The assassination of Julius Caesar

The assassination of Julius Caesar
Illustration of the assassination of Julius Caesar by M. Clément published in January 1885 in the monthly magazine "Paris illustré".

Come, vidi, vici! That was the simple message that the Roman commander Julius Caesar sent to the Roman Senate after his resounding victory in the East against King Pharnaces of Pontus: a message that displayed both arrogance and great military prowess. “I came, I saw, I conquered!” it also represented his future as leader of the Roman Republic . Although he was initially praised for both his military prowess and his commanding ability, he slowly instilled fear in the minds of many people both inside and outside the Senate. In the end, a plot emerged; friends became enemies and the dictator met a brutal death.

The death of Julius Caesar

Vincenzo Cammuccini (Public Domain)

Military success and 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 50 decisive battles. Although the Roman citizens adored him, in many ways he caused concern among the members of the senate, especially the elite, the Optimates. The man who would soon be acclaimed dictator for life ( dictator perpetuo) transferred his prowess as a military commander to the ability to lead the Republic. Seeing the need and showing that he truly loved the people of Rome, he decreed several important and necessary reforms, reforms that would make the people worship him even more. Ever loyal to his army, one of his first ventures was offering land to veterans. Afterward, he gave grain to the city’s poor and planned their move to newly acquired colonies in Anatolia, Greece, and North Africa. He limited the position of provincial governors and increased the number of senators. He created a new calendar (which is still used today) and offered gladiatorial games and banquets for entertainment. The city of Rome had suffered from violence and corruption and unemployment was very high. Cesar not only created jobs through public works projects, but also cleaned the streets, dangerous. He even built a public library.

Although these reforms made him popular with the commoners , many of his enemies, and even some of his friends, panicked. For these men, their beloved Republic was no more, especially after Caesar was appointed dictator for life in 44 BC, a totally unconstitutional act. They believed that they no longer had a voice, since Rome was rapidly coming under the control of a potential tyrant. The infinite arrogance and vanity of Caesar (for example, he was very ashamed of his bald head) offended much of the Roman Senate. This arrogance became more evident when he arrived victorious in the city after defeating the Roman commander Gnaeus Pompey in Spain. Adorned in triumphant robes and a laurel wreath, which many considered unnecessary, Caesar rode into the city. The wars in the East had been against foreigners, but his victory in Spain meant the death of people who many considered his sons and daughters. The tribune Pontius Aquila even refused to rise as Caesar passed by, angering the victorious hero.

Caesar’s honors and his perceived arrogance

Despite the feelings of some, Caesar received many honors: the titles of liberator and imperator, his birthday was proclaimed a holiday, the month of his birth, Quinctilis, was renamed in his honor (July), and he was named both the father of his country as consul for ten years. In all processions an ivory statue of Caesar had to be carried alongside the statues of the Roman gods, and all this was done without Caesar objecting. His arrogance became more and more obvious as time went on: he would sit dressed in the formal purple robes of ancient Roman kings on a specially built golden chair when he went to the Senate, often refusing to rise as a sign of respect for any member who approached him. In addition to that, he also built a private palace on the Quirinal Hill.


Although those around him put up with his arrogance, there were those who believed that the victorious hero was becoming more of a divine figure than a ruler, which was in contrast to many traditional Roman beliefs. It must be remembered that the concept of the imperial cult was still several years in the future. Among both his friends and his enemies there was a growing sense of animosity, questioning why the Senate would allow something they felt was blasphemous. Did Caesar really believe that he deserved such admiration? To many he seemed more like a king than a ruler, someone who no longer had to explain himself to the Roman people or the Senate.

This heightened sense of self-esteem became most evident during February’s annual festival, Lupercalia. The ever-loyal Roman commander Antony attempted to place a diadem, a laurel wreath, on Caesar’s head while the “king,” adorned in his usual purple robes, sat in the Forum on his golden throne, but Caesar he pushed her away, rejecting the gesture, stating that only Jupiter was the king of the Romans. Unfortunately, not everyone considered this rejection to be sincere. Many even believed that the entire event was prepared. Whether he considered himself king or not, Caesar always refused the title if he was addressed by it. Roman orator and writer Cicero, an individual who had supported Pompey and was known to dislike Caesar, said that this was the beginning of the end for Rome.

