Ancient History & Civilisation

Anti Cato

April 46 BC. The sun was setting beyond the walls of Utica. Twenty miles down the shore the ruins of what had once been Carthage were shrouded in the haze of twilight, while off the coast, where ships filled with fugitives dotted the African sea, night had already come. And soon Caesar would be coming too. Despite being vastly outnumbered, he had fought a great battle and been victorious yet again. Metellus Scipio’s army, recruited during the long months of Caesar’s absence in Egypt and Asia, had been routed with terrible slaughter. Africa was in Caesar’s hands. There could be no hope of holding Utica against him. Cato, who was responsible for the city’s defence, knew now for sure that the Republic was doomed.

But even though it was he who had provided the shattered remnants of Scipio’s army with the ships for their escape, he had no intention of joining them. That was hardly Cato’s style. At supper that evening, sitting up, as had been his custom since Pharsalus, he betrayed no sign of alarm. Caesar’s name was not even mentioned. Instead, as the wine flowed, the talk turned to philosophy. The theme of freedom came up, and in particular the claim that only the good can truly be free. One guest, adducing subtle and devious arguments, argued the opposite, but Cato, growing agitated, refused to hear him out. This was the only evidence that he was in any way upset. Having reduced the company to silence, however, he was quick to change the topic. He did not want anyone to guess his feelings – or anticipate his plan.

That night, after retiring to his bedroom and reading for a short while, he stabbed himself. He was still alive when his attendants found him on the floor, but while frantic attempts were made to bandage the wound, Cato pushed away the doctors and tore at his own intestines. He quickly bled to death. When Caesar arrived at Utica he found the whole city in mourning. Bitterly, he addressed the man who had for so long been his nemesis, newly laid, like Pompey, in a grave beside the sea: ‘Just as you envied me the chance of sparing you, Cato, so I envy you this death.’17 Caesar was hardly the man to appreciate being cheated of a grand gesture. There had been no one more identified with the flinty spirit of Roman liberty than Cato, and to have pardoned him would have been to destroy his infuriating hold on the Republic’s imagination. Instead, thanks to the gory heroism of his death, that hold had now been confirmed. Even as a spectre, Cato remained Caesar’s most obdurate foe.

Blood, honour and liberty: the suicide exemplified all the Romans’ favourite themes. And Caesar, that master of mass manipulation, knew it. Returning to Rome at the end of July 46 BC, he prepared to put his dead enemies where he felt they now belonged – in the shade. Theatrical as Cato’s death had been, Caesar was determined to upstage it. That September, his fellow citizens were invited to share in his victory celebrations. Over the years the Roman people had tended to grow blasé about extravagant spectacle, but the organisation and vision that Caesar brought to his entertainments enabled him to defy the law of diminishing returns. Giraffes and British war chariots, silk canopies and battles on artificial lakes, all were duly gawped at by astonished crowds. Not even Pompey had put on anything to compare; nor had he staged four triumphs in a row as Caesar did now.

Gauls, Egyptians, Asiatics and Africans: these were the foreign foes marched in chains before the cheering crowds. But even though it would clearly have been obscene for Caesar to have celebrated his victory over fellow citizens in such a manner, he could not resist the occasional gloat. Having found the time, between his Egyptian escapade with Cleopatra and his victory in Africa, to thrash King Pharnaces, Caesar had boasted of the speed of his victory in a celebrated phrase: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’18 Now, written on a billboard and borne in procession through Rome, the same phrase served to cut Pompey down to size too – for it was Pompey who had made such a big deal out of conquering Pharnaces’ father, Mithridates. Yet if the spectre of one rival could be distinguished by knowledgeable citizens trailing Caesar’s chariot in the dust, there was still one shadow who defied the conqueror’s chains. Caesar had defeated Pompey, but he had not beaten Cato – a failure that led him into a rare propaganda gaffe. In his fourth triumph, ostensibly held to celebrate his victory over Africa, Caesar ordered a float illustrating Cato’s suicide to be wheeled through the streets. He justified this by claiming that Cato and all the citizens who had fought with him had been slaves of the Africans, and had perished as collaborators. The watching crowds did not agree. They wept at the sight of the float. Cato still eluded the reach of Caesar’s hatred.

