Julius Caesar, Dictator and Consul for life
After he had defeated all his Republican opponents, Caesar ruled supreme in Rome. Although he was merciful to his foes, and had populated the Senate with many allies, taken from the new provinces and colonies to which he had extended the Roman franchise, Caesar still had many enemies. Because of his unprecedented powers, many were worried that Caesar would proclaim himself king; a title which had been anathema to the Roman psyche, since the reign of Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud), who was deposed around 510 B.C. following the rape of Lucretia. Mark Anthony even offered Caesar a crown in the Senate, at one point in February of 44 B.C.; but Caesar declined it, saying "Jupiter alone is King of the Romans", which provoked a great deal of cheering. Whether this was a pre-planned P.R. stunt, a means of gauging public reaction towards the idea of Caesar as king, or simply an exercise in boot-licking by Mark Anthony (who was no longer flavour of the month chez Caesar, having been replaced as Magister Equitum by Lepidus) is unclear, but Caesar was right not to take the crown, and was quick to dismiss any idea of his becoming king.
Having more-or-less settled things in Rome, with some anti-sumptuary legislation and civic restoration and new building projects, Caesar began planning a campaign against the Parthians, who had slain his partner in the first triumvirate, Crassus. Octavian, Caesar's great-nephew and heir, awaited him, with the bulk of his legions in Apollonia. Meanwhile, doom was foretold to Caesar daily; from the soothsayer, Spurinna, warning him to "Beware the Ides of March!", to his wife, Calpurnia, having bad dreams, to a bird carrying a sprig of laurel (Caesar's preferred headgear) flying into the Forum of Pompey and getting torn to shreds by other birds. A conspiracy was forming in the Senate, behind Caesar's back; despite his refusal of the crown, many still feared that Caesar would be made king; the Sibylline prophecies' warning that none but a king would conquer the Parthians was foremost in many peoples' minds. Another, less widely quoted, but still quite important, reason for people to wish Caesar dead was the fact that he had had two tribunes dismissed from office, either for crowning his statues or for removing crowns from his statues, depending on which source you read. As the office of Tribune was one of the most important popularly elected positions, and the powers and person of the tribune was considered inviolate, this was quite a serious offence on Caesar's part.
Conspiracy and Murder
By all accounts, Gaius Cassius Longinus was one of the main leaders of the conspiracy; others mentioned are Dolabella, the Casca brothers, Tullius Cimber, Gaius Trebonius and the half-brothers Marcus Junius Brutus and Decimus Junius Brutus. The Bruti was both sons of Servilia, an old mistress of Caesar's; Caesar had met the young Marcus Brutus many times while visiting Servilia, and was fond enough of him to speak out in his favour when he was rumoured to be plotting Pompey's murder (which was not unreasonable, as Pompey had killed Brutus senior in battle), and also to later grant him a full pardon for fighting against him in Pompey's army. Rumour has it that Marcus Brutus was actually a bastard son of Caesar's, which is not entirely implausible - despite the fact that Caesar's affair with Servilia began circa 73 B.C. - as Caesar would have been 15, and already climbing the political ladder, when Marcus Brutus was born in 85 B.C. Decimus Brutus, the younger brother, was important to the plot as he was one of Caesar's trusted lieutenants. The Bruti were decendants of Lucius Junius Brutus, one of the first consuls, and the man responsible for banishing the kings. While Decimus Brutus joined the conspiracy willingly, Marcus Brutus wavered, until he was finally convinced by a series of letters left beneath the statue of his fabled ancestor, suggesting that Marcus should follow in his footsteps, and rid Rome of the threat of a new King.
