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The Death of Caesar

In 44 BC, at the celebration of the Lupercalia, Julius Caesar, seated in a gilded chair at the front of the Rostra, publicly refused the diadem of kingship presented to him by Antony. He already exercised the power of dictator, and many regarded the gesture as nothing more than pretense. Indeed, for Appian, "the difference it could make to them turned on a mere quibble, since in plain fact 'dictator' is exactly the same as 'king'" (Civil Wars, II.111). A month later, on the Ides of March (Idus Martiae), the would-be king was dead.

Just a year before, Caesar had been victorious in the civil war with Pompey and now, writes Appian, was

"proclaimed the Father of his Country and chosen dictator for life and consul for ten years, and his person was declared sacred and inviolable. It was decreed that he should transact business on a throne of ivory and gold; that he should himself sacrifice always in triumphal costume; that each year the city should celebrate the days on which he had won his victories; that every five years priests and Vestal virgins should offer up public prayers for his safety; and that the magistrates immediately upon their inauguration should take an oath not to oppose any of Caesar's decrees" (II.106).

But when the Senate, led by the consuls, brought to Caesar the decree authorizing these honors, he remained seated and did not rise to greet them. It was this indignity, says Plutarch, that "vexed not only the senate, but also the people, who felt that in the persons of the senators the state was insulted" (Life of Julius Caesar, LX.5). A few days later, another incident at the feast of the Lupercalia confirmed the popular suspicion that Caesar had ambitions to become king (rex), in spite of his refusal to accept the crown presented to him by Antony. When it was discovered that royal diadems had been placed on his statues, they were removed by the tribunes of the people and one of the perpetrators brought to trial. Accusing the tribunes of misrepresenting him as a despot and affronting his dignitas, Caesar had them dismissed, even though, says Appian, "The office of tribune was sacred and inviolate according to law and ancient oath" (II.108). Sworn to defend the lives and property of the plebeians, the inviolability of the tribunes was guaranteed by the people. Their dismissal by Caesar breached this trust and demonstrated to conservatives in the Senate the act to be that of a despot who threatened their own traditional rights and privileges.

Thought to be a descendent of that same Brutus, who, says Livy, had expelled Tarquinius Superbus, the last of Rome's kings, and founded the Republic almost five hundred years before (The History of Rome, I.59), Marcus Brutus now was expected to save it. Brutus' participation in the conspiracy against Caesar was crucial; otherwise, says Plutarch, "men would say that if their cause had been just, then Brutus would not have refused to support it." Brutus also was trusted by Caesar, who appointed him Urban Prefect for the year and had spared his life in the civil war. His brother-in-law Cassius, the other principal conspirator, also incited him to act, but for reasons, says Plutarch, that lay in "personal animosity rather than in any disinterested aversions to tyranny." There were, as well, the anonymous entreaties of the other senators, some sixty of which were part of the conspiracy: "Thou art asleep, Brutus," they would write, or "Thou art not Brutus" (LXII.7).

While still a boy, Brutus' father had been executed by Pompey. Yet, he fought on Pompey's side in the civil war because he believed, according to Plutarch, that "he ought to put the public good before his private loyalties" (Life of Brutus, IV.1). His uncle was Cato the Younger, a leader of the Optimates (best), the conservative patricians who supported the traditions of the Republic. Cato also had fought against Caesar but cheated him of the political advantage of a possible pardon by committing suicide. More telling, Brutus' own mother Servilia had been Caesar's mistress, to whom he once had given a magnificent pearl worth six million sesterces (Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar, L.2; the equivalent of 1,500,000 denarii, when the annual pay of a Roman legionnaire was 225 per year). It also was rumored that Servilia might have permitted Caesar to seduce her daughter Junia, Brutus' half-sister and now Cassius' wife.

Already, there were suspicions of conspiracy and, in retrospect, ominous portents. The night before he died, Caesar had dinner with Lepidus, the Master of Horse. As they drank, the conversation turned to what was the best sort of death for a man. Caesar replied that which was sudden and unexpected (Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar, LXIII.7). Later that night, his wife Calpurnia dreamed of his body streaming with blood and tried to prevent him from leaving the house (LXIII.9). The priests, too, found the omens to be unfavorable. Caesar hesitated, but was persuaded by one of the conspirators that not to attend the Senate would disappoint those who were there already waiting for him and only show further disrespect. Even as evidence of the plot became known, there were attempts to inform Caesar, but either they were too late or ignored. It was to be as Appian foretold: "For it was fated that Caesar should meet his fate" (II.116).

In four days, Caesar was to leave Rome to revenge the death of Crassus by the Parthians nine years earlier, and to increase his own power and that of the empire. The campaign would remove Caesar from Rome, and from the reach of the conspirators, until he eventually returned, more powerful still. They therefore had to act quickly, "either from jealousy of his fortune and power, now grown to enormous proportions, or, as they themselves alleged, from a desire to restore the republic of their fathers; for they feared (and in this they knew their man) that if he should conquer these nations also he would indeed be indisputably king" (II.111).

