Way); could they attack while he attended a gladiatorial games? After considerable debate, the final decision was to strike during a session of the Senate at the Theater of Pompey (the regular Roman Senate was being repaired) on March 15, 44 BCE, the Ides of March. The attackers had chosen their weapon of choice wisely – a double-edged dagger or pugio of about eight inches long instead of a sword.  Daggers were better for close contact and could be hidden under their togas.

The Attack

If one believes in omens, there were a number of reasons for Caesar not to attend the Senate meeting that day. First, Caesar’s horses that were grazing on the banks of the Rubicon were seen to weep. Next, a bird flew into the Theater of Pompey with a sprig of laurel but was quickly devoured by a larger bird. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia had a dream of him bleeding to death in her arms. And lastly, a soothsayer named Spurinna warned him to beware of danger no later than the Ides of March. Unfortunately, Caesar put little faith in omens. The historian Suetonius wrote, “These warnings, and a touch of ill-health, made him hesitate for some time whether to go ahead with his plans or whether to postpone the meeting.” On the day of his death Caesar was truly sick and, as Suetonius said, hesitant about attending the meeting of the Senate, but the conspirator Decimus arrived at his home and urged him to not disappoint those waiting for him.

A large crowd accompanied Caesar on his way to the Senate.  Just as he entered the theater a man named Artemidorus tried to warn him of eminent danger by thrusting a small scroll into his hand, but Caesar ignored it. The dictator entered and sat on his throne. Mark Antony, who had accompanied Caesar, was conveniently delayed outside by Trebonius, as planned. In the theater there were two hundred senators in attendance along with ten tribunes and a number of slaves and secretaries. Cimber approached the unsuspecting Caesar and handed him a petition on behalf of his exiled brother; Caesar, of course, did not rise to greet him.  Cimber grabbed at Caesar’s toga and pulled it back. Caesar reportedly said, “Why, this is violence?” Casca dealt the first blow with his knife; Caesar immediately tried to defend himself by raising his hands to cover his face. The remaining conspirators surrounded the shocked Caesar – Cassius struck him in the face, Decimus to the ribs. Caesar collapsed, dead, ironically at the foot of a statue of his old enemy Pompey. In all there were twenty-three blows. Suetonius described the attack, “… at that moment one of the Casca brothers slipped behind and with a sweep of his dagger stabbed him just below the throat. Caesar grasped Casca’s arm and ran it through with a stylus; he was leaping away when another dagger caught him in the breast.” Despite the beautiful words of William Shakespeare Caesar did not say “E tu, Brute!” (You, too, Brutus!) as Brutus plunged his dagger into the dying dictator but “You, too, my child!”  The remaining senators in attendance ran from the theater. Afterwards, Rome was in a state of confusion. Suetonius wrote that there were some, those who disliked Caesar, who wanted to seize the slain leader’s corpse and throw it into the Tiber, confiscate his property, and revoke his laws; however, Mark Antony maintained a cool head and stopped any such plans.

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The so-called Green Caesar, a posthumous bust showing Julius Caesar as a statesman dressed in a toga. Being idealised in contrast to earlier Caesar portraits, this portrait was adapted to the taste of the early Imperial Age. (Altes Museum, Berlin)

Aftermath

While the conspiracy had all the makings of a great plan, little attempt was made to prepare for afterwards. The conspirators made their way to Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Jupiter. Brutus spoke from a platform at the foot of the hill, trying in vain to calm the crowd. Meanwhile, slaves carried Caesar’s body through the streets to his home; people wept as it passed. The funeral procession on March 20 was a spectacle unlike the one portrayed by Shakespeare, although Antony did give a short eulogy. A pyre had been built on the Field of Mars near the family tomb; however, Caesar’s body was quickly seized by locals and taken to the Forum where it was burned on a much simpler pyre. The ashes were returned to the Field of Mars and his family tomb; the city continued to mourn. In his The Twelve Caesars Suetonius wrote that Caesar may have been aware of the plot against him and because of ill-health knowingly exposed himself to the assault.  “Almost all authorities, at any rate, believe that he welcomed the manner of his death…he loathed the prospect of a lingering end – he wanted a sudden one”

Brutus believed the death of Caesar would bring a return of the old Roman spirit; unfortunately, the city was in shock, and people became increasingly more hostile. On March 17 the Senate sought a compromise with the urging of Mark Antony: While the laws of Caesar would remain intact, there would be amnesty for the conspirators. Unfortunately, peace was impossible and the conspirators fled Rome and would all ultimately meet their end. Suetonius ended his chapter on the slain leader, “All were condemned to death … and all met it in different ways – some in shipwreck, some in battle, some using the very daggers with which they had treacherously murdered Caesar to take their own lives.”  For Rome the young Octavian, the adopted son of Caesar, received not only his war chest but also the support of the army. A final conflict between Mark Antony (with the help of Cleopatra) and Octavian would bring Octavian to power as Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire.

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By Donald L. Wasson
Professor of Ancient/Medieval History
Lincoln College

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