‘Caesar gave the impression to some of his friends that he did not wish to live any longer, and took no precautions due to his failing health. . .. Some also say that he declared that it was more important for the Republic than himself to go on living; for he had already ample glory and power; however, if anything happened to him, there would be no peace for the State, which would relapse into civil war of a much worse kind.’ - Suetonius, early second century AD.1
‘I have lived long enough for either nature or glory.’ - Caesar, 46 BC.2
At the beginning of 44 BC Caesar was fifty-six. It would be surprising if the effort of so many years on campaign had not taken some toll on his system, and Suetonius speaks of failing health. However, there is no good evidence to suggest that his epilepsy had grown worse and certainly his great energy does not seem to have declined. By Roman standards he was well past the prime of life, but there was no particular reason why he should not have lived on for another fifteen or twenty years, and perhaps even longer. Caesar did not expect to die in March 44 BC and the men who killed him were obviously not confident that nature would do their work for them in the near future. The dictator’s death was sudden and unanticipated by all but the conspirators. Therefore, to look at Caesar and the regime he created is inevitably to examine something that was incomplete and still developing. Augustus would hold supreme power for over four decades and the system he created had time to evolve very gradually. It is ultimately impossible to know what Caesar planned to do and how successful this might have been. Rumours - often very wild ones - about his intentions were rife during his lifetime and after his death even more confusion was added by the energetic propaganda campaigns maintained by the opposing sides during the ensuing civil wars. It is especially unfortunate that Cicero’s letters for the first three months of 44 BC were never published, leaving no contemporary literary evidence from this vital period.
Inevitably some doubt must remain over many of Caesar’s long-term aims, but one thing that is clear is that he expected to be away from Rome and Italy for at least three years. The conspirators struck when they did because they knew that the dictator was to leave the city in a few days time to set out for fresh campaigns. This time his opponents would be foreign and so the glory won by their defeat unambiguous. First he would strike against the Dacians under their King Burebista, fighting the Balkan war which he had probably anticipated in 58 BC. He may well have hoped to complete this campaign by the end of the year. After that he would move against the Parthians, for Crassus’ defeat at Carrhae was still unavenged. More recently the Parthians had again invaded Syria and given support to a renegade Pompeian who was intent on reviving the Civil War. The Parthian war was envisaged on a massive scale, for Caesar had given orders for sixteen legions supported by 10,000 cavalry to be massed. A planned canal through the isthmus of Corinth, although also expected to foster trade, seems to have been intended to help maintain supply lines to the theatre of operations. Plutarch tells us that a Greek architect had been appointed to this project, but it seems unlikely to have progressed beyond the theoretical stage before it was abandoned on Caesar’s death. It appears that the defeat of Parthia was widely considered to be desirable - there had, of course, been speculation that either Pompey or Caesar should be sent there in the build-up to the Civil War. Caesar is said to have planned to begin cautiously, learning as much about the enemy and their way of fighting as possible before launching an attack in earnest. It is not clear whether he planned to conquer Parthia or merely inflict a serious defeat on its king, which would force him to accept peace on Roman terms. There were fantastic stories that he planned to return by a wide circuit, marching around the Caspian Sea through what would become southern Russia and conquering the German tribes on his way back to Gaul, but this conflicts with the otherwise methodical tone of the planning. It is also obvious that this would inevitably have taken longer than three years. It is possible that the idea of an eastern war was made more attractive to Caesar by its associations with Alexander the Great, but there is simply no good evidence to suggest that he had become prey to such megalomaniac dreams. It is obviously impossible to say whether or not his Parthian campaign would have succeeded. Caesar’s past military achievements suggest that it would, as long as his energy and skill - not to mention his good fortune - had not altogether abandoned him. Yet the Parthians were formidable opponents and gave Mark Antony a severe mauling when he attacked them six years later. Augustus preferred diplomacy, backed by threat of force, to open warfare and achieved a satisfactory peace on his eastern frontier. His success - and the failure of later emperors to win a complete victory over Parthia - does not necessarily mean that Caesar’s planned operation was doomed to failure.3
Caesar did not stay in Rome all the time in the months following his triumph, but wherever he was he remained very busy In December 45 BC he was on the coast of Campania, accompanied by a large staff that included Balbus and an escort, so that altogether he had some 2,000 men with him. He stopped for a night at a villa near to Cicero’s outside Puteoli and the latter wrote a detailed account of the dinner he gave on 19 December. It is interesting that he thought it necessary to borrow guards - probably gladiators - from a neighbour, for he seems to have been suspicious that otherwise his house might be looted by the soldiers camped outside. In the morning Caesar remained in the neighbour’s villa until:
the seventh hour [i.e. early afternoon], admitting no one; I understand he was busy at his accounts with Balbus. Later he walked along the shore. After the eighth hour he bathed. Then he listened to the matter of Mamurra without altering his expression [it is unknown what this was, but a likely speculation is that the latter had breached the sumptuary law]. He was rubbed down, and had dinner. He was taking a course of emetics. And so he ate and drank freely and without concern - the dinner was grand and well presented, and not merely that, but ‘well cooked, and properly seasoned, and if you ask, all went well.’
At the same time his followers, including slaves and freedmen, were entertained, the most senior in some style. At the main dinner ‘there was no talk of the affairs of state, and plenty of discussion of literature. To answer your question, he was happy and enjoyed it.’ For all the success of the dinner Cicero ruefully declared that Caesar was not the sort of visitor you would encourage to pop in again, although obviously he felt that he was in no position not to invite Caesar when he was nearby. In the last months of his life Caesar seems always to have been busy, but remained an easy and charming companion at the dinner table. Yet he was not always as accessible as he might have liked. At some point in 44 BC Cicero went to visit him at his house in Rome and was kept waiting for some time before being ushered into his presence. Later he recalled Caesar saying, ‘Can I have any doubt that I am deeply loathed, when Marcus Cicero has to sit and wait and cannot simply come to see me as he wishes. If ever there is an easy mannered man then it is he. Yet I have no doubt that he hates me.’