But the Republic itself was now securely in his hands. The Senate, stupefied by the scale of Caesar’s achievements, overawed by the magnitude of his power, had scrabbled to legitimise his victory and somehow reconcile it with the cherished traditions of the past. The strain of this attempt had cost constitutionalists a great deal of pain. Already Caesar had twice accepted the dictatorship: first, in late 49 BC for eleven days when he had presided over his own hurried election to the consulship, and second, in October 48 when he had been appointed to the office for a year. Now, in the spring of 46, he was awarded a dictatorship for the third time – and for the unprecedented span of ten years. Already consul, Caesar was also given the right to nominate all the Republic’s magistrates, and was created – to sardonic amusement – Rome’s ‘Prefect of Morals’. Never before, not even under Sulla, had there been such a concentration of authority in the hands of one man. Yet the example of Sulla did offer at least a glimmer of hope. A decade was a long time to endure a dictatorship, but it was not an eternity. Bitter medicine had proved restorative before. And who, after all, could deny that the Republic was very sick indeed?

There was even a measure of sympathy for the man burdened with its cure. ‘We are his slaves,’ wrote Cicero, ‘but he is the slave of the times.’19 No one could really know what Caesar’s plans for the Republic might be, because no one could know how the Republic was to be healed of the wounds of civil war. Yet the vague hope persisted, even among his enemies, that if anyone could find a way out of the crisis, then Caesar was the man. His qualities of brilliance and clemency were clearly incomparable. Nor was there anyone credible left to oppose him: Pompey, Domitius and Cato, all were dead. So too now was Scipio, caught in a storm and lost off the African coast. True, Pompey’s two sons, Gnaeus and Sextus, were still at large, but they were young and had vicious reputations. In the winter of 46 BC, when they succeeded in raising a dangerous rebellion in Spain, and Caesar hurriedly left Rome to confront it, even former partisans of Pompey wished their old enemy well. Typical was Cassius Longinus, the officer who had performed so creditably at Carrhae, and who had gone on to become Pompey’s most brilliant naval commander, before being pardoned by Caesar after Pharsalus. ‘I’d much rather have our old, merciful master’, he confessed to Cicero, as the two men discussed the news of Caesar’s progress in Spain, ‘than have to take our chance with a new and bloodthirsty one.’20

Even so, there was a bitterness to Cassius’ tone. A master remained a master, no matter how gracious. Most citizens, glad to be alive after the years of civil war, were too exhausted to care. But among Caesar’s peers, jealousy and impotence festered, as did humiliation. Better to die than live a slave: this was the lesson that a Roman drew in with his breath. One could submit to the dictator, and be grateful to him, even admire him – but one could never repress the resulting sense of shame. ‘To the free men who accepted Caesar’s perks, his very power to dole them out was an affront.’21 And all the more so, of course, because of the memory of what had happened at Utica.

Cato’s ghost still haunted the conscience of Rome. Those of his former comrades who had submitted to Caesar and been rewarded for it could not help but see in his death a personal reproach. None more so than Brutus, Cato’s nephew, who had initially condemned his uncle’s suicide on philosophical grounds, but began to find himself ever more unsettled by the example it had set. Earnest and high minded as he was, Brutus had no wish to be regarded as a collaborator. Still confident that Caesar was, at heart, a constitutionalist, he saw no contradiction between supporting the dictator and remaining loyal to the memory of his uncle. In the cause of making this as clear as he could, Brutus decided that his wife would have to go, and Porcia, Cato’s daughter, take her place. Since Porcia’s previous husband had been Marcus Bibulus, a bride less popular with Caesar would have been hard to imagine. Brutus had made his point.

But he was not done yet. Wishing his uncle’s memory to be immortalised, Brutus turned his hand to an obituary. He also asked Cicero, as Rome’s greatest writer, to do the same. The commission was flattering, but Cicero, accepting it after due hesitation, was prompted as much by shame as by vanity. As he was all too painfully aware, he had not had a good war, and his acceptance of a pardon from Caesar had only confirmed his reputation as a trimmer. In the face of widespread contempt Cicero still clung to his self-image as a fearless spokesman for republican virtue, but the reality was that, since making his peace with Caesar, the height of his bravery had been the cracking of an occasional poisonous joke. Now, by lauding the martyr of Utica publicly, he dared to stick his neck out a little further. Cato, Cicero wrote, was one of the few men who had been greater than his reputation. It was a pointed judgement, targeted not only at the dictator, but, by implication, at all those who had bowed to his supremacy – including, not least of course, the author himself.

Far away in Spain, surrounded by dust and blood-fattened flies, Caesar was still keeping abreast of Rome’s literary scene. When he read what Cicero and Brutus had written, he was toweringly unamused. No sooner had the decisive engagement of the campaign been fought and won than he was writing a vituperative riposte. Cato, he argued, far from being a hero, had been a contemptible drunk, obstructive and mad, thoroughly without worth. This composition, the Anti Cato, was then dispatched to Rome, where it was greeted with widespread hilarity, so unrecognisable was the caricature of its subject that it gave. Cato’s reputation, far from being diminished by Caesar’s attack, was raised to new heights.

