This week in history: The assassination of Julius Caesar

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 13 2015 2:31 a.m. MDT

This is an undated sketch of Julius Caesar, Roman general and statesman.  (, ASSOCIATED PRESS) This is an undated sketch of Julius Caesar, Roman general and statesman. (, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

On March 15, 44 B.C., the infamous Ides of March saw the Roman dictator Julius Caesar assassinated by a conspiratorial group of Roman senators.

By 44 B.C., the Roman republic stretched from Spain to Palestine and from France to North Africa. Its heart, however remained the city of Rome. Indeed, in many respects the Roman government was little more than a city government dominating the Mediterranean world. Despite this, the republic proved an effective and relatively efficient form of government.

Though different assemblies served as democratic institutions for the mass of Romans, the Senate operated as the hub of Roman government. At its top sat two consuls, two executive officers elected annually who acted as commanders-in-chief of the military and also exercised important judicial, legislative and religious functions. The Romans were weary of giving any one man too much power, lest he make himself into a king.

However, the wheels of the republic often moved slowly, largely because many offices held the power to veto any legislation. When change did happen, it occurred slowly. In times of emergency, then, the republic would give a man special powers by naming him dictator. Once the Senate conferred this title, the dictator had absolute power within the state for six months, or until the crisis was resolved. As the republic grew more and more powerful, the need for dictators became less.

By the first century B.C., however, several social and economic factors were serving to undermine the republic. Chief among these was the question of land reform. With the ruling patrician class grabbing for more and more land, there was little left in Italy for retired soldiers or any other small-hold farmer. Additionally, many tribes throughout Italy wanted citizenship in the republic, something the Roman Senate was generally not interested in granting.

From 91 to 88 B.C, the Social War saw Rome battling many Italian tribes over these and other issues. Out of this war emerged Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who marched an army upon Rome after being snubbed for command of a military expedition to the east. Sulla then proclaimed himself dictator, setting a dangerous precedent. The first dictator in more than 100 years, Sulla voluntarily retired in 81 B.C.

Not long after Sulla's retirement, two of his followers, and rivals to each other, became the leading lights of the republic — Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) and Marcus Licinius Crassus. The two made common cause but decided they needed another voice from an opposing political party to cement their domination of Rome. They chose Julius Caesar because of his standing among Rome's lower classes. Together, the three created a political alliance that historians refer to as the First Triumvirate.

After serving as consul, Caesar took up the post of governor of Gaul (France) in the hopes of winning military glory and vast sums of wealth. Caesar soon met with success, and Pompey and Crassus began to grow jealous. Crassus launched his own campaign into Parthia, where he was eventually murdered during negotiations with the enemy. The political alliance between Caesar and Pompey began to decline after the death of Caesar's daughter, who was also Pompey's wife.

In January 49 B.C., Caesar defied an order from the Senate not to cross the Rubicon River into Italy from Gaul. This amounted to a declaration of war upon the Senate. Unable to hold the city, Pompey and many senators fled to build up an army and challenge Caesar's power. Caesar soon took Rome, and contrary to the vengeful and bloodthirsty Sulla, Caesar offered amnesty to his political enemies.

In his book, “Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic,” historian Tom Holland wrote of Caesar's generosity to those who opposed him: “Not only did it satisfy his own ineffable sense of superiority, but it helped to reassure neutrals everywhere that he was no second Sulla. Even his bitterest enemies, if they only submitted, could have the assurance that they would be pardoned and spared.”

Eventually, Caesar emerged triumphant in the civil war, and Pompey was murdered while seeking asylum in Egypt. Most of the senators returned to Rome, with the promise that Caesar would exact no reprisals upon them. With his domination over the city and the Senate complete, Caesar eventually was given the title of perpetual dictator, though he was careful to reject the offer of a crown when publicly offered. As much as Romans may have loved Caesar, the one thing they could not abide was the thought of a king.

Many senators secretly despised Caesar, believing that he had destroyed the republic through his actions. Marcus Junius Brutus had been a senator and friend to Caesar for years, though he had sided against him when Caesar marched on Rome. He had taken Caesar's amnesty when he returned to Rome, though his convictions demanded he continue to oppose Caesar secretly.

Writing in the 1st century A.D., the Roman historian Suetonius tells us Caesar had been warned by an augur named Spurinna that a great danger would befall him by the Ides of March. On that day he said condescendingly to the prophet, “The Ides of March have come.” To which Spurinna replied, “Yes, they have come, but they have not yet gone.”

Suetonius goes on to describe the assassination on the floor of the Senate: “As soon as Caesar took his seat, the conspirators crowded around him as if to pay their respects. Tillius Cimber, who had taken the lead, came up close, pretending to ask a question. Caesar made a gesture of postponement, but Cimber caught hold of his shoulders. 'This is violence!' Caesar cried, and at that moment, as he turned away, one of the Casca brothers with a sweep of his dagger stabbed him just below the throat ….”

The conspirators then leaped upon Caesar and plunged their daggers down as well. Suetonius states that there were 23 dagger wounds in all upon the dictator, and then wrote: “Caesar did not utter a sound after Casca's blow had drawn a groan from him; though some say that when he saw Marcus Brutus about to deliver the second blow, he reproached him in Greek with: 'You, too, my child?’ ”

The death of Caesar only ushered in a new series of civil wars between the conspirators and those loyal to the memory of Caesar, notably Mark Antony and Caesar's adopted son, Octavian. Eventually Antony and Octavian would fight each other, and upon his victory Octavian would proclaim himself Augustus and usher in the period of the Roman Empire. The day of the Roman Republic as it had been was over.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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