Ancient Rome

 

Assassination Of Caesar

Gary Edward Forsythe: Assistant Professor of Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago. Author of The Historian L. Calpurnius Piso Frugi and the Roman Annalistic Tradition.  Robert A. Guisepi:  Author of Ancient Voices

(Re-printed by permission)

 

"Remember, Roman, that it is for thee to rule the nations. This shall be thy task, to impose the ways of peace, to spare the vanquished, and to tame the proud by war." 

Author:      Niebuhr; Plutarch

Assassination Of Caesar By Niebuhr

B.C. 44

 

Introduction

 

     Caesar's assassination forms the groundwork of one of Shakespeare's most

notable tragedies.  The "itching palm" of Cassius, Brutus' rectitude and

honesty of purpose, and Mark Antony's oration will ever live while the English

language endures.  When the great Caesar was struck down, the civil war was

over and he was master of the world.  The month of the year B.C. 100 in which

he was born, Quinctilis, was afterward called in his honor, July.

 

     Caius Julius Caesar was one of the greatest figures in history, and early

took a prominent part in the affairs of Rome.  He was a rival of Cicero in

forensic eloquence and highly esteemed as a writer, his Commentaries being

universally admired.  Ransomed from pirates who had captured him on his way to

study philosophy at Rhodes, he attacked them in turn, took them to Pergamus,

and crucified them.

 

[See Roman Coin Depicting Caesar: From the British Museum. Caesar is on the

third coin.]

 

 

     After various successful engagements Caesar marched against Pharnaces,

now established in the kingdom of the Bosphorus, gaining at Zela, in Pontus,

the decisive victory which he announced in the famous despatch, Veni, vidi,

vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered").

 

     His unbounded affability, his liveliness and cordiality, his unaffected

kindness to his friends had made him popular with the high as well as the low.

His ambition began to show itself.  During the wrangles over the election of

Afranius as consul, Caesar returned from his brilliant successes in Spain.

The troops saluted him as imperator and the senate voted a thanksgiving in his

honor.  He was now strong enough to take his place as the leader of the

popular party.  He was elected consul in spite of the hostility of the senate.

 

     A coalition was formed between Caesar and Pompey.  Caesar's agrarian law

added to his popularity with the people, and he gained the influence of the

equites by relief of one-third of the farmed taxes of Asia.  He now became

proconsul of Illyricum and Gaul for five years.  This suited his ambition. At

this time Pompey was the absolute master of Rome.  And now arose his duel for

power with Caesar.  For a time he opposed the latter's election as consul, but

later yielded.

 

     Caesar had achieved his brilliant success beyond the Alps.  He had won

victories in Gaul and Britain; but in the mean time his enemies had been

active at Rome.  Still believing that the senate would permit his quiet

election to the consulship, he refused to strike any blow at their authority.

But the senate had determined to humble Caesar.  Both Pompey and Caesar were

removed from leadership, but the Consul Marcellus refused to execute the

decree.  Caesar was directed by the senate to disband his army by a fixed day,

on pain of being considered a public enemy.  Pompey sided with the senate.

This meant civil war.  Antony and Cassius fled to the camp of Caesar, who was

enthusiastically supported by his soldiers and "crossed the Rubicon."

 

     Having become master of all Italy in three months without a battle,

Caesar, reentered Rome.  Pompey had fled, and at the battle of Pharsalia was

utterly routed, and took refuge in Egypt, where he was murdered a few days

before the arrival of Caesar.

 

     Upon receipt of the news of Pompey's death Caesar was named dictator for

one year.  The government was now placed without disguise in his hands.  He

was invested with the tribunician power for life.  He was also again elected

consul and named dictator.

 

     Caesar had now become a demi-god, and was named dictator for ten years,

being awarded a fourfold triumph, and a thanksgiving being decreed for forty

days.  He was also made censor.  This was in B.C. 46.  After defeating the

remnant of the Pompeians, he returned to Rome in September, B.C. 45, and was

named imperator, and appointed consul for ten years and dictator for life,

being hailed as Parens Patriae.

 

     All these triumphs had caused jealousies.  It was thought that he aspired

to become king, and this led to his fall.

