Biographies & Memoirs



IT WAS A SCENE OUT of the Roman past. The senators, wrapped in their togas and accompanied by their armed slaves, marched through the streets of Rome. They folded their togas around their left arms like shields as their ancestors did a century earlier when they killed the Gracchi and their revolutionary supporters. The senators this day had a bodyguard of gladiators, while their ancestors had Cretan archers, but otherwise, the groups were similar. One foot in the past, the men who killed Caesar marched to restore the Republic.

On the afternoon of the Ides of March, the conspirators executed the second part of their plan. The first part, assassinating the dictator in the Senate House of Pompey, had succeeded. Now came the next phase. The plan: While they rallied public support and protected themselves from the vengeance of Caesar’s soldiers, the Senate would retake control of the Republic. Then they would look beyond Rome and take control of Caesar’s thirty-five legions while preventing rebellion and securing the frontiers. But things didn’t work out that way.

The conventional wisdom about the assassins is that they knew how to kill their man but they hadn’t the slightest idea what to do next. Like all hindsight, that view is twenty-twenty. It goes back to Cicero, who confided in a letter in May 44 B.C. that he thought the assassination was done “with manly spirit but childish judgment.” Cicero was too harsh. Caesar’s killers achieved their goal of stopping one man from ruling Rome. Now they wanted to revitalize the Republic.

Who would represent the conspirators to the Senate and the people after the assassination? Not Decimus—he was a military man. He had spent most of his adult life in Gaul and had little experience of Roman politics. Besides, he quickly became the focus of public anger after the assassination. Decimus’s job was to provide the assassins security with his gladiators. He probably wanted to settle things in Rome quickly and then head for his comfort zone—the governorship and the armies of Italian Gaul.

Cassius knew Roman politics better but he too was a soldier at heart. As an accomplished orator and a man admired for his character and his famous name, Brutus was the clear choice as the public face of the conspiracy. But could he outmanuever Antony and Caesar’s other leading supporters?

The Ides of March was a cleanup, not a coup, as Brutus saw it. Once the tyrant was removed, the Republic would function constitutionally again. The wisdom of the Senate would then guide both the people and the elected officials who executed the laws. This was a moderate goal but revolutions are hard on moderates. Revolutions reward extremes. Brutus wanted to return power to the Senate and the people, but the Senate lacked leadership and the people were divided. That left the army. In the five years since Caesar crossed the Rubicon, no one had ruled Rome without an army. And for sixty years before that, the shadow of military dictatorship often loomed. Only a miracle could leave the army out of the equation now.

Did the assassins understand that? Apparently they did but not well enough. They might have reasoned that with Caesar gone, his men would be loyal not to his memory but to whoever seemed to be the new Caesar—to whoever seemed strong enough to get them land and money. Even Brutus knew that but he miscalculated. He underestimated the price it would take and the speed and the determination with which Caesar’s veterans would come to Rome to demand it.

The conspirators failed to expect the unexpected. Brutus, Cassius, and Decimus thought they could light a political fire and neatly put it out, but you cannot manage a revolution. They worried about their peers like Antony and Lepidus. Instead, their fate rested in the hands of Caesar’s veterans. The conspirators should have worried about them, just as they should have worried about a precocious teenager who was not even in Italy—Octavian.


Uproar followed the death of Caesar. The senators fled the room shouting. The crowd outside the Senate House cried out in response. Some said the whole Senate had joined in the murder, others that a great army had come for the deed. Meanwhile, spectators ran from the gladiatorial games in the Theater of Pompey about six hundred feet away at the other end of the Portico. Rumors flew of gladiators or soldiers on a rampage.

Antony quickly made his way home, afraid for his life. The story that he exchanged his consul’s toga for slave’s clothes in order to escape sounds like something an enemy made up later. Still, some Romans hid themselves in their homes; some put on disguises and fled to their country villas. Everyone expected a bloodbath as in past Roman revolutions.

Meanwhile, the assassins emerged from the Senate. Brutus spoke. Some say that earlier he tried to address the senators in the Senate House of Pompey but they ran for the door. Appian says the conspirators expected the other senators to join them enthusiastically once they saw the assassination. In fact, many senators supported them, but fear ruled the moment. And yet, this was only the first scene of the drama that was Rome after Caesar. There would be time for political calculation later.

Others say that Brutus spoke to the people outside the Senate chamber and that other assassins spoke there, too. Brutus tried to calm the crowd. More important, he seized the rhetorical high ground. There was no reason to be upset, he said, because nothing bad had happened. This was not murder, said Brutus, but the killing of a tyrant.

First came the daggers, then the honeyed words, and then came more daggers. That was the conspirators’ strategy. Killing Caesar did not give them the keys to the kingdom—it merely opened the door. To take control of Rome they had to negotiate with Caesar’s advisors, win the support of the urban plebs, and neutralize Caesar’s soldiers. That would take time, which required a defensive base as well as a publicity and diplomacy blitz.

