THE GATHERING STORM
Caesar’s deputy Marcus Lepidus, waiting in the Forum for Caesar’s return, saw a wave of people come rushing from the direction of the Field of Mars. There was unadulterated panic. People were shouting and waving their arms about. Lepidus froze as he heard people call out that Julius Caesar had been murdered at Pompey’s Portico. And then Lepidus sprang into action.¹
Appian reported that Lepidus, “when he heard what had happened, dashed across to the island in the Tiber, where he had a legion.”² This was the legion of retired troops, the 7th or 8th. There were several bridges across the Tiber. The nearest, the Pons Aemilius, was undoubtedly the one that Lepidus used. Crossing the Aemilian bridge, Lepidus had only to hurry a short distance up the western bank of the Tiber to the Pons Cestius. Recrossing the river via this bridge, he reached Tiber Island.
A serving legion at this time in Roman history was commanded by six military tribunes, young gentlemen officers in their twenties who were members of the Equestrian Order. On campaign, one of these military tribunes commanded the legion for two months, while the other five each commanded two of the ten cohorts, so that each had a turn in overall command over the period of twelve months. In the imperial era, this system would be radically changed, with a dedicated commander of senatorial rank allocated to each legion, for postings of three to four years at a time; a single military tribune would serve as his deputy.
The military tribunes of this legion on Tiber Island would have gone home once their men were discharged, so that on March 15, 44 B.C., the unit’s former centurions were in charge when Master of Equestrians Lepidus came panting onto Tiber Island. Lepidus ordered the men of the legion to accompany him at once to the Field of Mars.³ Forming up in their old cohorts and grabbing up what arms they had retained, these men followed Lepidus across the Pons Fabricius to the Field of Mars, where they would have formed up in neat ranks on the grass of the Villa Publica, facing the city. Here, the armed former legionaries were outside the pomerium, the ancient, sacred boundary of the city of Rome said to have been drawn by Romulus himself, and inside which it was unlawful for any man to carry arms.
Some of the ex-legionaries would have worn chain-mail armored leather vests over standard-issue tunics. On some men’s heads were jockey-style legionary helmets of iron and bronze, their horsehair plumes wafting in the late-winter breeze. On their right hip many men had a sheathed short sword, the gladius; on their left, a dagger, the pugio. On the left arm, some carried a large, rectangular convex shield; made of wood, it was covered with leather, and on the leather was painted the emblem of their legion. In the case of “Spanish” legions serving under Caesar, the unit emblem was a bull.
Lepidus took the former legionaries to the Field of Mars, said Appian, “to hold them in greater readiness for Antony’s orders, deferring to Antony because the latter was closer to Caesar and also a consul.”⁴ Lepidus, while senior to Antony when Caesar was alive, now had absolutely no authority—according to Roman law, a Master of Equestrians’ appointment ended the moment his Dictator ceased to hold office. Caesar, with his death, certainly no longer held office. Lepidus, now without any legal standing, had to defer to Antony, whose post as a consul was unaffected by the Dictator’s death.
Two problems now emerged for Lepidus. Antony was in hiding, in fear for his life, and in no position to deliver orders to the ex-soldiers. The second problem was that the former legionaries soon learned that Caesar was dead. And they realized that, accordingly, Lepidus no longer had any power to command them. The ex-soldiers and their centurions now conferred. “When they considered what to do, ” said Appian, “their impulse was to take revenge for what Caesar had suffered, but they feared that the Senate would be on the side of the assassins, and decided to await further developments.”⁵
After spending some time on the Field of Mars, the retired soldiers marched back to their camp on Tiber Island. Lepidus, now fearing for his life the same way Antony did, melted away and went into hiding in the city. According to Plutarch, “Antony and Lepidus, Caesar’s most faithful friends, got off privately and hid themselves in some friends’ houses,” where they would spend that night.⁶
Writing three hundred years later, Cassius Dio, the classical author most removed from these events, would claim that Lepidus occupied the Forum that night with soldiers and at dawn the next day delivered a speech against the assassins.⁷ This claim is not substantiated by any other classical source; none confirms that Lepidus took troops to the Forum on the night of March 15. In fact, it is a claim contradicted by Plutarch, who says that Lepidus stayed in hiding with friends that night. And with Lepidus by then deprived of all official authority by Caesar’s death, it is highly unlikely that the troops would have followed him at that point. Dio seems to have confused various other accounts, one of which more credibly puts Lepidus in the Forum with troops two days later, but not on the evening of March 15.
