Ides of March
The conspiracy against Caesar likely festered for a long time, but it only began to take on a legitimate threat in the early part of 44 BC.
In a Senate famous for political wrangling and back-stabbing, a conspiracy of such grave magnitude could not have been kept secret for long. The urgency of the plot was not only the fact that Caesar was expected to leave Rome for Parthia on March 18, but that Caesar was expected to be named King of all the Roman provinces outside of Italy.
The apparent leader of the plot was Gaius Cassius Longinus, the Praetor Peregrinus in 44 BC. He already held a grudge against the dictator for perceived political slights, mainly in not backing him for positions of higher authority. In fact, Caesar seems to have had suspicions of Cassius already, but apparently did nothing to counteract it. Caesar often made comments regarding his own death by suggesting he would prefer to die one death than die countless times as a coward. On a similar note, Cicero once quoted Caesar as saying, "I have lived long enough both in years and in accomplishment."
Whether or not Caesar had any idea of the conspiracy growing against him is certainly debatable, but he was well aware of the ramifications of such an act. Suetonius quoted him as saying "It is more important for Rome than for myself that I should survive. I have long been sated with power and glory; but, should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace. A new Civil War will break out under far worse conditions than the last."
Though this prophetic statement would definitely turn out to be the truth, the conspiracy continued to grow. Some 60 senators (of the 900 member body, most of whom were loyal to Caesar) would align themselves in the favor of the Republican ideal, including Caesar's close friend Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. One notable omission from the conspiracy was the great orator Cicero. Despite his support of Pompey and the Republican side in the civil war, it was feared that Cicero didn't have the fortitude to carry out the task, or that he wouldn't be able to keep his famous mouth closed.
Cicero, however, was not the key to the plot's success. The key ingredient was the inclusion of Caesar's friend, Marcus Junius Brutus. He had served with Caesar in Gaul before taking sides with Pompey in the civil war, and was later pardoned for his 'transgression'. It was rumored, due to Caesar's well known affair with Brutus' mother Servilia, that Brutus could even have been Caesar's son. While this is completely unlikely, there is no question that Caesar maintained a relationship of fondness for Brutus, and had supported him for many offices of importance. Brutus was the key for one simple reason. His supposed ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, was the man who took the lead in expelling the Etruscan kings centuries earlier, and was fundamental in establishing the Roman Republic. The conspirators felt that with Brutus in tow, recreating the perception that a Brutus would save Rome from tyranny for a second time, the plot would immediately be legitimized. Cassius and other conspirators relentlessly worked on Brutus, trying to shatter his bond with Caesar and bring him to their side. After playing on his sense of duty and family history, Brutus finally joined the plot as a matter of honor.
With the involvement of Brutus, the conspiracy moved forward. All that was left was to determine the time, place and manner of the deed. Caesar was expected to assemble the Senate for a final time before departing for Parthia on March 18. On the Ides of March, or the 15th, the Senate was expected to approve Caesar's kingship outside of Italy. It had been prophesied by the Sybilline books that only a king could defeat Parthia, and it was widely expected for Caesar to receive this additional honor before his departure. It was decided that the assassination would take place in the Curia of Pompey's theatre, where the Senate would meet with Caesar for the last time. Each member of the plot would be required to stab Caesar with a dagger, thereby not only assuring his death, but unifying the group under a banner of freedom for the entire state.
The waiting game, however, must have been a nerve-wracking affair. Bad omens seemed to threaten the success of the attempt. These omens, likely later added manifestations of the writers for dramatic effect, still illustrate the fragile nature of the plot. One little slip up, with so many people involved, could send the whole thing crashing down. Of the many portends or warnings to Caesar that are said to have occurred, one stands out above the rest. According to Suetonius and Plutarch, a soothsayer by name of Spurinna was said to have delivered the famous warning to Caesar: "Beware the Ides of March."
Death of Caesar
On the morning of 15 March 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 three 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 has 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 have 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 her, 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?" ("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. Resigning himself to the assassination, Caesar pulled the folds of his toga over his head so as to prevent anyone from 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 15 March 44 BC.
Following the assassination of Caesar, there was immediate panic on the Senate floor. Brutus attempted to address the Senate and give the reasons for the conspiracy, urging his fellow Senators to spread this great deed of liberty as one of honor. Those who weren't involved however would have none of it. They fled the chambers, likely fearing for their own safety. Soon panic struck throughout the area, and the conspirators themselves raced off to the Capitoline Hill where they could safely hole up against the anger of the Roman mob.
Cassius Dio paints a different picture, though. In the immediate aftermath of Caesar's death, Brutus came down from the Capitol to address the masses. In so doing, he calmed the population by claiming the deed was only done to preserve liberty and the Republican system. By convincing the crowd that there would be no mass proscriptions or additional power grabs by the conspirators, Dio explains that the situation was mostly one of relative calm.
The problem for the conspirators turned out not to be the initial shock and anger of the people, but mistakes they made in carrying out their plan. First, they made no real plan to firmly take control. This left an immediate power vacuum, creating uncertainty and fear. Secondly, the biggest mistake was in allowing Marcus Antonius (Antony) to live. Immediately after Caesar's murder, Antony fled Pompey's theatre, discarding his consular robe and trying to maintain anonymity for personal protection.
