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The Assassination that Set the Template

Mary Beard

The murder of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44 BCE – the ‘Ides of March’ in the Roman calendar – is the world’s most famous assassination. It set the pattern for the future. For many of the Roman emperors who followed Caesar likewise came to violent ends (it was a rarity for the rulers of the Roman world to die in their beds). And it has set the template for political killing ever since. It was no accident that in 1865 the assassins of Abraham Lincoln chose ‘Ides’ as their secret code word.

But, famous as it was, this defining moment of political violence was in many ways a botched job. The assassins – a motley group of high-minded libertarians, who objected on principle to Caesar’s ‘dictatorship’, and political chancers, who were out for their own ends – were singularly inefficient. They killed the intended target, but in the process wounded many of their own allies in what we would call ‘friendly fire’. Despite some of their over-confident claims, they did not have widespread backing from the population at large. Many ordinary Romans were devastated by the death of the man they saw as their hero; and the story goes that one particular group of the plebs was confused, upset and very angry when they streamed out of a gladiatorial show very soon after the murder, only to bump into Caesar’s corpse being hurried away by a few loyal followers, the dead man’s arms awkwardly hanging down from the litter on which he was carried. More important, the whole murderous moment was too little too late. The assassins may have imagined they were saving Rome from one-man-rule. In fact, their deed led directly to a series of civil wars that brought about exactly that: one-man-rule for the rest of Roman time. As often in human history, it was easy enough to get rid of an autocrat, harder to get rid of autocracy itself.

Julius Caesar is the best-known name in Roman history. He has given us some of the common catch-phrases of political life (‘crossing the Rubicon’) and some still familiar Latin slogans (‘Veni. Vidi. Vici’, but not ‘Et tu Brute?’ – that was Shakespeare’s invention). And some of the major events of his career even now stand out in the history of the West: the brutally successful conquest of Gaul, which was deemed mass genocide even by some Romans; the civil war that he waged on his political enemies in the city (effectively declared when he marched, with his army, across that famous river Rubicon, which marked the boundary between the province of Gaul and Italy, and onto the city of Rome itself); and, after his victory in that war, the gradual subversion of the traditional democratic structures of Rome, eventually, in the last months of his life, being made ‘Dictator for Life’, the precursor of the long line emperors that were to follow him. Much less clear (even though – or perhaps because – his own accounts of some of these events survive) are Caesar’s aims, motivations and precise political ambitions.

An old man lies dead, while people cover their hands with his blood. A crowd looks on
The assassination of Julius Caesar was a watershed moment in the history of the Roman Empire

One view has always been that Caesar was out for nothing more than personal power for its own sake, and the protection of his own status and position. In pursuit of that aim, and to get his own way, he was prepared to invade his country, rather than being humiliatingly recalled from Gaul by his political rivals. He was also prepared to exploit the backing of the people at large out of nothing more than self-interest – and for that reason also to undermine the fragile democracy that was then Rome’s system of government. Some modern and ancient writers have even claimed that he was determined to make himself a living god on earth. Others have seen a much more high-minded ideological programme behind Caesar. On this view, although born an aristocrat (into what was then a rather faded family), he was a major participant in the loaded political debates of the first century BC – between on the one hand an arrogant and exploitative (albeit in some form democratic) elite and on the other those who backed the interests of the disadvantaged, the excluded and the ‘left behind’. To follow this line, Caesar’s invasion of Rome and his violent confrontation with the Roman governing class was, at least in part, in the interests of the people. If democracy was overridden, it was a version of democracy that was little more than a corrupt form of elite power-sharing. Caesar may have fixed the elections to political office, but it was in the interests of bringing benefits to the poor, of clearing slums, of creating new towns, and sharing the profits of Rome’s vast, and still growing, empire more widely.

There have always been different judgments on Caesar’s career: was he the self-interested autocrat or the brave reformer prepared to take on privilege of the old elite?  Equally disputed are the motives of the assassins. Most of them were personal friends, even if long-term political rivals, of Caesar and their official slogan was ‘liberty’, proclaiming the freedom supposedly enshrined in the traditional structures of government against the domination of an autocrat. This was summed up on the coin issued by Brutus shortly after the assassination, which proclaimed the date of the murder (‘Ides of March’) and depicted a pair of daggers flanking a small round hat. The hat (the ‘cap of liberty’) was a well-known Roman symbol, given to slaves if and when they were granted their freedom. The message here was obvious: Rome had been liberated by the murder of Caesar (hence the daggers), winning its freedom as if it had been enslaved. But some, at least, were members of a conservative clique, driven by the desire to protect their own sectional interests. It was not popular freedom they were up-holding, it was their own freedom (or licence) to continue to enjoy, and profit from, their privileged position at the top of the Roman social and political hierarchy.

A man and a woman, dressed in outdoor clothes, sit at a table and talk
The conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar found that 'it was easy enough to get rid of an autocrat, harder to get rid of autocracy itself' (pictured: Ben Whishaw)

The figure of Brutus sums up this ambivalence. Shakespeare has bequeathed to us an image of this assassin as a man of high moral standards, the noblest of killers. That was certainly one side of his Roman image too. But sharply conflicting stories circulated about him. One of the most notorious aspects of Brutus’ earlier career in Roman accounts was his exploitation of the provincial population of Cyprus, lending out money at 48 per cent interest (extortionate even by Roman standards, and arguably illegal). And as if to parade the ambivalence of his motives in getting rid of Caesar, the very same coin that displayed on one side the daggers and cap of liberty, on the other displayed the head of Brutus himself. We now take for granted the presence of rulers on coinage: it is a feature of monarchy that the head of the monarch will lodge in our pockets and purses. But Julius Caesar was the first living person in the West systematically to have his head cast into the currency, and that was taken as a clear symbol of autocracy. The coinage issued by Brutus sent irreconcilably incompatible signals: decorated on one side with the symbols of liberty, on the other with those of autocracy.

These conflicting views may help to explain the fact that Caesar’s assassins had no forward plan after the killing itself. For a few weeks, both sides – Caesar’s supporters and his murderers alike – tried to pretend that it was pretty much business as usual. Almost as if nothing had happened, Brutus and Cassius took over the governorship of provinces in the East. But inevitably the conflict was soon rekindled – leading to almost 15 years’ of renewed civil war.  It is one of the most densely complicated and bloody periods of Roman history: first the supporters of Caesar, as we see in Shakespeare’s play, defeated the forces of the assassins. Then Caesar’s supporters turned on each other, in series of shifting factions, alliances and liaisons – in which first Lepidus was marginalised, then Octavius and Antony (now living with and fighting alongside Cleopatra) challenged each other.

The final conflict came at the naval battle of Actium off what is now the north Greek coast. Clearly losing, Antony and Cleopatra scuttled back to Egypt, leaving Octavius the ruler of the Roman world. It is perhaps the sequel that is the most surprising turn of all. The brutal, ambitious and frankly thuggish heir of Caesar that we see in Shakespeare’s play somehow transformed himself into a safe pair of hands, even a respected elder statesman, changing his name in the process from Octavius to Augustus (an invented name that means something close to ‘Revered One’). And 40 years later, in 14 CE, the longest reigning Roman emperor ever, having learned well the dangers of autocracy and having established the structures of imperial rule that would last for centuries, he died – peacefully in his bed.

Mary Beard, January 2018

Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, Fellow of Newnham College and author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile Books).

This article was originally published in the production’s programme.

Photos by Manuel Harlan.

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