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The Ides of March

David Stuttard

David Stuttard

Today’s date, March 15th, will forever be associated with the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BC, an event of undoubted historical significance made more heroic thanks, in part, to the pen of William Shakespeare.

Yet it was a squalid act: ill thought-out; messily executed; chaotically followed-through.  Ostensibly the assassins, Brutus, Cassius et al, wanted to prevent Caesar from taking on the title and the role of ‘rex’, king. But Caesar had already publicly refused to accept the symbolic crown which his fellow consul, Mark Antony, had offered him at the Lupercal Festival earlier in the year.

Admittedly, Caesar had shown himself to be impatient with the sluggishly slow Senate, which had seemed set to impede his long overdue reforms, including his overhaul of the calendar and his ambitious building programme. For a general used to his word being law, it must have been frustrating. For time-serving politicians used to the security of the status quo, it must have been all too unsettling.

No doubt many of those politicians put their shoulders to the rumour-mill which began to grind out scandalous stories of how, in the senate house, Caesar now sat on a golden throne, of how his statue stood in line beside those of the ancient kings, of how a ceremonial chariot and litter carried Caesar’s effigy in ceremonials around the hippodrome. It was as if he thought himself an eastern king; and it did not help that he was seen to be consorting with the Egyptian Cleopatra.

For in March 44BC, Cleopatra was in town, ensconced in one of Caesar’s leafy villas across the Tiber from Rome, and with her she had their young son Caesarion. But in a few days, Caesar was due to leave Italy to campaign against the Parthians, a notoriously dangerous enemy who had already vanquished Caesar’s erstwhile colleague Crassus. Speculation grew among the senators that one of their number was intending to use a conveniently discovered prophecy, that Parthia could be defeated only be a king, to hasten Caesar’s elevation. As the days slipped past, they found themselves faced with an appalling dilemma: to risk letting Caesar accrue even greater glory for himself in Parthia (where, on the other hand, he might equally well suffer ignominious defeat like the unfortunate Crassus) or take matters into their own hands and put a stop to him before he went. They chose the latter course.

In a meeting room attached to Pompey’s theatre-complex, they surrounded him and butchered him. As news rippled out across the city, a ghastly numbness shrouded Rome.  No-one knew who next would feel the edge of the assassins’ knives. For all that day and the next night, all who had been of Caesar’s circle hid behind locked, barricaded doors, listening for any sound which might suggest the footfall of approaching danger. It never came.

The assassins had not thought beyond the act itself. In the days which followed they allowed themselves time and again to be wrong-footed by the nimble Mark Antony, whose theatrical oration at Caesar’s funeral in the Forum, ignited the fury of the crowd. Gangs of men ran through the alleyways, making for the houses of those known to have been part of the conspiracy.  They found them empty.  Brutus, Cassius and the rest had seen the future and had fled.

In the end, the assassins had precipitated the very monarchy they had sought to avoid. In his will, Caesar had named his nephew Octavius as his heir, and in time, his enemies defeated, and taking as his title Augustus, he would become the first of a long line of emperors who would rule Rome for more than 400 years.
31 BC revised_page 21
The story of Caesar’s assassination is told in 31BC, Antony, Cleopatra and the Fall of Egypt, to be published by The British Museum Press in May 2012

Category: History

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