Hello, and welcome back to this, the second part of our look at the assassination of Julius Caesar. Last week, we learned about Caesar’s exploits as a soldier and his actions as dictator of Rome. We met the key conspirators in the plot to kill him, and we heard about their motivations to strike down the man they called tyrant.
Quickly before we get started, I’d like to announce that we have a special “Behind the Episode” available to accompany this case. This will be available exclusively to Patreon supporters. More details on that in the mid roll of the show.
So, without further ado, let’s travel back to ancient Rome to witness the most famous assassination in history.
How were the conspirators to carry out the deed? Brutus, Decimus, and Cassius, whom we met last week, were clever and well-connected people. They’d find a way. In Rome, assassination was not uncommon. The tricky part was - how to get away with it and, moreover, how to reshape the Republic in a post-Caesarian world? They’d have to deal with Caesar’s allies and his devoted legions, made up of loyal and battle-hardened men. No mean feat. If the plotters had one key advantage in this regard it was this: the army was not permitted to enter the city of Rome, except under quite exceptional circumstances, such as during a triumph. Caesar’s legions were camped outside the city, or stationed further afield. Within the city, Caesar actually had very little personal protection. He had a team of armed men to secure his safety as a public official. Known as lictors, these were public employees who were relatively lightly armed and more in the business of crowd control than defense against a concerted attack. Also, Caesar was usually accompanied in public by a coterie of his friends and closest supporters, some of whom would have been lightly armed - perhaps a dagger - and most of whom would have been quite capable military men. Still, this wasn’t exactly what you’d call a bodyguard.
Caesar was well aware that there were threats against him - he heard the whispers, he knew who his foes were. He was a Roman politician and therefore understood that loyalties shifted, and he had extraordinary political antennae and renowned tactical nous. So, why was it that he took so little regard for his personal safety? On campaign, he was usually accompanied by a bodyguard of fiercely loyal Spanish warriors. And he could certainly have brought such a bodyguard into Rome. I mean, who was going to stop him? Yet Caesar did not take any particular security precautions. This might seem very strange to us today. We’re used to seeing our politicians addressing the public from behind bulletproof glass and being transported in armored vehicles, phalanxed by police and secret service agents.
Let’s try to understand the psychology of a patrician in the Roman Republic. It would have been considered undignified for Caesar to move though the streets his own city hidden behind the spears of armed guards. It was important for a Roman politician to not only be seen by the People, but to quite literally be touched by them.
When Caesar travelled in the city, usually carried on a litter, patricians, knights, and ordinary plebeian citizens would come up to him to place a letter in his hand or ask him a for favor. The crowd might even heckle him, reasonable sure that he would not responded negatively. Political life in Rome, even under dictatorship, had a vivid, direct and popular quality that we today might find hard to imagine.
The conspirators were not going to attack Caesar in the street, however. It would have been too risky. His loyal men could have struck back, he could escape, and the crowd might react badly. No, the assassination would have to take place somewhere that Caesar would be relatively vulnerable, without his supporters all around him; and, of course, somewhere that would be secure for the attackers once the deed was done. The Senate House, located next to the Theatre of Pompey, was the ideal place. When Caesar went there, which he often did to attend to the formal business of government that still went on there, he was unguarded. In theory it was the senators themselves who were sworn to protect him. Additionally, the location of the Senate House gave the conspirators a unique opportunity to guard themselves against counterattack. You see, the Theatre of Pompey was not only a place where actors trod the boards; it was also where gladiatorial contests were fought. Decimus owned a large team of gladiators - at least 50 strong, maybe up to a hundred - all highly trained. It would arouse no suspicion for his troupe of gladiators to be stationed next to the theatre, which would place them only a short distance from the Senate House. When Caesar was struck down, the gladiators would then provide the assassins with a phalanx of their own. Killing Caesar during a meeting of the Senate would also be of symbolic importance. They could portray themselves as having slain a tyrant not in secret but in the bastion of Roman republican government.
By the beginning of March, Decimus, Cassius, Brutus, et al had their plan. The Senate was due to meet on the Ides of March, that is to say the middle of the month, the 15th. This might be the last, best time to strike. Unfortunately for the conspirators, Caesar had recently received some troubling omens that were giving him second thoughts about going out that day. Caesar was not an especially superstitious man. He sometimes dismissed bad omens, or at least the interpretation of them, if they ran counter to his own plans, but he was not completely indifferent to them. It’s difficult for us to know today just how much faith people in Ancient Rome placed in “signs”. In general, I think its fair to say that they took them rather seriously, even if sometimes with a pinch of salt. After all, omens were signals from the gods, and it would have be impious to simply ignore them.