Though Antony's first thought was self-preservation, it turned out that harm to him, or anyone other than Caesar, was not in the conspirator's plans. With the death of Caesar, Antony now stood as his heir apparent, and he took full advantage of the situation. At first Antony would appear to be conciliatory, and attempt to bring calm to Rome. After the reading of Caesar's will, however, Antony probably knew his only chance to win support from the crowd was to incite them against Caesar's assassins.
In the meantime, immediately after the murder, Caesar's mangled body was taken by slaves to his home. Though the conspirators originally planned to confiscate Caesar's property, the plan was aborted due to the immediate panic that ensued on the Senate floor. As family gathered at the home to mourn and discuss their fate, Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, retrieved the all important will of the dictator from the Vestal Virgins (who stored all the wills in Rome).
After reading it, those present were probably shocked by what they heard. Antony of course was left with a share, as were others in Caesar's political family. The Roman masses too, were to receive a percentage of Caesar's great wealth. The shock likely came when Caesar's primary heir was named. His heir was to be his 18 year old and virtually unknown great nephew, Octavian, who waited in Apollonia to accompany Caesar to Parthia. The grandson of Caesar's sister would soon be thrust on the world stage; but first the situation in Rome had to be settled.
In 44 BC, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was serving as Caesar's master of horse and took control of the streets after the assassination. Perhaps Lepidus, a great supporter of Caesar, sought to garner power for himself, but at any rate, he did maintain order. On March 16, the Senate wisely gathered to settle the affairs of the state before things unravelled too far. In the meeting, Lepidus argued against the assassins, maintaining loyalty to Caesar's memory. Cicero, however, the greatest of orators, swayed the Senate to compromise in order to save the Republic.
Eventually the governing body decided on a course of general amnesty for the assassins (or liberators as they and their supporters called themselves). In this compromise, they were forced to uphold all of Caesar's laws and individual honors, including the concession that Caesar's soldiers would receive everything they were promised. This act took power away from Lepidus, now unable to manipulate the legions into thinking that the Senate would take away their spoils. Antony it would seem, though he was still Consul along with the 'liberator' supporting Publius Cornelius Dolabella, was the biggest loser. Not only had he lost the inheritance of Caesar (although he would ultimately steal a great part of it before it eventually passed to Octavian), but the assassins had actually set themselves up in positions of power.
The Senate, still understanding that the so-called 'liberators' position with the people was still precarious, decided to grant the major players provincial governorships. This would not only protect them from the Roman mob, by sending them away from the city, but would grant them considerable power and the right to control regional legions. Brutus (the symbolic leader of the conspiracy) was appointed to Crete and Cassius (the driving force behind the plot) was given Africa. Decimus Brutus, the man who finally convinced Caesar to make the final walk to the site of his death, was given Cisalpine Gaul. In a brilliant stroke of political genius, something not generally applied to Antony's career, he completely turned the tables on the liberators.
He secured the right to deliver the eulogy at Caesar's funeral, which was due to begin between March 18 and 20. Though Cassius opposed the idea of a grand public funeral, Brutus understood that the people would need some sort of closure, thereby allowing Antony to have his way. What Brutus didn't realize was that Antony would take the opportunity to turn Rome upside down. Over the course of the grand and likely highly emotional funeral, Antony addressed the people, first singing the praises of Caesar as would be expected at such an event. But Antony was here to make a political statement of a powerful order. He had the will of Caesar read, thereby making it public knowledge of the money left to each citizen of Rome. The crowd also learned that Caesar's own vast private garden was to be turned into a sort of public park for the people to enjoy. There are conflicting reports over how Antony then launched an attack against Caesar's assassins, but Dio Cassius sums up the mood of his speech:
"Of what avail, O Caesar, was your humanity, of what avail your inviolability, of what avail the laws? Nay, though you enacted many laws that men might not be killed by their personal foes, yet how mercilessly you yourself were slain by your friends! And now, the victim of assassination, you lie dead in the Forum through which you often led the triumph crowned; wounded to death, you have been cast down upon the rostra from which you often addressed the people. Woe for the blood-bespattered locks of gray, alas for the rent robe, which you assumed, it seems, only that you might be slain in it!"
Plutarch adds that, Antony, upon finishing held up the robe Caesar wore when he was murdered. Showing the stab shredded and bloody garment to the crowd, they were instantly overcome with a need for vengeance. As Caesar's funeral pyre burned away, the mob took up torches from it and went off to burn down the estates of the involved conspirators. Before long, the 'liberators' would be forced to flee the city, faced with certain death at the hands of the mob. Antony had delivered a bold two-stroke victory, removing powerful rivals and propping himself up as the new people's champion.
As for the great Caesar, his bones were carried away and laid to rest in the family tomb, and an altar was later erected on the site of the funeral pyre. To the people of Rome, Caesar was a great hero. He brought wealth, power and prestige to the eternal city and they loved him for it. To them, Caesar truly was a god. At his funeral games held to celebrate the life of Caesar in July of 44 BC, a great comet appeared in the sky lasting for seven days. To the people of the ancient world this was a great sign of Caesar's ascendancy into heaven to take his place among the gods. In January of 42 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar was named 'Divus Julius' (Divine Julius) by the Senate, officially confirming him as a god of the Roman people, and beginning the practice of the imperial cult.
Though Caesar's legacy was undeniable, his time had passed, and this was the time for the next generation of Roman political players, Marcus Antonius and Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (Augustus).