Hello, and welcome to this, the first episode of the new season of Assassinations Podcast. This is the start of the fourth season of the show . It’s so enjoyable to make it, and I think that the upcoming season is going to be fascinating. We’re going to be looking at dynasties - powerful political families who are notorious for committing and/or being the victims of assassinations.
In the opening two episodes of this season, I’m delving into the most famous assassination in history, the killing of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 BC. After this case, we’ll move on to episodes that will consider dynastic skullduggery within the Julio-Claudian dynasty that followed. So, let us travel back and tarry awhile in the bustling streets and whispering colonnades of Ancient Rome.
Crowds thronged the Forum, the center of day-to-day life in Rome. This was the site of triumphal processions and public funerals; of elections, oratory and criminal trials; gladiators fought to the death here; and it was the nucleus of the city’s commercial affairs.
On the Ides of February, which is the middle of the month, the Forum hosted the ancient festival of Lupercalia. With roots going back into the dim and distant past, before even the foundation of the Roman Republic, this was a fertility festival celebrated in order to drive away evil spirits, to purify the city and the land, and to ask for good health as the people anticipated the coming of spring. It was also one of the strangest festivals of ancient Rome. Upon a makeshift altar, priests from the Temple of Jupiter sacrificed a male goat and a dog. An offering was also made of salted biscuits, specially prepared by the Vestal Virgins. After the sacrifice, two priests had their foreheads anointed with blood from the sacrificial knife. A feast followed, after which the priests cut strips of skin off the sacrificed goat, and with these they ran naked through the city, whipping bystanders. Believe it or not, it was consider very good luck to be whacked by one of the priests. Many women of high rank jostled to the front of the crowd for the honor of being touched by the bloody goatskin straps. For it was believed that this would improve their chances of becoming pregnant and going on to have a successful birth.
In 44 BC, the mood was of the crowd at the festival was even more elated than usual. The city, at last, was at peace. For four long years, Rome and its empire had been wracked by civil war. Gaius Julius Caesar and his legions had fought for control of the Empire against his rivals, especially the great general, Pompey. Caesar had emerged victorious the previous year, and he had returned to the city as the supreme power, the dictator, the Father of the Nation, and - in effect - the master of a Republic that was looking more and more like a monarchy.
On the Ides of February, Caesar was carried into the Forum on a litter made of ivory and gold. Dressed in a cloak of royal purple, he sat on a golden throne on the Rostra above the assembled multitude. The famed general Marcus Antonius, better known to history as Mark Antony, Caesar’s second in command, approached. Antony had been one of the celebrants of the sacrifice, and he had just completed his circuit around the Forum, quite literally whipping up the ecstatic crowd. Sweating and wearing only a loincloth, Antony held aloft a golden crown and shouted for all to hear: “The People give this to you through me!” He then attempted to place the crown upon Caesar’s head. A few people applauded, but most seemed uncomfortable with this strange twist in the festivities. All Romans had a deep aversion to the idea of being ruled by a king - the word was considered an insult. So what was going on? The multitude grew silent.
Caesar took the crown from his head and handed it back, making a show of distain. But Antony again placed the crown upon him. Once more, Caesar demurred. After the third time that Antony attempted to crown him, Caesar, holding the offending diadem at arms length, declared loftily: “Jupiter alone is the Roman’s King.” He then ordered the crown to be taken to the Temple of Jupiter as an offering.
It was pure political theatre - an act worked out in advance, allowing Caesar to appear to be rejecting kingship, while at the same time implying that the People of Roman really wanted him to be king. Thing is, they really didn’t. And, as Caesar would find out one month later, there remained powerful people in the city who would stop at nothing to ensure that Rome’s dictator would never become its king.
So, who was Caesar? Born in 100 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar was the scion of an ancient and noble Roman family, who traced its origins back to the mythical foundation of Rome. Indeed, it was said that their lineage went back to the gods themselves.
Like most young men of his patrician status, Caesar was ambitious for power and prestige. Using his family connections, in addition to his own abundance of charm and charisma, he became a priest of the Temple of Jupiter at a young age, a position that gave him a prominent role not just in the religious life of the city but in its political landscape.