Caesar was prone to flashes of temper, but in the same way that the evidence does not support the view that his health was rapidly declining, there is no reason to believe that his character had changed profoundly He was occupied with a vast amount of work, the load added to because of his plan to set off on campaign in the near future, and so gave the impression of being in a hurry As a person Cicero and most other senators still found him pleasant, and his behaviour was moderate and inclined to be generous. It was not so much Caesar the man they hated, but the position that he had acquired and what it meant for the Republic. In late 45 and early 44 BC this position was still being defined, and at the same time as his power and status developed, attitudes towards it were changing. This brings us back to the fundamental question of what Caesar intended for the long term.4
KING, GOD OR CAESAR?
There is no doubt that by late 45 BC Caius Julius Caesar was effectively a monarch, in the literal sense that he enjoyed far greater power than any other person, group or institution within the Roman Republic. He had gained this position through victory in the Civil War, but his specific powers had been awarded him by the Senate and People. Traditionally a dictator had been limited to a six-month term of office. Sulla, in similar circumstances to Caesar, had held greater power without any time limit, resigning and retiring to private life only when he chose. Caesar thought him a political illiterate for doing this. He was already consul and dictator for ten years, a time period far longer than anything imagined in the traditions of Rome’s constitution. Early in 44 BC this would be extended to a permanent dictatorship (dictator perpetuo). In addition he was awarded the censorship - whose powers he had anyway effectively been employing- for the rest of his life. Many of his honours were more symbolic. He was named ‘Father of his Country’ (parens patriae), although he was not the first to be addressed in this way for Cicero had been proclaimed as such after the exposure of the Catilinarian conspiracy. Caesar was also to be permitted to perform the only ritual more prestigious than the triumph, the right to dedicate the ‘highest spoils’ (spolia opima), an honour that was properly won by a commander who killed the enemy leader in personal combat. There is no evidence that he actually had time to celebrate this rite. Another exceptional award was permission to sit with the tribunes of the people at the theatre. On other formal occasions his chair was already placed between the consuls
- when he was not actually holding the magistracy himself - but now his ivory chair of office was replaced with one decorated with gold. His birthday became a public festival and the month itself was renamed Julius. He was also the first Roman to be depicted on coinage minted during his lifetime. His head only appeared on some coins, and it was left to Augustus to make this practice universal. (Hence in the Gospels Jesus could ask whose head was on a silver coin, knowing that all carried a depiction of an emperor.)5
Caesar’s honours clearly belonged to a tradition of celebrating the achievements of other famous Roman aristocrats, like Scipio Africanus the Elder and the Younger, Marius and Sulla, and most of all Pompey. Yet in his case everything was taken much further and the sheer scale and number of privileges awarded to one man was unprecedented. The inclusion of his statue in the procession of those of the gods at the opening ceremonies of the games, and the placing of more statues in and around the temples on the Capitol, suggested a status that was somewhat more than human. When news had reached Rome of the victory at Thapsus, a statue of Caesar had been set up showing him standing on a globe, with an inscription on the pedestal reading ‘To the Unconquered God’, but he ordered this erased after his return. However, in late 45 and early 44 BC this impression was reinforced when Caesar was given further honours. His house was to be given a pediment or high-pointed front supported by pillars, just like those on the great temples. A Julian college of priests was created and associated with the colleges that oversaw the ancient festival of the Lupercalia. This was taken further when it was decided to dedicate a temple to Caesar and his clemency
- or perhaps strictly Caesar’s clemency for the sources are unclear. The cult was to be the charge of a new priest or flamen, resembling the ancient post of Flamen Dialis or priest of Jupiter, and Mark Antony was named as the first of these. Dio goes so far as to claim that Caesar was now to be worshipped as Jupiter Julius, but there is no other evidence for such a specific identification with Rome’s most important divinity. After Pharsalus, Caesar had already been formally referred to as a god in the honours and decrees of Hellenistic communities in the provinces. There was nothing new about this - other Roman commanders in the last century and a half had been honoured in much the same way. There was a long tradition of divine kingship in the East and a tendency to extend this to powerful Romans who appeared in the region. Yet in the past no one had attempted to extend these ideas to Rome.6
After his death Caesar was declared a god - the Divine Julius (divus Julius) - and his adopted son would style himself the son of a god. However, Augustus himself was not deified in Rome until after his death and this remained the pattern with his successors. The process became effectively automatic, so that the Emperor Vespasian’s last words are supposed to have been a macabre joke - ‘I think I am becoming a god.’ Only megalomaniac emperors were ever declared living gods, and the knowledge of this later pattern has added to the dispute over whether or not Caesar accepted such status. Roman religion was complex and polytheistic, with a huge number of different gods and goddesses, some far greater than others, as well as a great variety of demi-gods and heroes. Legends, both Greek and Roman, told of humans who had become divine - Hercules/Herakles being probably the most famous. Caesar’s family boasted of their descent from Venus and other aristocrats claimed that their line went back to other deities. The clear division between God and human, maintained in the monotheistic tradition more familiar to the modern mind, was much less simple for the Romans. In a speech delivered just a few weeks after Caesar’s death, Cicero referred to Antony and his appointment as Caesar’s flamen, so we can be confident that this was announced, although it is unlikely that he had actually been inaugurated. This does mean that it is very hard to argue against the view that Caesar was declared at least semi-divine during his lifetime, and perhaps was said to be a god. However, the cult does not seem to have received great prominence, if indeed there was time for it to be properly set up, and it is best to think of Caesar as at most a minor addition to Rome’s pantheon. Dio presents this episode as one purely of politics, with a sycophantic Senate praising the dictator. It is notable that he follows it by reporting that Caesar was also given the right to be buried inside the city - Roman custom dictated that burials should take place outside the formal boundary of Rome. The decree was to be inscribed in golden letters on a silver tablet and to be placed beneath the statue of Capitoline Jupiter. Dio says that this was intended as a clear reminder to the dictator that he was mortal.7