Most sources agree that there were about 60 people involved in the conspiracy altogether, and that Cicero was deliberately left out, as they believed he was too timid to keep it a secret; some modern research into the assassination itself suggests that Caesar was only actually attacked by six people. The assassination took place in Pompey's Forum, at the end of a Senate meeting, on the Ides of March (i.e. the 15th), 44 B.C. This was to be the final senate meeting before the planned excursion against the Parthians, Caesar having planned to leave Rome on the 18th. At first, Caesar planned to cancel the meeting; his wife, Calpurnia, was loath for him to leave the house, and even Caesar himself had had unnerving dreams the previous night. When a haruspex had read the entrails of a sacrificial beast, and declared that signs were unfavourable, Caesar decided to cancel the meeting, but Decimus Brutus persuaded him to at least turn up in person to inform the Senate of his decision. On the way to the Forum, Caesar met Spurinna, and, somewhat mockingly, said "The Ides of March are come!" Spurinna replied "Aye, oh Caesar, but they are not yet gone!"
When they reached the Forum, Caesar spoke with Popilius Laenas for some time outside. Laenas was aware of the conspiracy, and none of the conspirators could hear what the pair were discussing; but they decided to go ahead with their plan regardless. As luck would have it, Laenas decided not to tell Caesar. As planned, Gaius Trebonius distracted Mark Anthony at the door by engaging him in conversation - more because they did not wish to slay him than out of any fear he might be able to prevent Caesar's death; Caesar took his chair and was immediately besieged by petitioners. Tullius Cimber asked Caesar to grant a pardon to his exiled brother; when Caesar refused, Cimber pulled Caesar's robe from his shoulders, which was the signal the conspirators had been awaiting. One of the Casca brothers struck the first blow, just below Caesar's throat, to one side; Caesar reportedly grabbed Casca's arm and stabbed it with his stylus, but that was all the resistance he could manage before the rest of the conspirators began to stab him. When he saw Marcus Brutus drawing a dagger on him, Caesar is reported to have said either "And you also, Brutus?" or "And you, my son?", although other sources say he remained silent throughout, apart from a low moan after the first stab; at any rate, it is agreed that after being stabbed by Brutus, he pulled his robe over his head, and let the lap of his toga cover his legs, so as to die with dignity - in the same position that most Romans would use to pray (thanks, Byzantine). Caesar's corpse lay beneath a blood-stained statue of his old enemy Pompey for three hours, before being brought to his wife by his servants.
Directly after the murder, the conspirators took to the streets of Rome, proclaiming "The Tyrant is dead!". Mark Anthony and Lepidus immediately retreated to safety, as the conspirators ran around like headless chickens - they had not planned their next move at all. Lepidus brought troops into Rome overnight, to protect the allies of Caesar, and the conspirators hid themselves away in the Capitol, praying to the Gods. At some point, Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, retrieved his son-in-law's will from the care of the Vestal virgins, and read it, along with Mark Anthony at the latter's house. At a meeting of the Senate around the 17th, Cicero made a speech pleading for a compromise; he advised that Caesar's will should be followed, his laws made to stand, and that the conspirators should be pardoned. Mark Anthony graciously agreed to this, and was widely praised for averting a civil war; himself and Dolabella took the co-consulship, and Cassius and Marcus and Decimus Brutus were given provinces to govern.
The conspirators thought they had gotten away with everything, enriching themselves in the process; but Marcus Brutus' misguided nobility (he only took part to honour his ancestor, and as a blow against the destruction of the Republic) proved to be their downfall. Mark Anthony announced on the 18th of March that he wanted to hold a public funeral for Caesar, and a reading of his will. Cassius was opposed to this, but he was overruled by Marcus Brutus. Mark Anthony delivered a stirring oration at the funeral, which, along with Caesar's generous will (which donated a beatiful park by the Tiber, as well as 300 sestertii each, to the populace) roused the croud to bring Caesar's body to the Forum in which he had been killed, and cremate it there on a hastily improvised pyre of tables and chairs; when the fire died down, the people lit torches from the embers, and set the houses of the conspirators ablaze. Wisely, the conspirators had fled at the first sign of trouble, probably cursing themselves for not taking care of Mark Anthony when they had their chance.
