The Assassination of Julius Caesar (The Ides of March, 44 B.C.E.)


The conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar began
with a meeting between three men. Cassius Longinus, Marcus Brutus, and Decimus
Brutus. Cassius, Brutus, and Decimus. Cassius was an experienced soldier and general. A decade earlier he fought the Parthians under
Crassus. After Crassus’s humiliating defeat, Cassius
rallied the survivors and successfully defended Syria against a Parthian counterattack. He would go on to commanded a Pompeian fleet
during the Civil War, and to everyone’s surprise he proved himself to be Rome’s most successful
naval commander in a generation. Not that it made much of a difference, because
as we know Pompey was eventually defeated, and Cassius was captured. But Caesar recognized talent when he saw it. He issued Cassius a full and complete pardon,
and then put him in charge of one of his legion destined for Egypt. The Alexandrian campaign turned out to be
was kind of a disaster, but thanks in part to Cassius’s leadership the Romans were able
to hold on until reinforcements arrived. After Egypt, Cassius let Caesar know that
he would not participate in the slaughter of Pompeians, and so Caesar sent him back
to Rome. Cassius payed a professional price for his
loyalty, because when it came to the upcoming Parthian campaign, Caesar planned stick Cassius
in a thankless administrative job in Syria. We’ve talked about Marcus Brutus before. There’s not that much to be said of his early
political career beyond the fact that he aligned himself with the ultra-conservative Cato. Unlike Cassius, Brutus was not a military
man. During the Civil War he joined up with the
Pompeians, but as far as we can tell he didn’t really do anything. After Pompey’s defeat he immediately surrendered
to Caesar, who in turn gave him the fairly important job of governing Cisalpine Gaul,
promising to fast track him all the way up to Consul in the years to come. You see, through all of this, Brutus maintained
a fairly good personal relationship with Caesar. Brutus’s mother Servilia had been in a romantic
relationship with Caesar for about 20 years. This was not seen as unusual; Servilia was
an older woman, twice widowed, plenty of children, she was free to see whoever she wished. Because of this relationship, Brutus had known
Caesar for his entire adult life, if not longer. Caesar was happy to help out his mistress’
son however he could. Decimus Brutus, distant cousin, had a different
story to tell. Decimus was an honest-to-God dyed-in-the-wool
Caesarian. He had spent at least five years serving under
Caesar in Gaul. He even fought alongside Caesar and Antony
at the at the Battle of Alesia. You might even say that Decimus was in Caesar’s
inner circle. During the Civil War, Decimus stayed behind
in Cisalpine Gaul where he impressed everybody by putting down a pretty bad uprising. After this, Decimus got the nod from Caesar
and was elected Praetor. Next year, he would be heading off to Cisalpine
Gaul once more, this time as its formal governor. Each of these three men, Cassius, Brutus,
and Decimus, came to believe that Caesar intended to destroy Roman politics by crowning himself
king. In fact, this was already happening before
their eyes. Caesar wielded most of the powers of a king
already, and Roman politics were becoming more and more irrelevant by the day. In their eyes, the only way out of this mess
was to remove Caesar from the equation. He had to die. But in order to get a shot at this, first
their little conspiracy needed to expand, and it didn’t take very long to get some top
tier politicians on board. People like Gaius Trebonius, a former Consul,
general, and veteran of Gallic Wars who had recently become disillusioned with Caesar
over his treatment of the Senate. People like Tillius Cimber, a Praetor and
former Caesarian who saw this conspiracy as his ticket to power. People like Publius Servilius Casca, a childhood
friend of Caesar’s, now a Tribune of the Plebs, who had since become so alarmed at Caesar’s
authoritarianism that he signed onto this conspiracy to end his life. In the end, sixty Senators joined the conspiracy,
which you could argue is too many people, roughly 7% of the entire Senate. Way too many to keep a secret. The sixty conspirators began to meet regularly
to strategize their next moves. The majority argued that the logical next
step was to bring Marc Antony on board. He was Caesar’s consular colleague for that