Caesar was in no mood to go out that morning. The one duty that he had to attend to was to officiate a sacrifice to the god Jupiter, whose temple was located a mere 300 yards from his house. After the sacrifice, the dictator decided that he would return home and maybe just skip the Senate meeting that morning. Hearing this news, Decimus rushed over to Caesar’s house. It would, Decimus claimed, be seen as a sign of disrespect to the Senate if he failed to show up at the last minute.
One ancient source records - or perhaps we should say imagines - the conversation between the two old comrades. “What do you say, Caesar?” Decimus asked. “Will someone of your stature pay attention to the dreams of women and the omens of foolish men?” Caesar acquiesced. He would attend the Senate as planned. After all, he had faced far greater dangers in the course of his life than a short visit to a toothless Senate in order to rubber-stamp some official business. He had conquered Gaul and defeated the armies of Pompey the Great! Surely he could manage a few Roman politicians?
After wending his way through the streets upon his gilded litter, mobbed as usual by a crowd of petitioners and well-wishers, he made it to the Senate House. Taking his place on the tribunal platform above the assembled senators, Caesar was quickly surrounded, which was entirely usual, as all the senators always wanted to pay their respects and bend his ear. After all, it was really only Caesar’s opinion that mattered. Unbeknownst to Caesar, this time, the patricians thronging around him were all carrying daggers under their togas. One of them grabbed Caesar by the shoulder, to which he loudly declared, “Why, this is violence!” And at that very moment, the daggers began to fly. Not one to give up without a fight, Caesar managed to stab one of his attackers with the sharp stylus he was holding; however, the assault against him was overwhelming. Caesar was stabbed some 23 times, though most of these wounds were superficial. The folds of his thick woolen toga offered a surprising degree of protection. Perhaps only one or two of the blows were deep enough to be fatal. The scene was so chaotic that some of the conspirators accidentally stabbed each other, including Brutus, who was apparently struck in the hand. Caesar is supposed to have said to Brutus, “You too, my son?”, a line recorded by the ancient historians and made famous by Shakespeare’s “Et tu Brute?”
This, perhaps one of the most famous phrases in history, is probably a fanciful addition to the real scene in the Senate House. Caesar was being butchered in a frenzy of knife blows, so I doubt he paused to deliver a mournful riposte to one of his attackers. More likely, the line was inserted in ancient accounts to emphasize two things: firstly, that Brutus had betrayed Caesar, the father of the nation; and secondly, that there was a rumor in Rome that Brutus was Caesar’s bastard, thus making Brutus a parricide, which was the most heinous crime in Roman law.
As Caesar lay dead or dying, the conspirators - in fact the entire Senate - fled the scene. The conspirators made their retreat to the Capitoline Hill. From there, they would have to take control of Rome by persuading the People that they had acted to end Caesar’s tyranny and restore their liberties.
Let’s take a break. We’ll be right back.
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For five days after the assassination, public meetings took place in the Forum, at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. Brutus, as planned, was used as the salesman of the conspiracy, portraying the killers as humble servants of liberty, who had only drawn daggers against Caesar because they owed a greater debt of loyalty to the Republic.
The situation was tense; however, it appeared that it might just be possible that some relatively peaceful arrangement might be arrived at. The common people seemed to have mixed feelings about the killing, and Mark Antony appeared to be open to negotiations. It looked like the assassins would receive amnesty for the killing, though the Senate would refuse to declare Caesar a tyrant. Antony declared that he could not support vengeance, however much he might want to strike down the men who had killed his commander and friend. With Antony seemingly willing to play ball, it looked like a standoff with Caesar’s legions could be avoided, so long as the soldiers still received the cash payments and land grants that they had been promised.