The first that Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, would have known about the Dictator’s murder would have been when the three slaves who had struggled to take his litter from the Theater of Pompey and back into the city carried his body into the Regia late on the morning of March 15. The servant who had been waiting at the Regia to pass on vital information to Caesar would now have fled in terror. The horror of Caesar’s wife as his body was brought in, especially after she had begged Caesar not to leave the house that day, can only be imagined.
Caesar’s physician, Antistius, was sent for. Antistius carried out a postmortem on Caesar’s body, the first postmortem on a historical figure in recorded history. The physician found that Caesar had received twenty-three stab wounds. Of these, he would report, none had been fatal except for a stab to the chest.⁸ Over the coming days, Caesar’s body would remain at the Regia.
The Liberators, with their gladiator escort, arrived at the hilltop Capitoline complex after marching from the Field of Mars, and took possession of it. Far from thinking about fleeing Rome to escape arrest as murderers, said Plutarch, they passed into the city “with an air of confidence and assurance.” Along the way they were joined by many sympathizers attracted by their call for the restoration of the Republic.⁹
By this time, the tumult and the wild panic had subsided. The streets of Rome had become deserted. Appian was to report that in the city, in expectation of Caesar’s assassins going on a murderous rampage, “everybody barred their doors and prepared to defend themselves from their rooftops.” He added that “many foreigners and ordinary inhabitants of Rome were also killed” and that “the goods displayed for sale were looted.”¹⁰ But Plutarch contradicted him by stating that there was no bloodshed other than Caesar’s murder, and this was confirmed by both Suetonius and Dio. Plutarch also noted that there was “no plundering of the goods in the streets.”¹¹
The position of the Liberators was precarious. Albinus’s gladiators numbered perhaps several hundred armed men. But there were several thousand armed former legionaries on Tiber Island, and there was no telling what they would do or who they would follow. More than that, Appian pointed out that “there were also a large number of discharged soldiers in the city” itself. These men, like those on Tiber Island, who had served in Caesar’s legions during the Civil War, “were going to go out and settle in large groups on land and property taken from others”—former supporters of Pompey and the old republican Senate—an act instigated by Caesar and approved by his Senate, which, in Appian’s opinion, “was in contravention of justice.”¹²
These ex-soldiers “were now encamped in the sanctuaries and sacred precincts” of the capital “under a single standard and a single officer appointed to supervise the new settlement” program.¹³ In addition, there were other former soldiers in the city who “had already been settled in colonies but had come back to Rome to escort Caesar on his way when he left” on March 19 to commence his Getae and Parthian campaigns.¹⁴ Appian estimated that these ex-soldiers in the city, including those on Tiber Island, numbered “tens of thousands.”¹⁵
After consulting among themselves at the Capitol, Brutus, Cassius, and the other assassins decided to distribute bribes among the ordinary people, thinking that they would thus cement the support of those who did not have a “love of freedom” nor were necessarily “longing for the Republic.” Their agents went about the city, handing out money and encouraging people to come to the Capitoline Mount to hear Marcus Brutus speak, and a large crowd very soon came surging up to the Capitol and assembled.¹⁶
Appian, who was apt to confuse the timing and order of some of the events he chronicled, wrote that Lucius Cornelius Cinna, the brother-in-law of Caesar, spoke first, followed by Publius Dolabella, Caesar’s young favorite and the consul-elect. Plutarch tells it slightly differently, with Cinna speaking last and Dolabella not speaking publicly at all at that juncture. Plutarch’s version of events makes much more sense. According to him, Brutus spoke first at this gathering on the Capitol. This he had intended to do in the Senate House. Probably standing on the steps of the huge Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, Rome’s oldest and most sacred temple, Brutus read, or recited from memory, a speech he had prepared days earlier. In May, Brutus would send this speech to his friend Marcus Cicero the orator, asking him to make any corrections to it that he felt necessary, prior to it being published for mass consumption.