year, if he signed off on the assassination perhaps that would pacify Caesar’s legions. Plus, the conspirators believed that they
had a lot to offer Antony. After Caesar was gone, if Antony could bridge
the divide between Caesar’s veterans and the conspirators, he would become one of the most
powerful Senators in Rome. A consensus was forming, but before any definitive
action could be planned the former Consul Trebonius spoke up. He knew Antony well, as they had both served
under Caesar in Gaul. He revealed to the group that just last year
he had personally approached Antony as part of another conspiracy, and that Antony had
flatly turned him down. When Trebonius revealed this rejection to
the old conspiracy, people got spooked, and the whole thing fell apart. Why risk tipping their hand, Trebonius argued,
when they already knew Antony’s answer? The conspirators were convinced. Fine, no Antony. But what about Cicero? He was one of the few remaining former Consuls
who predated Caesar’s rise to power. He was the guy who put down the Catiline Rebellion
20 years earlier. A hero. An elder statesman. Maybe he was the one to lead them out of this
mess. After some debate the conspirators ultimately
decided against inviting Cicero into the conspiracy. We don’t 100% know why, but one reason may
be that in an effort to influence the new regime, Cicero had been spending an unhealthy
amount of time with Caesarians. Some conspirators may have feared that he
had gone over to the other side. Another unusual aspect of this conspiracy
which may be pertinent here is that it reflected a strong generational divide. For whatever reason, the conspiracy consisted
almost entirely of men in their early 40s. Maybe these people just knew each other the
best, or maybe they had the most to gain in a power vacuum, who knows. Cicero was well into his 60s, and quite simply,
nobody in the conspiracy knew him that well. So Cicero was fraternizing with the Caesarians,
and nobody in the conspiracy could vouch for him. Fine, Cicero was out. The conspiracy would have to move ahead in
its current form. One decision that the conspirators came to
pretty early on was that the assassination should occur in public. This had to be seen by the people as a legitimate
act, full of idealism and conviction. No back alley murders. But beyond this vague statement of principle,
there was very little agreement as to how they should actually proceed. Some people threw around the idea of assassinating
Caesar as he was overseeing that year’s elections. In a situation like that Caesar would be up
on a raised platform, in full view of the electorate. That certainly met the criteria of being public,
but how exactly were they supposed to pull this off? Caesar would be up in an exclusive VIP area
surrounded by supporters. And even if they did pull it off, an assassination
before the entire electorate had a 100% chance of causing a riot. The conspirators might not survive. Others considered killing him on the way to
the elections. If they could predict his route ahead of time,
they could set up an ambush as he was crossing a bridge. Caesar would have bodyguards, there would
be a tussle, but some of the conspirators believed that if they moved quickly they might
be able to rush Caesar and push him off the side of the bridge. This probably wouldn’t kill him, but they
could have assassins waiting below to finish the job. This was a better plan, but it was extremely
complicated, and a big part of it relied on the physical prowess of a bunch of nerdy ass
politicians. They then toyed with yet another plan. As a side business, Decimus happened to run
a company of gladiators. The conspirators discussed using these gladiators
to somehow attack Caesar at some public games. You know, leave the killing to the professionals. So they had three plans on the table. The Election Plan, The Bridge Plan, and The
Gladiator Plan. The conspirators went back and forth for meeting
after meeting after meeting debating pros and cons. Each scenario introduced a dangerous amount
of uncertainty into the equation, and the group struggled to come up with any sort of
consensus. This is one of the downsides of having 60
people in the conspiracy. When’s the last time 60 people agreed upon
anything? But then, out of nowhere, Caesar publicly
announced what up until now had been a closely held secret. He would be leaving Rome on March 18th. The conspirators had been operating under