Just as things seemed to be going as Brutus had hoped, everything went to hell. The day of Caesar’s funeral on the 18th of March was one of those pivotal moments when the vagaries of the mood of the Roman People decided the course of history. The day didn’t start with any particular sign of the tumult that would follow. A great funeral pyre had been built on the Field of Mars, the military parade ground on the outskirts of the city. Caesar’s body would be carried there from the Forum, where Mark Antony would give the oration, and the people would get to mourn the passing of a military hero who had rendered many services to the empire. Antony might have seemed the epitome statesmanlike reasonableness during the negotiations following the assassination, but as he stepped above the Forum, and stood next to the body of his comrade and commander, Antony knew that he was about to give the performance of a lifetime, a bravura display of scenery-chewing that would make the theatrics of the month before, when he had mock crowned Caesar on that very platform during the Lupercalia, look understated. Rather than pouring oil on troubled waters, Antony used his oration to ignite an uprising within the city. In Shakespeare version of events, this is the famous, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech. But, in truth, Antony didn’t give much of a speech at all. Rather, he delivered what some contemporaries recorded as an extraordinary emotional outburst. He proclaimed all the high honors voted to Caesar by the Senate and the People of Rome. He praised Caesar’s clemency and emphasized his status as the father of the country. And, tearing his clothes, he performed the traditional hymn and lament for the dead, breaking down in tears and falling to his knees, arms raised to heaven. The performance roused the large crowd, including many soldiers who had come into the city to say farewell to their chief. The mood reached fever pitch. The mob surged towards the bier on which Caesar’s body was laid. Rather than taking it to the funeral pyre that had been prepared for cremation on the parade ground, they threw branches upon the it and set them ablaze right there and then. Benches were stripped from the nearby law courts and thrown onto the fire. As the crowd grew hysterical, people stripped off their clothing and threw it into the flames and women even took off their jewelry to add to makeshift pyre as a form of offering to the deified Caesar.
It was clear that the mood of the Rome had shifted. This was not the funeral of a tyrant. This had become an act of mass mourning by the People for their collective father - their hero, their savior - who had been murdered by ungrateful and impious traitors! In the tumult, the assassins fled the city. Antony, in a bold stroke worthy of Caesar himself, had gained the upper hand. It was clear that a civil peace would not be reached. The hope of Brutus that the Republic would be restored by oratory and dialogue was shown to be the fantasy that it was. War - only war - could settle the affairs of Rome. And only then would a new master of the empire emerge. Caesar himself predicted as much when he said, not long before his assassination:
It is more important for the commonwealth than for myself that I should survive. I have long been sated with power and glory; but, should anything happen to me, the commonwealth will enjoy no peace. A new civil war will break out under far worse conditions than the last.
It was Cicero and Antony who then became the leading men in Rome: Cicero as spokesman for the Senate and the traditional republican cause; Antony as leader of what might be termed the Caesarian faction. When Octavian returned to Rome, Cicero began to play him against Antony, praising Octavian as having the qualities of Caesar without the flaws.
Decimus, on the side of Cicero and the Senate faction, had been made governor of Cisalpine Gaul. This was a key strategic region that allowed him to command a large army not too far from Rome. When Antony marched north to attack Decimus, Cicero successfully urged the Senate to name Antony an enemy of the state and send an army north against him. Decimus, supported by Cicero and the legions of Octavian, fought against Caesar’s legions. Despite early victory, Antony soon faced a military setback. But it wasn’t the Senate faction that won out. It was Octavian who really gained the upper hand. He made it plain that he had only allied with Decimus in order to defeat Antony, and that he considered Decimus to be a murderer and a traitor. With his soldiers deserting him for Octavian’s camp, Decimus fled Italy, with the aim of joining up with Brutus and Cassius. However, he was killed en route by a Gallic chieftain loyal to Mark Antony.
Though the remaining conspirators were powerful men, in command of a significant army, it would be Octavian and Antony who emerged as the prime antagonists of the long civil war that followed. Octavian had wealth, command of much of the army, and an enormous degree of political cunning - there was a reason why Caesar had chosen him as his primary heir. Mark Antony had a wealth of military experience and the respect of many of the legionaries as having been Caesar’s right-hand man. But before one of them could rise to supreme power, they first had to come to an uneasy political truce in order to deal with the Senate faction and the remaining assassins. Though Octavian argued that Cicero should be spared, Antony and Caesar’s men were dead set against the great orator. He was captured as he prepared to flee Italy for Macedonia. Facing the centurion who was about to execute him, Cicero is said to have pronounced: “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.” He then bowed his head, which was promptly chopped off.
Believing that the forces of neither Antony nor Octavian were strong enough to defend Rome, Brutus and Cassius rallied their forces, which totaled about 17 legions, and prepared to march on the city. Faced with this, Octavian and Antony made an uneasy military pact. They combined armies, now totaling 19 legions, marched to meet the conspirators. The legions of Antony and Octavian decisively defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius. After the battle, Brutus and Cassius both committed suicide. Their names, Brutus’s especially, would go down in infamy as bywords for betrayal. Dante, in his Inferno, places Brutus and Cassius with Judas Iscariot in the lowest circle of Hell, where they are eternally tormented, each being chewed in the mouths of Satan as punishment for the sin of treachery.