And what did he look like? The ancient historian Suetonius describes his appearance thusly:
Caesar is said to have been tall, fair and well built, with a rather broad face and keen, dark eyes. His health was sound, apart from sudden fainting spells and a tendency to nightmares … He was something of a dandy, so that he not only kept himself carefully trimmed and shaved but also … plucked with tweezers. His baldness was a disfigurement which his enemies harped upon, much to his exasperation, but he used to comb the thin strands of his hair forward from the crown of his head.
The road to greatness in Rome lay through service in the armed forces. And Caesar began his military career as an aide-de-camp in the province of Asia, in modern-day Turkey. During this posting, he was sent to raise a fleet from a neighboring allied kingdom called Bithynia. The young Caesar, who was by all accounts a handsome lad, apparently became a favorite of the king of Bithynia, a man who had a taste for what Suetonius called, “toy boys.”
A rumor began that during his sojourn in Bithynia, Caesar became a favorite - and bedfellow - of the king. Of course, this is only a rumor. There’s no way of saying if there is any substance to it. Nonetheless, it was a charge leveled against Caesar throughout his life that he had been the lover of the king, or, as his enemies put it, “the Queen of Bithynia.”
As an aside, just what was the deal with homosexuality in Ancient Rome? Well, it really does depend. In the later Imperial period, in the first and second centuries AD, bisexuality was considered quite normal, at least amongst the upper echelons of society. But in Caesar’s day, homosexuality was looked down upon, especially if a man took the so-called “submissive” role. For the Romans, like the Ancient Greeks, that role was associated with being, as it were, the “female” in the relationship. Therefore, it was not so much the homosexuality that was the cause of derision, but that a man should take the place of a woman in the sex act. And that also tells us something also about the deep misogyny that permeated the ancient mindset.
Anyway, Caesar later earned a good deal of respect for his military service, and, upon his return to Rome, he was elected to high office. It was clear that he was quite single minded in his pursuit of glory. He adopted popular policies that endeared him to the working class of Rome, known as the urban plebeians, and he borrowed vast amounts of money in order to show off and buy votes and influence.
He was then sent to help administer a Roman province in modern-day Spain. There, he is reputed to have come across a statue of Alexander the Great, the Greek general who, centuries before, had conquered much of the known world. At the sight of Alexander, Caesar is reputed to have sighed loudly, vexed that at an age when Alexander had already achieved so much, he himself had done nothing in the least epoch-making. Clearly, the young Caesar had lofty goals indeed.
Perhaps spurred on by this experience in Spain, he returned to Rome to pursue his political career. He established himself as a leader of the Populist cause. That is to say, he set himself up as a champion the poorer and more marginalized sections of society. In particular, he advocated for greater rights for the people of Italy outside of the city of Rome, and he further ingratiated himself with the urban plebs. He defended the Tribunes of the People, the men elected by popular vote by the citizens of Rome; positions that were designed to act as a counterweight to the nobility, represented in the Senate. However, the tribunes were often from the patrician class, who were well placed to buy the votes of the common people.
By bribery, Caesar managed to get himself elected to the position of Pontifex Maximus, or high priest. This made him not only the top man in the Roman religion, but it also gave Caesar a one of the pre-eminent positions in the official life of the city, as well as a home in the Pontifical Mansion, the official residence of the high priest, located in the former palace of the ancient Roman kings.
Parenthetically, one of the styles of address of the modern Pope, the head of the Catholic Church and Bishop of Rome, is Pontiff, and this title comes directly from the pagan office held by Caesar.