An altar was later erected in Pompey's forum in Caesar's honour; and during a festival of games to commemorate him during the summer of 44 B.C., a comet was sighted, which was said to be Caesar's soul ascending to heaven. Although his worship was not condoned yet, for political reasons, he was eventually given the name "Divus Julius", or Divine, in 42 B.C., and his worship, and the deification of his decendants became common practise. With the conspirators fled to their provinces, it became clear that Mark Anthony was now the de facto ruler of Rome; though Caesar's heir and legally adopted son, Octavian, would soon contest this, that is a tale for another node.
The reason the conspiracy failed, in the long run, is that the conspirators simply hadn't planned ahead. Cicero, in a letter to Atticus, comented that the conspiracy was handled "...with the courage of men and the policy of children. Anyone could see that an heir to the throne was left behind. The folly of it!" As soon as Caesar was dead, the conspirators had *no idea* how to restore the republic, and another civil war was more-or-less unavoidable; and because the Senate's power had been eroded, and most of the legions now followed charismatic personality above mere authority, some form of one-man-rule system was becoming inevitable.
The World's First Autopsy Recreated, and Modern Conspiracy Theory
When Caesar's corpse was brought home by his servants, an autopsy was performed by a physician called Antistius; the results of this autopsy were recorded for posterity, making this probably the first known autopsy. Antistius recorded that Caesar has been stabbed a total of twenty-three times; but only one wound was fatal, the second, which was an upward-angled thrust just under the left shoulder-blade, which most likely pierced his heart. Other wounds included multiple stabbing to the face, and the old soldier's trick of a stab to the groin. Given the number of wounds he received, and the length of time his body was left in the Forum, it is quite likely Caesar would have bled to death anyway.
Recently, one Colonel Luciano Garofano, an Italian forensic detective, decided to investigate Caesar's death; whether on a whim or for television, I'm not sure. At any rate, he plotted Caesar's wounds on a 3-D digital model, and also tried to recreate the actual attack. Having tried multiple combinations, Garofano concluded that it would be nigh-on impossible for 23 people to coordinate a melée attack like this, quite difficult for 11 men, and pretty simple for 5; in the end, he settled on guessing that Caesar was set upon by between 5 and 10 men at once.
Having made these worthy, but not exactly earth-shattering, findings, Garofano then decided to start theorising, starting off with the slightly shaky premise that Caesar, being a great general, orator and politician, could not possibly have *not* known about the conspiracy against him. To distract attention from that, Garofano continues, theorising that Caesar had been behind the conspiracy himself! Now, let's have a look at the body of Garofano's theory as a series of points:
- Caesar was an old man at this stage, and had begun to suffer from epilepsy and incontinence; he would prefer a quick, violent death rather than to waste away.
My response: The article offers no references to any sources that mention Caesar being that ill; also, Caesar was only 56, where the average life expectancy of a man of his standing in Rome (ruling out death in wars, or by assassination) would have been between 65 and 70.
- If he was assassinated, Caesar would be deified, and both him and his heir, Octavian, would be highly honoured by the populace.
My response: Caesar had already been offered deification; and his worship as a God was actively encouraged in some parts of Asia Minor, for political reasons. Garofano claims that Caesar did not stand to accept his deification in the Senate because he was worried he might "embarass himself" due to his claimed incontinence; he also compares Caesar's failure to rise as a grave insult to the Senate, comparable to failure on the part of a Mafioso to kiss the Don's ring. Which is going just a little overboard, really; granted, most of Garofano's experience is in dealing with Mafia-related cases, so it's understandable that he should try to draw parallels; but, as a popular politician (that is, a politician who sided with the populace - ancient Rome's answer to a socialist) , Caesar had very little respect for the Senate, and was a great deal more powerful than any Senators, so his disrespecting them wouldn't be too shocking.
