When you look back at the assassination of Caesar the parallels to today’s world of politics cannot be ignored. So on this, the Ides of March, it is worth taking a look back at this arguably most infamous political assassination.
Caesar was not killed so much for what he had done, but what the senators and conspirators feared he might do. He was arrogant, which ruffled the feathers of many senators. Caesar looked to change the status quo, which those in power chaffed at. This stemmed from the belief that he wished to be named king, and a monarchy would diminish the power of the senate. Adding to this, he was popular with the people. Large groups of citizens assembled and called for him to declare himself king. To the nobles, Caesar was a threat to their power. By his very nature and the civil war he won against the Senate, Caesar was a divisive individual but the people, as a whole, did love him. Oddly enough, while Caesar never said that he was opposed to being king, there is little evidence that had a plan in place to establish himself as such. As stated above, it was the fear of what Caesar might do that led to his demise.
A conspiracy was launched to kill Caesar on 22 February 44 BC between Cassius Longinus and Marcus Brutus, his brother-in-law. Eventually there would be at least 20 people involved with the assassination plot. They toyed with killing him in the senate itself, but feared it would be seen as a political move by his followers. Instead they determined that he would need to be killed in a very public place, outside of the senate which he would be attending.
The day chosen was the Ides of March – a day that Romans often settled their debts. Caesar almost didn’t attend. His wife, Calpurnia, had a dreamt that he was murdered and she was holding his lifeless body. She begged him to not go to the senate and for a time, he agreed, sending Marc Antony in his stead to dismiss the senate. Decimus Brutus, a general and politician and one of the conspirators, came to his home and urged him to attend the meeting. “What do you say, Caesar? Will someone of your stature pay attention to a woman’s dreams and the omens of foolish men?” His manhood sufficiently prodded, Caesar agreed to go.
At Curia in the Theatre of Pompey he was confronted by Lucius Tillius Cimber with a petition to recall his brother who had been exiled. As was tradition at the time, supporters gathered around Caesar to voice their support. Caesar waved off the petition, as anticipated. Cimber grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled down his toga, hindering his ability to respond. Caesar called out, “Why this violence?” Casca Longus was the first of the conspirators to land a blow, a dagger thrust to Caesar’s neck. The others pounced on Caesar, stabbing him some 23 times.
He tried to lunge away but was blinded by blood. He tripped and fell, collapsing at the base of the Curia.
Differing accounts have emerged over the centuries as to his last words. Ultimately it was Shakespeare who coined the phrase, “Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”). This is pure fiction.
His death, at the hands of Rome’s elites, was done under the auspices that they were acting in the best interests of Rome. Ultimately it backfired on the assassins. They underestimated how much the public loved Caesar. A new round of civil wars would eventually follow. While his conspirators had planned his death in detail, they had not planned well for the aftermath. Some historians have argued that the assassination had actually started the downward spiral of Rome.