In his pursuit of political power, Caesar had run up some serious debts. So, he needed to get his hands on some cash, pronto. And what was the best way for a noble Roman to get rich quick? Why, to become the governor of a province of the Empire, where you could fleece the locals! Caesar headed back to Spain, where the local inhabitants had risen up against their Roman overlords. This was what you’d call a twofer. He now had the opportunity to put down a rebellion by military force, winning glory, and to loot the place, winning riches. Caesar did both very efficiently, and returned to Rome with the highest of hopes. He insisted that as he had valiantly crushed the Spanish revolt, he deserved a triumph. For an ambitious military man, a triumph was the the greatest honor that the city could bestow. You’d ride in glory through the streets of Rome, in full armor, upon a chariot. Your legions would march behind you. The spoils of war would be on display: ranks of slaves, gold, trophies, sacred object, and all the other riches that you’d taken from your enemies. Actors would play out scenes of your victories for the crowds, songs would be sung in your honor by your soldiers, and the city would rejoice at the return of its hero. But Caesar didn’t just crave glory. He demanded political power as well. He wanted to become Consul, the highest political office in Rome. There were two consuls, both in office for one year, and it was the goal of every Roman politician to gain this exalted rank; however, there was a law that prevented a consul from having a military triumph. This was in order to limit the power of the consuls, to prevent them from bringing a military force into the city. So, in short, Caesar could not have his cake and eat it. He opted to go for the consulship, which he won - again through bribery, which was totally normal, for the People of Rome fully expected to receive monetary favors in exchange for their vote.
At the end of his consulship, Caesar had to look for a new fount of glory, fame, and treasure. He thought that the land of the Gauls was the best place to win these. Located largely in modern-day France, Gaul was divided into various provinces and allied kingdoms. Caesar would spend the next nine years there, much of it spent waging war against rebellious locals. During this time, Caesar distinguished himself as a brilliant general, a man able to win the absolute loyalty of his soldiers, and to crush his enemies with ruthless efficiency. He also had a brief sojourn across the Channel to Britain, which didn’t amount to much. But you can’t go on killing Gauls for ever, can you? Eventually came the time for Caesar to return to Rome and convert his successes on the campaign trail into political capital in the city. Yet, Caesar found himself in a quandary. He had amassed great power and abundant wealth during his years fighting against the Gallic tribes. But in so doing, he had aroused the jealously and fear of his rivals in Rome. When Caesar returned to the city, he would, without doubt, be one of the richest and most renowned of men. So, his rivals cooked up a plan to have him charged with abusing his office; which, to be fair, he had done, but there was nothing unusual about that.
There was a rule preventing Caesar from entering Italy with his army. But if Caesar return to Rome as a civilian, he stood a very good chance of being arrested. Therefore it was only by marching on Rome at the head of an army that Caesar could avoid being put on trial by his rivals. The demarcation between the province known as Cisalpine Gaul, present day Northern Italy, and what the Romans considered to be Italy proper, was the small River Rubicon. Encamped on its northern bank, Caesar faced an existential choice. The moment he led his legions over the river, he would initiate a civil war. But what else could he do? He couldn’t retain control of his men for long without assuming power in Rome, nor could he return to the city without force of arms to protect him. His enemies had left him with no choice. If he was to continue his climb to the very pinnacle of power, then he would have to make a bold choice. And, in politics as in war, bold choices were what Caesar did best. Famously, he decided to cross the Rubicon with with words, “The Die is Cast!” - by which he meant that he would roll the dice, place his wager, and leave the result up to fate. Though Caesar was the kind of man who, by force of will and brilliance of mind, tended to make his own luck.
Marching on Rome, his enemies retreated to strategic locations throughout the Empire. The war that followed took Caesar from Spain, to Egypt, to Judea, to Asia, and the Balkans. When he had vanquished his enemies, thousands of Roman citizens lay dead. And when he returned to Rome, triumphant, Caesar was the master of all he surveyed. Or, as he himself declared, “Veni, Vidi, Vici” - I came, I saw, I conquered.
Let’s take a break. We’ll be right back.
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Caesar returned to Rome a very rich man. He had looted Gaul, and other provinces besides, and seized the assets of some of his enemies in the civil war. Then, as now, money equals power. Add to that, Caesar had the undying support of his legions, the battle-hardened men who he had led for years and whose devotion he had earned through his own personal bravery and his style of firm but fair leadership. He always addressed his men not as “soldiers” but “comrades”, and he ensured that they were well equipped and taken care of. On the other hand, he would brook no dissent. Whilst his legions never mutinied during his entire time campaigning in Gaul, he did face two rebellions during the civil war. On both occasions he faced down the mutineers, shaming them so that they ended up begging his forgiveness. In addition to binding his men to him by the sheer force of nature as a leader, he also gave them large sums of money and promises of farmland. This gave the soldiers a powerful motive to remain loyal now that the fighting was over.
