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On This Day: Caesar Murdered!

Updated: Feb 17

March 15th, 44 BC: Gaius Julius Caesar is stabbed to death.


Idibus Martiis (‘the Ides of March’, 44 BC) should have been an unremarkable day. Caesar, who had been acclaimed ‘dictator in perpetuity’ the month before, was due to appear at a session of the Senate. The night before Caesar’s chief lieutenant, Marcus Antonius (‘Mark Antony’) had learned of a plot to assassinate the dictator from a terrified conspirator named Servilius Casca [1]. Fearing the worst, Antony went to intercept Caesar but the plotters, calling themselves Libertores (‘the Liberators’), had anticipated this. To prevent Antony aiding Caesar, the conspirators had arranged for Gaius Trebonius [2] to intercept Antony just as he approached the portico of the Theatre of Pompey and detain him outside. When he heard the commotion from the Senate chamber, Antony fled.


According to Plutarch [3], as Caesar arrived at the Senate meeting, Lucius Tillius Cimber [4] presented him with a petition to recall his exiled brother, while the other conspirators crowded round to offer support. Both Plutarch and Suetonius [6] say Cimber was waved away, but he grabbed Caesar’s shoulders and pulled down Caesar's toga. Caesar then cried to Cimber: Ista quidem vis est! (‘Why, this is violence!’). At that moment, Publius Servilius Casca Longus [7] drew his dagger and made a glancing thrust at Caesar's neck. Turning swiftly around Caesar caught Casca by the arm frightening the latter who shouted for his co-conspirators’ help. Within moments, the entire group, including Marcus Junius Brutus [8], were striking at Caesar who, blinded by blood, tripped and fell as he attempted to get away. The attackers continued stabbing Caesar as he lay defenceless on the lower steps of the portico.


He was stabbed 23 times but, according to Suetonius, a physician later established that only one wound, the second one to his chest, had been lethal. Despite the popularity of line Et tu, Brute? (‘And you, Brutus?’) in Shakespeare’s play ‘Julius Caesar’, Caesar's last words are not known with certainty. Suetonius' believed Caesar said nothing, a view also taken by Plutarch who reports the same but adds that Caesar simply pulled his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators.


With the deed done Brutus and his companions marched to the Capitol. Perhaps in an omen of what was to come, the conspirators’ cry of ‘People of Rome, we are once again free!’ was met with silence as the citizens of Rome had locked themselves inside their houses as the rumours of what had taken place began to spread. Caesar's dead body lay where it fell for nearly three hours before other officials arrived to remove it for cremation. The crowd at the funeral became incensed and threw dry branches, furniture, and even clothing on to Caesar's funeral pyre. The resulting conflagration got out of control seriously damaging the Forum and neighbouring buildings. The mob then attacked the houses of Brutus and Cassius [9] only being repelled with considerable difficulty. The people’s reaction proved to be the spark that ignited a civil war.


It seems that the assassins had woefully underestimated Caesar’s popularity with the Roman middle and lower classes who were enraged that a small group of aristocrats had killed their champion. Antony, who had been drifting apart from Caesar, capitalised on the grief of the mob and threatened to unleash them on the Optimates [10] (as represented by Brutus and Cassius) most likely with the intent of taking control of Rome himself. What a surprise then when Antony learned Caesar had named his grandnephew Gaius Octavius (‘Octavian’) his sole heir, bequeathing him the immensely potent Caesar name and making him one of the wealthiest citizens in the Republic. Octavian, aged only 18 when Caesar died, proved to have considerable political skills, and while Antony dealt with Decimus Brutus in the first round of the new civil wars, Octavian consolidated his tenuous position.


To counter Brutus and Cassius, who were massing an enormous army in Greece, Antony needed soldiers, the cash from Caesar's war chests, and the legitimacy that Caesar's name would grant for any action he took against them. On November 27th, 43 BC, the lex Titia officially formed the Second Triumvirate that joined the forces of Antony, Octavian and Caesar's loyal cavalry commander, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Together they agreed to avenge Caesar's death through a series of civil wars fought against the Liberatores. The chaos that followed resulted in several unforeseen outcomes, particularly for Antony with regard to Caesar's adopted heir.