The conspirators now made a show of force by marching from the Portico of Pompey to the Roman Forum and up the Capitoline Hill, a distance of a little more than one-half mile. They had planned this move in advance. They had no intention of going alone.Cassius, Brutus, and Decimus led them, along with Decimus’s gladiators as well as a large number of slaves, no doubt all armed.

In the most arresting image of the afternoon, the conspirators walked in the streets of Rome with their daggers drawn—“naked,” as the ancient expression says—and their hands still bloody. Nicolaus says they ran in flight; Plutarch says they were most definitely not in flight but were radiant and confident. They agree that the men cried out as they went that they had acted on behalf of the public’s liberty. No doubt, but there was also a warrior’s simple pride in having killed a rival. Their bloody parade was something like a gladiator’s victory lap in the arena. Appian claims that one assassin carried a freedman’s felt cap on the end of a spear as a symbol of liberty. Cicero claims that some of them called out his name as they marched.

There is more to trust in the report that some non-assassins now took out their weapons and joined the march to the Capitoline. Between them, Appian and Plutarch name some half-dozen men. There was Marcus Favonius, the friend of Cato whom Brutus rejected for the conspiracy. Publius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther was the son of the consul of 57 B.C. Later he wrote to Cicero and had the nerve to lie, saying that he shared in the deed and the danger with Brutus and Cassius. One Gaius Octavius was probably Gaius Octavius Balbus, no doubt a senator. Marcus Aquinus and one Patiscus both later fought for Brutus and Cassius. Lucius Staius Murcus fought for Caesar in the Civil War but now changed sides. He would soon become governor of Syria. Finally, there was Dolabella, Caesar’s handpicked consul-in-waiting, who jumped ship and joined the assassins.

People ran through the streets to the Forum, galvanized by the news of Caesar’s murder. Yet the center of Rome was probably less crowded than usual because many had gone to celebrate the Anna Perenna festival. Still the sources report looting and frightened people barricading themselves into their homes—perhaps accurate descriptions of panic.

The Capitoline was the smallest of Rome’s hills. At about twenty-three acres in size, it was not much bigger than today’s St. Peter’s Square, but it was a natural fortress lined by rocky cliffs. The Capitoline Hill’s main landmark was the huge Temple of Jupiter in the south, Rome’s most important religious site. The northern end of the hill was known as the Arx, or Citadel. It had no walls but it was a natural fortress. The Citadel held a temple of Juno, the Roman mint, and a place of augury, where you could see all the way to the Alban Mount nearly twenty miles to the south. The saddle between the two hills was called the Asylum. Legend has it that Romulus made the place a sanctuary for foreign refugees that he wanted to attract to Rome. Several steep staircases and stepped streets provided access to the top but they could be blocked. In short, the Capitoline was easily defensible.

As soon as they reached the Capitoline, the conspirators divided the terrain into sectors and formed a defensive perimeter. The high ground was a force multiplier so they had chosen well. Anyone who attacked them on the Capitoline faced a bloody battle.

The hill was a symbolic as well as physical plateau. Between the Citadel and the Temple of Jupiter, the Capitoline Hill stood for Rome’s heart and sinew, as if it were a cross between the Vatican and the Tower of London. There the men who killed Caesar could both give thanks to the gods and look down on their enemies. One source put it plainly when he said that the assassins “occupied the Capitol.”


If they used their legion and their veterans against the assassins’ gladiators, Caesar’s loyalists would have had the upper hand militarily. But on the afternoon of March 15, the focus was on persuasion. The assassins tried to win the support of the Roman people, who were divided. Some thought the killing of Caesar was the fairest of deeds and some thought it the most foul. To those who favored the assassins, Caesar had misused his mighty power and so was “justly slain”—iure caesus, to use a term from the old Roman law code, the Twelve Tables. To Cassius, Caesar was “the wickedest man ever killed.” To Cicero, the conspirators were liberators who rightly placed the liberty of their fatherland before the ties of friendship.

Other Romans still supported Caesar. To Caesar’s dear friend Gaius Matius, Caesar was a great man who had tried to leave all Romans safe and sound only to be murdered by those close to him. As Caesar’s friends saw things, the dictator showed mercy to his opponents, and they paid him back with treachery and ingratitude. Caesar’s supporters could accuse the killers of being motivated by “jealousy of his fortune and power.” The assassins also seemed impious. By killing Caesar in a hall where the Senate met, the assassins acted in consecrated space. They were guilty, in effect, of committing murder in a temple.

The Roman people could forgive the assassins or condemn them. But how did you win the support of the Roman people? There were no opinion polls and no plebiscites. What mattered most was how the people reacted to public speeches. Applause, cheers, boos, and even rioting would be the signs of the public will.

For five days after the assassination, the Public Meeting (contio, in Latin) served as the instrument for gauging public opinion. It was a formal gathering called by a magistrate, featuring a variety of speeches but no voting. Public Meetings typically took place in the Roman Forum adjacent to the Capitoline Hill on the southeast. At least five separate Public Meetings were held between March 15 and March 19.