Caesar was not shy about bigging himself up. In the ancient world, modesty was not considered a virtue for men of consequence. As befit his achievements and his ambition, Caesar had the Senate vote him not one, not two, not three, but five triumphs.
The first four triumphs were all held back-to-back in 46 BC. I’m sure this was a thoroughly enjoyable time for the inhabitants of the city, except for those amongst the elite who were jealous or suspicious of Caesar. He showed great largesse to the common people of Rome at this time. He threw public banquets, and paid for gladiator fights, wild beast hunts, chariot races, and athletic contests. Theatrical productions were very popular, and Caesar arranged for stage plays in every quarter of the city in several languages. These triumphs took place while the civil war was still being fought. The first was to celebrate his victory over the Gauls, which was fine because they were foreigners. The next three triumphs ostensibly celebrated Caesar’s victory over foreign forces in Africa, Asia, and Egypt; however, these were all victories won over foreign armies allied with Caesar’s enemies in the civil war. That was getting into iffy territory, because it was bad form to celebrate defeating your fellow citizens. In some of the spectacles performed for the People, scenes depicting the death of Caesar’s Roman enemies, were met with groans and jeers from the crowds, indicating an uneasiness within the city, lying just beneath the surface of all the partying and triumphal pomp.
The fifth triumph was held the following year, upon the conclusion of the civil war. This time, the normally celebratory mood of Rome during these occasions was rather more subdued. Whether high-born or low, all Romans were averse to such a brazen celebration of the killing of fellow citizens. A triumph was supposed to be a moment for a commander and the whole of Rome to glory in victory over a conquered people. So, the fifth triumph posed a profound question to the Roman public. If Caesar was conqueror in 45 BC, did that make them and the Republic the conquered? Well, if he was the conqueror of Rome, then he was a merciful one. Suetonius records that Caesar would, if at all possible, seek to come to terms even with his bitterest enemies. “Nobody can deny that during the civil war,” the historian writes, “he behaved with wonderful restraint and clemency.”
Caesar certainly enjoyed the extended celebrations of glorious victories and he also enjoyed the fruits of his wealth in a fabulous new villa on the outskirts of the city. But there was serious business to attend to. He instituted a number of broadly popular policies, including land reform, extending citizenship, and debt relief. Most famously, he reformed the outmoded Ancient Roman calendar. Over time, the months of the year had fallen out of sync with the seasons, so that religious festivities that were associated with harvests or midwinter no longer lined up with the actual time of the year. Caesar linked the calendar year to the course of the sun by a one-off addition of two months then by lengthening it to 365 days with an extra day in February every four years. This, with only minor alteration, is the same calendar that we use today. He also reformed the political structures of Rome. The civil war had led to many deaths among the nobility, and many others had gone into exile; therefore, it had depleted the offices of the state of manpower required to administer the empire and the city. So, Caesar created several hundred new senators, some of them drawn from the provinces; he raised lower class people to the nobility, making them eligible to hold high political office; and he increased the number of minor public officials that were required to administer an enlarged and increasingly complex society.
During the civil war, the Senate had made Caesar the dictator of the Republic. This was an ancient position intended to be a short-term office in times of emergency. With the conclusion of the war, when the emergency was really over, the Senate made the unprecedented decision to make Caesar dictator perpetuo. As such, Caesar would rule Rome for the rest of his life. And at the age of 55, he might reasonably expect to live for quite a while yet.
The title was granted to Caesar in an act of shameless toadying by a Senate who knew, to paraphrase on ancient commentator, up which side their bread was buttered. In truth, the title of dictator was also just a pseudo-constitutional refection of a political reality. Caesar was top man in Rome, with or without the Senate’s stamp of approval. He could appoint whomsoever he chose to any position, even to the consulship.
