I find it very telling that on March 13, 44 B.C., just two days before the planned assassination of Julius Caesar, the driving force behind the plot, Gaius Cassius Longinus , warned his fellow conspirators that, should Caesar uncover their plans, all of them would have to commit suicide. This was not the advice of a ideological leader. Rather, it indicates conspirators haunted with second thoughts. Simply put, there were too many who knew too much. Estimates of members in the plot range up to 40 And to galvanize the plotters and hold them to their purpose, Cassius did not appeal to their patriotism, but to their sense of class. A serf suffers humiliation every day. It is the staff of their lives. But an aristocrat, faced with loss of privilege, prefers death to humiliation. This was the warning Cassius delivered to his nervous conspirators; we succeed or we die. It never seems to have occurred to the privileged forty, that victory could also be fatal.
The object of Cassius' hatred, Giaus Julius Caesar, elected Roman dictator for life, intended on leaving Rome on the 18th. But even Caesar, at 56, must have been daunted at the prospect of campaigning in the Parthian desert, which 12 years before had consumed his old patron Crassus. Every year for the last five years opposition by the Senate aristocrats, first in Italy, then Spain, Greece, Egypt, Anatola, North Africa, and Spain again had forced Caesar into a military campaign. On this day, the Ides of March, which was until this very year, New Years Day, Caesar had intended on staying close to home. The historian Plutarch says he was not feeling well, and everyone agrees his wife was having nightmares Whichever the excuse he used to dissuade his followers, it seems clear he wanted a little down down time. Someone had to get him out of the house, someone close, someone he could not deny.
The obvious choice was Marcus Junius Brutus, the son of Cesar's long time mistress, and so often forgiven by Caesar that it was rumored he must be Caesar's illegitimate son. But Brutus had a new wife at home, Porcia Catonis. They had been married just the year before, in 45 B.C. Porcia was the daughter of the aristocratic Senator Cato, who hated Cesar so much that when cornered in North Africa in 46 B.C., he had chosen suicide. It must have been her, aided by Crassus, who had stiffened Brutus back, and drove him to murder. But even Brutus was not willing to lure Caesar to his death. So that job fell to his younger brother, Decimus Brutus.
On the morning of March 15, 44 B.C., Decimus was welcomed into Caesar's home, and extended an invitation to a gladiatorial display in one of the larger halls at Pompey's theater It was a subject certain to pique Ceasar's interests. Before crossing the Rubicon, Caesar had been checking up on one of his own gladiatorial schools. He agreed to accompany Decimus to the theatre. He had no intention of attending the Senate, even though they were meeting in the Curia Pompey, part of the same complex.
As the pair entered the complex through a side entrance, crowds pushed toward Caesar, forcing petitions into his hands, comments on government policy and requests for assistance. One of the messages handed to Caesar was from his lieutenant, Mark Anthony, warning of rumors concerning the Senate meeting today. Like the others notes handed to Caesar this morning, it would not be opened until it was too late.
Was there a man in the street warning Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March”? Probably, given the depth of religion in the pagan world, there were people wandering the streets of the largest city outside of China, prophesying doom about every dawn, and in particular about the dawn of an abandoned New Years Day. But Caesar had become Dictator by ignoring such ominous warnings. Today the soothsayer was right. The previous ten thousand mornings he had been wrong.
Once inside the walls of Pompey's Theatre, Caesar and Decimus, made their way along the walks toward the meeting room to inspect the gladiators. But as they passed the Curia they were waylaid by Decimus' older brother, Brutus. He urged Caesar to stop in the Curia, to allow the Senate to wish him gods' speed on his invasion of Parthia. Exasperated, Caesar acquiesced, and the three men crossed the portico and entered the temporary Senate Chambers.
As he sat down, Caesar could not have missed the electric tension in the room. But what did it mean? Many were avoiding eye contact with him. A few were looking at their feet, or fingering the daggers hidden in their Senatorial robes. But even those Senators who were not in on the plot must have recognized that something was wrong. And when Senator Lucius Tillus Cimber thrust forward a petition asking that Caesar allow his brother to return from exile, Caesar pushed it away, into the hands of an aide. Whereupon Tillus grabbed the hem of Caesar's toga, and pulled. Caesar pulled away, demanding, “Be careful, there is no need to use force!” As Caesar turned to a guard to seek assistance, Senator and Tribume Publius Servilius Casca Longus, slashed forward, stabbing Caesar in the neck, just missing his throat.
Caesar grabbed Casca's arm and stabbed him with a pen. Startled, Casca screamed, “Help, brother!” As he tried to stand, Caesar was stabbed again. He now realized the aristocrats had surrounded him, and they all had knives. He tried to run, but fell, and was brutally stabbed over and over as he lay on the floor. The autopsy would reveal 23 wounds. So many knives were slashing that Brutus was stabbed by one of his allies.
Rather than being proud of their act, the aristocrats fled the scene as quickly as they could, escaping back inside the city walls, where Cesar's soldiers were not allowed to carry arms. And the abandoned body of Julius Caesar lay a crumpled heap on the floor of the Curia Pompey, his robes soaking in his blood, for three hours. Finally three slaves worked up the courage to gather his corpse, load it on a litter, and carry him home to his wife. Thousands stood in shock to see the body pass on the street, one arm hanging off the litter, uncovered , bouncing to the steps of nervous slaves.
The site of Caesar's murder did not become a shrine. It became a public toilet. Pompey's theatre remained in use for almost 1,500 years. Eventually the large latrine which had shared a wall with Curia was enlarged, and engulfed the spot on the floor Caesar had bled upon. Finally it was walled off and forgotten. And when the theatre, and the latrine, fell on hard times midway through the fifteen century A.D., the populace turned it into a quarry, scavenging building stones for their homes and shops. Even today, those who come to look upon the space where Giaus Julius Caesar died, will find only an arch, and an ancient concrete wall
Within two years most of the aristocratic assassins were dead. Cassius, Casca, Cimber, Brutus - all died by their own hands. A few of the forty were killed in battle, and a few even fought for their lives in the courts, and won. They were allowed to return to Rome and live in somewhat reduced privilege Caesar's will left his fortune to his nephew Octavian, and eventually the boy overturned the rotten remains of the Republic and disposed of the tawdry trappings of its dead democracy, killed by the aristocrats. Octavian became Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. Retroactively, he made his uncle divine. The deceased Julius Caesar had become the thing the aristocrats said the feared the most, a god.
But the dream of a representatives government, giving the people a voice in their own governance, had been set back by 2,000 years.
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