The Capitoline provided easy access to the Forum. The Rostra or Speaker’s Platform lay practically at the foot of the hill. There, the conspirators could take part in the contest for popular support. They had a chance to win over the ordinary people of Rome—the urban plebs. The plebeians were longtime backers of Caesar, but in the last six months they had started to change their minds. The plebeians loved election campaigns because they brought attention and payoffs from men running for office. But Caesar cut back on elections because he appointed most public officials himself. The plebeians resented that and they also resented his attack on their champions, the People’s Tribunes. That gave Brutus and Cassius an opening, and so did Antony’s unpopularity.

People remembered how Antony sent troops into the Forum in 47 B.C. and killed eight hundred supporters of debt relief. The people’s champion on that occasion was Dolabella, and now he had joined the liberators on the Capitoline. Dolabella was also now consul like Antony. In short, the liberators had a chance of swinging the urban plebs to their side. They planned to make the most of the opportunity.

As the afternoon of the Ides proceeded without further bloodshed, a group of people began trickling up to the Capitoline. They included both senators and ordinary Romans, probably most of them friends or clients of the conspirators. One of them was Cicero.

Cicero wrote a very short letter to Minucius Basilus, one of the assassins. “Congratulations!” said Cicero, who added that he was rejoicing, that he loved his correspondent and wanted to be kept up to date. But what was he offering congratulations about? That’s unclear. Some see it as acknowledgment of the assassination. If his later comments are any indication, Cicero was ecstatic at the murder of Caesar. To Decimus he called it the greatest deed in history. “Has anything greater ever been done, by holy Jupiter,” he asked in a speech in 43 B.C., “not only in this city but in the whole world, anything more glorious and more valued in the eternal memory of men?” When Brutus addressed his visitors, he got enough of a response in this vein to make him decide to call a Public Meeting and give a formal speech to the people.

Along with Cassius and other conspirators, Brutus now came down from the Capitoline to the Forum. Nicolaus of Damascus says that gladiators and slaves protected them, but Nicolaus scoffed at Brutus’s “supposed reasonableness,” and so maybe Nicolaus invented this detail to take Brutus down a peg. The people would not respond well to such a sight, and with the Capitoline easy to retreat to, the conspirators were probably willing to leave their security behind. Plutarch, who saw Brutus as a hero, says only that a group of eminent men flanked Brutus. In any case, Brutus reached the Speaker’s Platform near the foot of the Capitoline Hill. Just a month earlier, Caesar had sat on the same platform when Antony climbed up and twice put a diadem on his head, only to have Caesar remove it.

Brutus did not look his best since his hand was still injured from the wound he received in Caesar’s murder. Yet, as he prepared to speak, something beautiful happened—silence. On a tumultuous day before a mixed crowd of ordinary Romans who were ready to shout him down, Brutus inspired orderly behavior. As he came forward, the audience received his words with great calm.

Brutus was a very good speaker if not an exciting one. He was frank, simple, and generous, and he had what the Romans called gravitas, that is, seriousness or substance. Cicero, writing privately, found his speeches tedious and lax and other critics called themdull and cold. But those qualities might have proved reassuring on this occasion.

We cannot reconstruct Brutus’s speech. Cassius and others spoke as well, and, as usual, the sources offer only the gist of what the speakers “should” have said. So, the speakers criticized Caesar and praised the rule of the people. They said that they had not killed Caesar for the sake of power but only to be free, independent, and governed rightly. They referred to their ancestors who had expelled the kings and said that Caesar was even worse than the kings because he took power by violence. Appian, who writes scathingly about the conspirators, accuses them of boastfulness and self-congratulation. He says they especially thanked Decimus for providing gladiators at a key moment. He also says they advocated the recall of the tribunes deposed by Caesar. And he says they asked for something incendiary—the recall from Spain of Sextus Pompey, the surviving son of Pompey, who was still fighting Caesar’s lieutenants. Nicolaus is probably referring to Cassius when he has a speaker say that lengthy planning went into the assassination because of the presence of Caesar’s troops and great commanders. That speaker also warns that greater evils might erupt.

Why then did the people treat Brutus so kindly? The sources disagree markedly. Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus that the people were “burning with enthusiasm” for Brutus and Cassius in the days following the assassination. Nicolaus says that many people came to join the men on the Capitoline on March 15 and 16, when Caesar’s friends were still terrified. Appian maintains just the opposite—the people hated the assassins but they were intimidated into silence. Appian claims that Brutus and Cassius had hired a claque of foreigners, freedmen, and slaves to infiltrate the assembly and silence the real Roman citizens. But the Romans commonly tossed around such charges and we don’t have to take them seriously. Plutarch says that the crowd was silent out of respect for Brutus and pity for Caesar. They admired Brutus’s words but disapproved of the assassination. Nicolaus says that the people were confused and anxious about what the next revolutionary deed might be. That, and their respect for Brutus and his famous family, explains their silence.