“The speech is a most eloquent composition,” Cicero would tell a friend in a May 18 letter. “The wording and the turn of the sentences could not be bettered. But if I had been handling the material I would have put more fire into it, considering the nature of the theme and the role of the speaker.”¹⁷ So elegant Brutus gave his elegant speech, but a speech lacking fire. Nonetheless, it was a speech that proved “very popular” with the pro-assassination crowd on the Capitol, “and proper for the state that affairs were then in,” in the opinion of Plutarch. The crowd applauded, and called for the Liberators to come down to the Forum and address the city as a whole.¹⁸
Both Plutarch and Appian wrote that, taking confidence from this reception, Brutus and the other assassins came down from the Capitoline Mount during the afternoon, escorted by Albinus’s gladiators. A much larger crowd, of mixed allegiances and emotions, gathered in the Forum. “Many of the most eminent men, accompanying Brutus, conducted him in their midst with great honor from the Capitol and placed him on the Rostra,” said Plutarch. The members of this enlarged crowd of thousands “were struck with reverence” for Brutus and “heard him silently and attentively” as he apparently repeated the speech he made on the Capitol.¹⁹
According to Appian, Cassius also spoke, as would be expected. He praised Brutus as an honorable man, congratulated Rome on having regained its freedom, and thanked Albinus for providing his gladiators in the hour of need. Cassius called for the recall of Pompey’s surviving son Sextus to Rome, and also of the two tribunes, Marullus and Flavus, “who were in exile after being stripped of office by Caesar.”²⁰
Cinna, a serving praetor and Caesar’s brother-in-law, now made his way to the Rostra. Because of his close family connection to Caesar, many members of the crowd were surprised to see the assassins give way to him. As he climbed the steps to the Rostra to speak, Cinna “threw off his praetor’s insignia,” which appears to have taken the form of a crimson waistband, “despising it as the gift of a despot, ” that despot being his brother-in-law Julius Caesar.²¹
From the Rostra, looking out across the throng, Cinna “called Caesar a despot, and the men who had killed him tyrannicides.” This term, tyrannicides, in Roman law applied to those who killed a tyrant in defense of Roman democracy, and was an honorable title. Conversely, a person convicted of being a tyrant was deprived of all civic rights, even the right of a funeral, cremation, and the interment of his remains.
Cinna praised Caesar’s murder as an act resembling those of the Romans’ noblest ancestors, and told the crowd that they should be grateful to the men who did it. According to Appian, those who had been bribed applauded Cinna.²² But, Plutarch wrote, others “broke out in a sudden rage, and railed at him in such language that the whole party thought fit to again withdraw to the Capitol.”²³
Dark clouds had been forming over the city ever since Caesar’s murder, and late in the day a thunderstorm erupted over Rome, with booming thunder that shook walls and flashing bolts of lightning that lit the gloomy metropolis’s dark corners with brief flashes of silvered light. Heavy rain then lashed the rooftops and deserted streets.²⁴ The more superstitious Romans, skulking in their homes behind locked doors, would take this to mean that the gods were angry at Caesar’s death, or at least at the manner of it.
Safe from both inclement weather and physical attack under a temple roof, Brutus, on the Capitoline Mount, “expecting to be besieged” by the mob, sent away all those other than the conspirators who had taken part in Caesar’s assassination, feeling it unfair that those who had not shared the deed should have to share the danger.²⁵ There at the Capitoline complex, with their gladiator protectors, and themselves armed in expectation of an assault, the sixty or so original conspirators “spent the day and night.”²⁶
Ordinarily, the city of Rome was a bustle of activity at night. Caesar himself had introduced traffic regulations that kept the merchants’ wagons and builders’ carts off the streets in daylight hours. This meant that from dusk till daylight the streets were alive with vehicles coming and going, giving ancient Rome the reputation as “the city that never sleeps,” a title much later appropriated by New York City. On the night of March 15-16, 44 B.C., Rome was deathly still. None of the usual hubbub. Nothing stirred.
On the Capitol, Brutus, Cassius, and their colleagues spent a sleep-deprived night, expecting to be attacked at any moment. In the suburbs, all doors were securely bolted. In the houses of friends they could trust, Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, themselves afraid of assassination if they ventured back to their own homes, spent the hours of darkness. At the house of Marcus Brutus, his wife, Porcia, would have been almost demented in her worry for the welfare of her husband on the Capitol. In the colonnades of temples and sanctuaries throughout the city, ex-soldiers would have sat in groups sourly lamenting the death of their commander, Caesar, worrying that the land grants he had promised them would not now be forthcoming, and discussing whom they would support in the power vacuum that was now Rome.
At the Regia at the head of the Forum Romanum, the widow Calpurnia wept over the body of her dead Caesar.