Apart from his formal powers Caesar stood out in many ways. His family claimed descent from the kings of Alba Longa, a city that no longer existed since the Romans had absorbed it early on in their history. On formal occasions he now took to wearing what he claimed was the costume of these monarchs, notably calf-length boots in red leather. The reddish-purple tunic and toga of a triumphing general, which he now wore at festivals and formal meetings, also had regal associations. To this he added a laurel wreath - an honour that he is said to have especially relished because of his growing baldness - and in 44 BC this seems to have been replaced with a gold version. His formal power was massive, and his informal control even greater and sometimes blatant. Probably in late 46 BC Cleopatra, her brother-husband Ptolemy and their court arrived in Rome. They were accommodated in one of Caesar’s houses on the far bank of the Tiber and remained there till after his death. It is not known whose idea the visit was, but it does seem unlikely that she would have travelled to Italy and remained so long if Caesar had been opposed to the idea. Cleopatra owed her throne to her Roman lover, and may well have felt safer near him and away from Egypt, hoping that time would help the more hostile elements in Alexandria and elsewhere to grow used to her rule. She may also have felt that there were political advantages and concessions that could only be won from Caesar himself. Perhaps the news of his affair with Queen Eunoe during the African campaign caused her concern that his support for her might prove fickle. From his point of view, it was obvious that Egypt and its rich grain harvests would play an important part in the supply effort required by his projected war against Parthia. Political concerns were rarely far from the mind of either Caesar or Cleopatra, but her arrival less than a year after he had left Egypt, and the length of her subsequent stay, strongly suggest that he wanted her with him and there is no reason to doubt that they resumed their affair. Cleopatra certainly continued to stand high in his affections. The Temple of Venus Genetrix was the centrepiece of his new Forum. Caesar had a gold statue of the Queen made and placed next to that of the goddess. Appian says it was still there in his day, over a century and a half later. Caesar was still married to Calpurnia and Plutarch’s account suggests that the couple continued to sleep together. It seems inconceivable that she was not aware of his infidelities, or that the Egyptian Queen living across the river was his mistress. During her time in Rome Cleopatra was often visited by distinguished Romans, eager perhaps for a gift, for a favour concerning one of their clients with business in her realm, or maybe in the hope that she would influence Caesar on their behalf. Cicero seems to have been disappointed and complained of the queen’s arrogance, but the main point is that he had visited in the first place.8
At least one of the honours voted to Caesar was expressly to be handed on to his son and grandson, but as yet he had no son, or at least not a legitimate child. His only daughter was dead and her baby, if indeed it was a boy, had not survived her by more than a few days. When Cleopatra gave birth she named her son Caesarion, apparently with Caesar’s permission. His year of birth is not absolutely established, but sometime late in 46 BC seems most likely. Although it is probable that the infant came with her to Rome, Caesarion is not mentioned by any sources written before Caesar’s death. This has sometimes led to the suggestion that he was not the dictator’s son, but a child produced only when Antony and Cleopatra wanted to diminish the prominence gained by Octavian as Caesar’s heir. One argument in favour of this view is the simple fact that Caesar, for all his three marriages and frequent affairs, had not fathered another child since Julia, who had been conceived decades earlier. The claim of at least one Gaulish aristocrat over a century later to be descended from Caesar may or may not have had any basis in fact. However, it is worth remembering that Caesar’s marriage to Pompeia ended in divorce and may well have been unhappy, while for the vast majority of the years he was married to Calpurnia he was away on active service. It was not usual for wives to accompany or visit provincial governors in the Republic and so their chances of having a child were severely limited. It does seem unlikely that Antony and Cleopatra could produce a child that had never been heard of during Caesar’s lifetime and have expected his claim to be accepted, so it seems probable that the boy was already in Rome before March 44 BC. Whether or not Caesar was actually his father is impossible to say with absolute certainty and would require far more intimate knowledge of the queen’s life than we possess. The majority of the ancient sources who comment on the matter seem to have accepted that Caesarion was the dictator’s child, but then these authors all wrote considerably later. Suetonius does mention that after Caesar’s death his long-time assistant and confidant Caius Oppius wrote a book to refute this claim.9
On balance, a better case can be made for assuming that Caesar was (or perhaps at least believed that he was) the father of Caesarion, but he was illegitimate, not a Roman citizen and only an infant. The boy was not even mentioned in a will drawn up by the dictator in the last months of his life. The most prominent position was given to the grandson of his sister, the eighteen-year-old Caius Octavius, in whom he had taken some interest in recent years. It seems likely that Caesar discerned some of the great talent in the youth who would become in time Emperor Augustus. His father and namesake had held the praetorship, but had died in 59 BC. Aged only twelve, Octavius had delivered the oration at the funeral of Caesar’s daughter. In 47 BC Caesar had admitted him to the college of pontiffs, taking up the vacancy caused by Domitius Ahenobarbus’ death at Pharsalus. This was an exceptional honour for one so young. Octavius was to have accompanied him on campaign in Spain, but due to ill health only joined the dictator when the fighting was over. In the will Octavius was his main heir and was formally adopted as Caesar’s son, but it would be unwise to exaggerate his importance before the Ides of March. He was still very young, the son of a new man, and his public role was minor. Mark Antony and Dolabella were much more prominent as Caesar’s favourites. After Antony had met Caesar in Gaul in 45 BC, he rode with the dictator for the rest of the journey, while Octavius travelled in a second carriage alongside Decimus Brutus. Mark Antony was to be Caesar’s colleague as consul in 44 BC, but his continuing feud with Dolabella threatened to disrupt the dictator’s plan to resign in his favour when he left Rome. The provision for Octavius’ adoption in the will does not seem to have been widely known. It seems extremely unlikely that, had the dictator suddenly died of natural causes, the youth would have been able to inherit anything more than his fortune and property. He was not marked out as successor to Caesar’s powers and honours, and politically other men seemed much closer to the dictator. Both Antony and Dolabella were in fact technically too young to hold the consulship, but they were well established in public life.10
