The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March – March 15, 44 BC was an epochal event. It’s not merely a story in Shakespeare’s great tragedy but an actual historical occurrence.
The real assassination, unlike the Shakespearean drama, had a decidedly military shape. The leading assassins included some of Rome’s greatest generals. The conspirators brought a troupe of gladiators to the Senate House that day, men who doubled as a paramilitary force to help them in case Caesar and his supporters put up resistance. Rome itself was full of soldiers, mostly armed veterans but also including a legion under one of Caesar’s loyalists. Caesar’s stay in Rome from autumn 45 BC through spring 44 BC was only an interlude between two military campaigns. Having emerged victorious from the Civil War (49-45 BC) Caesar now planned a massive military expedition in the east. He was scheduled to depart on March 18, 44 BC. The conspirators struck at nearly the last possible moment before Caesar would get swallowed up by the army and be protected by a commander’s bodyguard.
It is not surprising that a group of Roman Senators (more than sixty), many of them also military men, gathered together to kill Caesar. Caesar threatened to change their lives in ways that mattered – and that hurt. Caesar was undertaking a series of fundamental reforms in Rome and its empire. He wanted to downplay the power of the city of Rome and its ancient elite and to share power with new elites in the provinces. He also wanted to reduce the power of the Roman people in the annual elections to choose public officials. The result would be more efficient and fairer to the tens of millions of people who lived in Rome’s provinces but it threatened the privilege and power of both mass and elite in the city of Rome. And it threatened to turn a republic into one-man rule, which few in Rome wanted. Caesar was a visionary but the Romans held back.
A visionary leader has a hard time persuading the public to accept change. This is as true today as in any period of history. For Caesar it meant overcoming the legacy of the Civil War in which he had won power. He had a hard time steering between crushing his enemies and conciliating them. Caesar tried to strike the right balance but it was a daunting task. He was arrogant where he should have been humble and merciful where he might better have used force.
Caesar said that he wanted to forgive his enemies, not execute them, but the very act of making them ask for his forgiveness was humiliating to them. He said that he had no ambition to be a king but he accepted the title of Dictator in Perpetuity – in effect, Dictator for Life. Although married he was having an affair with the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, who had an illegitimate son who, she said, was his and who was called Caesarion, that is, “Little Caesar.” In March 44 BC she lived in Caesar’s villa in the suburbs of Rome. He planned a vast, three-years-long military expedition to culminate in the conquest of Parthia, as the Persian Empire was known at the time, which would have him follow the footsteps of the ancient world’s greatest conqueror, Alexander the Great.
Caesar seemed to be taking over much of the Republic in the name of his own family, the Julian clan. He built a new forum, a new Senate House, a new Speaker’s Platform, a new law-court and administration building, all named after him; other plans were in the works. He appointed his grandnephew, Octavian, as his “Master of the Horse,” the dictator’s second-in-command, on his war against Parthia in 43 BC, even though Octavian was only 18 years old, a shockingly young age in Rome to hold such a high office. Caesar accepted an unprecedented range of honors including divination: the Senate declared Caesar a god.
All of this persuaded many Romans, senators and ordinary people alike, that Caesar wanted to be king in all but name. And that was unacceptable to the many believers in Rome’s republican government.
Caesar was fatalistic about the danger of assassination. He knew it was a possibility but he was a decorated soldier who did not want to live his life in fear. He dismissed his official bodyguard but, to deter attack, surrounded himself with tough men and former soldiers. Only senators could enter the meeting hall, however, so Caesar was vulnerable at senate meetings. His enemies knew that, which is why they struck at a meeting of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March – March 15, 44 BC.
“Death of Julius Caesar” By Vincenzo Camuccini
After Caesar’s death his mantle fell to Octavian, whom Caesar had secretly adopted as his heir, six months before the Ides of March. Although young, Octavian proved to be a genius, with all the ambition, practical wisdom, cunning, tenacity and ruthlessness of his great-uncle. Eventually, after a decade-and-a-half of war and diplomacy, Octavian won supreme power in the Roman world. In 27 BC he took the name Augustus, which is how we know him today.
Augustus was Rome’s first emperor but he learned a lesson from Caesar’s mistakes. He took the danger of assassination seriously, he kept a bodyguard, and made sure not to inflame his enemies. He never called himself emperor, king or dictator. Instead, he preferred the title of Princeps or “First Citizen.” “Augustus” itself means something like “Reverend.” He even declared that he had restored the republic, which was simply untrue. Yet Augustus had the
wisdom and self-restraint to hold back. Although he grabbed the lion’s share of power in Rome he did leave some authority to the Senate, in order to give them a stake in the system.
The other thing that Augustus did, sad to say, was to kill his enemies rather than forgive them, as Caesar had done. Rather, he took the advice that Machiavelli would later offer in The Prince, that is, to massacre his opponents at the start of his reign and then, having made his point, to rule with kindness. So, for example, little more than a year after Caesar’s death, Octavian (as Augustus was then) joined hands with Mark Antony to pass death sentences on their enemies and to confiscate their property. Among those killed in the ensuing reign of terror was Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator and Octavian’s former ally. Cicero and Antony were enemies but the coldblooded young Octavian did nothing to save Cicero from Antony’s vengeance. More years of civil war followed in which many more of Octavian’s enemies fell. By the time Octavian became Augustus in 27 BC, no major enemies were left alive to oppose him.
To the world’s great fortune, Augustus then used his political genius to create an era of peace – the pax Romana, the Roman Peace, one of the greatest periods of prosperity and cultural achievement in the history of the West. It was not perfect – slavery, for instance, thrived – but it was good.
There are many lessons to be learned from the stirring and terrible events of the era of Caesar and Augustus. One is the law of unintended consequences: the men who killed Caesar on the Ides of March thought they were saving the Republic, not hastening its end. The other is the need for political sagacity, for fine-tuned political skills, in order to persuade people to accept reform. And finally, we can’t overstate how fortunate we are to live in a society where political disagreements are settled by debate and not by arms, by ballots and not bullets. May it always be thus.
Barry Strauss teaches history and classics at Cornell. He is the author of The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination (Simon & Schuster: March, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @barrystrauss.