Consider another possibility. Perhaps the people recognized that Brutus was that rarest of all things—an honest man. Perhaps they reasoned thus: If Brutus wanted power, why didn’t he have troops at the city’s gates? If he cared only for himself, why didn’t he stick with his benefactor, Caesar? Perhaps the Romans understood that Brutus really meant what he later said—that his goal was liberty and peace.

Then came a disturbing note for the conspirators. Another senator, the praetor Lucius Cornelius Cinna, rose to speak. He was the brother of the late Cornelia, Caesar’s first wife, and uncle of the late and much-loved Julia, Caesar’s daughter. Cinna’s father was a famous Populist and supporter of Marius. Caesar had made Cinna praetor for 44 B.C., an act of kindness to a man who had suffered persecution because of Sulla. Cinna accepted the honor but now he theatrically took off his toga of office and scorned it as the gift of a tyrant. Although not a conspirator, he condemned Caesar and praised his killers as tyrant slayers who deserved public honors. The crowd reacted with so much anger that the conspirators had to return to the Capitoline. Plutarch says this showed how much the people objected to the assassination, but their real objection was to Cinna’s disgraceful behavior. Caesar was not only Cinna’s benefactor but also his late sister’s husband, which created a kinship relationship by marriage—violating that relationship as Cinna had done was not something the Romans took lightly. In short, Cinna was the wrong salesman for the assassination.

It was probably that same afternoon that Dolabella got a more favorable reaction to the conspiracy when he too called a Public Meeting and delivered a formal speech. Although Antony had not yet given up his objections to the appointment, Dolabella put on his toga of office as consul and addressed the Roman people in the Forum. He turned on his former champion, Caesar, and praised the assassins. Some sources say that Dolabella even proposed making the Ides of March the birthday of the state. The supporters of the conspirators took heart at the sight of a consul on their side.

The bottom line is that the Roman people had not yet made up their mind. They watched and waited and gathered information about the various players in the great drama. Public opinion was still up for grabs.

In addition to speaking to the Roman people, the conspirators decided to open negotiations with Antony. He was the highest-ranking person in Rome and he might want to make peace, especially because they had spared his life. They sent a delegation of ex-consuls to talk to him. Just what the terms were, we do not know. Cicero, who reports the news, says that they wanted him to tell Antony to defend the Republic, which sounds like an invitation to dump Caesar’s friends and join them. Cicero wasn’t having any of it. Reporting that he didn’t trust Antony, he refused to join the other ex-consuls who went on the mission.

On the contrary, Cicero wanted the liberators, as he called them, to do an end run around Antony. On that “first day on the Capitoline,” as he wrote later, he declared that Brutus and Cassius should call the Senate to a meeting on the Capitoline Hill. As praetors, they had the right to do so, and the Capitoline did indeed house Senate meetings from time to time in the Temple of Jupiter. “By the immortal gods,” he wrote, what couldn’t have been accomplished then, when “all the good men, even those who were only moderately good, were joyful, while the criminals were powerless?”

A supporter of Antony later wrote that after Caesar’s assassination, the Republic seemed to be in the hands of “the two Brutuses [that is, Brutus and Decimus] and Cassius” and “the whole state moved towards them.” That was an exaggeration, but perhaps it captures the excited mood of the assassins. If Appian is right, most of the senators sympathized with the assassins. In that case, what of the great number of senators appointed by Caesar? Appian says that even some of them found his actions repugnant or they were cynical turncoats like Cinna. Some senators gave the assassins the honorable name of tyrant slayer or tyrannicide. Others wanted to vote them public honors. Alive, Caesar had injured the conspirators’ dignitas. Now that they had killed him many of their peers approved of their deed.

But that was probably not clear yet on the afternoon of March 15. Earlier that day the conspirators saw how few senators stood by them. Why expect more to show up now? No one would be impressed by the rulings of a rump Senate. Or so they might have thought. Besides, it might have been getting late and Senate meetings were illegal after dark. Better to keep the pressure on Antony by rallying public support to their cause.


Meanwhile, back at the Senate House of Pompey, Caesar’s corpse lay unattended. Caesar’s friends left it there. His supporters fled from the Portico of Pompey but not before some of them made other arrangements. The story goes that one repentant Caesar supporter even paused before leaving the Senate House to spit out angry words over the body, “Enough service to a tyrant.”

Only three slaves remained behind to tend to Caesar’s body, which they put into a litter. These three ordinary slaves carried Caesar’s litter home, a sad contrast to the grand escort that had brought him to the Portico of Pompey that morning. Since it took four slaves to carry a litter, the three bearers walked haltingly and with many stops. The curtains of the litter were raised and people could see Caesar’s hands hanging down and his wounded face. According to Nicolaus, they cried at the sight.

The slaves’ route took them past the foot of the Capitoline and through the Forum. Mourning, groans, and lamentation followed them on both sides from the streets, doorways, and rooftops. When they finally neared Caesar’s house, an even greater shrieking greeted them. A crowd of women and slaves emerged accompanying Calpurnia. Remembering her warning that morning, she called Caesar’s name and said that destiny had treated him even worse than she had expected.