The Gracchi had been suspected of craving royal rule (regnum) - there was a rumour that Tiberius had been sent a diadem by an Asian king. Since the expulsion of the last king and the creation of the Republic, the Roman aristocracy maintained a deep hatred of monarchy and it was a common aspect of political invective to accuse rivals of seeking kingship. The powers of the dictatorship were effectively monarchical, and to these Caesar had added other rights, so that in practice he ruled as a monarch. He also dressed like the kings of Alba Longa. In the Hellenistic world rulers were both kings and gods, so that some have chosen to see the divine or semi-divine honours voted to him as steps towards establishing a formal monarchy after this model. In the first months of 44 BC the question of whether or not Caesar should take the name of king was brought firmly into the public eye. On 26 January he celebrated the traditional Latin festival on the Alban Hill outside Rome, and the Senate had granted him special permission to celebrate an ovation - the lesser form of triumph - and ride back into Rome accompanied by a grand procession. During the parade some of the crowd hailed him as king. Rex was the Latin for king, but it was also a family name, Marcius Rex, and Caesar turned it into a joke by replying that he was ‘Not King, but Caesar.’ A few days before two of the tribunes, Caius Epidius Marullus and Lucius Caesetius Flavus, had ordered the removal of a royal diadem or headband from one of his statues in the Forum. Now the same pair ordered the arrest of the man who had first raised the shout. Caesar was annoyed, suspecting that the two tribunes were trying to cause him trouble and deliberately raising the spectre of monarchy to blacken his name. He protested at their action and they responded by issuing a statement that he was preventing the tribunes of the people from carrying out their lawful function. Summoning the Senate, Caesar condemned the men, saying that they had placed him in the impossible position of either accepting an insult or acting harshly against his true nature. Someone seems to have suggested the death penalty, but he did not want this, and was content to have them removed from office following a motion put forward by another tribune. Caesar asked Flavus’ father to disinherit his son, who had two more gifted brothers, but when he refused to do this the dictator let the matter drop. Once again the man who had talked of tribunes’ rights when he went to war had ridden over opposition from tribunes, although his punishment was far milder than that Sulla had been wont to dispense.11
On 15 February 44 BC Rome celebrated the Lupercalia, an ancient festival whose main associations were with fertility. As part of the rituals the Lupercal priests, naked save for loincloths made of hide, ran through the streets, flicking passers-by with goatskin whips. It was considered lucky to be touched in this way, especially for women hoping to conceive or for those already pregnant who hoped for an easy and successful delivery. The thirty-nine- year-old consul Antony was the leader of these runners, since he was head of the Julian college of priests. Caesar watched, clad in his wreath, the purple robes of a triumphing general, the long-sleeved tunic and high boots of the Alban kings, sitting on his gilded chair of office. Antony ran up to him and presented him with a royal diadem, urging him to take it and become king. At the sight the crowd went silent. When Caesar refused they cheered and, when Antony repeated the offer and the dictator again declined, the acclamation grew even louder. Caesar ordered the diadem to be sent to the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, because Rome had only one king. It was - and is - very hard to believe that this episode was not carefully staged, although to what extent Antony added his own touches to the performance is impossible to say. Cynics then and subsequently said that Caesar wanted to accept the crown, and would have done so if only the watching crowd had seemed more enthusiastic. If so, then this was a very clumsy way of going about this, and it should be noted that his earlier honours were all proposed first in the Senate. More probably he wanted the glory of refusing such an offer and perhaps also hoped to put an end to the talk encouraged by the episode of the tribunes. In this he did not succeed, for a rumour soon began to circulate that an oracle had been discovered that revealed that the Parthians could only be defeated by a king. As an augur Cicero later stated that the story was false and no such oracle existed, but many seem to have believed it, which does give some indication of the mood of the times. From this story grew another claiming that it would be proposed in the Senate that Caesar become king everywhere save in Italy. Caesar already had regnum, in the sense of absolute supremacy, and none of the contemporary evidence suggests that he also wanted the name of king. Indeed, even most of the later accounts do not claim that this was true, merely that it was rumoured. He had seen Hellenistic monarchy in his youth in Bithynia, and more recently in the far greater kingdom of Egypt, but there is no good evidence that he wished to impose something similar on Rome, perhaps encouraged by the influence of Cleopatra. His position within the Republic was personal, and as yet he had no real successor to inherit the kingship.12
Some sixty senators eventually joined together in the plot to assassinate Caesar. There had been rumours of similar conspiracies for several years, but nothing had come of them. Until early 44 BC Caesar had been protected by a bodyguard of Spanish auxiliaries, but he very publicly dismissed them after the Senate had taken an oath of loyalty to him and had also offered to form a new guard composed of senators and equestrians. Similar bodies had been raised at times of crisis - Cicero had been attended by armed equestrians in 63 BC - but in this case it was never formed. The motives of the conspirators were many and varied, but underlying everything was a sense that to have one man possessing as much permanent power as Caesar was incompatible with a free Republic. The State should be led by elected magistrates holding office for a limited term and guided by a Senate whose debates were open and dominated by the most distinguished former magistrates. Under Caesar many decisions were made behind closed doors by the dictator and his close advisors, and even though they were often good ones, this was not the way the Republic was supposed to work. Tradition permitted the suspension of the normal way of doing things during a crisis, but only for a short time until the danger was over. Sulla’s rise had been far more savage than Caesar’s, but he had eventually resigned the dictatorship. Caesar was clearly not intending to emulate him and the grant of perpetual dictatorship emphasised the permanence of his power. The Republic had changed and it was not so much what Caesar was doing as the way he was doing it that bred discontent amongst the aristocracy. Caesar did make considerable efforts to maintain at least a facade of the traditional constitution. His magistrates were elected following his recommendation and not appointed. The Senate continued to meet and debate, and it was in the House that most of the honours awarded to him were first proposed. In addition, the courts continued to function in the traditional way and Caesar gained the reputation for a strict application of the law. On one occasion he annulled the marriage of a former praetor, who had married his wife only a day after she had been divorced by her previous husband. Juries were now composed solely of senators and equestrians, for he removed the third group, the tribunii aerarii, from which Sulla had decreed that a third of jurors should be drawn.13