Caesar's clemency had resulted in his murder, the Second Triumvirate reinstated the practice of proscription. Through the legally sanctioned killing of a large number of its opponents and seizing their fortunes, the Triumvirs secured funding for the 45 legions that eventually led to the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in the second civil war.


With the deaths of Brutus and Cassius, Antony formed an alliance with Caesar's lover, Cleopatra, intending to use the fabulously wealthy Egypt as a base to dominate Rome. Almost immediately a third civil war erupted between Antony and Cleopatra on the one hand and Octavian. This final civil war, culminating in the former's defeat at Actium in 31 BC and their suicides in Egypt in 30 BC, resulted in the permanent ascendancy of Octavian. From this point the ‘Divi filius’ as Caesar Augustus became the first Roman emperor.

 

Endnotes:


1. Publius Servilius Casca Longus was one of Caesar’s assassins. Afterwards, Casca fought with the Liberatores, led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, during the Liberators' civil war started by Antony, Octavian and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (the Second Triumvirate) to avenge Caesar's death. He is believed to have died by suicide after their defeat at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.


2. Gaius Trebonius (c. 92 BC – January 43 BC) was a military commander and politician of the late Roman Republic, who became suffect consul in 45 BC. He was an associate of Julius Caesar, having served as his legate and having fought on his side during the civil war, and was among the tyrannicides who killed the dictator.


3. Plutarch (c. AD 46 - after AD 119) was a Greek Middle Platonist philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. He is known primarily for his Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of illustrious Greeks and Romans, and Moralia, a collection of essays and speeches. When granted Roman citizenship, he possibly adopted the name Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus.


4. Lucius Tillius Cimber (died 42 BC) was a Roman senator and one of Caesar’s assassins who created the diversion that enabled the conspirators to attack. Cimber was initially one of Caesar's strongest supporters. Caesar granted Cimber governorship of the provinces of Bithynia and Pontus in 44 BC. He may also have been Praetor in the same year. Cicero once used Cimber's influence on Caesar to help a friend. It is not known why he joined the assassination, but Seneca [5] states that he was motivated by ambition.


5. Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BC – 65 AD), usually known as Seneca, was a Stoic philosopher of Ancient Rome, a statesman, dramatist, and, in one work, satirist, from the post-Augustan age of Latin literature.


6. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly referred to as Suetonius (c. AD 69 – after AD 122), was a Roman historian who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire. His most important surviving work is a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian, properly titled De vita Caesarum.


7. Publius Servilius Casca Longus (died c. 42 BC) was one of Caesar’s assassins. Afterwards, Casca fought with the Liberatores during the Liberators' civil war. He is believed to have committed suicide after their defeat at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.


8. Marcus Junius Brutus (c. 85 BC – 23 October 42 BC) was a Roman politician, orator, and the most famous of Caesar’s assassins. After being adopted by a relative, he used the name Quintus Servilius Caepio Brutus, which was retained as his legal name, but is often referred to simply as Brutus.


9. Gaius Cassius Longinus (c. 86 BC – October 3rd, 42 BC) was a Roman senator and brother-in-law of Brutus, the other leading instigator of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar on March 15th, 44 BC. He commanded troops with Brutus during the Battle of Philippi against the combined forces of Mark Antony and Octavian. Cassius committed suicide after being defeated by Antony.


10. Optimates (Latin: ‘best ones’, sing. optimas) and populares (Latin: ‘supporters of the people’, sing. popularis) are labels applied to politicians, political groups, traditions, strategies, or ideologies in the late Roman Republic. Among other things, optimates have been seen as supporters of the continued authority of the senate, politicians who operated mostly in the senate, or opponents of the populares. In contrast, the populares are seen as focusing on operating before the popular assemblies, using the populace to oppose the senate.

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