How did Julius Caesar Die?
On 15th March, 44 BC, Julius Caesar, who was then the leader of the Roman Republic, was assassinated by members of the Senate following fears of his desire to crown himself King of Rome. Caesar’s death played a pivotal role in the transformation of Roman history, in that it led to the birth of the Roman Empire and, in effect, the monarchy system. So, was Caesar’s death justified or was it an attempt by his conspirators to avoid change and take back their power? Who were the mutinous senators that stabbed Caesar? And what was the Roman dictator’s last words?
Below, World History Edu gives an in-depth look at the assassination of Julius Caesar, one of the greatest figures of ancient Rome.
Julius Caesar’s Rise to Power
Julius Caesar was born in 100 BCE to the Julli family, a prominent Roman family whose roots went back to the ancient times. Though much of his childhood is not fully known, during his early years, the Roman Republic was in a state of disorder. Caesar leveraged on the chaos to advance himself, eventually becoming the governor of Spain, which was then a Roman province.
Upon his return to Rome, his strategic political alliances helped him become the governor of Gaul (an area located in modern-day France and Belgium). As governor, Caesar took advantage of the already existing tribal rivalry in Gaul and conquered many of the “savage” tribes in the area. He served as governor of Gaul for eight years all the while strengthening his military power and acquiring wealth from the Gallic tribes.
Eventually, the Roman Senate called on him to return to Rome but this time, as a private citizen and not as a high-ranking government official. However, Caesar paid no heed to them and instead, used his newly-acquired wealth, solid political alliances, and military power to march across the Rubicon River, from Gaul to Italy. This rebellious act caused a civil war between Caesar’s army and that of his rival, General Pompey (also known as Pompey the Great), who was heavily supported by the senate. It also revealed Caesar’s intentions of dominating Rome. He won the war against Pompey and forced a defeated senate to declare him dictator perpetuo (i.e. dictator of the Roman Republic for life) in 45 BC.
Third Time’s the Charm: The Motivations of Caesar’s Conspirators
Roman historian Titus Lucius wrote extensively on the events leading to the plotting and assassination of Julius Caesar. These events were dubbed the “three last straws.”
The first of such events took place in the late 45 BC or early 44 BC. Another historian, Cassius Dio, described how the Senate had planned on showering Caesar with honors and how a delegation marched to the Temple of Venus Genetrix to do so. Upon their arrival, Caesar, out of Roman tradition and etiquette, was supposed to stand and acknowledge the delegation. Instead, he refused to stand and rather joked about how he did not need excessive honors.
Later historians like Suetonius provided two reasons why Caesar failed to rise: he was either prevented by his consul or he thought that the act of rising to welcome the senators was beneath him. Either way, his refusal to stand as tradition demanded, along with his rejection of the gift, left a lasting impression on the Senate and furthered their belief that Caesar had little to no regard for them.
The second event occurred in January 44 BC. Two tribunes named Gaius Epidius Marullus and Lucius Caesetius Flavus, while visiting the Roman Forum, chanced upon an ornate crown placed on the head of Caesar’s statue. According to Suetonius, Flavus and Marullus called for the crown to be removed, as it honored the monarchy instead of the republic. Though it was never revealed who placed the crown there, Caesar strongly felt that the two tribunes were behind the act in an attempt to publicly reject him as monarch. It appeared that the issue had been resolved until a few days later when Caesar was riding his horse back into Rome. While riding through the crowds, a few of the people called him “Rex” (also known as “king”) to which he replied, “I am not Rex, but Caesar.” When Marullus and Flavus heard what had happened, they ordered for the first person who hailed Caesar as king to be arrested. This move angered Caesar, who revoked their senatorships on the basis of them attempting to make him unpopular. However, it worked against the dictator since the Roman citizens, especially those from the lower classes relied on tribunes as their representatives in the Senate. As a result, Caesar lost favor among some sections of the public.