Caesar himself was left embittered and frustrated. Already, during the Spanish campaign, there had been signs that his considerable reserves of patience were nearing exhaustion. The war had been peculiarly brutal. Far from treating the rebels with his customary clemency, Caesar had refused to recognise them as citizens at all. Their corpses had been used as building material, and their heads stuck on poles. Even though Sextus, Pompey’s younger son, had managed to escape Caesar’s vengeance, Gnaeus, the elder, had been captured, executed and his head paraded as a trophy of war. These were scenes worthy of Gauls. Yet even though it was Caesar who had turned head-hunter, he accepted no responsibility for the descent of his army into barbarism. Instead, the true fault lay with the treachery and folly of his opponents. It was Fate that had delivered the fortunes of the Roman people into his hands. If they now refused to support him in his efforts to bind their wounds, then not even the blood already spilled would serve to appease the angry gods. Rome, and the world with her, would be lost to a tide of darkness, and the barbarism would prove universal.

Faced with the need to stave off such an apocalypse, what were the sensibilities of a Cicero or a Brutus? What, indeed, was the Republic? Caesar’s impatience with traditions still regarded as sacrosanct by his fellow citizens was growing more palpable by the day. Far from hurrying back to the capital to consult the Senate or put his measures to the people, he lingered in the provinces, planting colonies of veterans, extending the franchise to privileged natives. Back in Rome the aristocracy shuddered at the news. Jokes were told of Gauls peeling off their stinking trousers, draping themselves in togas, and asking the way to the Senate House. Such xenophobia, of course, had always been a Roman’s right and privilege. Almost by definition, it was those most proud of the liberties of the Republic who proved the worst snobs. But Caesar scorned them. He could no longer be bothered to care what traditionalists thought.

Nor, indeed, was he much interested in the traditions themselves. This was just as well, for his policies raised awkward questions about the future functioning of the Republic. If it had been impractical enough for citizens in Italy to come to Rome to cast their votes, then for those in distant provinces, far away across the sea, it would be impossible. The problem was brushed aside. Caesar was not to be diverted by such quibbles. He had the foundations of a truly universal empire to lay – and with it, not coincidentally, a global supremacy for himself. Every native enfranchised, and every colonist settled, was a brick in his new order. Roman aristocrats had always commanded clients, but Caesar’s patronage would extend to the very limits of sand and ice. Syrians and Spaniards, Africans and Gauls, the far-flung peoples of a shrinking world would henceforward owe their allegiance not to the lethal amateurism of the Republic but to a single man. As a symbol of this future, nothing was more potent than Caesar’s plan for Carthage and Corinth. Flattened by the vengeful legions, these two cities were now to be rebuilt, monuments to a new age of universal peace and to the glory of their patron. Utica, down the coast from the new colony of Carthage, would be put forever in the shade. The future would be raised upon the rubble of the past. For the first time citizens living in Rome would be made to feel that they were parts, as well as the masters, of one world.

Which is not to say that Caesar meant to neglect his own city. He had big plans for Rome: a library was to be founded; a new theatre to rival Pompey’s cut out from the rock of the Capitol; the largest temple in the world built on the Campus. Even the Tiber, Caesar had decided, would have to be diverted, because its course obstructed his building plans. Nothing could better have illustrated the startling nature of his supremacy than this: that he could not only build where and what he wanted, but also, as though he were a god drawing on the landscape with his fingertip, order the city’s topography changed. Clearly, the ten years of Caesar’s dictatorship were going to alter the appearance of Rome for ever. A city that had always expressed through its ramshackle appearance its ancient liberties would soon look radically different – would soon look almost Greek.

And specifically, like Alexandria. There had been an early hint that this might be so in Caesar’s choice of house guests. In September 46 BC, just in time to watch her lover’s triumphs, Cleopatra had swept into town. Ensconcing herself in Caesar’s mansion on the far side of the Tiber, she had refused to make any allowances for republican sensibilities, instead playing up the role of an Egyptian queen to the full. She not only brought her husband–brother and an entourage of eunuchs with her, but also had an heir to parade, a one-year-old prince. Caesar, already married, had refused to acknowledge his bastard son, but Cleopatra, nothing daunted, had flaunted the obvious by naming the boy Caesarion. Naturally, Rome was scandalised. Equally naturally, everyone who was anyone flocked across the Tiber to gawp. The manner in which Cleopatra greeted visitors reflected her estimation of whether they mattered: Cicero, for instance, who found her hateful, she roundly snubbed. Effectively, of course, the Queen had eyes for only one man. In August 45, when Caesar finally returned to Italy, she hurried off to meet him.* The two of them luxuriated together on holiday in the countryside. Only in October did Caesar finally return to Rome.