Suetonius says that the conspirators planned to drag Caesar’s body to the Tiber after killing him as well as confiscate his property and revoke his decrees, but that they held back out of fear of Antony and Lepidus. That’s not credible. Maybe that is what Cicero had in mind for the Senate meeting he wanted to hold on the Capitoline Hill that day. Neither a moderate like Brutus nor the most hard-bitten cynic would have stood for it. The assassins needed Caesar’s corpse as a bargaining chip.

Sometime before the day ended, a storm hit Rome. There was tremendous thunder with violent and heavy rain. To some, it seemed like the heavens were proclaiming Pompey’s revenge over his rival.

As the sun set on the Ides of March—around 6:15 P.M. on March 15 in Rome—nothing was clear. Antony and Lepidus promised a response the next day to the embassy of ex-consuls. Everyone wondered what would happen next. Both sides had weapons and the outcome was uncertain. It was hard to think about the public interest when people feared for their own safety.


The fate of Rome was decided in hundreds of gatherings during the days after Caesar’s murder. They ranged from nighttime consultations in private homes to sessions of the Senate that began at dawn, from huddled councils in the occupied buildings of the Capitoline to a formal reading of the dictator’s will in a posh town house, and from groups of armed men surging through the streets with shouted threats to public assemblies in the Roman Forum.

The story of the days following the Ides of March is a paradox. On the one hand, they are part of probably the best-documented year in Roman history thanks to Cicero’s many surviving letters. On the other hand, Cicero says little about the March days and the other sources often disagree. The overall picture is clear but the details require a certain amount of guesswork.

The men who seized and defended the Capitoline Hill feared an attack from Caesar’s soldiers. The first step came in the afternoon of March 15. Lepidus moved his soldiers from the Tiber Island to the Field of Mars, the site of the assassination. Then, in the night, he moved them again to the Roman Forum, on the east side of the Capitoline Hill. They probably marched along the road that led eastward to the city walls then they passed through the Carmental Gate and skirted the Capitoline Hill along the street known as the Vicus Iugarius, which led to the Forum. You could not legally bring an army within the walls of Rome, but the Civil War had seen many laws broken and the war had ended only months before. Pompey and even Cicero, that great republican, had each in his day summoned soldiers into Rome to put down unrest.

The next day, March 16, was a day of speeches, saber rattling, and plotting. At dawn in the Roman Forum, Lepidus called a Public Meeting and delivered a speech against the assassins. Antony was in attendance. He wore armor, as was his right as consul. Lepidus probably wore military garb as well. The audience is likely to have included Caesar’s veterans and ordinary Romans as well as the troops that Lepidus commanded. Lepidus was ready to take his troops and assault the Capitoline Hill in order to avenge Caesar. The attack would surely succeed and kill at least some of the conspirators, perhaps including his two brothers-in-law, Brutus and Cassius. But Lepidus waited for a meeting later that day.

It was a gathering of Caesar’s close supporters in Mark Antony’s house. This was a grand structure, complete with two colonnaded courts and a bath. It covered about 24,000 square feet, about the size of a modern mansion and much larger than the average luxury house in Rome in its era. Formerly the town house of Pompey the Great, it was acquired by Antony when he disposed of Pompey’s properties for Caesar. It was located in an elegant and fashionable residential district called Carinae, or the Keels, because certain buildings there looked like ships’ keels.

The meeting lasted until evening. Lepidus and Caesar’s faithful lieutenant Aulus Hirtius were key players but other Caesar supporters were there, too. Lepidus argued for a military attack on the assassins in the name of avenging Caesar. Someone else agreed, calling it both unholy and unsafe to leave Caesar’s death unavenged—unholy presumably because these men had sworn to defend Caesar with their lives and unsafe because once the assassins gained power, they would exchange their present inactivity for something dangerous. Hirtius disagreed; he argued for negotiations and friendship. Killing the assassins would start a vendetta by their powerful friends and relatives and call down certain condemnation by the Senate. Then, too, if they started a war, they would have to face Decimus, who was about to become governor of Italian Gaul, a position to which Caesar had appointed him. This strategic province housed two legions capable of reaching Rome in less than two weeks. If they looked like winners, more troops would follow.

Other provinces were also matters of concern. Gaius Matius feared an uprising in Belgian Gaul at the news of Caesar’s death; not until mid-April did the good news come to Rome that the tribes there had promised obedience. Supporters of Pompey controlled Syria and much of Hispania. Sextus Pompey had warships and, he would soon claim, seven legions. No match for the thirty-five legions that Caesar had gathered for war with Parthia, but to whom would those legions be loyal?

Antony’s was the most important voice both because he was consul and because he was a man with a record of getting things done. He favored negotiation. Antony had no troops of his own and probably was not eager to see Lepidus get the credit for any military success. Besides, Antony perhaps learned his lesson from the backlash after he unleashed the army in the Forum in 47 B.C. He may have concluded that it was better to hold the soldiers in the background as an intimidating presence than to use them for bloodshed and recriminations.