It might seem surprising, but Caesar would often appoint his old rivals, even people that he’d fought against during the civil war, to high political office. It seems that he had a genuinely magnanimous streak; or, at least, he was not vengeful by nature. Rather, he preferred to use his power to win over former foes with favors. As they say, you get more flies with honey than with vinegar. And Caesar could do this because the positions that he was doling out, even tribuneships and consulships - once the most honorable in Rome - had been stripped of any meaningful power. To those receiving these boons, especially to the men who had fought against Caesar during the civil war, this largesse was bittersweet. On the one hand, they still craved the titles and places of honor that came with these appointments. But on the other hand, there wasn’t much honor in receiving baubles from a dictator. The only real power granted by Caesar was to the tight knot of close lieutenants around him, such as Mark Antony. It was these men, who had fought side by side with Caesar for many years, as well as the veterans of his legions and the urban plebs, that the dictator relied upon to secure his rule.
In Rome, as we heard earlier, “king” was a dirty word. Caesar might have had the powers of a king. He might have had some of the trappings of monarchy. The Senate voted him the right to sit on a throne, to wear a gilded wreath, and to dress in royal robes. He was even deified by the Senate, assured of a place in the eternal pantheon of Roman religion upon his eventual death and apotheosis. Yet a true king, he was not. Rome was still, technically at least, a republic. Take, for example, the ancient and honorable position of the elected tribunes. The office of Tribune was intended to give the ordinary people of Rome a say in government. The tribunes were supposed to look out for the everyman, even if the men occupying these elected posts were usually of the patrician class themselves. The People of Rome took their tribunes seriously. The right to representation had been hard won by the plebeian class. And, in an earlier stage in his career, Caesar had actually been a defender of the People’s Tribunes against the most conservative elements within the Roman nobility. But as dictator, Caesar now treated the position of tribune with contempt. He decided who filled these posts, not the People. And the People, who might have once have loved Caesar, did not like that. The combination of all this power, all this distain for the rights of the People, and all of these highfalutin trappings of kingship … well, they were just rather un-Roman.
In early 44 BC, Caesar was preparing to go back to war, this time against the Parthian Empire in the East. It was whispered that his allies had discovered a line in ancient prophetic saying that, “Only a king can conquer the Parthians.” So started a rumor that, before he set off on campaign in late March of that year, Caesar - or rather one of his lieutenants - would ask that he be declared king. Some thought that he would only want to be made king in the provinces, outside of Roman Italy, so as to fulfill the prophecy and again victory over the Parthians. Others thought that, even if that were the case, a king was a king, and there would be no meaningful distinction when Caesar returned to Rome. The spectacle of Mark Antony offering Caesar the crown during the Lupercalia was viewed by many as a dress rehearsal for an actual coronation, which would take place at the end of March.
While the urban plebs started to grumble about Caesar’s abuses and ambitions, elements within the nobility started to actively plot. There were men in the Senate who feared that it was only a matter of time before Caesar’s ambition sounded the death knell for the Republic.
While they might not like that Caesar had been made dictator for life, at least this title had been bestowed upon him by authority of the Senate, and was therefore still technically excusable within the unwritten constitutional order of the Republic. But the moment that he assumed the title of king, then Caesar would rule by personal authority alone. In other words, he would be a tyrant.
The leading Republican of his day was a man named Marcus Tullius Cicero. Born of wealthy but not noble lineage, Cicero was the most famous orator and thinker of his day. He was a political conservative, deeply attached to the traditions of republicanism, and highly suspicious of the ambitions of Caesar. Cicero was, by nature, more a man of words than of actions. Though, as we shall see later, he was willing take up the sword. On the other hand, the men who conspired to murder Caesar might be said to have been less pure in conviction and more resolute in action. We’re not sure how many people were in on the conspiracy, somewhere between 30 and 60 according to various accounts; although we need only concern ourselves with the leading three.
First, we have Cassius. A respected civic and military leader, he had opposed Caesar during the civil war. But Cassius eventually made an uneasy peace with the dictator. The historical consensus is that he was the leader of the plot.
