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Death of Caesar

On the morning of March 15, 44 BC, the Ides of March, Caesar awoke to find his wife Calpurnia in a near panic. According to the ancients, nightmares had plagued her the night before, warning her of impending danger to Caesar. This was to be the last meeting between Caesar and the Senate before he left for Parthia just 3 days later.

He certainly wanted to attend the session and take care of finalizing his agenda, but his wife's concern seems to have made an impact. It's also been suggested that Caesar may have been ill at time. Perhaps epilepsy was beginning to take its toll. Regardless, while the Senate and the conspirators anxiously awaited Caesar to arrive at Pompey's theatre, Caesar decided to heed his wife's reservations. He sent word to Antonius (Antony) to dismiss the Senate based on inauspicious religious omens.

Meanwhile, the Senate was gathering at Pompey's theatre, likely to grant Caesar one final and particularly anti-Republican honor: the title of king of all Roman territory outside of Italy. The conspirators plan was rather simple, they snuck in daggers, some in boxes intended for documents, others just concealed in flowing folds of their togas. When Caesar arrived all involved were expected to approach Caesar and stab him at least once each, thereby unifying the group and spreading the 'guilt' among them all. Gaius Trebonius was to keep Antony occupied in conversation outside the theatre; to prevent him from helping Caesar, but some have speculated that Antony may even have been involved. The motivation definitely could've been there since at this time the contents of Caesar's will were unknown (the naming of Octavian as his heir) and it stood to reason that Antony (as one of Caesar's strongest supporters and right hand men) would be expected to inherit Caesar's vast fortune. However, Antony gained tremendously from following in the footsteps of Caesar, and his relentless support of the dictator makes this scenario unlikely.

Cassius Dio wrote that the conspirators had gladiators waiting nearby to control the violence and confusion that would certainly follow the assassination of Caesar, but this is unconfirmed. Judging things by the events after the murder, it seems that the conspirators had little or no plan to take control. Perhaps the all encompassing fear and anxiety of such a deed prevented clear focus on what would need to be done. Regardless, as time passed in the morning hours, it soon became evident that Caesar might not show at all. When word was delivered that this was indeed the case, the conspirators were likely on the verge of panic. This would simply be the only reasonable time when the plot could take place, and it was imperative that Caesar come to the Senate meeting. Decimus Brutus, Caesar's close friend and likely the least suspected member of the group, was dispatched to Caesar's home to convince him to come. He played on Caesar's dignity, mocking the priestly auspices that supposedly prevented Caesar from coming. He dismissed Calpurnia's dreams as silly, and appealed to Caesar's vanity by suggesting that the Senate was ready to vote him in as King. Certainly Caesar couldn't refuse the title that would assure him a guaranteed victory over the Parthians, as pre ordained by the Sybilline books. By 11 o' clock it seems that Caesar was convinced of the rightness of attending the meeting and set out with Decimus Brutus, despite his wife's pleas.

While the praetors Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus (both important members of the plot) kept the Senate occupied by conducting state business during the morning hours, Caesar made his way towards Pompey's theatre. While he traveled in his litter, two meetings occurred that are likely as much a part of Caesar's legend than they are the truth. The first meeting was with a man, named Artemidorus by Plutarch, who approached Caesar's litter and handed him a scroll revealing the plot. Caesar, however, because of the great crowds that always approached him as he traveled the streets of Rome, was unable to read it. The second incident came with the soothsayer Spurinna who originally warned Caesar to beware the Ides. Upon seeing here, Caesar said "The Ides have come", as if suggesting that there was really nothing to fear. The reply was simple but eerie, "Aye Caesar, but not gone."

Caesar finally approached the Curia of Pompey and made his way inside. The Senators took their seats along with the conspirators, as if nothing was amiss. Trebonius kept Antony outside the meeting as planned, and Caesar took his place upon the gilded chair at the head of the forum. As was customary, Senators approached Caesar to petition him with various things, but this time, he was approached by 60 men bent on his death. With daggers concealed under their togas, they surrounded Caesar and waited for the signal that would send shockwaves rippling throughout the world.

Tillius Cimber was the man expected to deliver it. He petitioned Caesar to pardon his exiled brother, likely knowing full well that Caesar would refuse. When Caesar did so, the conspirators gathered more tightly around him, forcing Caesar to stand. Cimber then grabbed and pulled Caesar's purple robe from his shoulders, the signal to send the conspirators into action. Publius Servilius Casca, who positioned himself behind Caesar, was the first to strike the mark. He stabbed Caesar in the upper shoulder, near the neck, and Plutarch wrote that Caesar said, "Vile Casca" or Casca what is this? Reacting with the tenacity of a grizzled legionary veteran he apparently grabbed Casca's arm, stabbing it with his own writing pen, probably still completely unaware of the scope of the plot. At this point, the ferocity of the attack was revealed in earnest. The assassins stabbed Caesar relentlessly, each taking a shot at the dictator.

The attack was so rapid and vicious that several conspirators wounded each other. Brutus, the great symbol of Republican virtue and freedom for tyranny was wounded in the hand by an errant dagger, as he himself stabbed Caesar in the groin. Though the line made famous by Shakespeare, "Et tu Brute" (translated as "You too Brutus", "You too my son", or "even you Brutus") was supposedly spoken by Caesar as he saw Brutus approach with dagger in hand, this is likely a complete dramatic fabrication. The ancient sources suggest that Caesar said nothing, and this seems most likely, considering the duress he was under. After the initial attack, though many say Caesar fought valiantly in his defense, he likely had little idea where all the shots were coming from.

Despite the overwhelming assault on him, Caesar still had the presence of mind to maintain his dignity for posterity purposed. Resigning himself to the assassination, Caesar pulled the folds of his toga over his head so as to prevent anyone seeing his face at death. In all, Caesar was stabbed 23 times, and inevitably collapsed. At the foot of the blood splattered statue of his old friend, rival and son-in-law, Pompey, Gaius Julius Caesar died at the age of 55, on March 15, 44 BC.

back to the Ides of March
continue to the Aftermath

Did you know?

Dio Cassius Cocceianus (155 - 235? AD) was a Roman historian and Senator who began a steady rise in Roman politics under Commodus.

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Death of Caesar - Related Topic: Republican Statesmen


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