the assumption that they would have months to figure out a plan. They were wrong. They had weeks. This changed everything. All of the old plans were thrown away, and
the conspirators started again from scratch. They still agreed that the assassination still
needed to happen in a public place, but after debating the old plans they now knew that
it also needed to happen in a controlled environment, preferably away from bodyguards and potential
rioters. On top of all that, this new time constraint
meant that they had to throw the whole thing together quickly. It couldn’t be too elaborate. You know, Senate meetings happened all the
time. A Senate meeting wouldn’t wouldn’t require
any additional prep work. It also had the virtue of still technically
being a public place, while at the same time being nice and isolated. Caesar’s bodyguards would not be allowed inside. And then there was the whole symbolic thing,
removing a tyrant during a Senate meeting. This was perfect. Finally, the conspirators agreed on something. Now all they had to do was figure out the
particulars. Caesar would be leaving on March 18th, so
they agreed that their attack should take place during the last Senate meeting before
his departure. That would be March 15th, the Ides of March. But coordinating this wasn’t as simple as
you might think. Caesar was personally financing a complete
redesign of Rome’s downtown area, which included Rome’s old Senate house. Because of this, the Senate had been randomly
meeting in various temples scattered throughout the city. The conspirators agreed that the safest thing
to do would be to stash some weapons on location, but because of all of this bouncing they couldn’t
be 100% certain where this particular Senate meeting would be taking place. So instead, they decided that a select group
of Senators needed to hide daggers in their togas. This would be dangerous, as it was a death
penalty offense to carry a dagger inside the pomerium. But it had to be done. For everybody else, they decided to smuggle
weapons into the Senate meeting using these baskets that were always full of note taking
materials. If the location of the meeting was changed
at the last minute these baskets would HOPEFULLY come with them. Late in this process, Cassius brought up something
that had been troubling him. What about Antony? Caesar and Antony were co-Consuls for that
year, and if this thing was going down during a Senate meeting, Antony would be only a few
paces away. Knowing him, he’d probably put up a fight. Plus, if they were successful, Antony would
be Rome’s only remaining Consul. What if he was angry? What if he came after them? Wouldn’t it be much safer to just kill them
both? Cassius then went one step further. So long as they’re having this conversation,
what about Lepidus? He wasn’t a Consul or anything, but he was
sitting on Tiber Island just outside of Rome’s pomerium with a full legion. If Antony declared a state of emergency or
something, he might ask Lepidus to cross the pomerium and restore order. This would be a disaster. Cassius continued, if on the other hand, they
took out Caesar, they took out Antony, they took out Lepidus, they took control of that
legion, they would probably be able to pressure the Senate into endorsing the assassinations
retroactively. Brutus strongly disagreed. They were not revolutionaries. They were not here to overthrow the government. In fact, that’s exactly what they were trying
to prevent! What they had all agreed to do was remove
a tyrant. What Cassius was talking about was a purge. This argument escalated, and eventually it
split the conspirators along partisan lines. The former Pompeians sided with Cassius, and
the former Caesarians sided with Brutus. After some high drama, Brutus finally turned
the tide. He told the group that like it or not, Caesar’s
reforms were popular. If they started down the road of purging Caesarians,
they would inevitably eventually start repealing Caesarian legislation as well. They wouldn’t be able to help themselves. When that happened, Brutus said, the Roman
people would turn on them. It would forever politicize the assassination. A better path, he argued, was to surgically
remove the rot at the heart of Roman politics. Once Caesar was gone, everything else got
easier. This argument convinced Cassius and the the
ex-Pompeians. Fine, no purges. Caesar only. So what was Caesar doing while this was going
on? Just going about his business, making preparations
for the upcoming campaigns. But he wasn’t totally oblivious to the fact
