Episode 10 - The death of Julius Caesar

Friday, 14 May 2021 14:54 Written by
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Did Caesar want to be king? We will never know. Maybe he did not know it himself. But his adversaries were sure of it, and an episode confirmed their conviction.

It’s February 15th, 44 BC. It’s the day of the Lupercalia. Lupercalia was one of the most ancient festivals in Rome. It was held each year on February 15th, and it was a bloody, violent and sexually charged celebration: animal sacrifices, random matchmakings and couplings, in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility. Lupercalia was to honour the she-wolf at the origin of Rome and please the Roman fertility god, Lupercus. The rituals traditionally took place on Palatine Hill and within the Roman open-air.

The festival began with sacrificing one or more male goats, symbols of sexuality and fertility, and a dog by priests called Luperci. Afterwards, the foreheads of two naked Luperci were smeared with the animals’ blood using the bloody, sacrificial knife. After the ritual sacrifice, the feasting began, and when it was over, the Luperci cut strips of goat hide from the sacrificed goats and then ran naked (or nearly naked) around the Palatine, whipping any woman within striking distance. Many women welcomed the lashes and even bared their skin to receive the fertility rite. Over time, nakedness during Lupercalia lost popularity. The festival became more chaste, and women were whipped on their hands by fully-clothed men.

In the late 5th century AD, Pope Gelasius I prohibited the pagan celebration of Lupercalia and declared February 14th the day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine instead. However, it’s improbable he intended the day to commemorate love and passion. But Valentine’s Day is not the only festival that presumably comes from the Roman Lupercalia; even the Carnival draws some aspects from these celebrations, such as chaos and purification. 

During the festival, Caesar watched the ceremony on his golden seat in triumphal attire, and Mark Anthony was one of the participants in the race. When Anthony entered the Forum, and the crowd opened before him, he handed Caesar a tiara intertwined with a laurel wreath. There was applause, not roaring but subdued, as if it was prepared. Caesar rejected the crown, and all the people applauded; when Anthony again offered the crown, a few applauded, and again, everyone applauded when Caesar rejected it for the second time.

Seeing these things, the supporters of the republican tradition decided that it was time to take action; they were also encouraged by the seemingly hostile reaction of the people. The plot was cloaked in noble ideals: they said they wanted the death of a tyrant who aspired to the crown, to share it with Cleopatra, then leave it to the bastard Cesarion after moving the capital to Egypt. Had he not erected a statue of himself next to those of the old kings? Hadn't he had his face engraved on new coins? Power was very tempting, and it was better to kill him before he destroyed Rome's freedom and supremacy.

At the beginning of March, the two leaders of the conspiracy, Brutus and Cassius, were informed that at the next Ides, that is, the 15th, Caesar would make the extraordinary announcement. His lieutenant Lucius Cotta would propose to the assembly to proclaim him king because the Sibylla had predicted that only a king could defeat the Parthians, and the popular assembly would approve, of course. The Senate also would approve: Caesar’s recent reform had given the Caesarians a majority. So, the dagger was all that remained before it was too late.

On the morning of the Ides, the 15th of March, while Caesar was dressing up for attending the session of the Senate, his wife Calpurnia told him that she had dreamed of him covered in blood and begged him not to go. But a friend who belonged to the conspiracy came instead to urge him, and Caesar followed him. On the street, a fortune-teller shouted out at him: “Caesar, beware of the Ides of March”; "It’s already the Ides", he replied, "but they are not over yet!" the other said.

At that time, the Senate courtroom was situated outside the Forum, in a building called “Pompey’s Curia”, the area in the centre of Rome has been preserved and is now called Largo Argentina. When he entered, someone put a rolled papyrus in his hands: it was a detailed complaint, but Caesar did not have time to read it. Right after that, the conspirators were all over him with their daggers.

The only one who could defend him, Mark Anthony, had been stopped in the anteroom by Trebonius, a conspirator. Brutus himself had given instructions to keep Anthony away from the scene of the murder, to spare his life. Caesar first tried to shelter with his arm, but he stopped when, among the assassins, he saw Brutus. Suetonius reports that his last words were: "quoque tu, Brute, fili mi", " You too, Brutus, my son", and it’s probably true. He fell, pierced with blows at the foot of the statue of Pompey.