The final straw that broke the backs of Caesar’s plotters took place in February 44 BC during the festival of Lupercalia. During celebrations, Mark Antony, who was one of Caesar’s top supporters and co-consul, placed a crown on the dictator’s head while saying, “The people give this to you through me.” This act generated mixed reactions from the public; some were happy whereas some were displeased. When Caesar removed the crown, Antony placed it back on until the ruler declared Jupiter as the sole king of the Romans. His response excited the crowd, but many others believed that the entire act was a performance between the two men to gauge the citizens’ views and support of a monarchy. Safe to say that this act of Caesar further infuriated the Senate and supporters of the Republic.
In a matter of months since declaring himself dictator of the Republic, Caesar had managed to disrespect the Senate, sack tribunes, and had possibly experimented with the idea of becoming king. It was enough for his rivals in the Senate to want him dead. Although he had done other things, it was the idea that Caesar might become king that established the desire for Caesar’s thirst for absolute power to be quenched.
The Plot to Assassinate Caesar: Perpetrators & Timeline of Events
A few days after the festival of Lupercalia, the plot to kill the Roman dictator started to take shape. Gaius Cassius Longinus and his brother-in-law, Marcus Brutus led the conspiracy after concluding that Caesar needed to be prevented from becoming king.
Although it would have been possible for a single person to assassinate Caesar, Brutus felt that because the entire plot was in the name and the best interest of the Republic, it needed the participation of multiple men. So, both Longinus and Brutus set off to recruit enough senators to get the job done. They were thorough in their recruitment process, selecting men with whom they were friends, as well as able-bodied men not over the age of 40. By the time they were done, they had recruited around 60 men.
The two main conspirators made a few considerations on who else could join in on the plot to assassinate Caesar. They first thought of including a famous orator called Cicero, as well as Mark Antony. Although they felt that Cicero would have been useful in rallying supporters, he was above 60 years and the two conspirators felt that Cicero would have dwelt more on safety rather than the speed of the entire plot, so they dropped him. They turned their sights towards Antony but had to abandon the idea after one of the conspirators, Gaius Trebonius, revealed that Antony had rejected a similar plot earlier.
However, some of the conspirators were worried about Antony’s close relationship with Caesar and initially plotted to have him killed along with the dictator. They were also fearful of his rising power and his ability to disrupt their plans if he ever found them out. But this idea of also killing Antony caused them to split into two groups. On one side, the Optimates, who were considered the noblemen of Rome, supported the idea of killing Caesar, Antony, and all other supporters in a bid to restore the Republic. On the other hand, the Populares, who had been former supporters of Caesar, disagreed because while they wanted him and Antony dead, they still supported his reforms and didn’t feel his supporters needed to be killed.
Instead of choosing a side, Brutus came up with another suggestion and that was to kill Caesar and only Caesar. He thought that it would be unlawful and unfair to kill Antony or any other supporter and that the plot would rather be seen as revenge from the supporters of Pompey. He believed that killing only Caesar and keeping his reforms would get the support of the people and the two factions eventually reached a compromise.
Now that they had settled on whom to kill, the conspirators discussed where the assassination would take place and settled on it occurring during one of the Senate’s meetings. They chose the 15th of March as the day to accomplish their mission.
Did Caesar see it coming?
Was Caesar totally oblivious to their plan? Historians believe that was unlikely. He probably suspected that there was a possible plot against him. A seer had once told him that his life was in danger and a few weeks to his death, Caesar had reportedly shared his suspicions of Longinus to an aide.
Two days to the assassination, Longinus entreated all the conspirators to kill themselves if they were ever found out.
The Ides of March
Finally, it was the Ides of March, the day the conspirators planned on ending Caesar’s life. But it didn’t go as smoothly as they had expected initially. Caesar had failed to appear while they waited. The reason behind his absence was that his wife, Calpurnia, had dreamt that she was holding her husband’s lifeless body. She begged him not to go and Caesar agreed, sending Antony to dismiss the meeting.
However, one of the conspirators visited Caesar and convinced him to not listen to his wife. He agreed and set off with Antony, but the latter was stopped by another conspirator and prevented from entering the meeting with Caesar.