that something strange was going on. Around this time, the priest Spurinna, who
in my opinion probably had contacts inside the conspiracy, began to warn Caesar to “beware
the Ides of March.” Caesar was getting other clues as well, although
in the moment he didn’t quite know what to make of them. For instance, days before the Ides he pulled
Cassius aside for a quick meeting. When Cassius left, Caesar turned to one of
his aids and said something like “what’s his problem? He looks sick.” On the day before the Ides of March, Lepidus
invited Caesar and Decimus to his home for dinner and drinks. As one of the original three conspirators
Decimus had been careful to stay on good terms with the Caesarians, and apparently this strategy
was paying off because even at this late stage he was still in Caesar’s inner circle. The three men ate and drank and chatted late
into the night. Much of the conversation centered around the
upcoming Dacian and Parthian wars. Caesar and Lepidus would be leaving in a few
days to meet up with the legions, and Decimus would be leaving later in the year to go and
take over as the governor of Cisalpine Gaul. This province would be key to keeping the
Caesar supplied in Dacia, and so the three men spoke of stockpiles and supply lines and
oh boy it must have been RIVETING. As the night wore on and the drinking took
its toll, the conversation turned philosophical. Somehow, somebody brought up this question:
“what’s the best way to die?” Lepidus and Decimus went back and forth pontificating,
and Caesar got uncharacteristically quiet. After a bit, he made up his mind, and told
the others that the best way to die would be “suddenly, and unexpected.” When I imagine this incident, I imagine of
a half drunk Decimus dying inside and trying to think of a way to change the subject. But it was fine. Eventually, the evening wound down and everybody
went home. The next morning, Caesar awoke to the sound
of screaming. It was still hours before dawn, and his wife
Calpurnia was inconsolable. She told him that she had just experienced
the most vivid dream of her life, where she witnessed the roof on their home collapse. In the last moments of the dream, the part
where she was quite literally screaming, she saw herself covered in blood and holding Caesar’s
mangled corpse in her arms. After this, both husband and wife found it
impossible to go back to sleep, so they got up and spent hours talking as they waited
for dawn. The ancient sources take care to point out
that Calpurnia was basically an atheist, and that she wasn’t the kind of person who believed
in prophetic dreams. By now Calpurnia had definitely heard Spurinna’s
warnings to “beware the Ides of March.” Today was the Ides. Calpurnia’s subconscious appeared was playing
out a version of the thing that she feared the most. When the sun came up, Caesar complained to
his wife that he was feeling sluggish and dizzy. Some historians have taken this to mean that
Caesar may have had a seizure in his sleep, but with the drinking the night before how
could you possibly say. That morning, Caesar was scheduled to make
an appearance at some minor religious ceremony in his capacity as Rome’s chief priest. This thing would have taken place literally
steps from Caesar’s front door, not a big time commitment. Caesar went to the ceremony, and spotted Spurinna
across the crowd. Caesar playfully called out to him, “the Ides
of March have come!” Spurinna responded mysteriously. “Yes, the Ides have come, but they have not
yet gone.” When Caesar returned home, he complained to
Calpurnia that he was still wasn’t feeling well. The two talked it over for a bit, and they
eventually decided that since Caesar would be leaving on campaign in a few days, he should
rest and recover while possible. The Senate was scheduled to meet that day,
so Caesar sent word to Antony to go ahead and cancel the meeting on account of him being
sick. Caesar had just unknowingly upended the conspiracy. Like a flash, Decimus showed up at Caesar’s
home and asked him why he was cancelling the meeting. Caesar told him about Calpurnia’s dream, and
about how neither of them had really gotten any sleep. Decimus laughed in Caesar’s face, calling
the whole thing superstitious nonsense. He then played up the misogyny angle, and
said that if it got out that he was cancelling Senate meetings on account of his wife’s bad
dreams, a lot of Senators would take it as a deliberate insult. After a pause, Decimus was like, “I’m not