Garofano quotes Cassius Dio and Plutarch, who gave illness as the reason for Caesar's failure to rise - this illness was diagnosed by a forensic psychiatrist from Harvard as Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Suetonius, however, gives two differing accounts; "some say that he attempted to rise, but that Cornelius Balbus restrained him; others believe that he not only made no move at all, but frowned upon Caius Trebatius, who suggested the propriety of standing up to receive the Senate". Suetonius also makes no mention of the deification, saying that the delegation had come to confer "the highest dignities" on Caesar.
- Apart from the deification, the assassination would make the populace more sympathetic towards Caesar's heir and allies, and less sympathetic towards his republican enemies.
My response: No argument there, but Octavian was quite young at the time (only 19) to take full command of all of Rome; if Caesar *had* organised his own assassination, he could have organised it for after his campaign against the Parthians, which would have given him more time to pass on his skills to Octavian, and also would have consolidated his popularity - this is assuming his campaign succeded, which I have no reason to doubt.
But on the other hand: As I mentioned above, the legions were now more inclined to follow a strong personality rather than a figure of authority; and events after the assassination proved that the legions would gladly follow Octavian, that he was ready to assume command of Rome, and also that the loyalty of the legions would be probably the single most important factor in determining Rome's future leadership.
- Caesar completely ignored the warnings he received - from the soothsayer Spurinna, the bad dreams of his wife Calpurnia, and a note warning him of the conspiracy.
My response: Caesar did actually stay at home due to Calpurnia's bad dreams, but was eventually persuaded to dismiss the senate in person by Decimus Brutus. Also, Caesar was known to disregard the advice of soothsayers - Suetonius quotes him as saying "The entrails will be more favourable when I please". As to the note - Garofano claims that it was the one document handed to Caesar on his way to Pompey's theatre that he didn't pass to one of his servants. Suetonius, however, says that he carried the note bundled with several other documents in his left hand.
- Caesar's widely-advertised impending departure for Parthia gave the Senators a deadline by which to kill Caesar.
My response: This is a pretty ridiculous point. Parthia was a situation that Caesar had to deal with sooner or later, and as Crassus's defeat there was such a blow to the Roman psyche, obviously news of Rome's premier general leading a campaign there would be made public very quickly.
Also, if he really wanted a quick death, it would have made much more sense for Caesar to pursue the campaign in Parthia and engineer his own death there - that way, not only would he have died a glorious death, but his chosen heir, Octavian (who would presumably have taken charge of the legions afterwards), could return to Rome to universal acclaim.
- The conspiracy completely fell apart after the assassination - they didn't seem to have any idea at all regarding how to restore the republic.
My response: Also true. But this could be put down to stupidity, short-sightedness, doubt, lack of political ambition, or just plain hope that things would somehow work out.
- But! If Caesar hadn't known about, and arranged, the conspiracy, why did he go to the senate without his bodyguards?
My response: Well, there are two plausible explanations for that - first, overconfidence. Caesar may have believed that no-one would try to kill him lest it start another Civil War. Which it did. Sulla, who was the last person before Caesar to wield a comparable amount of power, also did without his bodyguards, and he died of natural causes. The second explanation would be that Caesar was merely going to tell the senate that he didn't want a meeting; just a quick visit, and so he didn't feel he would need his guards.
- Those conspirators! They were quite like the mafia, really, weren't they?
My response: Quite.
- Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars
A primary source of information.
- The Sunday Times Magazine, 9th March 2003
Contained the article about the modern-day investigation into Caesar's murder, and the recreation of his autopsy.
- Who Killed Julius Caesar was the name of the documentary referred to in the Sunday Times article, and I finally got around to watching it, thanks to The Debutante.
Two decent biographies of Julius Caesar.
Most of my other references were quite sketchy or equivocal about Decimus and Marcus Brutus; the four links above helped clarify their history, relationship and roles in the assassination.
- Many thanks to The Debutante for typo-spotting, and bringing up some good points in discussion. And for taping the Garofano documentary for me ;)