On the Ides of March, the Senate was to meet in the Curia Pompeii, an annex of the colonnaded porticus adjacent to the stage of the Theater of Pompey, which he had been built just a decade or so before. Caesar was late and, as Brutus and Cassius anxiously waited for him to arrive, one of the senators confided that his prayers were with them. "May your plan succeed," relates Plutarch, "but whatever you do, make haste. Everyone is talking about it by now." But there was nothing the conspirators could do except grasp their daggers and prepare to use them on themselves, if need be. Porcia, the daughter of Cato, whom Brutus had married within a year of her father's death, had insisted that she be told of the plan. The day of the assassination, her anxiety was so great that she became hysterical and fainted from apprehension.

Suetonius relates that a soothsayer had warned Caesar that he was in grave danger, which would not pass until the Ides had ended. Entering the building, Caesar now chided him that the day had arrived. "Yes," he replied, "but they have not yet gone." As Caesar took his seat, the conspirators gathered around him on the pretext of presenting a petition. One then took hold of his purple toga and ripped it away from his neck. A dagger was thrust at Caesar's throat but missed and only wounded him. Another assassin then drove a dagger into his chest as he twisted away from the first assailant. Brutus struck Caesar in the groin (a telling blow, perhaps, given that his mother Servilia once had been Caesar's mistress). Hemmed in, "Caesar kept turning," writes Appian, "from one to another of them with furious cries like a wild beast." When he saw that Brutus, too, had drawn his dagger, Plutarch relates that Caesar simply covered his head with his toga and sank to the ground. Although Suetonius records that Caesar died "uttering not a word," some, he says, had written that Brutus was reproached in Greek with the words Kai su, teknon, "You, too, my child?" It was these words that Shakespeare would later present in Latin as Et tu, Brute.

Even though the second wound later was thought to have been fatal, the conspirators continued to strike at Caesar, at times cutting one another with their own daggers, until they, too, were covered in blood. Slumped against the pedestal of Pompey's statue, Caesar died, having been stabbed twenty-three times. "The pedestal was drenched with blood," writes Plutarch, "so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this act of vengeance against his enemy, who lay there at his feet struggling convulsively under so many wounds."

If the conspirators had killed in the name of Republican libertas, in practice they acted for the liberty of the Optimates themselves. There was to be no popular support for the deed. To Appian, at least, "The Republic has been rotten for a long time. The city masses are now thoroughly mixed with foreign blood, the freed slave has the same rights as a citizen, and those who are still slaves look no different from their masters." It was as if the death of the tyrant alone was sufficient for the conspirators, with no thought being given to what would happen as a consequence. It all had been planned, relates Cicero, with the "courage of men and the foresight of children." But the res publica would not be restored. The only outcome was what Caesar himself had predicted: "It is more important for Rome," Suetonius quotes him as saying, "than for myself that I should survive...should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace." And so it was: civil war would rage for another thirteen years.

Gaius Julius Caesar was dead, having lived for fifty-five years. His body was burned in a great pyre in the Forum, the site commemorated by the altar in front of the Temple of Divine Julius. Residing still at Caesar's garden villa across the Tiber, Cleopatra hurriedly returned to Egypt, together with Caesar's purported son Caesarion. Augustus later would remove the statue of Pompey and have the Curia walled up, never to be used again by the Senate. The assassins were condemned to death under the law of Pedius (Caesar's nephew), and would be hunted down and killed, "visiting with retribution all, without exception," says Plutarch. Three hundred senators and two thousand equites eventually would die as well, including Cicero, his head and hands, with which he written his invective Philippics against Antony, displayed on the Rostra.

According to Dio, it was Antony, the most implacable member of the Second Triumvirate (Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus), who carried out the retributions. He "killed savagely and mercilessly, not only those whose names had been proscribed, but likewise those who had attempted to assist any of them." Dio relates the poignancy of the proscriptions: "Many perished at the hands of their dearest friends, and many were saved by their bitterest enemies. Some slew themselves, and others were released by the very men who came upon them to murder them. Some who betrayed masters or friends were punished, and others were honoured for this very reason." And, since the members of the Triumvirate had their own friends and enemies, there were complications, "each having often occasion to desire earnestly that the life of a man be spared whom one of the others wished to destroy, or, on the other hand, that a man be put to death whom one of the others wished to have survive."

Both Brutus and Cassius eventually would take their own lives, Cassius with the very dagger that he had used in the assassination. Although Caesar had spared them, they did not spare Caesar.

A millennium and a half later, Shakespeare has Antony speak in one of the finest examples of rhetorical irony:

The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious.
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answered it....
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me.
But Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill.
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar has wept.
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honorable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse.
Was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And sure he is an honorable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause.
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?

Julius Caesar (III.2)

The Death of Caesar (1867) by Jean-Leon Gerome is in the Walters Art Gallery (Baltimore). It illustrates the Ides of March simply because the earlier painting (circa 1798) of the same name by Vincenzo Camuccini is used so often.

References: Caesar: A Biography (1982) by Christian Meier; Caesar: Politician and Statesman (1968) by Matthias Gelzer; Plutarch: The Parallel Lives (1919) translated by Bernadotte Perrin (Loeb Classical Library); Appian: The Civil Wars (1913) translated by Horace White (Loeb Classical Library); Livy: The History of Rome (1912) translated by Canon Roberts; Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (1913) translated by J. C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Dio's Roman History (1916) translated by Earnest Cary (Loeb Classical Library).

See also the Portico of Pompeii, the scene of Caesar's assassination, and the Temple of Divine Julius, the location of his funeral pyre.

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