On the night before her husband would be killed, Calpurnia Pisonis dreamed that he lay dying in her arms, pierced with stab wounds, both of them weeping on the fallen ruins of an ornamental temple. Her husband, the Dictator, was a man who had conquered the majority of the State’s territories; who had declared war on the very representatives of the People, and had subdued the Senate and the People of Rome to become King-in-all-but-name: the Supreme Authority, the dictator perpetuo.
The man, of course, was Julius Caesar. On the 15th of March, 44 years before the birth of Christ, he was to be killed in a conspiracy consisting of over 40 Senators (although the historian Suetonius reports that 60 took part), each fearing not only his supreme and unchallenged legal power, but also the immense popularity he enjoyed amongst the hoi polloi; the vulgar mob which had thus far so effectively been controlled and subjugated by the elitist mechanics of Roman Democracy.
The exact details of the day are sketchy and often contradictory. This is what we (think) we know. Caesar had been warned time and time again of his impending doom, whether through astral omens, dreams and visions or delirious flocks of birds, but it appears (if they ever took place) he took little notice of them. The most famous, of course, was that warned by Spurinna, a stinking hag, an auger who had the appearance of a crumbling anchorite and spat out her famous dictum over the disembowled carcass of a lamb (commonly used for finding omens): ‘Beware, Lord, the Ides of March’. She was ignored, unsurprisingly. Who could not laugh at this classical equivalent of a bag-lady?
So it was that on the morning of his death, only a slight hesitation hindered Caesar before he set out to greet the Senators, the kind of jolted superstition that overtakes someone and stops them on the edge of walking under a ladder, or opening an umbrella indoors. We do not know if Marcus Antonius (or Mark Antony) knew of the plot, although some sources report that he attempted to make contact with Caesar, having heard rumours that his master was to be assassinated by the leading Republican fanatics of the Senate. Whether or not this attempt took place, we know that he failed to make contact with Caesar before his death.
As he passed along the viae and the various thoroughfares leading to where the Sentors had gathered, thought to be located either in the Campus Maritus or the Curia itself, Caesar was handed a warning by one of the swarming crowd along with the vast and various other petitions given to him. He did not read it, or it was ignored, and he continued his journey. A group of senators intercepted Caesar just as he was passing the , located in the (now adjacent to the ), and directed him to a room adjoining the east portico; a place prepared for the Senatorial meeting of the day.
He was now in the presence of his murderers- many were involved with the conspiracy, most were aware of it, and no-one would hinder it. There was only silence as he took his seat, distanced from the Senators, raised slightly above them too, so that he was able to regard them below him. They rose, as if to greet him in a general adulation that the Dictator would have expected from loyal counsel. And yet, perhaps Caesar noticed something in their faces, or maybe he realised there were no he was entirely surrounded by the Senators –quite silent and looking very gently at each other from side to side, as if a single, charged thought ran between them – but the Dictator did not rise to greet them.
Our sources are muddled and confused, but all agree that it was Senator Lucius Tillius Cimber who made the first move, approaching the grand-man to present what appeared to be a petition. Caesar stood gently, balancing his left hand on the edge of his chair, and halted Cimber with his left hand, shaking very slightly, and raised very slowly. Perhaps he sensed danger, perhaps he feared proximity, we will never know
It is then that it began. It is reported that Cimber seized a moment when the Dictator turned to his side to view the Senators now moving gradually behind him, and lunged forward to embrace him and bring him to the floor. He grabbed Caesar and, failing to put the full force of his weight behind him and push his body, managed only to pull down the top of his tunic on his shoulders. Caesar was able to wrestle him off and stumble away from the chair to closer face the Senators, his accusers, his murderers. Then, they drew their weapons and were upon him.
From all the chaos, he discerned one single figure: Marcus Brutus, both his closest friend and the man who orchestrated his murder. We all know this part, don’t we? Seeing him, Caesar quite simply asked et tu, Brute? (even you, Brutus?) and then was murdered. And yet, there is startlingly little evidence that he ever said those words. There are in fact, like most aspects of this story, multiple and conflicting accounts. By far my favourite is that of Plutarch, who records that Caesar initially fought and struggled viciously against his attackers. Upon seeing his friend amongst his murderers however, Caesar, overcome with grief, ceased resisting, covered his face with his tunic so as to block the sight of Brutus form his eyes, and resigned himself to his fate.
No assassination in ancient or modern times has changed course of history quite so much as that of Julius Caesar. In the years following his death, Rome was once again consumed by civil strife and conflagration. A series of unstable governments, dictators and triumvirs took the position of supreme power in Rome. It took one young boy, a pimply but ambitious adolescent, to bring order to such startling chaos, and to become, in essence, the first Emperor. Octavian took the names of Caesar from his adopted uncle, and was bestowed the name Augustus by his Senate. Every subsequent Emperor would take the name of Caesar to remind them that they stood in the stead of the greatest Roman of all time. In the years following Caesar’s demise, Rome would become the largest power on earth- a quarter of the human population lived under the rule of the Senate and the People of that great city. Caesar’s death marks the beginning of that era and, in a way, the end of Roman liberty as it was known. Never again would a perpetual dictator be questioned (although assassination became no less popular as a means of disposing a Roman ruler), or would the subjugation of the Senate to an individual be thought a violation of Roman principle. Caesar won; his name lived on and he was worshipped across the Empire as a deity alongside Jove Almighty himself. He ultimately remains the original and most famous warning to all those who attempt to exercise unlimited power, but refuse to call it that; who rule as tyrants, but still insist on deeming their subjects free.
By Michael Roderick