Caesar, although usually charming and mannered, had always been prone to impatience and bursts of temper. For the last fourteen years he had spent the majority of his time in supreme command of an army, never in the company of anyone possessing equal authority. He had constantly been required to exert himself, planning campaigns and leading the army in the field, administering his provinces and, from 49 BC onwards, also an area that grew in size to encompass all of Rome’s empire. In addition, he had found that matters often went badly unless he was present to supervise in person. During these years he had taken very little rest and there was no opportunity to do so in the last months of his life. Caesar continued to be very busy and it is more than likely that, long accustomed to command, he became less patient with the often ponderous and inefficient conventions of public life, especially since many had now become more than a little hollow. Late in 45 or early in 44 BC the Senate met to vote him many of the honours mentioned already. He was absent, since it was felt better to preserve the illusion that the debate was entirely free. At the end of the meeting the entire body of senators, led by the consul Antony - or Fabius and Trebonius if it occurred in 45 BC - then trooped out to inform Caesar of their decision. They found him sitting on his ceremonial chair conducting business, either near the Rostra or outside the Temple of Venus in his own partially constructed Forum. Caesar did not get to his feet to greet them when they arrived to offer him the new honours. This created a bad feeling, since it seemed that he was contemptuous of the consuls and the dignity of the senatorial order. Technically, as dictator, he was senior to a consul and so was quite at liberty to remain seated, but many senators took offence. It was rumoured that he had begun to rise, but had been stopped by Balbus who thought that it was unfitting for him to show such respect to inferiors. Another source claims that Caesar later explained the incident by claiming to have felt an epileptic attack coming on and was afraid to disgrace himself in public, since these often made him dizzy and caused his bowels to open. This had not actually occurred, and we are told that he walked back to his house without any difficulty once his business was complete. His actual reply to the senators was moderate, for he declined a number of the honours voted to him as excessive and only accepted a minority. A handful of senators, one of whom was Cassius, had actually spoken or voted against the new powers and honours in the Senate itself, but as usual no direct action was taken against such men. However, now - or perhaps in subsequent days - many of those senators who had supported the motions came to resent Caesar’s failure to treat them with sufficient respect and the incident was blown out of all proportion. It is notable that no one seems to have been concerned that Caesar had failed to stand when approached by the consul Antony on the Lupercalia.14
Most of Caesar’s closest associates also disliked the fact that the Republic was now effectively controlled by one man. This was true even of many who continued to declare themselves utterly loyal to him after his murder. Yet for all this general disquiet, it is striking how far most senators went about their business adapting to the new situation. All had obligations to their clients and, since many favours or concessions ultimately depended on Caesar, they went to the dictator - or to friends who were believed to be able to influence him - to gain these. This aspect of senatorial life went on, even if politically there was little freedom. The assassination plot was eventually large, but still involved only some 7 per cent of the Senate. The majority of the conspirators had been Caesareans during the Civil War and a few had held high rank. Caius Trebonius had served for most of the years in Gaul as a legate and had presided over the siege of Massilia during the Civil War. He had been rewarded with a suffect consulship in 45 BC after Caesar’s return from Spain. Decimus Junius Brutus, the son of the Sempronia who was said to have been so heavily involved in Catiline’s conspiracy, had also served with distinction in Gaul. Caesar had a great fondness for him and had named him consul for 42 BC. He was also listed amongst the secondary heirs in the dictator’s will. Servius Sulpicius Galba was another legate from the Gallic Wars, but he had failed at the consular elections for 49 BC, probably because of his association with Caesar, and seems to have borne him a grudge as a result. Another disappointed man was Lucius Minucius Basilus, whom Caesar had refused a provincial command probably because of justified suspicion over his character. To a greater or lesser extent all of these men had done well as a result of choosing the winning side in the Civil War, as had many of the more obscure conspirators. Yet evidently some felt that they ought to have done even better, and all had now decided that they would prefer to continue their careers in a Republic without Caesar. In some cases they had arrived at this decision some time ago. Almost a year earlier Trebonius had sounded out Mark Antony about joining the conspiracy. This was at the time when the breach between the latter and Caesar still seemed very wide. Even so he declined and remained loyal, but he did not betray the confidence and perhaps expected that the plot would come to nothing in the end.15
Although there were many of Caesar’s long-term supporters in the conspiracy, the two men who became its principal leaders were both former Pompeians. Brutus had surrendered after Pharsalus and his influence with Caesar helped to persuade the victor to welcome Cassius as well. In 44 BC both men were praetors and Brutus had already been marked down for the consulship. According to Plutarch, Cassius was secretly bitter because Caesar had given the prestigious post of urban praetor to Brutus. The dictator is supposed to have said that Cassius had the better case, but that his own fondness for Servilia’s son meant that the prize should go to him instead. Other sources mention an older grudge against Caesar, who is said to have confiscated some animals Cassius had gathered with a view to putting on games. The latter certainly seems to have lost his enthusiasm for the man he had described as the ‘old clement master’ now that the threat of the brutal Cnaeus Pompey had been removed. Cassius was married to one of Brutus’ three sisters, the Junia Tertia, whom gossips claimed had had an affair with Caesar. There may have been no truth in the story and certainly none