 

Assassination Of Caesar: Niebuhr

 

     It is one of the inestimable advantages of a hereditary government

commonly called the legitimate, whatever its form may be, that it may be

formally inactive in regard to the state and the population - that it may

reserve its interference until it is absolutely necessary, and apparently

leave things to take their own course.  If we look around us and observe the

various constitutions, we shall scarcely perceive the interference of the

government; the greater part of the time passes away without those who have

the reins in their hands being obliged to pay any particular attention to what

they are doing, and a very large amount of individual liberty may be enjoyed.

But if the government is what we call a usurpation, the ruler has not only to

take care to maintain his power, but in all that he undertakes he has to

consider by what means and in what ways he can establish his right to govern,

and his own personal qualifications for it.  Men who are in such a position

are urged on to act by a very sad necessity, from which they cannot escape,

and such was the position of Caesar at Rome.

 

     In our European States, men have wide and extensive spheres in which they

can act and move.  The much-decried system of centralization has indeed many

disadvantages; but it has this advantage for the ruler, that he can exert an

activity which shows its influence far and wide.  But what could Caesar do, in

the centre of nearly the whole of the known world?  He could not hope to

effect any material improvements either in Italy or in the provinces.  He had

been accustomed from his youth, and more especially during the last fifteen

years, to an enormous activity, and idleness was intolerable to him.  At the

close of the civil war he would have had little or nothing to do unless he had

turned his attention to some foreign enterprise.  He was obliged to venture

upon something that would occupy his whole soul, for he could not rest.  His

thoughts were therefore again directed to war, and that in a quarter where the

most brilliant triumphs awaited him, where the bones of the legions of Crassus

lay unavenged - to a war against the Parthians. About this time the Getae also

had spread in Thrace, and he intended to check their progress likewise.  But

his main problem was to destroy the Parthian empire and to extend the Roman

dominion as far as India, a plan in which he would certainly have been

successful; and he himself felt so sure of this that he was already thinking

of what he should undertake afterward.

 

     It is by no means incredible that, as we are told, he intended on his

return to march through the passes of the Caucasus, and through ancient

Scythia into the country of the Getae, and thence through Germany and Gaul

into Italy.  Besides this expedition, he entertained other plans of no less

gigantic dimensions.  The port of Ostia was bad, and in reality little better

than a mere roadstead, so that great ships could not come up the river.

Accordingly it is said that Caesar intended to dig a canal for sea-ships, from

the Tiber, above or below Rome, through the Pomptine marshes as far as

Terracina.  He further contemplated to cut through the Isthmus of Corinth. It

is not easy to see in what manner he would have accomplished this, considering

the state of hydraulic architect ure in those times.  The Roman canals were

mere fossae, and canals withsluices, though not unknown to the Romans, were

not constructed by them. ^1

 

[Footnote 1: The first canals with sluices were executed by the Dutch in the

fifteenth century.]

 

     The fact of Caesar forming such enormous plans is not very surprising;

but we can scarcely comprehend how it was possible for him to accomplish so

much of what he undertook in the short time of five months preceding his

death.  Following the unfortunate system of Sulla, Caesar founded throughout

Italy a number of colonies of veterans.  The old Sullanian colonists were

treated with great severity, and many of them and their children were expelled

from their lands, and were thus punished for the cruelty which they or their

fathers had committed against the inhabitants of the municipia.  In like

manner colonies were established in Southern Gaul, Italy, Africa, and other

parts; I may mention in particular the colonies founded at Carthage and

Corinth.  The latter, however, was a colonia libertinorum, and never rose to

any importance.  We do not know the details of its foundation, but one would

imagine that Caesar would have preferred restoring the place as a purely Greek

town.  This, however, he did not do.  Its population was and remained a mixed

one, and Corinth never rose to a state of real prosperity.

 

     Caesar made various new arrangements in the State, and among others he

restored the full franchise, or the jus honorum, to the sons of those who had

been proscribed in the time of Sulla.  He had obtained for himself the title

of imperator and the dictatorship for life and the consulship for ten years.

Half of the offices of the republic to which persons had before been elected

by the centuries were in his gift, and for the other half he usually

recommended candidates; so that the elections were merely nominal.