Anthony finally entered the room, he saw the corpse lying on the ground, covered with blood, and everyone expected him to have an outburst of wrath. Instead, the faithful lieutenant fell silent and left. Outside, a crowd grew; the news had already begun to circulate. Fearfully, the conspirators showed themselves on the door, and some of them tried to explain what had happened, justifying it as the triumph of freedom. But the crowd was more and more menacing. The conspirators retreated, they barricaded inside the Capitol, and they sent a message to Mark Anthony to come and get them away.

Anthony came the next day and managed to calm the crowd with a skilful speech in which he asked for the order to be maintained and, in return, he promised that the guilty would be punished. Then he went to Calpurnia, who was annihilated by grief, and had her give him Caesar's will, sealed in an envelope. He handed it over to the Vestals, the priestess of the goddess Vesta, as was the use of Rome, without opening it, so much so that he was sure he would be designated as heir. Right after, he secretly sent to call the troops camped out of town, then he returned to the Senate, and here he delivered a speech, in which he approved the senators' proposal for general amnesty as long as the Senate ratified all projects that Caesar had left incomplete. He also proposed to Cassius and Brutus a governorship that would allow them to leave Rome, and on that evening, he kept them with him for dinner.

On the 18th, Anthony was charged with funeral praise. This was the gravest mistake made by Brutus: earlier, he had left Anthony alive, now he allowed Caesar's funeral honours to take place the way Anthony desired; he had lost control of the situation if ever he had any. The next day, Anthony had the Vestals deliver Caesar’s will; he opened it solemnly before the high offices of the State and gave a public reading of it. Of his private, enormous fortune of about 100 million sestertii, Caesar left a small sum to every Roman citizen and donated his beautiful gardens to the city as a public park.

A great, heartfelt regret took the citizens for their benefactor. When the body was brought into the Forum, Anthony gave the eulogy and seeing that his words moved the crowd, he pathetically grabbed Caesar's robes, soaked with his blood, showed them high, showed the gashes produced by the daggers, all the wounds that Caesar had received. And the ceremony degenerated into chaos.

Caesar had reserved a bitter surprise for Anthony. The rest of the estate was to be divided among his three great-grandchildren; one of the three, Caius Octavius, was adopted as a son and designated as heir. The faithful lieutenant, who had invited the murderers to dinner just 48 hours after the murder of his boss, was thus rewarded for his strange fidelity.

The conspirators were not capable of devising a coherent political action, which would give them the support of the urban populace and Caesar’s veterans, and within a few days, they resolved to abandon Rome. In the following weeks, Anthony proclaimed to follow Caesar's notes and imposed the approval of numerous laws and ordinances favouring soldiers, friends, allies, subjects of the provinces.

In Rome, no one knew this Caius Octavius. His grandmother had been Julia, Caesar's sister. His father had made a decent career and ended up governor in Macedonia. The boy had grown up under an almost Spartan discipline and had studied profitably; uncle Caesar had no legitimate children, despite all the wives he had had, and he had taken Octavius into his house and had become fond of him.

In 45, Caesar had taken Caius with him to Spain when he had gone to eradicate the last followers of Pompey. On that occasion, he had admired the willpower of that young man, fragile in facing labours disproportionate to his health but with such courage in facing the enemy. Caesar had followed his studies and, when Caius was 17, he had entrusted him with a small command in Illyria, to practice militia and leadership. Octavius was still in Illyria when a messenger reached him at the end of March, with the news of the death of his uncle and his will.

He ran to Rome and went to see Mark Anthony: the general treated him with contempt, calling him "little boy". Caius did not take it as an offence, and in return, he calmly asked if the money Caesar had left to citizens and soldiers had been distributed. Anthony replied that there was something more urgent to think about.

