We all know the story of Caesar’s death. After increasing concerns about Caesar’s royal ambitions a large number of senators, led by Cassius and Brutus, conspired to have Caesar killed. On the Ides of March 44 BC they found the opportunity to lure Caesar to a senate meeting at the theater of Pompey, where he was stabbed to death. Among the conspirators were many friends of Caesar, including his distant cousin Decimus Junius Brutus, who fought alongside him in Gaul, and of course Caesar’s adoptive son Marcus Junius “Et tu” Brutus. The assassination of Caesar was a pivotal moment in Roman history and should therefore be seen in its historical context. The same goes for the written sources on this event, most of which were written over 100 years after the events. What do we really know about Caesar’s death? Which information from the sources may be discarded?
Ideology of the Late Roman Republic
After the massive Roman conquests of the second century BC, the Roman Republic had moved into an unstable political situation. The city itself was still governed as the city state that it once was, with an aristocratic class known as the patricians on top, but this city state now found itself in control of a vast territory. Moreover, Rome itself had to deal with an increasing population of poor people without any property; the proletarians. In order to rule the vast Roman territories and to deal with the social crisis a new kind of centralized leadership was required. It should therefore come as no surprise that, from the late second century BC onward, we see many succesful senators and generals try to take that place of ‘central leader’: the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla and Pompey were just a few of them. The threat of one Roman general taking all power was always looming over Rome and while most educated Romans probably knew that the establishment of some kind of monarchy was inevitable in the long term, the patricians did everything in their power to prevent individual politicians from becoming too powerful. The patricians probably developed the ideology of republicanism in response to this specific situation and later projected it back all the way to 509 BC. The republican ideology promoted a certain etiquette among politicians that discouraged arrogant behavior. Before Caesar, most Roman politicians abided by this rule. Caesar, however, seems to have broken with it, which ultimately led to his death.
Caesar’s percieved arrogance
Nearly all works that describe Caesar’s death include anecdotes of his percieved arrogance. According to Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars (written after AD 120) and Cassius Dio’s Roman History (written after AD 229) Caesar refused to rise from his seat to greet his fellow senators. According to Plutarch’s Life of Caesar (written in the late first century AD) Caesar had two senators removed from office when they objected to the common people placing a laurel wreath on a statue of Caesar. Later, when he was offered a crown by his friend Marc Anthony, however, Caesar refused, saying that only Jupiter is king. According to Suetonius he said “I am no king, I am Caesar”, which is a clear case of dramatic irony on Suetonius’s behalf, as Caesar was used as a title for emperors in his time. Other anecdotes describe the young Caesar lamenting the fact that his accomplishments hadn’t come close to the accomplishments of Alexander the Great. Since all these anecdotes are recorded quite late, it is obvious that they belong to a certain image of Caesar that had been built over the course of decades. One should therefore not fall into the trap of claiming that Caesar had an arrogant personality. However, disregarding individual anecdotes it is clear that Caesar’s increasing power troubled the Senate. He may have presented himself as a king, along the lines of the Hellenistic rulers of the east, in order to appeal to the common people and the army. The soldiers and the commoners most likely did desire strong centralized leadership and Caesar knew this very well. Caesar’s presentation of himself as a king or even a demigod were unprecedented in republican Rome, which may have given rise to many of these anecdotes.
Another recurring element in the accounts of Caesar’s death are the omens that foreshadow this event. The most famous omen is the prediction by a certain seer, who goes unnamed in Plutarch’s work but carries the name Spurinna in Suetonius’s work, that “harm will come to Caesar no later than the Ides of March”. Another omen is the nightmare of Caesar’s wife Calpurnia on the night before his assassination, described by Nicolaus Damascenus, not too long after the events. These omens are mostly storytelling motifs, but they do indicate that the mythification of Caesar’s life and death had begun early on. Moreover, it may well be possible that Caesar suspected a conspiracy against his life, but, as Suetonius claims, he may indeed have chosen the risk being murdered over living a life hiding from his enemies. Indeed, in death he became much greater than he ever was in life.
