The Assassination of Julius Caesar

An oil on canvas painting depicting the murder of Julius Caesar by Karl von Piloty in 1865. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Caesar was one of the most powerful and influential men of all time. His great conquests and powerful military presence shaped the modern world, and some of the scars from his wars can still be seen in modern-day Gaul. Caesar’s military legacy and iron-fisted way of getting things done will certainly continue to be marked down in history for as long as humanity understands the value of military and political might. However, with great power often comes great responsibility, and, in this case, great danger. When any man is as popular and influential as Caesar was in his time, he is sure to be hated, and jealousy from his peers should simply be considered an inevitability. 1

Caesar was not exactly the ideal political figure, nor did he initially have a great interest in politics. Instead, he had a mentor, named Apollonius Molon, a Greek philosopher who taught him everything he knew. From Molon, Caesar learned a variety of political skills that led to his success later down the road. One of his greatest successes was as a prominent military general in Rome, which quickly allowed him to gain significant popularity among the people and become a prominent politician. One of these great military feats that gained Caesar’s popularity was his conquest of Gaul. Although this conquest originally appeared impossible to most Romans, Caesar defied all expectations and, using all of his skills, was ultimately able to lead his soldiers to victory, making a name for himself back in Rome. Another success that helped Julius Caesar gain popularity was his order regarding the rebuilding of Carthage, which was held in great regard by the Roman people.2 The new city of Carthage eventually became the second-largest city in Rome’s territory.

Caesar also was known for being a man who had a heart for the poor, and he often tried to do his best to help the poor out by giving individual families land and other valuable gifts. Caesar was gaining so much popularity at such a rapid pace that he began to overwhelm the whole of Rome with his personality and make the Senate like him even less. Around this time, the rich in Rome started to gain even more wealth off of the backs of the poor. As life for the average Roman citizen steadily worsened, more and more struggles began to arise for this class of Romans.3 Caesar was elected to serve for one year as consul in the Republic in 59 BC. Caesar then got himself appointed as governor of Gaul, which he proceeded to conquer over the next several years.

“La clémence de César,” a painting of Julius Caesar by Abel de Pujol in 1808. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

One of the biggest events that garnered Caesar a great wealth of popularity from the Roman people (and hate from the Senate) was when he defied the Senate’s order to return to Rome but to leave his army in Gaul.4 Caesar committed treason by illegally taking his army across the Rubicon River in 49 BCE. The ensuing civil war was relatively short-lived, however, as Caesar quickly defeated Pompey’s army, which was his main opposition. Caesar had successfully staged a coup. His unchecked power led to worry and jealousy from many members of the Senate, including his close associates.5

After winning the civil war, Caesar spent a few years in Egypt and Asia before returning to Rome. When Caesar finally returned to Rome, he focused most of his efforts on his political career and the way that the people of Rome viewed him and his actions. Though he sometimes appeared to respect Republican ideals, there was not a single person in Rome who could have mistaken Caesar for a friend of the Republic. This was a problem because other members of the Senate of Rome became jealous of the immense power Caesar held in Rome. But he appointed two of his most loyal generals—Gaius Trebonius and Gaius Fabius—to serve in his place as consul when he became dictator. This obvious usurpation of power was not without consequence, as issues between Caesar and other members of the Senate increased following the fact that he did not even bother to allow people to vote.6 However, all of these events were leading up to a grand singularity which would finally push the potential assassins of Julius Caesar over the edge. This event was most likely the single thing that brought the assassination of Julius Caesar into the realm of possibility. The main act took place in late January or early February of 44 B.C., when the Senate officially named Caesar Dictator in Perpetuo“—that is, “Dictator in Perpetuity.”7 Which means that though Caesar was already dictator he claimed this title for life. The main issue that many of the members of the Senate had with Caesar was that he was basically a king with a different title. 

Julius Caesar full body statue in Via Dei For Imperiali, Rome. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The bloody assassination of Julius Caesar was started by men who were very close to Caesar. These men agreed that, in killing Caesar, they were not committing treason, but saving the Roman Republic. Regardless of the reasoning, the conspirators were convinced that Caesar had to die. A few of the conspirators even floated the idea of killing Labienus and Mark Antony, two of Caesar’s most loyal followers. Brutus ultimately decided that this was not a good idea, and argued that if they killed anyone else it would be harder for them to gain the hearts and minds of the public—to convince them that their actions were made out of necessity rather than treason. Multiple documents that were written around the time period claim that an estimate of sixty men were involved in the plot.8These conspirators had a small time frame to come up with a plan to attack Caesar, as they needed to attack him before he left Rome with his army on March 18th, 44 BC. One major issue that they faced was getting Caesar away from any form of protection. Although Caesar technically didn’t have bodyguards, he had loyal supporters and friends who would undoubtedly defend him. Caesar had received warnings that these men were conspiring against him and planning to assassinate him prior to the Senate meeting, but he did not take these risks seriously. He failed to recognize the significance of the claims because he was a soldier and took pride in his courage. It was on March 15th that all of the group’s conspiring would pay off, as there was Senate meeting, and the conspirators saw their chance to take action. Caesar originally decided to stay home, sending Antony to the meeting in his place, but Decimus Brutus was able to convince Caesar to go to the meeting. When Caesar arrived, the conspirators began to cause commotion in an attempt to distract Caesar and get close to him. However, when it came time to attack, the conspirators realized that they had forgotten to determine who would stab Caesar first. Though it is unknown which conspirator stabbed Caesar first one of these men grabbed the clothing Caesar was wearing to get his attention then stabbed him, and all the other conspirators followed. So it was, on that morning on March 15th, 44 BC, the conspirators killed Caesar, stabbing him twenty-three times.9

Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painted depiction of the death of Caesar. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The conspirators believed that, after Caesar’s death, the people of Rome would rally behind them as liberators, but this was not so. The senators who were not involved in the assassination fled and hid because they were not sure if they were next, and the residents of Rome were not sure what was to come. What followed was the establishment of the Second Triumvirate, and the new triumvirs had all of Caesar’s assassins killed.10

 

  1. Zvi Yavetz, Julius Caesar and His Public Image (London: Cornell University Press, 1983), 62-68.
  2. John H. Collins, “Caesar as a Political Propagandist,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt 1.1(1972): 922–966.
  3. Holmes, T. Rice, The Roman Republic and the Founder of the Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923), 20-23.
  4. Andrew M. Riggsby, Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006), 87.
  5. Valerius Haprocration, Civil War, with the Anonymous Alexandrian, African, and Spanish Wars (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2006),112-114.
  6. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, 2010, s.v. “Rome,” by Michael Gagarin.
  7. Barry S. Strauss, The Death of Caesar: the Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016), 50.
  8. Barry S. Strauss, The Death of Caesar: the Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016), 58.
  9. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, 2010, s.v. “Rome,” by Michael Gagarin.
  10. Barry S. Strauss, The Death of Caesar: the Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016),23-27.

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17 Responses

  1. For some reason I’ve always been fascinated with Julius Caesar and this article really helped bring a different perspective to his killing. Everyone knows about Caesar being stabbed and killed but I think this article did a good job of explaining what happened before his death and the planning of how it would occur. I think it’s ironic how they did all this planning but no one planned on who would stab him first but ultimately his death was in the name of Rome, which would be hard to argue and defend today.

  2. I guess it is always hard to think on the ancient times and ponder on the people’s thoughts, on what the regular citizen could view in the republic, in a dictatorship. I always wondered what could the everyday Roman have felt when they heard that a man was killed in the name of a vague concept, not in the name of glory, or in the honor of greatness, but in the name of stability, in the name of a sort of democracy, in the name of a system that attempted to legalize inequality and discrimination. Would a Roman of the time prefer a sympathetic character as Caesar or a large list of names that were supposed to represent a whole country? In such a question I find democracy, as a controversy, as a women looking at their starving children, unable to complain to a dictator, to a false republic, to a fake democracy. Democracy has certainly been a long battle for humanity, and it still is to this day, I am sure.

  3. Im am not too sure what kind of a leader Caesar was. Although from this reading I am lead to believe he was extreme popular and looked out for the poor. The great warrior hero did not deserve such a death. However to some extent his pride or ego did get the best of him as the case with many great heroes. I say this because he was warned of this plot against him but dismissed it as not possible. Politics is a dirty game this is yet another example of how violent it can get.

  4. The assassination of Julius Ceasar was one of the most devastating times in this era of history, due to the magnitude that was Julius Ceasar! I am so glad that the author mentioned the true highlights fo Julius, while also including why so many individuals may have become jealous over him too. The final deposition leading up the Ceasras death really was detailed in a great fashion! The author really put the scene together visually and allowed for me (and hopefully others) to envision how exactly these men must have assured themselves of doing the right thing for “ROME.”

  5. What I found most intriguing was that Julius Cesar was killed by people close to him and in a way he should have seen some someone in his group that was jealous of the attention he was getting and being praised like a god. Also, being stabbed in a Senate meeting obviously made it more suspicious that a few of his men were definitely conspiring against him. The things Cesar could have changed if he was still alive are endless, but sadly his life was cut short by the jealousy of others.

  6. It is incredible what people will do to keep their power, none more than Roman politician. Understandable for the Roman Senate did sow never allow a king to rule over Rome again. One of them, Brutus, claimed how one of his ancestors was the one who lead the revolt against the last king. However, it’s strange that they failed to understand how popular Ceaser was amongst the people. It a great mystery what would have happened if Ceasar was not assassinated.

  7. Julius Caesar was a man who achieved many feats and it is a shame he went out the way he did. It was interesting to read that he was killed by people who were close to him and formed a twisted logical reason for killing him. Also, despite being “close” to him they had stabbed him 23 times, from reading they article definitely seemed like jealous of Caesar and wanted the power for themselves.

  8. This article does an excellent job connecting the biography of Caesar with the last moments of his life. Although I have already studied in high school much of the history of the murder of Julio Caesar, I did not know facts like a mentor, the philosopher Apollonius Mollon. On the other hand I did not know that historical data confirm the participation of 60 people in the plot.

  9. I firmly believe that the death of Julius Caesar was one of the greatest tragedies in Classical history. To have a man with such potential for greatness cut down over petty jealousy was short sighted and foolish. It is clear from his conquest of Gaul and his victory of the revolution against Pompey that he would have easily ushered Rome into a Glory that even Caesar Augustus couldn’t have matched.

  10. Oh the irony that the individuals who killed Caesar were killed right after the Second Triumvirate was formed. This even is so big to underline and highlight the level of jealousy and greed politics have been for centuries. Just as with Kings and Queens, decades have shown that politicians and politics have driven people to care about their own wealth and their own lives instead of what it was implemented for. A voice for the people and to care for the people. Julius Caesar was a military man, was taught politics from someone else, but was loved by the people and cared for the people. His death was due to politicians knowing their wealth and their stature will diminish when he became dictator. He rose to dictator by the work he put into, not the money or bribes that compared to the senate. Just like in today’s society. The political system became corrupts with politicians who cared about the money they gained and what placed them into the wealthy stature.

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