Civil war would rage within the Roman Empire for the next twelve years. There were many twists and turns, far too many for us to deal with in our story today. There would be rebellions, betrayals, heroic battles, and bloody reprisals. There would be one of the greatest love stories of all time, between Antony and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. But, ultimately, the fight was - as it was always destined to be - a mortal struggle between Antony and Octavian. Octavian came out the victor, with Antony and Cleopatra dead by suicide following their crushing defeat following the Battle of Actium. Thereafter, Octavian, transmogrified into the personage of Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus - or the Emperor Augustus, Son of the God Caesar - who would rule in Rome.
Fate had rendered its judgement upon the conspirators who slew Caesar in order to save the Republic. The Republic was dead before Caesar hit the floor. Caesar’s heir - and his name - would now rule supreme. Though, as we shall hear next week, Augustus was a canny politician who knew how to use the trappings of the Republic to secure his autocratic rule.
Caesar, in death, retained much of the glory of his life. A temple was instituted in his honor, a priesthood dedicated to his worship, a popular cult spread throughout the Empire, and for centuries sacrifices were made to him. His name became a title. All the emperors that followed him were “Caesars”, for to take his name was to say: I am the master of Rome! And even after the Roman Empire crumbled the title lived on. In Russia, for centuries their rulers were tsars, a corruption of caesar. Similarly, in Germany, the ruler was the kaisar, again, drawn from his name, and still drawing upon his prestige.
To this day, Julius Caesar is widely considered to be one of the greatest military leaders of all time, as well as a gifted writer, a canny politician, and, overall, one of the titans of world history. His great contemporary and rival, Cicero, tried to sum up the political character of Caesar when he wrote:
In that man were combined genius, method, memory, literature, prudence, deliberation, and industry. He had performed exploits in war which, though calamitous for the Republic, were nevertheless mighty deeds. Having for many years aimed at being a king, he had with great labor, and much personal danger, accomplished what he intended. He had conciliated the ignorant multitude with presents, by monuments, by largesses of food, and by banquets; he had bound his own party to him by rewards, his adversaries by the appearance of clemency. Why need I say much on such a subject? He had already brought a free city, partly by fear, partly by patience, into a habit of slavery.
Though Caesar the man died in 44 BC, what might be termed “Caesarism" lives on. Of course, he did not deliberately found a ideology, but he did manifest a form of populist military-dominated government that, in some respects, we can still recognize. Sociologist Max Weber believed that every major democracy tends to move in a “Caesarist” direction, where elections become formulaic and hollowed of real meaning, where leaders show disdain for the legislature and contempt for parliamentary processes, and where power arrogates within the executive branch.
A classic form of “Caesarism” was the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, who greatly admired and sought to emulate the Roman leader. Or, there’s the 19th Century South American general and politician Simón Bolívar, who sought to unite the continent by force of arms, offering his personal rule as lifelong president as the sole mechanism through which peace could be secured. And then we can look at the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whose ideology of Italian Fascism tried to wrap itself in the mantle of Julius Caesar.
To this day, we can find those who, consciously or not, emulate the populist authoritarianism of Caesar, though not necessarily with his brilliance or eloquence. Caesar famously “Came, Saw, and Conquered” the ancient Western world. And, it might be said, the ghost of deified Caesar still holds sway in our modern times.
Thank you for tuning into this episode of Assassinations Podcast.
In the next two episodes, we will look at the bloody reigns of the heirs of Augustus. Next week we’ll slip into the decadent court of the Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus - better known to history as Caligula.
Have you listened to our sister show, Fab Figmentals? Hosted by Lindsey Morse, producer of this show, Fab Figmentals is a storytelling podcast that deals each week with a mythical creature and goes into the historical background of the legend. Check it out at fabfigmentals.com. I don’t normally tune into storytelling podcasts, but, honestly, Lindsey does a great job bringing these legends to life, and I love hearing the history behind the myth. It’s little bit embarrassing but I’m kind of a superfan. BTW, she’s giving me a look right now, as if to say, okay, that’s enough.
This episode was researched & written by me, Niall Cooper. Lindsey Morse produces and edits the show. Our theme music was created by Graeme Ronald.
As I said during the mid roll, for our Patreon supporters we have a “Behind the Episode”, in which I’ll take a more historiographical view of the life and death of Caesar, considering things from a modern perspective, and asking: should we consider him a hero or a villain, or something in between, and what does our view of Caesar’s legacy say about us, especially in Western civilization?
Thank you so much for tuning in, and we look forward to seeing you in three weeks’ time.
Until then, goodbye.