 

     The tribes seem to have retained their rights of election uncurtailed,

and the last tribunes must have been elected by the people.  But although

Caesar did not himself confer the consulship, yet the whole republic was

reduced to a mere form and appearance.  Caesar made various new laws and

regulations; for example, to lighten the burdens of debtors and the like; but

the changes he introduced in the form of the constitution were of little

importance.  He increased the number of praetors, which Sulla had raised to

eight, successively to ten, twelve, fourteen, and sixteen, and the number of

quaestors was increased to forty.  Hence the number of persons from whom the

senate was to be filled up became greater than that of the vacancies, and

Caesar accordingly increased the number of senators, though it is uncertain

what number he fixed upon, and raised a great many of his friends to the

dignity of senators.  In this, as in many other cases, he acted very

arbitrarily; for he elected into the senate whomsoever he pleased, and

conferred the franchise in a manner equally arbitrary.  These things did not

fail to create much discontent.  It is a remarkable fact that, notwithstanding

his mode of filling up the senate, not even the majority of senators were

attached to his cause after his death.

 

     If we consider the changes and regulations which Caesar introduced, it

must strike us as a singular circumstance that among all his measures there is

no trace of any indicating that he thought of modifying the constitution for

the purpose of putting an end to the anarchy, for all his changes are in

reality not essential or of great importance.  Sulla felt the necessity of

remodelling the constitution, but he did not attain his end; and the manner,

too, in which he set about it was that of a short-sighted man; but he was at

least intelligent enough to see that the constitution as it then was could not

continue to exist.  In the regulations of Caesar we see no trace of such a

conviction; and I think that he despaired of the possibility of effecting any

real good by constitutional reforms.  Hence, among all his laws there is not

one that had any relation to the constitution.  The fact of his increasing the

number of patrician families had no reference to the constitution; so far in

fact were the patricians from having any advantages over the plebeians that

the office of the two aediles Cereales, which Caesar instituted, was confined

to the plebeians - a regulation which was opposed to the very nature of the

patriciate.

 

     His raising persons to the rank of patricians was neither more nor less

than the modern practice of raising a family to the rank of nobility; he

picked out an individual and gave him the rank of patrician for himself and

his descendants, but did not elevate a whole gens.  The distinction itself was

merely a nominal one and conferred no privilege upon a person except that of

holding certain priestly offices, which could be filled by none but

patricians, and for which their number was scarcely sufficient.  If Caesar had

died quietly the republic would have been in the same, nay, in a much worse,

state of dissolution than if he had not existed at all.  I consider it a proof

of the wisdom and good sense of Caesar that he did not, like Sulla, think an

improvement in the state of public affairs so near at hand or a matter of so

little difficulty.  The cure of the disease lay yet at a very great distance,

and the first condition on which it could be undertaken was the sovereignty of

Caesar, a condition which would have been quite unbearable even to many of his

followers, who as rebels did not scruple to go along with him.  But Rome could

no longer exist as a republic.

 

     It is curious to see in Cicero's work, de Republica, the consciousness

running through it that Rome, as it then stood, required the strong hand of a

king.  Cicero had surely often owned this to himself; but he saw no one who

would have entered into such an idea.  The title of king had a great

fascination for Caesar, as it had for Cromwell - a surprising phenomenon in a

practical mind like that of Caesar.  Everyone knows the fact that while Caesar

was sitting on the suggestum, during the celebration of the Lupercalia, Antony

presented to him the diadem, to try how the people would take it.  Caesar saw

the great alarm which the act created and declined the diadem for the sake of

appearance; but had the people been silent, Caesar would unquestionably have

accepted it.  His refusal was accompanied by loud shouts of acclamation, which

for the present rendered all further attempts impossible.  Antony then had a

statue of Caesar adorned with the diadem; but two tribunes of the people, L.

Caesetius Flavus and Epidius Marullus, took it away: and here Caesar showed

the real state of his feelings, for he treated the conduct of the tribunes as

a personal insult toward himself.  He had lost his self-possession and his

fate carried him irresistibly onward.  He wished to have the tribunes

imprisoned, but was prevailed upon to be satisfied with their being stripped

of their office and sent into exile.

 

     This created a great sensation at Rome.  Caesar had also been guilty of

an act of thoughtlessness, or perhaps merely of distraction, as might happen

very easily to a man in his circumstances.  When the senate had made its last

decrees, conferring upon Caesar unlimited powers, the senators, consuls, and

praetors, or the whole senate, in festal attire, presented the decrees to him,

and Caesar at the moment forgot to show his respect for the senators; he did

not rise from his sella curulis, but received the decrees in an unceremonious

manner.  This want of politeness was never forgiven by the persons who had not

scrupled to make him their master; for it had been expected that he would at

least behave politely and be grateful for such decrees. ^1 Caesar himself had

no design in the act, which was merely the consequence of distraction or

thoughtlessness; but it made the senate his irreconcilable enemies.  The

affair with the tribunes, moreover, had made a deep impression upon the

people.  We must, however, remember that the people under such circumstances

are most sensible to anything affecting their honor, as we have seen at the

beginning of the French Revolution.