In the short term, therefore, Brutus was right and Cassius was wrong—letting Antony live on March 15 was the smart move. In the long term, however, Antony would prove to be a deadly enemy to the liberators, a far shrewder operator than they had expected. Even then, however, he was not their biggest problem.

The conferees at Antony’s house decided to negotiate. They would merely postpone vengeance, hoping to be able to wean Decimus’s army away from him. To the ex-consuls sent from the Capitoline Hill, the conferees replied with stern words about having to drive out the few guilty parties who had killed Caesar or else suffer a divine curse. But they proposed a Senate meeting in which the two sides could work out a common course. The men on the Capitoline Hill were happy to agree on a session for the next day, March 17.

What followed was a long night in Rome, lit with fires as a sign of activity. Antony stationed guards around the city for safety’s sake. The assassins sent men to one senator’s house after another, trying to drum up support. At the same time, leaders of Caesar’s veterans prowled the streets, trying to intimidate the friends of the assassins and issuing threats about the consequences if anyone interfered with their land grants. Meanwhile, people began to notice just how few assassins and their friends there were. Those who first cheered the death of the tyrant began to have second thoughts.

But the most important event of the night took place in the Public Mansion. Antony got control both of Caesar’s private fortune and his state papers, either because Calpurnia thought they would be safer with him than in her house or because he ordered it as consul. According to Plutarch, Caesar’s fortune amounted to 4,000 talents—that is, a huge sum, on the order of 250,000 pounds of silver. In politics, money and knowledge are both power, and Antony now had plenty of each.


Before first light on the morning of March 17, the senators began gathering for a session to start at daybreak. The Senate met in the Temple of Tellus, a Roman earth goddess. We know of no other Senate meeting in this location. The Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline was under occupation. The Temple of Concord sat at the foot of the Capitoline, in reach of Decimus’s gladiators. The Senate House of Pompey was a ghoulish thought. There were other temples in Rome, but the Temple of Tellus was on the Carinae, far from the Capitoline Hill and close to Antony’s house, so it seemed safe. Still, Lepidus made a show of strength and brought troops to the temple, where they occupied the entrances—and a good thing, too. Cinna appeared for the meeting, this time wearing his praetorian robe. When some people, including Caesar’s veterans, saw him, they promptly stoned him and chased him into a nearby house that they were about to set on fire when Lepidus and his soldiers arrived to stop them.

By now, March 17, more of Caesar’s veterans were starting to arrive in Rome from the towns where he had settled them or from the confiscated lands they had acquired. Some came on their own initiative, others in response to calls from Antony, Lepidus, or other friends of Caesar. Honor and self-interest alike gave the soldiers grounds to strike. Caesar was their chief and their patron but now he was dead and they were afraid of losing everything. Nicolaus claims that most of the conspirators’ supporters melted away at the sight of the veteran soldiers—an exaggeration, no doubt, but the direction of the wind was beginning to shift.

The Temple of Tellus offered reminders both of the Republic’s defenders and its enemies. It was built on land confiscated long ago from a leader of the Early Republic who was accused of wanting to be a king, and who was convicted and executed. A statue of Ceres, goddess of agriculture, paid for from his property, stood in front of the temple. So did a statue of Cicero’s brother Quintus, put up recently by Cicero. Quintus was a symbol of dangerous times—he served Caesar as a commander in Gaul and Britain beforethen supporting Pompey in the Civil War and finally receiving Caesar’s pardon. So much for the exterior of the Temple of Tellus—as they deliberated inside the temple, the senators looked at a map of Italy painted on an interior wall, a vivid reminder of the heart of the empire at stake.

The Senate meeting was long and dramatic even though the assassins did not dare come down from the Capitoline. Supporters such as Cicero represented their side. What the senators decided in the end is well documented in reliable sources. The details of the debate come largely from Appian and Dio, making them plausible rather than factual. As consul, Antony set the tone of compromise from the outset. The speakers included Cicero and Caesar’s father-in-law, Piso. Debate was vigorous. It turned out that many if not most senators had been uneasy with Caesar and his kinglike ways. Some said the murderers deserved a reward for killing a tyrant, others that they should merely be thanked as public benefactors.

Lucius Munatius Plancus made an impression as a voice of moderation. A trusted officer of Caesar in Gaul and the Civil War, Plancus was about to take up the governorship of Transalpine Gaul, but he was also close to Cicero.

One of those who favored rewarding the assassins for killing a tyrant was Tiberius Claudius Nero. He had served Caesar as a commander in the Civil War as well as an official in Gaul, but apparently he found Caesar’s monarchical ways unbearable. (Ironically, he would later father a son who became Emperor Tiberius.)

Neither a reward nor thanks were acceptable to Caesar’s friends, but even they were willing to give the killers amnesty on the grounds of their distinguished families. Caesar’s enemies demanded a vote on the character of Caesar, but Antony intervened. If Caesar was declared a tyrant then his administrative arrangements around the empire would be null and void. Meanwhile, anyone who held high office thanks to Caesar would have to resign. Since Caesar had arranged Rome’s public offices for the next five years, hundreds of men would have to resign, and they had no intention of doing so. Dolabella, whom Antony now recognized as co-consul, did an about-face from his support of the assassins the day before. Now that his own job was on the line, he spoke strongly against calling Caesar a tyrant or honoring the murderers.