With an event like the assassination of Caesar, that has been subject to mythification right from the start, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. However, one thing that we can say with certainty is that the conspiracy was led by three prominent politicians: Gaius ‘Cassius’ Longinus, Marcus Junius ‘Brutus’ and ‘Decimus’ Junius Brutus. Cassius had always been an enemy of Caesar, as he had fought alongside Pompey until the end. He may have been the one who took the initiative for the assassination. Brutus (Marcus Junius) was the son of Marcus Junius Brutus Sr. and his wife Servilia Caepionis. The older Brutus had been killed by Pompey when the younger Brutus was still a child. Caesar later had an affair with Servilia and adopted the younger Brutus as his son. Despite this close relation, Brutus fought alongside Pompey during the Civil War. However, after Pompey’s defeat Caesar spared and forgave Brutus. The other Brutus, Decimus Junius Brutus, was a distant cousin of both Marcus Junius and Julius Caesar himself. Unlike Marcus Junius, Decimus had fought alongside Caesar in Gaul and he had supported him all his life. Decimus was probably a more important politician than Marcus Junius and his betrayal of Caesar must therefore have been more unexpected. However, since Marcus Junius had a close family relation with Caesar and because Caesar had forgiven him his earlier betrayal, his part in the conspiracy makes for a better and more dramatic story.
The Ides of March
The accounts of the fateful day agree up to a great degree, which indicates that there may have been a certain ‘standard version’ that circulated, perhaps orally, among the Romans. All sources agree that Caesar was murdered at a convention of the Senate in the theater of Pompey. The theater of Pompey was chosen because the Curia was being repaired. Decimus appears to have been the host of the event, organizing gladiatorial games and urging Caesar to come despite the latter’s hesitations. The sources also agree that a certain Lucius Tillius Cimber handed Caesar a letter begging him to recall his exiled brother, whereupon Caesars arrogantly waved him away. Cimber then grabbed Caesar by his toga and held him down. Caesar, however, realizing what was going on, cried out: “Why, this is violence!” (as per Suetonius). The first to strike was Servilius Casca, who aimed for Caesar’s neck. Caesar, however, turned around and grabbed Casca’s arm, shouting “Casca, you villain? What are you doing?!” (as per Plutarch). Both of these accounts depict a highly vigilant Caesar who quickly realized what was going on and had some good reflexes. Whether or not this representation of events is accurate is up to debate. The ‘kernels of truth’ are probably Cimber handing Caesar a letter and giving the sign for the attack and Casca being the first one to strike. What happened after the initial strike cannot be reconstructed. Although several authors give information on who stabbed Caesar where, the real situation was probably too chaotic for eyewitnesses to remember such things. According to Suetonius Caesar received 23 stab wounds, with the second stab to the chest being the fatal one. This detailed information is likely derived from an autopsy report that had been preserved in the archives and is therefore one of the most reliable pieces of information on Caesar’s death.
Et tu Brute?
Let us conclude with a paragraph dedicated to one of the most famous historical quotes that was never spoken. The fact that many of Caesar’s friends and allies were involved in the conspiracy probably shocked many Roman commoners. To the proletarians this was an excellent example of why patricians should never be trusted and it strengthened the senate’s reputation as a fossilized institution of reactionary old men, which in turn aided the Roman emperors in marginalizing this institution. Of all the conspirators Marcus Junius Brutus was probably the one who was closest to Caesar. Although he did not offer concrete support to Caesar throughout his wars, as Decimus had done, he was ‘de jure’ his son. Moreover, Brutus was indebted to Caesar because he had forgiven him his first betrayal. This made Brutus’s second betrayal even more loathsome. Although the situation itself was already bad enough Suetonius, or one of his informers, has Caesar cry out “You too, my son?” in Greek when seeing Brutus among the conspirators. This line, famously misquoted by William Shakespeare as “Et tu, Brute?” obviously adds to the dramatic effect. Besides, Caesar still speaking Greek as he lay dying was a way of illustrating his sophisticated manners.
After the assassination most conspirators fled. They probably feared outrage among the people after the death of their beloved leader. The assassination led to a new civil war in which the heirs of Caesar – Octavian, Marc Anthony and Lepidus – fought the ringleaders of the conspiracy – Cassius, Decimus and Brutus. The conspirators were soon overthrown and after another civil war between Marc Anthony and Octavian, the latter again managed to secure his place as an autocrat. The trend towards centralization that had started in the late second century BC culminated during the reign of this Octavian, who was renamed Augustus in 27 BC. By the time that Augustus had come to power, the senate too had become tired of civil war and gladly accepted what was to be a new monarchy.