Bust of Julius Caesar

Tataryn77 (CC BY-SA)

A plot emerges

The time had come to save the republic from this would-be king, and thus the plot was born. However, a conspiracy to not only drive out Caesar but assassinate him was a dangerous mission. Who would dare plan to kill the dictator for life of the Roman Republic, knowing that if they failed, they would be considered traitors? Of course, there were Caesar’s former enemies, Pompey’s friends and supporters, who sought high office and profit. Then there were what many considered Caesar’s friends, people who, despite being rewarded for his loyalty, disagreed with many of his policies, especially his hesitation in removing the Optimates. , old and conservative. On top of that, they also didn’t approve of his attempts to make peace with Pompey’s followers. Finally, there were the idealists, those who respected the Republic and its ancient traditions. Individually, they had mixed reasons, but collectively they believed that the salvation of the republic depended on Caesar’s death.

The ringleaders

The four leaders of the conspiracy were an unusual mix of friend and foe. The first two men believed that they had not received a sufficient reward for their service to Caesar: Gaius Trebonius served as praetor and consul and had fought with Caesar in Spain; Tenth June Brutus Albinus was governor of Gaul and had been victorious against the Gauls. The other two conspirators were clearly no friends of Caesar: Gaius Cassius Longinus, who had served with both Crassus and Pompey as a naval commander, and is believed by some to have conceived the plan (certainly Caesar did not trust him), and finally, the greedy and arrogant Marcus Junius Brutus, who had also served under Pompey and was Cassius’s brother-in-law.

Brutus was the son of Caesar’s mistress Servilia (erroneously considered Caesar’s son) and was married to Portia, the daughter of the Roman orator Cato. Marcus Porcius Cato (or Cato the Younger), a great supporter of Pompey and a public critic of Caesar, had committed suicide in 46 BC in North Africa. He had refused to surrender to Caesar after the commander’s victory at Thapsus. After Cato’s death, both Cicero and Brutus wrote elegies praising the fallen Roman. For Cicero, Cato was the epitome of Roman virtue, a statement that angered Caesar. Despite all this, Caesar believed in Brutus, forgave him, and supported him in his position as praetor, which was a step towards consulship. Of course there were also other conspirators: Publius Servilius Casca, a tribune, who would strike the first blow; Cayo Servilio Casca (his brother), who allegedly delivered the last blow to the dictator’s ribs; and finally Lucius Tilio Cimbro, governor of Bithynia, who gave the signal to begin the attack. These men believed that power should be removed from Caesar at all costs and returned to the Roman Senate.

The plan

Brutus believed Caesar’s assassination had quite a bit of support. These men met secretly, in small groups to avoid being discovered. Fortunately for the conspirators, Caesar dismissed his Spanish bodyguard in October 45 BC, believing. That no one would dare attack him. The conspirators realized that the attack had to come soon and quickly. Since Caesar was planning to lead his army on a three-year campaign against the Parthians, leaving on March 18. But when and where should they attack? Should they attack when Caesar was traveling on the Appian Way or in a public place? Could they attack while he was walking home on the Via Sacra? Could they attack while he was enjoying the gladiatorial games? After much discussion, the final decision was to attack during a session of the Senate in Pompey’s. Theater (the regular Roman Senate was under construction) on March 15, 44 BC, the Ides of March. The attackers had wisely chosen their weapon: a double-edged dagger or20-centimeter pugio instead of a sword. Daggers served best in close combat and could be hidden under the toga.