Meanwhile, a crowd gathered outside, and Antony and Lepidus went out to address it. “Peace!” called some and “vengeance!” cried others. Antony said that as consul he couldn’t support vengeance, tempted though he was. When one in the crowd threatened Antony, he loosened his tunic to show the armor beneath it. He used the occasion to remind people of Caesar’s clemency and of the oaths that his murderers had abused.

The advocates of vengeance called on Lepidus to carry out their will. Before he could answer, they insisted that he come to the Roman Forum, where they could hear him better, so he did. Lepidus stood on the Speaker’s Platform and made for a sad sight. He groaned and wept there for a long time. When he recovered, he spoke. He said he remembered standing there just yesterday, as it seemed, with Caesar, and now he was forced to ask what the people wanted him to do about Caesar’s murder. Once again, cries both for peace and vengeance rang out. Like Antony, Lepidus admitted to wanting vengeance, but it was more important, he said, to spare Roman lives.

When they returned to the Senate, Antony spoke in favor of a compromise—extending protection to the assassins and ratifying Caesar’s acts. If Appian is right, he was not subtle about the danger posed by the thousands of Caesar’s veterans who were in Rome and armed. They wanted their land and they wanted Caesar’s memory honored—or else. Antony proposed that the assassins be spared only as an act of clemency.

Cicero gave a long speech. He summarized Rome’s current state: the Capitol was occupied, the Forum filled with arms and the whole city with fear. He agreed with Antony about the need to compromise, leaving the assassins unpunished and Caesar’s acts in force. His preferences were different no doubt, since Cicero called Caesar a king in private. What Cicero did achieve was to substitute the notion of amnesty for clemency. The word clemency was too closely tied to Caesar. He gave the senators a history lesson, citing the case of Athens where, after a bloody civil war, the people wisely passed an amnesty, and then went on to prosperity at home and victory abroad. Cicero actually used the Greek word, amnestia. He advised the senators to act in a similar spirit for the sake of moving forward.

After the speeches, a decree passed guaranteeing the assassins immunity from prosecution while also ratifying all Caesar’s acts and decrees, but only “since it is advantageous to the state.” The friends of the assassins—surely including Cicero—insisted on this condition because anything more favorable to Caesar might sound like a condemnation of the murder. Ironically, men like Decimus, Brutus, and Cassius stood to gain from the ratification of Caesar’s acts, because it confirmed them as public officials. Meanwhile, under pressure from Caesar’s veterans, the Senate passed two more decrees confirming the new colonists who were about to take possession of their lands as well as those who already held theirs.

It was at this meeting or one shortly afterward that Antony moved to abolish the dictatorship. The Senate agreed. So Caesar was not only Rome’s most powerful dictator ever but also its last.

Antony’s reputation soared as people hailed him for his statesmanship. But Cicero never trusted Antony and considered this merely a tactical retreat. He believed that Antony wanted Caesar’s power and that he would push for it as soon as possible. But Cicero himself had no taste for compromise. For him, restoring the Republic meant crushing Caesar’s supporters.

At least one person was undoubtedly happy with the compromise of March 17—Brutus. True, the assassins failed to have Caesar branded a tyrant. True, they failed to get the honor they craved. But Brutus wanted peace and moderation, and he got it. As far as he was concerned, the tyrant was dead. The Senate and the People could regain their power; Rome could move on.

Cicero later said in private that he called for a compromise only because the liberators, as he called them, had already lost. He couldn’t speak freely in that Senate meeting, he said. What choice did he have but to defend the veterans with all his power of argument, seeing that they were present and armed, and he had no bodyguard? In public though, he praised Antony for his speech in the Senate and for his goodwill.


That same day, March 17, the conspirators invited the Roman people to the Capitoline and a large number accepted. Brutus addressed them, speaking, it seems, either in or near the Temple of Jupiter, where the Senate often met. Appian reports what Brutus is supposed to have said. After delivering the speech, Brutus prepared it for publication. Appian’s words might reflect the published version.

Before publication, Brutus sent a draft to Cicero for his comments. Cicero wrote privately that the speech was the height of elegance in both its sentiments and its words but that it lacked fire. Cicero wanted thunderbolts in the manner of Demosthenes, the great Greek orator who combined elegance with gravitas. Appian’s version of the speech has no thunderbolts but it is a hard-hitting speech.

Brutus met head-on the charges against the conspirators, that by killing Caesar they violated their oaths and by occupying the Capitol they were making peace impossible. As for the latter charge, Brutus said they were forced to take refuge on the Capitoline Hill because of the sudden and unexpected attack on Cinna. That was false since the conspirators climbed the hill before that attack, but it made for a good story. Turning to the subject of Caesar, the oath to hold him sacrosanct was made under compulsion, said Brutus, so it had no force.