But Caius did not lose heart. He contacted the wealthy friends of Caesar, borrowed the funds and had them distributed, as Caesar had ordered. Thus, he gained the favour of Caesar's plebeian followers and veterans, who began to look sympathetically at the “little boy”; even though he was very young, he knew how to behave. Moreover, thanks to the adoption, Caius had now taken the name of Caius Julius Caesar Octavius, a clear reference to his uncle.

Anthony was irritated, and a few days later, he claimed that he had been the victim of an attack and he had heard from the hitman that Octavius had organised the attack. Octavius asked for evidence, and since Anthony could not present it, he reached the two legions he had recalled from Illyria, joined them with those of the two consuls in charge and marched with them against Anthony. He was 18, at the time.

The Senate was on Octavius’ side. The aristocrats were alarmed by Anthony’s bullying: he had plundered the treasure, had arbitrarily occupied Pompey's palace and appointed himself governor of Gallia Cisalpina so that he could hold an army in Italy. The Senate realized that by letting him act freely, soon they would end up with another Caesar, and worse than the original one. And for this, they decided to favour Octavius, a boy they thought they could manoeuvre more easily.

Feeling that he was losing support in Rome, Anthony fled to Gallia Narbonense and here he obtained the support and the legions of Governor Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, also a Caesarian. Both Anthony and Lepidus were then declared public enemies by the Senate.

The clash between the two armies took place near Modena. Octavius’ army prevailed and, moreover, he happened to be the only surviving commander: the two Consuls had fallen, and Anthony, who had been beaten for the first time in his life, had fled. Thus as the “boy” returned to Rome at the head of all the troops stationed in Italy, he went to the Senate and imposed his appointment as consul, together with the annulment of the amnesty for the conspirators of the Ides of March and their death sentence.

Now, even Octavius was getting unpopular with the senators, who realized that he had no intention to be their instrument. So, Octavius summoned Anthony and Lepidus to Bologna and established what has been called “the second triumvirate” with them. He had learnt his uncle's lesson very well.

The three leaders had the popular assembly pass a law by which triumvirs were appointed for the reform of the state with a duration of 5 years, renewed for another 5: they had the right to make laws, appoint magistrates, judge without appeal against their sentences, decide peace and war, assign the land. The Senate bowed. Caesar had died, but absolute power had not: only, it had passed on to the two lieutenants and the dictator's adopted son.

Guards were stationed at all gates of the city, and the great vengeance began. Three hundred senators and 2000 officials were charged with the murder of Caesar, tried and killed, and their assets seized. A bounty was also put on the heads of those who fled, but most preferred to kill themselves, and in the gesture, they had the style of the great ancient Romans. The tribune Salvius, for example, gave a banquet, drank the poison and his last will was for lunch to continue.

The most greedy prey for Anthony was Cicero, the great former consul and senator, who had opposed him. He tried to escape, but Anthony's patrols swooped on him at the port of Formia. Cicero meekly offered his neck, and his decapitated head was carried to the triumvirs, together with his right hand.

Now the two main culprits, Brutus and Cassius, who, as governors of Macedonia and Syria, had joined forces and formed the last army of republican Rome, remained to be punished. The battle took place at Philippi on September 42. Brutus broke Octavian's line, but Anthony broke into Cassius's side. Cassius was killed by an attendant and, after a chase, Brutus also suicided. Anthony searched for his corpse and, when he found it, he pitifully covered it with his purple tunic: he remembered that Brutus had asked the conspirators to spare him.

At this point, the triumvirs divided the territories of the Republic among themselves: Octavian had Europe, Lepidus Africa, and Anthony chose Egypt, Greece and the Middle East. Each of them knew that the accommodation was temporary, each of them hoped to take the other two out, sooner or later. The most confident was Anthony, who believed in military force and knew that he was, as a general, superior to the others.

Caesar had been eliminated, but Caesar's armies remained, and it was the men who led these armies who competed for absolute power. In the years ahead, the power game would be played only between Caesar's adopted son and Caesar's right-hand man, between Octavius and Anthony: now allies against the Senate, soon again rivals and finally open enemies. One thing was sure: the times of the Roman Republic were over.

Read 1651 times Last modified on Monday, 17 May 2021 15:41
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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