supposed to tell you this,” and then revealed that certain Senators had been working behind
the scenes on a bill that would allow Caesar to use the title of King so long as he was
outside Italy. Decimus continued, saying that the bill was
not universally supported, and so if Caesar insulted the Senate now, it might never see
the light of day. This was boldfaced lie. The bill did not exist. Decimus made it all up. But the lie flattered Caesar’s ego, and so
it was super effective. He agreed to go to the Senate meeting. Decimus’s quick thinking had just saved the
conspiracy. On their way, a guy named Artemidorus pushed
through the crowd, grabbed Caesar, and put a scroll in his hand. He told him, “Caesar, read this quickly, and
read it alone. It concerns you personally.” Caesar was constantly getting approached on
the street like this, and so he handed the scroll off to one of his attendants and continued
on his way. Later investigations would reveal that this
scroll contained detailed information about the conspiracy. Caesar would never read it. Now, I mentioned before that the Senate couldn’t
meet at their normal Senate House, and that for the time being they were ping ponging
around the city to a bunch of temporary locations. As dumb luck would have it, today’s Senate
meeting would be happening in a place called the Theatre of Pompey, outside of Rome’s pomerium. The Theatre of Pompey was actually an entire
complex of buildings that had been financed and built by Pompey at the height of his power. It included a theatre, an arena, a temple,
a place for shopping, all sorts of amenities, super fancy. Early in the day the Senate meeting would
take place in the temple, and later in the day there would be some kind of gladiator
thing in the arena next door. Wait a second, gladiators! Decimus had gladiators! Apparently when Decimus learned the location
of the Senate meeting he tried to get his gladiators signed up for the games next door. For whatever reason they were rejected, so
instead their plan was to just loiter outside the arena as if they belonged there. With their weapons. In broad daylight. Not exactly subtle. In case anybody asked, they had an elaborate
cover story prepared about how they were waiting to see if another gladiator showed up so that
they could arrest him for violating a contract. Anyways, Caesar and Decimus were extremely
late to the Senate meeting, so most of the Senators were hanging around outside the temple
and making small talk. But not Cassius. He was all alone inside the temple, looking
up at a larger-than-life statue of Pompey in complete silence. After Pompey’s death, Cassius was one of the
few who proved his loyalty by refusing to take up arms against his fellow Pompeians. What was he thinking here? Commotion outside indicated that Caesar was
approaching, so Cassius snapped out it and went out to greet him. Looking around, Cassius would have been able
to see a lot of his fellow conspirators in the crowd. Cassius hadn’t seen Decimus for several hours,
so he pulled up beside him and Casca, another conspirator, just to make sure everything
was alright. A mob of Senators each wanted a private word
with Caesar, so they would have to wait a while before they could head inside. As Cassius and Decimus and Casca were waiting,
some rando Senator named Laenas approached them and said way too loudly, “Casca! Brutus told me your little secret, how dare
you keep me in the dark like this!” Casca panicked. The dude continued, “I hear you’re running
for Aedile! When did this happen?” As Laenas was making a scene, another rando
Senator, somebody from outside of the conspiracy, pulled Cassius and Decimus aside. In hushed tones, he told them, “I hope that
you accomplish your task. Please, do not delay. People know, and they are talking.” Cassius and Decimus were stunned by this. They looked toward Caesar, but everything
appeared normal. At that moment, that loudmouth Laenas made
his way over to Caesar, pulled him aside, and made a big show of whispering something
in his ear. Cassius and Decimus and Casca watched with
their hearts in their throats. Maybe they should just do it now. Maybe Decimus should go get his gladiators. But it was nothing. Laenas walked away, and everybody started
making their way inside. On cue, the conspirator Trebonius pulled Marc
Antony aside for a private word. Caesar entered the temple and took a seat
in his special golden chair/throne. As this was a Senate meeting, his bodyguards
remained outside. Under normal circumstances Antony would be