Brutus painted a scathing but accurate portrait of Caesar. The defrocked governor of Gaul invaded his own country, killing a large number of its best and noblest citizens, including the strongest supporters of the Republic. He denied Romans their liberty and insisted that he, Caesar, arrange all things according to his command. He attacked the People’s Tribunes, officials whom all Romans were sworn to consider sacred and inviolable.

Then Brutus turned to a key constituency, Caesar’s veterans. He understood their anxiety about getting or keeping the land that Caesar had promised them. Brutus protested what he called slander directed against him and the other conspirators. They would never take the veterans’ new holdings away from them. The men deserved those lands because of their glorious service in Gaul and Britain. Brutus objected only to Caesar’s practice of stealing property from his political enemies in Italy. The conspirators would now pay compensation to the former landowners from public funds but they would guarantee the veterans what they now had. They swore that by the god Jupiter himself.

Caesar, said Brutus, purposely drove a wedge between the veterans and the former landowners to stir up trouble. Sulla behaved similarly. Brutus cleverly lumped Caesar and Sulla together, which might have reminded some in the audience that Brutus’s father was a Populist who had opposed Sulla. To sum up the speech in a phrase, Caesar was a tyrant.

Fine words but not enough. In retrospect, Brutus’s speech was a lost opportunity. To succeed in Roman politics now, you couldn’t just let the soldiers keep what they had—you had to give them more. Caesar’s generosity was yesterday’s news. Rather than waste precious resources on his rich, landowning friends, Brutus should have lavished those resources on the soldiers. If Brutus didn’t have something new to offer the troops then somebody else would.

If Brutus could defend himself, he might say Caesar’s veterans were a lost cause, especially in the emotional days following their fallen chief’s murder. Better to focus now on the political game in Rome, for which Brutus needed the support of former Pompey allies and others whose land had been confiscated. If he failed politically, there would be time later to buy other soldiers, less wedded to Caesar than men who needed to keep Caesar’s memory alive in order to protect their property.

Brutus might say one other thing, too. If the Ides of March proved anything, it proved that the military did not decide everything in Roman politics. For all his military power, Caesar had lost legitimacy among large parts of the Roman people and the Senate, including some of his closest supporters. That cost him his life. So, Brutus might reply, it was vitally important to win the debate.

But such arguments do not convince. It was worth trying to buy the loyalty of Caesar’s soldiers, if only to force Caesar’s supporters into bankruptcy if they wanted to compete to keep the soldiers loyal. And the soldiers, in the end, had a very loud voice.

At the time Brutus’s speech appeared to be a hit. People called it fair and righteous. The conspirators seemed not only bold but also caring. The crowd promised support.

Next came the consuls’ time to speak. They addressed the Roman people from the Speaker’s Platform, below the Capitoline, and explained what the Senate had decided. In addition to Antony and Dolabella, Cicero spoke as well. Dio says that the conspirators sent a letter down the hill in which they promised not to confiscate anyone’s property and said they considered all of Caesar’s acts valid. In other words, they reassured Caesar’s veterans that they could keep their lands. They called for harmony among all citizensand even, says Dio, swore the strongest oaths—ironic, if true, considering Brutus’s critique of oaths.

The people now called for the conspirators to come down from the Capitoline. Brutus and Cassius agreed but only on condition that hostages were provided. And so Antony and Lepidus sent their sons up the hill. Antony’s son was a mere toddler. Hostages were not unusual as a way of safeguarding a conference in times of civil war. Their use shows just how uneasy the peace was.

Brutus and Cassius came down. The delighted crowd broke into shouts and applause. They wouldn’t let the consuls speak until they first shook hands with their enemies, as they did. Perhaps, as Appian says, Antony and Dolabella fretted that the political initiative had passed to the conspirators. To some, it looked like the majority of Romans were glad to be rid of Caesar’s one-man rule.

Caesar’s supporters now hosted their friends or relatives among the conspirators for dinner. Under a promise of safety, Brutus went to his brother-in-law Lepidus, while Cassius went to Antony. There followed surely the two most tense reconciliation dinners in Rome’s long history. No details survive of Brutus’s dinner at Lepidus’s, but Lepidus might have felt Caesar’s presence there, just as he felt it on the Speaker’s Platform that morning. After all, Caesar had dined at Lepidus’s only the day before his assassination. At his dinner with Cassius, Antony is said to have engaged in black humor. He asked Cassius if he had a dagger under his armpit, possibly a reference to the famous assassination of a would-be tyrant by Brutus’s ancestor, Servilius Ahala, who concealed a military dagger under his armpit. If so, it was a subtle dig at Cassius, who lacked such a family tree. Cassius supposedly responded harshly, saying that he certainly did have a dagger—and a big one—if Antony was eager to be a tyrant. But big daggers don’t fit under armpits.

It was not difficult for educated nobles like Antony and Cassius to exchange barbs and break bread. Coming out on top of the political struggle would be harder. Restoring peace in Rome without another civil war would be the toughest task of all.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!