of the sources attribute such a personal motive as jealousy to him. Even with Brutus, though he can scarcely have been unaware of the talk about and the actual affair between his mother and Caesar, there is little suggestion that this played any significant part in his actions. He does seem to have been one of the last to join the conspiracy, spurred on by anonymous pamphlets and slogans painted on walls asking whether Brutus was asleep. Rome’s last king had been deposed and expelled by a Brutus, and the family boasted of descent from this man, although even amongst the Romans there was considerable doubt over the veracity of this claim. A keen student of philosophy, especially Stoicism with its emphasis on stern duty, he was well aware of the praise given to tyranicides in Hellenistic literature. Family pride also encouraged him to act, reinforced by his growing adulation of his uncle Cato. Porcia appears to have been a forceful, if rather unstable, woman - several sources report the tale that she deliberately stabbed herself in the thigh to prove that she could cope with pain and so was worthy to be taken into her husband’s confidence. It would be surprising if guilt did not play a part. His hero Cato had gone on fighting long after he had surrendered. By the time his uncle was tearing apart his own wound at Utica, Brutus was governing Cisalpine Gaul on Caesar’s behalf. There was every indication that he would continue to do well under the dictatorship. Caesar once commented that ‘Whatever Brutus wants, he wants badly’, and his character does seem to have been somewhat obsessive. Once he decided to join the conspirators his determination to follow the act through was unshakeable. The influence of his uncle and wife, and the burden of living up to his own and his family’s reputation, all pushed him on, but in the end he was moved to act because he felt that it was inappropriate for a free Republic to contain one man with so much power. Whatever his other personal motives, the same belief was foremost in Cassius’ mind.16
The conspirators spoke of liberty, and believed that this could only be restored by removing Caesar. Most, perhaps all, felt that they were acting for the good of the entire Republic. With Caesar dead the normal institutions of the State ought to function properly again and Rome could be guided by the Senate and freely elected magistrates. To show that this was their sole aim they decided that they would kill the dictator but no one else, including his fellow consul and close associate Antony Brutus is said to have persuaded them to accept this, against the advice of some of the more pragmatic conspirators. Of the whole group, he had the greatest reputation, at least amongst Rome’s elite. Yet although these men believed that they were doing what was right for the Republic, they would not have been Roman aristocrats if they did not also crave the fame and glory that they felt would be attached to such a deed. It should also be noted that the conspirators, especially the most distinguished of them like Cassius, Marcus and Decimus Brutus, Trebonius and Galba, were bound to do very well politically if the venture succeeded. They were men likely to be foremost amongst those senators who would guide the restored Republic, especially since it was scarcely likely that those who had remained staunchly loyal to Caesar would prosper after his death. Both Marcus and Decimus Brutus gave up certain consulships, but could confidently predict that they would win the magistracy by election. The disappointed among them could expect to win the offices and postings they craved. Liberty and the cry of a return to the Republic also meant a return to the dominance of few well-established families, and the opportunity to bribe the electorate and make fortunes by exploiting the inhabitants of the provinces. Brutus was widely respected and in much of his life seems to have justified Shakespeare’s phrase the ‘noblest Roman of them all’. However, on one occasion it is known that he had ordered his agents to extort by any means possible 48 per cent interest from a community in Crete that had unwisely taken a loan from him at four times the legal rate. The Republic that the conspirators believed in was one that maintained the privilege of the senatorial elite. Faith in the system was no longer so deeply entrenched amongst the rest of society as they supposed.
The conspirators resolved to act quickly, since they knew that Caesar planned to leave Rome on 18 March and would not return for years. They were probably also encouraged by the hostility he had encountered due to his treatment of Flavus and Marullus, and also the controversy over the episode of the Lupercalia. Cicero later claimed that Antony was Caesar’s true killer because he had raised the spectre of kingship on that day. Then came the false rumour of the prophecy and wild tales that Caesar planned to move the capital of the empire to Alexandria or even Troy. It was also claimed that one of the tribunes, Helvius Cinna, had told friends that he planned to propose a bill granting to Caesar the right to marry as many women as he liked with a view to producing a son and heir. This story may not have spread until after the murder, since Cinna was lynched in the aftermath of Caesar’s funeral and was not able to deny it. Anyway good gossip has always tended to be passed on even when people do not actually believe it. Aware that the dictator was about to leave Rome, the conspirators decided to strike on 15 March when Caesar was expected to attend a meeting of the Senate, for it was felt that he would be less on his guard and easier to approach on such an occasion. Reports and rumours of plots certainly reached the dictator, but these were vague and as often implicated men like Antony and Dolabella as any of the real conspirators. Caesar dismissed them all, although he is said to have stated that he was far more inclined to suspect the lean Cassius with his serious nature than the wild-living Antony and Dolabella. On another occasion he is supposed to have declared that Brutus had enough sense not to be impatient for his death.17
Caesar was a rational man and judged that Rome needed him, because without him it would simply relapse into civil war. He was dictator and he was effectively a monarch, but he was not a cruel one and used his powers for the general good. The Republic had peace, and was better run than it had been for decades, even if things were not being done in the traditional way. This last point mattered little to a man who had declared the Republic no more than an empty name, but perhaps he did not realise how much the old ideal meant to others, or simply felt that the benefits of his rule must overcome any nostalgia for the past. Despite repeated requests from his close associates, Caesar refused to re-form his bodyguard or take other precautions for his safety, replying that he did not wish to live in fear or permanently under close guard. Perhaps the weariness of years of hard effort, combined with the prospect of unending labour governing the Republic and its provinces, made him less inclined to worry. For him the nature of public life had changed and now consisted almost entirely of dutiful effort, for all the men with whom he had once competed for supremacy - Crassus and Pompey most of all, but also Catulus, Cato and even Bibulus and