sitting only a few paces away, but for the moment he was still outside with Trebonius. This particular Senate meeting was pretty
poorly attended. Of the 900 or so potential attendees, only
2 to 300 actually showed up. Of this 2 to 300, 60 were in on the conspiracy. That’s what… 20 to 30%? Massive. It’s no wonder that people were talking. A signal was given, and a bunch of conspirators
rose to their feet and moved toward Caesar. Tillius Cimber loudly asked Caesar to consider
pardoning his brother, an ex-Pompeian who had fled after the Civil War. As Cimber made his appeal, the rest of the
conspirators slowly fanned out and formed a perimeter. Still seated, Caesar answered Cimber, saying
that his brother had shown no contrition or remorse whatsoever, and so no, he wouldn’t
be pardoning him any time soon. By the time Caesar was done speaking, Casca
was standing directly behind him. Suddenly, Cimber reached out and grabbed Caesar’s
toga, yanking it hard, exposing his bare shoulder. This was the predetermined signal to attack. Casca immediately drew his dagger and stabbed
down as hard as he could. He missed. The dagger grazed Caesar’s shoulder, and drew
a bit of blood. Caesar grappled with Casca, shouting, “CASCA,
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Another version has Caesar shouting, “THIS
IS VIOLENCE!” A quick reminder that Caesar and Casca had
known each other since childhood. Conspirator and non-conspirator alike were
frozen in shock. Caesar and Casca were engaged in a little
tug of war, but nobody moved to help either one of them. For several long moments, nothing happened. Casca finally cried out in Greek, “brother,
help me!” Casca’s brother Titiedius sprang forward,
which broke the spell. Suddenly, the room was a flurry of activity. Caesar was able to rise to his feet and get
free of Casca. The first person he saw was Cassius, who drew
his blade and slashed Caesar in the face. Caesar backed away, right into Casca’s brother
Titiedius, who stabbed him between the ribs. Two non-conspirators rushed forward to help
Caesar, but the conspirators forming the perimeter held them back. The rest of the conspirators then pushed in,
attacking wildly. Decimus delivered a nasty wound to Caesar’s
thigh. Cassius then struck for a second time, but
amid all the pushing and shoving his dagger was deflected and he ended up hitting Brutus
with friendly fire, stabbing him in the hand. Eventually, Caesar’s leg wound got to the
better of him, and he fell to the ground. Brutus came forward, hand still dripping with
blood, and hunched down over the Dictator. Caesar spoke in Greek. “You too, my child?” Brutus stabbed Caesar between the legs. Those were Caesar’s last words. He pulled his toga up over his face to preserve
his last shred of dignity, and he died. Coincidentally, Caesar’s body had come to
rest directly underneath the statue of Pompey. Now that the deed was done, many of the conspirators
suddenly found their courage and took turns stabbing Caesar’s corpse. They would be part of the assassination, if
only symbolically. Even with this extra bit of postmortem stabbing,
Caesar only sustained a total of 23 wounds. That means that the vast majority of the conspirators
just stood around and watched the assassination. In fact, using the ancient sources, we can
confidently track five of Caesar’s wounds. #1, from Casca, to the shoulder. #2, from Cassius, to the face. #3, from Casca’s brother Titiedius, between
the ribs. #4, from Decimus, to the thigh.
and #5, from Brutus, to the groin. It’s very possible that these five people
were the only ones who struck Caesar while he was still alive. The remaining 18 stabbings may all have been
postmortem. Earlier I said that the conspiracy was arguably
too large, but maybe I was wrong. When the big moment came, an many as 90% of
the conspirators did nothing. Later examination of Caesar’s body revealed
that of his 23 wounds, 22 were superficial, and only 1 was fatal. The fatal wound was stabbing #3, the shot
between the ribs delivered by Casca’s brother Titiedius. The assassination was over in like a minute. Many Senators never even got a chance to leave
their seats. Silenced filled the room. Marcus Brutus, his hands covered in blood,
both Caesar’s and his own, was the first to move. He approached the seated Senators, pointed
to one Senator in particular, and shouted, “CONGRATULATIONS, CICERO! YOU’VE REGAINED YOUR LIBERTY!”

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