How did Julius Caesar die?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Julius Caesar was assassinated in the senate on the Ides of March in 44 BC by a conspiracy of senators.

The story of how that happened in very interesting.  How did Caesar get to be assassinated?  What would cause a group of politicians to take such drastic measures?  Let’s trace the sequence of this ultimate displace of partisanship, or greed.

Julius Caesar was fighting a war in Gaul while his enemies began developing a faction against him.  They were not necessarily a political party in the sense that we think of them today, but they called themselves the boni, or the Good Men.  They were led by men who believed in the ancient Republic, and wanted Rome to return to its roots.  It gets a little complicated, but they included Cicero, Pompey, Cato, and Brutus, among others. 

When Caesar crossed the Rubicon on 44 BC, he is said to have said, “Alea iacta est ("The die is cast").  What he meant is that by crossing the river with an army, which he was not allowed to do, he was marching on Rome.  It was an overt threat.

Initially, Caesar was fighting Pompey and Cato, but they fled the city and he ended up chasing them.  Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) was killed in Egypt by Ptolemy XIII and his minions, who thought it would impress Caesar.  This left Caesar with basically no opposition to take over Rome, except political opposition.  He grew more and more powerful, and the boni who remained grew more and more frustrated.   

Many had fled the city, and they had to return to be pardoned by Caesar.  This was humiliating.  Some, like Brutus, found this easier than others.  Brutus had a connection to Caesar already because his mother was having an affair with Caesar.  Caesar forgave him as a son.  Others would have found asking forgiveness more difficult. 

This opposition was deeper than hurt feelings.  The boni had been humiliated, but they also feared that Caesar had been rash, and had grown too strong.  Caesar had formed a triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey before (53-59 BC), and while triumvirates were bad enough, Caesar having all the power was worse.  He was extremely popular with the people.  He had too much power, and wasn’t giving it back.  The city had become chaotic during the civil war, and Caesar had left Mark Antony essentially in charge.  This move annoyed the boni.  Mark Antony was irresponsible and generally incompetent.

Where was Caesar?  He was in Egypt—with Cleopatra.  I am sure that was popular with the conservative and generally xenophobic Romans.  Caesar was not only playing around though.  He was fighting a war and trying to protect Roman interests, but you can imagine the rumors.  Cicero must have had a field day with it.  News that the relationship produced a child would later become somewhat of an issue for some too.  The child wasn't an heir, not being Roman, but he was an inconvenience.

Once back in Rome, Caesar dealt with Mark Antony and re-established stability in the city.  However, Caesar’s troubles were not over.  The boni began a campaign to discredit him almost immediately.  Several of these items may seem like they were intended to benefit Caesar, but they were actually intended to strike against his base with the people.  He was appointed dictator for life, which the boni hoped might make him not want to be king.  He was also defied, and given statues or adornments on his statues. 

One of the greatest issues was a well-recorded insult.  A man called out to Caesar one day, calling him “rex.”  This means “king,” in Latin.  Caesar made a joke of it, saying, “That is not my name.”  “Rex” was also a common name in Ancient Rome as it is today.  Although Caesar made a joke of it, he was very angry.  He did not like people insinuating that he was acting as a king.  Although it may seem strange to us that Romans were okay with a dictator and not a king, you have to understand Roman history.  Romans were not okay with a king.  It was much worse than being called a dictator.  A dictator was a position he could give up (even the "for life" part was just a technicality).  It was just a political title.

Caesar had angered people for issuing coins with his image, for punishing men who had torn the decorations off statues on the Feast of Lupercal, and of course by staying dictator when he was supposed to give up the title at six months (this was before he was granted the "for life" distinction).  Another king insult also made matters worse.  

At the Feast of Lupercal, Mark Antony offered him a crown.  He made a show of refusing it, but some people thought that it was false humility and he was only pretending that he did not want it, or that it simply was not a big enough crown.

At least by the middle of February, and probably not much earlier, the boni developed a small group of conspirators and made a plan.  We do not know who is at the head of the group.  Shakespeare claims that it was Gaius Cassius Longinus, and some other scholars suggest others, such as Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus (one of Caesar’s lieutenants, whom Shakespeare calls Decius).  Regardless of who planned what, we do know that Brutus (Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, and yes, they are related), was involved as mostly a figurehead.  Despite his lovely speeches in Shakespeare, he was chosen for his name.  Others involved were all senators.

These senators came together for one purpose.  They wanted to kill Caesar before he became too powerful to stop.  They were worried that he was going to become an emperor, which was actually not too much of a stretch—his “son” Augustus did just that.  Augustus knew better than to become like this adoptive father.  He cleverly avoided assassination attempts his entire life, and killed his rival, Mark Antony, as soon as he could legally.

We know that the senators were planning by mid-February because the soothsayer warned Caesar (despite Shakespeare’s wonderful poetry, he did not have an exact date) to expect something in March.  Something this complicated, with this many people, would not have had a long prep time.  Someone would snitch (and we know several people almost did).  It should have taken place quickly.  The conspirators used daggers because they were portable and easy to hide.

On the day of the assassination, the conspirators made sure Caesar went to the capital even though he almost didn’t go.  His wife had a bad dream and didn’t want him to.   Once at the capital, in Pompey’s Theater (yes, it is ironic), Mark Antony was waylaid, because he was so close to Caesar and also quite formidable, and the assassins surrounded Caesar.  They tricked him into thinking that they were going to talk to him.

Interestingly enough, Caesar was one of the first autopsies in recorded history.  His body was examined, and they knew how many stab wounds there were and which one was stabbed when.  Sadly, Caesar saw almost all of his attackers and died a horrific death because most of the wounds were not fatal.  He was stabbed first in the neck by Casca and then slowly bled out.  Casca was the only one who knew what he was doing.  We think that Brutus stabbed him last, and Caesar tried to cover his face with his toga.  He likely did not talk, unlike Shakespeare, because he was probably dying at that time.  Caesar was stabbed 23 times.

The assassins thought they were liberators.  They believed that Caesar was a tyrant, and they had freed Rome.  What they actually did was put the final nail in its coffin. They started the ball rolling to make Rome an empire.

Mark Antony gave Caesar’s funeral speech, and his eulogy was so powerful that the city was overrun with passionate looters that burned some of the conspirators’ houses.  At first, some compromises and truces were made with the conspirators.  Then it was not clear who would be in charge.  At one point, both Mark Antony and Octavius (Augustus) had an army.  Then they decided to stop fighting each other and fight the conspirators.  Antony, Octavius and one of Caesar’s men Lepidus formed yet another triumvirate to rule Rome.  That lasted until they had hunted down the conspirators and killed them. 

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