their generation - had gone. There was no question that he had won, that he was the first man in the Republic, whose glory and achievements outstripped all of Rome’s other great men, both past and present. Now he could only seriously compete with himself. Yet Caesar had always taken duty seriously and continued to throw himself and all his great energy into service of Rome. The planned wars against the Dacians and Parthians would certainly have brought him more glory - and clean glory since the enemy was foreign - but few even of his critics would not have felt that the conflicts themselves were against enemies who deserved to be humbled by Rome. Caesar may have been tired, and perhaps he found his victory a little hollow. He probably did not fear death, but that is not to say that he courted it. If his new regime was to succeed then it could not permanently be maintained by fear, but needed to rest on the acceptance that it was better than the alternatives. Showing that he was unafraid of his own class, both his allies and former enemies, demonstrated his own confidence. He knew he was disliked for his dominance, but hoped that this would be tolerated, and so he trusted to the good fortune that had in the past helped to win so many victories, to his own ability and just rule, and to the pragmatism of others. Three years spent on campaign and new victories would hopefully help Rome’s elite get used to his rule - perhaps it would also remind them that Caesar was a better master than some of his subordinates. We do not know whether on his return he would have developed his position further, and possibly begun to mark out a successor to his powers. He is supposed to have intended to employ Octavius as his Master of Horse for at least one year of the campaign, but another man was also named so there was certainly as yet no final indication of succession. This is impossible to say and it could well be that he had not yet devised any specific plans. In the winter of 53-52 BC Caesar had badly misjudged the mood of the Gaulish aristocracy. Now he had done the same in Rome.18
Our sources are filled with prodigies warning of the death of Rome’s most powerful man. One of the most famous claims that on the night of 14 March Calpurnia suffered a nightmare in which she is variously claimed to have seen either the pediment of the house collapsing or that she was holding his murdered body in her arms. Then the morning sacrifices on the 15th were repeated several times, but the omens were always unfavourable. Caesar is supposed to have been surprised because his wife was not normally given to superstition and eventually Calpurnia persuaded him to remain at home. He sent word to inform the Senate that ill health prevented him from leaving his house to perform any public business. It is possible that there was some truth in this and that he was unwell. Antony was to have carried the message to the Senate, but before he left Decimus Brutus arrived - it was normal for friends to greet an important senator early in the morning so there was nothing unusual in that. Both men had dined on the previous night at the house of Lepidus, where after the meal the question of what was the best death is supposed to have been raised. Caesar had been taking little part in the discussion, but quickly looked up to say that the answer was an end that was sudden and unexpected. On the following morning Brutus was able to convince Caesar to reverse his decision. Plutarch says that he mocked the warnings of the soothsayers and lured Caesar with the claim that the Senate was going to offer him kingship outside Italy, but this is probably a later invention. There were plenty of reasons why Caesar should wish to attend the Senate when he was due to leave the city in three days. Whatever the details, eventually the dictator got into a litter and was carried through the Forum to where the Senate was meeting in one of the temples that formed part of Pompey’s theatre complex. A few months before Caesar had won praise for ordering the restoration of the public statues of and monuments to Sulla and Pompey, and so a statue of his former son-in-law would look on during the debate. After he left his house, a slave arrived claiming to have vital news for the dictator. The man was given permission to stay and await his return.19
It was late morning by the time Caesar arrived and the time had passed nervously for the conspirators, prey to fears that their plot had been exposed. Apart from Decimus Brutus, the conspirators had gathered early using the pretext that Cassius’ son was formally becoming a man by publicly assuming the toga virilis. Then they went to the temple and waited outside for Caesar’s arrival. Their daggers were concealed within the cases in which senators habitually kept their long stylus pens. In Pompey’s theatre itself was a troop of gladiators owned by Decimus Brutus, who were armed and ready, but had reason to be there since it was to be the venue for some fights to be staged in the near future. One man greeted Brutus and Cassius in a rather cryptic manner, which they first interpreted as a sign that someone had given them away. Their tension increased when the same man went up to the dictator as he arrived and spoke to him for some time, but they soon realised that he was presenting a petition. En route Caesar had been handed a scroll by the Greek teacher Artemidorus, who had spent time in Brutus’ household and seems to have known of the conspiracy. Through choice or lack of opportunity the dictator did not read it. None of the sources suggest that he was in any way suspicious and he cheerfully called out to a soothsayer, who had previously warned him to fear the Ides of March, in an exchange so familiar from Shakespeare - ‘The Ides of March are Come.’ Aye, Caesar, but not gone.’ The conspirators greeted him as he stepped down from the litter. Trebonius - or in Plutarch’s version Decimus Brutus - took Antony aside and kept him talking while Caesar and the remainder went in. They were aware that Caesar’s fellow consul was both loyal and a burly individual, and would normally have sat beside the dictator, close enough to aid him. The senators already inside the hall rose when Caesar entered. The dictator then went to his golden chair, which presumably was next to Antony’s curule chair since he was the only consul apart from Caesar.20
Before the meeting could formally begin the conspirators clustered around the dictator. Lucius Tillius Cimber, who had served under Caesar in the past, asked for the recall of his brother, who presumably had been an ardent Pompeian. The others pressed round to implore Caesar to grant the plea, touching and kissing his hands. Publius Servilius Casca Longus moved round to stand behind Caesar’s chair. The dictator refused to be moved by the pleas, replying calmly to refute their arguments. Suddenly Cimber grabbed Caesar’s toga and pulled it down from his shoulder. This was the agreed signal and Casca now drew his dagger and stabbed, but in his nervousness only managed to graze the dictator’s shoulder or neck. Caesar turned and seems to have said something like, ‘Bloody Casca, what are you playing at!’ In some accounts he grabbed Casca’s arms and tried to wrench his dagger away, although in Suetonius’ version he used his own pen as a weapon and stabbed his assailant. Casca - Plutarch says specifically using Greek and not the Latin Caesar had employed - called out to his brother for help. The other conspirators stabbed and slashed at Caesar. Several, including Brutus, were accidentally wounded by the others in the confused melee that developed around the dictator. Only two senators tried to help Caesar, but they could not break through to him. The dictator struggled with them to the end, trying to fight or force his way out. Marcus Brutus stabbed him once in the groin, and some claimed that when he saw Servilia’s son he stopped struggling and spoke one last time, saying ‘You too, my son’ - sadly there is no direct evidence for Shakespeare’s version of et tu Brute. Then the dictator covered his head with his toga and collapsed, falling next to the pedestal of Pompey’s statue. There were twenty-three wounds on his body.21