The second conspirator was Decimus. Another military man, he had made a name for himself serving under Caesar in Gaul. In Rome, he was one of the dictator’s closest confidantes, and his proximity to Caesar made him the best source of information on his thoughts, movements, and plans. While the ancient historian Plutarch claims that Decimus was a later recruit to the plot, others claim that he was one of the first to join, and might even have been the instigator.
Third, and most famously, is Brutus. This the the guy we all know about thanks to Shakespeare, who portrays him as the leader of the conspiracy in his play, the Tragedy of Julius Caesar. But, in all probability, Brutus was not the leading man in the plot. Brutus was a flip-flopper. He sided with Caesar’s opponents, then with Caesar during the civil war, then, when the war was over, he worked with dictator, then he plotted against him, then he worked with Caesar once again, before joining the plot to kill him. The true significance of Brutus was that he was a well-respected orator with a relatively honest reputation. Also, he came from a family whose ancestors had supposedly killed the last king of Rome centuries before. And therefore, Brutus was a good chap for the conspirators to present to the people after the deed was done. His role in the drama was to be the noble, virtuous Republican face of the murder.
These conspirators were prepared to kill Caesar in cold blood, even though they had been either favored or forgiven by him. I have no doubt that these men had a strong attachment to the republican principles of Rome, and they viewed Caesar as a moral threat to the Republic. However, as always, there were more base considerations at play here. Caesar’s vast personal wealth and almost unlimited political power were coveted by others in the patrician class. There was jealously at play here. Perhaps more fundamentally, though, Caesar had turned the ancient offices of Rome into trifling gifts to be handed according to his political calculations. For men like Cassius, Decimus, and Brutus, it degraded their dignity to rely upon the largesse of one man.
Perhaps Decimus more than any other in Rome coveted Caesar’s monopoly on power. Cicero, in his private correspondence, stated his belief that Decimus was motivated by a burning desire for fame and greatness. Decimus had for many years fought side by side with Caesar in order to achieve those very ends. But, by 44 BC, perhaps he saw the road to glory blocked by his all-powerful patron. Decimus, who considered himself an heir to Caesar, now saw another younger rival eclipsing him. For the upcoming war against the Parthian Empire, Caesar had decided to leave Decimus back in Rome. Instead, the dictator would bring his great-nephew, Octavian with him on campaign. If the war was a success, then it would be Octavian who would return with all the glory. (By the way, Octavian, who go on to become the Emperor Augustus, was not in Rome at the time of the assassination.)
A major obstacle to the conspiracy was the formidable person of Mark Antony. One of Caesar’s best generals, he was also a political force within the city of Rome. Aged 39, he was in the prime of his life: experienced, vigorous, popular with the legions, and rich. Even with Caesar dead, the conspirators knew they’d have to contend with Antony, who might rally Caesar’s legions against them.
While Cassius and Decimus thought that Antony would have to be killed too, Brutus believed that he could reason with him in order to reach a compromise that would maintain the peace. Brutus may very well have been animated in part by genuine republican sentiment. Killing Caesar was a necessary and just act - the conspirators were all sure of that. Antony, on the other hand, was not guilty of Caesar’s crimes. He was a Roman noble, and, Brutus may have thought Roman nobles could be won over with reasoned debate. There was also a practical consideration at play. Antony was not the only Caesar loyalist. If he could be won over by Brutus then the others would be more likely to fall into line. Perhaps it was naive, but Brutus must have hoped that by reasoning with Antony, he could reduce the likelihood of another civil war.
Then, what about young Octavian, who was stationed in the East? He was more of an unknown entity, but potentially a dangerous one indeed. Still, Octavian was far enough away that the conspirators hoped to have stitched things up in Rome before he could return. And so, just as Caesar had rolled the dice when he crossed the Rubicon, now the conspirators would have to make their own gamble if they wished to defeat the the man they called tyrant.
Thank you for tuning into this episode of Assassinations Podcast. Next week we will conclude our look at the death of Caesar, witnessing the bloody events in the Senate House on the Ides of March and watching the civil war that unfolded in its aftermath.
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This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper. Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald.
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Until then, bye-bye.