 

[Footnote 1: I have known an instance of a man of rank and influence who could

never forgive another man, who was by far his superior in every respect, for

having forgotten to take off his hat during a visit.]

 

     In the year of Caesar's death, Brutus and Cassius were praetors.  Both

had been generals under Pompey.  Brutus' mother, Servilia, was a half-sister

of Cato, for after the death of her first husband Cato's mother had married

Servilius Caepio.  She was a remarkable woman, but very immoral, and unworthy

of her son; not even the honor of her own daughter was sacred to her.  The

family of Brutus derived its origin from L. Junius Brutus, and from the time

of its first appearance among the plebeians it had had few men of importance

to boast of.  During the period subsequent to the passing of the Licinian laws

we meet with some Junii in the Fasti, but not one of them acquired any great

reputation.  The family had become reduced and almost contemptible. One M.

Brutus in particular disgraced his family by sycophancy in the time of Sulla

and was afterward killed in Gaul by Pompey.  Although no Roman family belonged

to a more illustrious gens, yet Brutus was not by any means one of those men

who are raised by fortunate circumstances.  The education, however, which he

received had a great influence upon him.  His uncle Cato, whose daughter

Porcia he married - whether in Cato's lifetime or afterward is doubtful - had

initiated him from his early youth in the Stoic philosophy, and had instilled

into his mind a veneration for it, as though it had been a religion.

 

     Brutus had qualities which Cato did not possess.  The latter had

something of an ascetic nature, and was, if I may say so, a scrupulously pious

character; but Brutus had no such scrupulous timidity; his mind was more

flexible and lovable.  Cato spoke well, but could not be reckoned among the

eloquent men of his time.  Brutus' great talents had been developed with the

utmost care, and if he had lived longer and in peace he would have become a

classical writer of the highest order.  He had been known to Cicero from his

early age, and Cicero felt a fatherly attachment to him; he saw in him a young

man who he hoped would exert a beneficial influence upon the next generation.

 

     Caesar too had known and loved him from his childhood; but the stories

which are related to account for this attachment must be rejected as foolish

inventions of idle persons; for nothing is more natural than that Caesar

should look with great fondness upon a young man of such extraordinary and

amiable qualities.  The absence of envy was one of the distinguishing features

in the character of Caesar, as it was in that of Cicero.  In the battle of

Pharsalus, Brutus served in the army of Pompey, and after the battle he wrote

a letter to Caesar, who had inquired after him; and when Caesar heard of his

safety he was delighted, and invited him to his camp. Caesar afterward gave

him the administration of Cisalpine Gaul, where Brutus distinguished himself

in a very extraordinary manner by his love of justice.

 

     Cassius was related to Brutus, and had likewise belonged to the Pompeian

party, but he was very unlike Brutus; he was much older, and a distinguished

military officer.  After the death of Crassus he had maintained himself as

quaestor in Syria against the Parthians, and he enjoyed a very great

reputation in the army, but he was after all no better than an ordinary

officer of Caesar.  After the battle of Pharsalus, Caesar did not at first

know whither Pompey was gone.  Cassius was at the time stationed with some

galleys in the Hellespont, notwithstanding which Caesar with his usual

boldness took a boat to sail across that strait, and on meeting Cassius called

upon him to embrace his party.  Cassius readily complied, and Caesar forgave

him, as he forgave all his adversaries: even Marcellus, who had mortally

offended him, was pardoned at the request of Cicero.  Caesar thus endeavored

to efface all recollections of the civil war.

 

     Caesar had appointed both Brutus and Cassius praetors for that year. With

the exception of the office of praetor urbanus, which was honorable and

lucrative, the praetorship was a burdensome office and conferred little

distinction, since the other praetors were only the presidents of the courts.