The attack had been so sudden and unexpected that the hundreds of watching senators had first been too shocked to react. When the deed was done and the conspirators stood, their clothes dishevelled, some wounded and all spattered with blood, Brutus called on Cicero, who had not been privy to the secret, to take the lead. Even as he did so panic spread throughout the hall and all of the other senators, including the famous orator, fled away as fast as they could. This was not quite the reception they had wanted, but still full of the success of their enterprise, the conspirators trooped out and walked up to the Capitol, carrying on a pole one of the caps that a freed slave traditionally wore, symbolising the liberty they had brought to the State. Antony for the moment was in hiding, and a little later three of Caesar’s slaves dared to enter the hall, lifted the body and put it in his litter, then carried it back to his house. For a while all of Rome was stunned and an uneasy truce developed. Cicero eventually went to the Capitol and congratulated the assassins, but when Brutus and Cassius went down and spoke from the Rostra in the Forum, the crowd that gathered showed no sign of enthusiasm. Antony was alive, as was Lepidus, who held command of the troops camped just outside the city. For a while they seemed conciliatory, Antony met the conspirators privately and then on the next day in the Senate. The House passed a motion to recognise all of Caesar’s acts and appointments, since too many people, including a number of the conspirators, had benefited from these to desire their repeal.
In the mood of reconciliation, the Senate voted to give Caesar a public funeral, which was held in the Forum on 18 March. Antony ordered a herald to read out the text of the honours so recently voted to the dictator by the Senate and the oath taken by every senator to preserve his life, and then gave a short speech - Shakespeare’s famous version probably gives the best modern reflection of the power of Roman oratory. He also read out Caesar’s will, which included the gift of extensive gardens near the Tiber to the people of Rome, and an additional award of 300 sestertii (75 denarii) to each citizen. His purple robe, rent and bloodstained from his wounds, was put on display, and some sources also claim that there was a wax effigy of Caesar showing his injuries. A large crowd had gathered - Cicero later dismissed them as the rabble of the city, but this was no more than conventional abuse of opponents, and it seems to have consisted of a broad range of different groups. A group of magistrates and former magistrates began to lift the byre on which the body was laid, for it was intended to carry it to a spot next to his daughter’s tomb on the Campus Martius and cremate it there. The angry crowd would have none of this. Just as their hero Clodius had been burnt in the Senate House, so Caesar would also be cremated inside the city, in the Forum at its very heart. The seats and benches used by the magistrates and the courts were smashed and used to feed the fire. The mood was hysterical. The actors hired to dress in the triumphal and magisterial regalia of Caesar and his ancestors now tore these off, ripped them into pieces and tossed them into the flames. His veteran soldiers threw their weapons and armour into the blaze, while women added their finest jeweller). Occasionally crowds had protested against Caesar, but this had always been over a specific grievance. Their affection for him, as a man who throughout his career had consistently advocated measures for the benefit of the wider population and not simply the narrow elite, had never seriously wavered. In 49 BC the vast bulk of the wider population of Italy had not been inclined to take up arms against Caesar. Then and now they had found it much harder than his senatorial opponents to see Caesar as an enemy of the Republic, a term that anyway meant different things to different people. After the funeral came rioting and attacks on the houses of the conspirators and those who had supported them. The dictator’s loyal supporter Helvius Cinna was murdered by a mob who mistook him for one Cornelius Cinna, who was a prominent critic of Caesar. It was not just Roman citizens who lamented Caesar. At the funeral, and for a number of nights afterwards, Suetonius tells us that there were many foreigners joining in the lamentation after the fashion of their culture. Especially prominent were members of Rome’s Jewish population.22
A few weeks after the assassination one of Caesar’s still loyal associates gloomily concluded that if Caesar ‘with all his genius could not find a way out, then who will find a way?’ The same man’s predictions of immediate rebellion as soon as the news reached Gaul proved utterly unfounded, but he was correct in assuming that civil war would soon erupt again. Antony chose to fight against the conspirators. Octavius, now, since the will, formally adopted and thus named Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, would show truly remarkable initiative and confidence for a youth of eighteen, rallying Caesar’s veterans to his cause and making himself an important figure who, no one could afford to ignore. First he fought for the Senate against Antony, and then, guessing rightly that they would discard him as soon as victory was secured, he joined with Antony and Lepidus to form the Second Triumvirate. In its brutality the ensuing war kept no hint of Caesar’s clemency and resembled more the struggle between Marius, Cinna and Sulla. Within three years virtually all of the conspirators had been defeated and were dead, often by their own hands. The senatorial and equestrian orders were purged by proscriptions on a larger scale even than Sulla had enforced. In time Lepidus was marginalised and left to live out his life as an obscure exile, while Antony and Octavian fought for supremacy. The latter was only thirty- two when the defeated Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves and left him unchallenged ruler of the Roman world. Rome became a monarchy once again, although the hated name of king was not employed, and this time the change proved permanent. Octavian became Augustus and showed more skill in veiling his power than his adopted father had done. This was part of the reason for his success, but his ruthlessness in disposing of enemies and the fatigue of a population that had endured over a decade more years of bloodshed helped to convince Rome’s elite that it was better to accept his rule than return to civil war.23