He found a city convulsed by wild gossip. It was said – and believed – that he planned to move the seat of empire to Alexandria. Less ludicrously, it was also claimed that he wished to marry Cleopatra, despite the fact that he already had a wife. Caesar himself did nothing to discountenance these rumours by setting up a golden statue of his mistress in the temple of Venus – an unprecedented and shocking honour. And since Venus was the goddess most closely identified with Isis, there was a hint here of an even greater and more ominous scandal. If Cleopatra were to be represented in the heart of the Republic as a goddess, then what plans did her lover have for himself? And exactly why were workmen adding a pediment to his mansion, as though it were a temple? And what was the truth of the rumour that Antony had been appointed his high priest? Caesar was hardly being reticent in scattering out the clues.

Goddess brides and self-deification: he knew that his fellow citizens were bound to be appalled. But there were others, particularly in the East, who would not be. Rome might have bowed to Caesar, but there were still parts of the globe that had not yet bowed to Rome. Most obdurate of these was Parthia, whose horsemen, taking advantage of the Republic’s civil war, had dared to cross the frontier into Syria. There was also Carrhae to avenge, of course, and the lost eagles to regain, responsibilities certainly worthy of the dictator’s attention. Yet, coming so soon after his return to Rome, Caesar’s plan to set off to war again could not help but leave the city feeling diminished, almost spurned. It was as though the problems of the Republic bored the man appointed to solve them, as though Rome herself were now too small a stage for his ambitions. In the East they would appreciate this. In the East they already worshipped Caesar as a god. In the East there were traditions older by far than the Republic, of the flesh becoming divine, and of the rule of a king of kings.

And there, for anxious Romans, lay the rub. Late in 45 BC the Senate announced that Caesar was henceforward to be honoured as divus Iulius: Julius the God. Who now could doubt that he was preparing to break the ultimate taboo and set a crown upon his head? There were certainly grounds for such a horrific suspicion. Early in 44 Caesar began appearing in the high red boots once worn by kings in Italy’s legendary past; around the same time he reacted with fury when a diadem that had mysteriously appeared on one of his statues was removed. Public alarm grew. Caesar appears to have realised that he had gone too far. On 15 February, dressed in a purple toga, sporting a golden wreath, he ostentatiously refused Antony’s offer of a crown. The occasion was a festival, and Rome was heaving with holiday crowds. As Antony repeated the offer ‘a groan echoed all the way round the Forum’.22 Again Caesar refused the crown, this time with a firmness that brooked no future contradiction. Perhaps, had the crowds cheered, he might have accepted Antony’s offer, but it seems unlikely. Caesar knew that the Romans would never tolerate a King Julius. Nor, surely, in the final analysis, did he care. The forms taken by greatness were relative, varying from nation to nation. This was the lesson that his stay in Alexandria had taught him. Just as Cleopatra was both a pharaoh to the Egyptians and a Macedonian queen among the Greeks, so Caesar could be at once a living god in Asia and a dictator to the Romans. Why offend the sensibilities of his fellow citizens by abolishing the Republic when – as Caesar himself was said to have pointed out – the Republic had been reduced to ‘nothingness, a name only, without body or substance’?23What mattered was not the form but the reality of power. And Caesar, unlike Sulla, had no intention of relinquishing it.

A few days before Antony offered him the crown the Senate had officially appointed him dictator for life.* With this fateful measure the last feeble hope that Caesar might one day return the Republic to its citizens had been snuffed out. But would the Romans care? Caesar’s calculation was that they would not. The people he had lulled with games, and welfare, and peace. The Senate he had numbed into quietude, not with open menaces but by the threat of what might result from his removal: ‘Better an illegal tyrant than a civil war.’24 This was the opinion of Favonius, Cato’s most loyal admirer. It was a judgement widely shared. Caesar, knowing this, scorned the hatred of his peers. He dismissed his guard of two thousand men. He walked openly in the Forum, attended only by the lictors due to his office. And when informers brought him news of a rumoured assassination plot, and urged him to hunt down the conspirators, he dismissed their anxieties out of hand. ‘He would rather die, he said, than be feared.’25