The attack

If omens are to be believed, there were several reasons why Caesar did not go to the Senate that day. First, Caesar’s horses, grazing on the banks of the Rubicon, were seen crying. Afterward, a bird flew into Pompey’s Theater with a sprig of laurel, but was devoured by a larger bird. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, had a dream of him bleeding to death in her arms. And finally, a fortune teller named Spurinna warned him to beware of the danger of the Ides of March. Unfortunately, Caesar did not pay much attention to omens. The historian Suetonius wrote, “these warnings and the fact that he was not feeling well caused him to hesitate for a moment whether to go ahead with his plans or postpone the meeting.” On the day of his death, Caesar was really sick and, as Suetonius said,

A crowd accompanied Caesar on his way to the Senate. Just as he entered the theater, a man named Artemidorus tried to warn him of the impending danger by giving him a scroll, but Caesar ignored him. The dictator entered the room and sat on his throne. Following the plan, Trebonius conveniently distracted Antony, who had accompanied Caesar. In the theater there were 200 senators waiting, along with ten tribunes and various slaves and secretaries. Cimbra approached Caesar, who did not suspect a thing, and delivered a petition on behalf of his brother exiled from him. Caesar, of course, did not get up to greet him. Cimbra grabbed him by the toga, yanking it. Caesar is said to have exclaimed. “Why this violence?”. Casca made the first stab with her knife; Cesar immediately tried to defend himself, covering his face with his arms. The other conspirators surrounded the frightened Caesar and Cassius stabbed him in the face, Tenth in the ribs. Caesar collapsed, dead, ironically at the foot of the statue of his old enemy Pompey. In total, he received 23 stab wounds. Suetonius describes the attack:

At that moment, one of the Casca brothers slipped in from behind. And with a flick of his dagger, stabbed him just below the throat. Cesar grabbed Casca by the arm and stabbed him with a stiletto. He was backing away from him when another dagger caught him in the chest.

Despite the beautiful words of William Shakespeare, Caesar did not say ” Et tu, Brute! ” (You too, Brutus!) when Brutus stabbed the dying dictator, but “You too, my son!” The rest of the senators present escaped from the theater. After the events, Rome was plunged into a state of confusion. Suetonius wrote that there were some, those who did not like Caesar. Who wanted to take the corpse of the murdered leader and throw it into the Tiber. Confiscate his property and reverse his laws. However, Antony kept a cool head and stopped such plans.

Posthumous bust of Caesar

Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA)

The consequences

Although the conspiracy was a great plan carefully prepared, they did not do much to plan what would come next. The conspirators made their way to the Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Jupiter. Brutus spoke from a platform at the foot of the hill, trying in vain to calm the population. Meanwhile, the slaves carried Caesar’s body through the streets to his house; people wept as they passed. The funeral procession on March 20 was a very different spectacle from that presented by Shakespeare. Although Antonio did read a brief eulogy. A pyre had been built on the Champ de Mars near the family tomb. However, the locals soon took Caesar’s body to the Forum. Where he was cremated on a much simpler pyre. The ashes were taken back to the Champ de Mars, to the tomb of his family. The city continued to mourn. In itsThe Twelve Caesars , Suetonius wrote that Caesar may have known there was a plot against him, and that because of his failing health he knowingly exposed himself to assault. “Almost virtually all experts believe that he was willing to accept his way of dying. He hated the idea of ​​a long ending: he wanted a sudden one.”

Brutus believed that Caesar’s death would bring about a return to the old Roman spirit. But unfortunately the city was stunned and the people became more and more hostile. On March 17 the Senate wanted to make a compromise with Antony’s wishes. On the one hand, Caesar’s laws would be upheld, and on the other, the conspirators would receive amnesty. Unfortunately, peace was impossible and the conspirators fled from Rome, and all would eventually die. Suetonius ended the chapter on the slain leader by saying, “All were sentenced to death. And all received it in different ways: some in shipwreck, others in battle, some using the very daggers with which they had betrayed Caesar to take their own lives.” To Rome, young Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, he not only received his war funds. But also the support of his army. A final conflict between Antony (with the help of Cleopatra). And Octavian would give Octavian power as Augustus , the first emperor of the Roman Empire.