The assassination of Julius Caesar, an event that would change the face of the Roman Empire forever. Conspirators claimed that this action was taken for the good of Rome, while historians are left to argue whether this was the case or not.
Some believe that these ‘patriotic’ Romans were in fact rich nobility afraid of what the future, if in Caesar’s hands, would hold for them; while others believe that their sole purpose in assassinating Rome’s idol was for no other reason than the benefit of the people.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 100BC, in a month that was later named after him: July. Caesar belonged to the Julii family, one of Rome’s original aristocratic families. At the age of sixteen, during a civil war which divided those who favoured aristocratic rule against those who preferred a more democratic approach, Caesar came into conflict with Sulla and thus fled to Central Italy. There he joined the army where he grew a reputation as a brave, beloved leader and quickly climbed to power.
After the death of Sulla in 78BC, Caesar returned to Italy and became a reputed politician.
Soon he became exceedingly powerful as a member of the First Triumvirate, a group formed by Caesar and his allies, Pompey and Crassus. At this time the members of the Senate and powerful aristocratic families were divided into two conflicting parties: the Optimates who sought to hold power within - or very close to - the oligarchy, and the Reformers (Populares) who endeavored to improve - or at least pretended to - the conditions of the common people. Caesar was a member of the Reformers and attempted to improve the circumstances of the destitute by reallocating land. This also is a matter of controversy, as some believe Caesar was genuinely acting in the interest of the less fortunate, while others believe he did it out of selfish ambition in order to create a power base and win the hearts of the Roman citizens. Whatever his motive, Caesar succeeded in winning the hearts of the people. His reputation continued to grow as he distributed farming land to thousands of soldiers and families with three children or more; established public work projects for the unemployed and on occasion he even dispersed cash straight from the treasury.
In short, he quickly attained great power and admiration from a significant portion of Roman citizens. He even received the title Dictator for Life from the Senate.
So what went wrong?
To start with, “There was some suggestion that these flowery honorifics were, in reality, sarcastic bestowals by a group of senators who, increasingly, resented Caesar’s power and popularity, and what must have seemed to them an almost socialistic redistribution of wealth... while they railed against Caesar’s supposed tyranny, they, as members of the Roman senate, had a great deal to lose by Caesar’s land distributions and his reforms.”*
The plot to stop Caesar began with Gaius Cassius Longinus and quickly grew to a conspiracy with sixty mainly aristocratic members who called themselves “the Liberators”.
As Caesar was to leave the country on 18th March with his expanding army, it was decided thus that action would be taken when he addressed the Senate on 15th March - the Ides of March. For months leading up to March 44BC, the conspirators met secretly in each others’ houses to scheme the impending assassination.
Caesar was warned of danger several times, yet he was a conceited man and failed to heed his warnings.
Spurinna, a soothsayer, forewarned him of a tragedy that would take place no later than the Ides of March.
A man Caesar dismissed as a favour-seeker on the street thrust a note into his hands, begging him to read it. The note revealed the enemy’s plan, yet Caesar ignored it.
The very night before his assassination he asked his allies what form of death they would want, and answered his own question with a quick, unexpected end. That night as he lay in bed, the windows of his house were suddenly blown open as if by a strong wind, yet the evening was still. Caesar dreamed he was flying above the clouds, lighter than air, and awoke just as he was reaching out for the hand of Jupiter.
His wife had a dream of his lifeless body lying in her arms, bloodied and bruised. She convinced him to stay home and not meet with the Roman Senate that day. Yet when his close friend and one of his murderers, Decimus Brutus, arrived and pressured him to not let the Senate down and thus jeopardize his reputation, he complied. He left home for the very last time.
The Senate stood in respect upon Caesar’s arrival. He took his seat and suddenly the conspirators closed in around him, asking him questions, distracting him, confusing him, irritating him. When suddenly a conspirator tore Caesar’s purple robe from his shoulders - his symbol of dictatorship - and the attack began. One man attempted to stab him in the shoulder, yet was so nervous it was barely a graze; Caesar fought and tried to break free but was closed in on all sides; one conspirator stabbed him in the face, another in the side, another in the back... Marcus Brutus was one of the last to plunge a knife into his body, and Caesar’s last words were, “And you too, my child!”, directed at Brutus.
With that, he collapsed at the foot of a statue of Pompey and breathed his last. There were twenty-three stab wounds in his body, and Julius Caesar was no more.
“When they were done, the conspirators turned to the rest of the Senate, displaying their bloody knives and claiming that they had slain a dictator as a legitimate act of tyrannicide (tyrannicide being legal under Roman law).
But the senators were terrified and fled the Senate House. Anger and fear then swept through the city, paralyzing Rome. By the next day... the common people of the city had turned against the senators, even those who had not helped kill their idol... Thirteen years of civil war followed. In the end, the Roman Republic was no more. Imperial Rome, with Octavian as emperor, had begun, and would last for five hundred years of absolute rule.
The assassins, whether they were acting out of self-interest, or in a true belief that Rome faced a tyrant, had ironically changed the course of Roman history and halted the Republic in its tracks. Had Caesar not been killed, who knows what would have happened?
...For six days after Caesar’s violent death, a comet appeared in the skies of Rome. Some people believed it was Caesar’s spirit, flying through the sky, as in his dream. And in coins minted after the assassination, the comet is always shown. That’s a sign of the power of Caesar’s name, then and thereafter, whether he was a tyrant or popularis (Reformer), or a little of both.”
The Death of Caesar, by Vincenzo Camuccini (1773-1844)
*All quotes taken from “History’s Greatest Hits” by Joseph Cummins