Nor was it as though he would be in Rome for much longer. He was due to leave for Parthia on 18 March. True, a soothsayer had advised him to beware the Ides, which fell that month on the fifteenth, but Caesar had never shown much regard for superstitions. Only in his private conversation did he betray any intimations of mortality. On the evening of the fourteenth, one month after being appointed dictator for life, Caesar dined with Lepidus, the patrician who had joined his cause in 49 BC and was now his deputy in the dictatorship, a position officially entitled the ‘Master of Horse’. Confident that he was among friends, Caesar dropped his guard. ‘What is the sweetest kind of death?’ he was asked. Back shot Caesar’s response: ‘The kind that comes without warning.’26 To be warned was to be fearful; to be fearful was to be emasculated. That night, when Caesar’s wife suffered nightmares and begged him not to attend the Senate the next day, he laughed. In the morning, borne in his litter, he caught sight of the soothsayer who had told him to beware of the Ides of March. ‘The day which you warned me against is here,’ Caesar said, smiling, ‘and I am still alive.’ ‘Yes,’ came the answer, swift and inevitable. ‘It is here – but it is not yet past.’27

The Senate that morning had arranged to meet in Pompey’s great assembly hall. Games were being held in the adjacent theatre, and as Caesar descended from his litter he would have heard the roars of the Roman people thrilling to spectacles of blood. But the noise would soon have been dimmed by the cool marble of the portico, and even more by that of the assembly hall that waited beyond. Pompey’s statue still dominated the Senate’s meeting-space. After Pharsalus it had been hurriedly pulled down, but Caesar, with typical generosity, had ordered it restored, along with all of Pompey’s other statues. An investment policy, Cicero had sneered, against his own being removed – but that was malicious and unfair. Caesar had no reason to fear for the future of his statues. Nor, walking into the assembly hall that morning and seeing the senators rise to greet him, for himself. Not even when a crowd of them approached him with a petition, mobbing him as he sat down in his gilded chair, pressing him down with their kisses. Then suddenly he felt his toga being pulled down from his shoulders. ‘Why,’ he cried out, startled, ‘this is violence!’28 At the same moment he felt a slashing pain across his throat. Twisting around he saw a dagger, red with his own blood.

Some sixty men stood in a press around him. All of them had drawn daggers from under their togas. All of them were well known to Caesar. Many were former enemies who had accepted his pardon – but even more were friends.29 Some were officers who had served with him in Gaul, among them Decimus Brutus, commander of the war fleet that had wiped out the Venetians. The most grievous betrayal, however, the one that finally numbed Caesar and stopped him in his desperate efforts to fight back, came from someone closer still. Caesar glimpsed, flashing through the mêlée, a knife aimed at his groin, held by another Brutus, Marcus, his reputed son. ‘You too, my boy?’30 he whispered, then fell to the ground. Not wishing to be witnessed in his death-agony, he covered his head with the ribbons of his toga. The pool of his blood stained the base of Pompey’s statue. Dead, he lay in his great rival’s shadow.

But if there appeared to be symbolism in this, then it was illusory. Caesar had not been sacrificed to the cause of any faction. True, one of the two ring-leaders of the conspiracy had been Cassius Longinus, one of Pompey’s former officers. But when Cassius had argued for the assassination not only of Caesar but also of Antony and Lepidus, and a wholesale destruction of the dictator’s regime, his case had been overruled. Brutus, the other leader, and the conscience of the conspiracy, had refused to hear of it. They were conducting an execution, he had argued, not a squalid manoeuvre in a political fight. And Brutus had prevailed. For Brutus was known to be an honourable man, and worthy to serve as the spokesman and avenger of the Republic.

In the beginning there had been kings, and the last king had been a tyrant. And a man named Brutus had expelled him from the city and set up the consulship, and all the institutions of a free Republic. And now, 465 years later, Brutus, his descendant, had struck down a second tyrant. Leading his fellow conspirators out of Pompey’s great complex, he stumbled and ran in his excitement across the Campus. Holding his bloodstained dagger proudly aloft, he headed for the Forum. There, in the people’s meeting-place, he proclaimed the glad news: Caesar was dead; liberty was restored; the Republic was saved.

As though in derisory answer, from across the Campus came the sound of screams. The spectators at Pompey’s theatre were rioting, crushing one another in their panic. Wisps of smoke were already rising into the sky; shops were being smashed as looters set to work. More distantly, the first wails of grief could be heard as Rome’s Jews began the mourning for the man who had always served as their patron. Elsewhere, however, as news of what had happened spread across the city, there was only silence. Far from rushing to the Forum to acclaim the liberators, citizens were rushing to their homes and barring their doors.

The Republic was saved. But what was the Republic now? Stillness hung over the city and no answer could be discerned.

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