Formerly they had been elected by lot, but the office was now altogether in

the gift of Caesar.  Both Brutus and Cassius had wished for the praetura

urbana, and, when Caesar gave that office to Brutus, Cassius was not only

indignant at Caesar, but began quarrelling with Brutus also.  While Cassius

was in this state of exasperation, a meeting of the senate was announced for

the 15th of March, on which day, as the report went, a proposal was to be made

to offer Caesar the crown.  This was a welcome opportunity for Cassius, who

resolved to take vengeance, for he had even before entertained a personal

hatred of Caesar, and was now disappointed at not having obtained the city

praetorship.  He first sounded Brutus and, finding that he was safe, made

direct overtures to him.  During the night some one wrote on the tribunal and

the house of Brutus the words, "Remember that thou art Brutus."

 

     Brutus became reconciled to Cassius, offered his assistance, and gained

over several other persons to join the conspiracy.  All party differences

seemed to have vanished all at once; two of the conspirators were old generals

of Caesar, C. Trebonius and Decimus Brutus, both of whom had fought with him

in Gaul, and against Massilia, and had been raised to high honors by their

chief.  There were among the conspirators persons of all parties.  Men who had

fought against one another at Pharsalus now went hand-in-hand and intrusted

their lives to one another.  No proposals were made to Cicero, the reasons

usually assigned for which are of the most calumniatory kind.  It is generally

said that the conspirators had no confidence in Cicero, an opinion which is

perfectly contemptible.  Cicero would not have betrayed them for any

consideration, but what they feared were his objections.  Brutus had as noble

a soul as anyone, but he was passionate; Cicero, on the other hand, who was at

an advanced age, had many sad experiences, and his feelings were so

exceedingly delicate that he could not have consented to take away the life of

him to whom he himself owed his own, who had always behaved most nobly toward

him, and had intentionally drawn him before the world as his friend.

 

     Caesar's conduct toward those who had fought in the ranks of Pompey and

afterward returned to him was extremely noble, and he regarded the

reconciliation of those men as a personal favor conferred upon himself.  All

who knew Cicero must have been convinced that he would not have given his

consent to the plan of the conspirators; and if they ever did give the matter

a serious thought, they must have owned to themselves that every wise man

would have dissuaded them from it; for it was in fact the most complete

absurdity to fancy that the republic could be restored by Caesar's death.

Goethe says somewhere that the murder of Caesar was the most senseless act

that the Romans ever committed; and a truer word was never spoken.  The result

of it could not possibly be any other than that which did follow the deed.

 

     Caesar was cautioned by Hirtius and Pansa, both wise men of noble

character, especially the former, who saw that the republic must become

consolidated and not thrown into fresh convulsions.  They advised Caesar to be

careful, and to take a bodyguard; but he replied that he would rather not live

at all than be in constant fear of losing his life.  Caesar once expressed to

some of his friends his conviction that Brutus was capable of harboring a

murderous design, but he added that as he, Caesar, could not live much longer,

Brutus would wait, and not be guilty of such a crime.  Caesar's health was at

that time weak, and the general opinion was that he intended to surrender his

power to Brutus as the most worthy.  While the conspirators were making their

preparations, Porcia, the wife of Brutus, inferred from the excitement and

restlessness of her husband that some fearful secret was pressing on his mind;

but as he did not show her any confidence, she seriously wounded herself with

a knife and was seized with a violent wound-fever.  No one knew the cause of

her illness; and it was not till after many entreaties of her husband that at

length she revealed it to him, saying that as she had been able to conceal the

cause of her illness, so she could also keep any secret that might be

intrusted to her.  Her entreaties induced Brutus to communicate to her the

plan of the conspirators.  Caesar was also cautioned by the haruspices, by a

dream of his wife, and by his own forebodings, which we have no reason for

doubting.  But on the morning of the 15th of March, the day fixed upon for

assassinating Caesar, Decimus Brutus treacherously enticed him to go with him

to the Curia, as it was impossible to delay the deed any longer.

 

     The conspirators were at first seized with fear lest their plan should be

betrayed; but on Caesar's entrance into the senate house, C. Tillius (not

Tullius) Cimber made his way up to him, and insulted him with his

importunities, and Casca gave the first stroke.  Caesar fell covered with

twenty-three wounds.  He was either in his fifty-sixth year or had completed

it; I am not quite certain on this point, though, if we judge by the time of

his first consulship, he must have been fifty-six years old.  His birthday,

which is not generally known, was the 11th of Quinctilis, which month was

afterward called Julius, and his death took place on the 15th of March,

between eleven and twelve o'clock.

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* Because we believe primary sources of history far surpass secondary sources, most of the lives of the following individuals are taken from ancient historians such as Plutarch, Pliny, Suetonius and Tacitus