The first person to stab Caesar
According to historians, while Caesar attended to matters of the meeting, the first person to stab him was Servilius Casca to which he cried out, “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” According to Greek historian Plutarch, Caesar had earlier in the day rejected Lucius Tillius Cimber’s petition to have his brother recalled from exile. Incensed by Caesar’s decision, Cimber violently reached for Caesar and pulled down the dictator’s toga. It was in that moment that Casca pulled out his dagger and stabbed Caesar in the neck. This first stab gave the other conspiring senators to unleash a flurry of attacks. Caesar was stabbed across his entire body from his face, back, and thighs. He was stabbed 23 times and fell on the steps of the curia.
What were Julius Caesar’s last words?
One of the most popular aspects of Caesar’s assassination was what he said, especially when he discovered that Brutus was in on the plot. In William Shakespeare’s play adaptation, Caesar reportedly said, “Et tu, Brute?”/”You too, Brute?” when he saw Brutus. However, this could not be farther away from the truth.
Caesar most likely saw Brutus’s participation as an act of betrayal because they had a close relationship and Caesar viewed him as a son. However, it’s very unlikely that Caesar said those words and some historians believe he said, “You too, child.”
But while there are several debates on what he did or didn’t say, it’s also extremely possible that he said nothing throughout the entire ordeal. It’s been proposed by some modern scholars and historians that Julius Caesar either suffered a collapsed lung or had an internal bleeding. If the former were to hold true, then Caesar might not have uttered any last words.
The Aftermath of Caesar’s Assassination & The Fight for Power
The conspirators thought that killing Caesar would strengthen the Republic and bring it back to its former glory. But what it did was plunge the state into further chaos and instability.
Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Brutus prepared himself to deliver a victory speech to the citizens, who he believed would be very excited about the death of Caesar. To Brutus’s surprise, he was met with outrage. Even the low ranking citizens were upset because despite Caesar’s desire for full control, they benefited from his numerous reforms, especially his land reforms, debt cancellation and tax adjustment economic reforms.
As a result, a civil war broke out, pitting Caesar’s supporters against his conspirators. Caesar’s allies would in turn fight among themselves for ultimate control of Rome.
Meanwhile, Antony had been preparing to take over as Caesar’s successor and had delivered an impassioned and powerful speech to the citizens. Unbeknownst to Antony, the slain dictator had already taken the necessary steps to finding a successor. In Caesar’s will, he designated his grand-nephew, Gaius Octavius (also known as Octavian) as his successor.
In 43 BC, chief conspirators Cassius Longinus and Brutus fled to Greece and were forming a strong army to wrestle control back from the supporters of Caesar. Back in Rome, Antony used Caesar’s wealth to build an army to defeat the pair. Together with Octavian and Caesar’s former Master of Horse, Ledipus, Antony formed the Second Triumvirate. Together, they successfully defeated Longinus and Brutus in 42 BC in Philippi in northern Greece. Seeing that their situation was untenable, Brutus and Cassius both committed suicide.
But the alliance of Caesar supporters quickly became unstable, as there was a lot of in-fighting. Antony had grown to hate Octavian and spent most of time away from Rome. At the same time, Ledipus and Octavian also fell out following a dispute over land allocations. In a well orchestrated move by an astute Octavian, Ledipus was forced to go into exile and stripped off most of his titles and positions.
Antony decided to marry Caesar’s former lover, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt in a bid to use her wealth to take over Rome. Antony’s move resulted in yet another civil war to erupt, pitting him against Octavian. Ultimately, Octavian emerged the victor, and Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide around 30 BC. With Antony and Lepidus out of the way, Octavian established himself as the sole ruler of Rome. He deified his grand-uncle.
Not only did Octavian surpass the power that Julius Caesar wielded, but he created a senate that in effect rubber-stamped his decisions. Therefore, it came as no surprise when that senate honored him with the title “Augustus” in 27 BC. Octavian never called himself emperor or king, instead he preferred terming himself as Rome’s “First Citizen”. Five years later, in 22 BC, the people, believing that Octavian was the only one who could save Rome, forced the Roman Senate to declare Augustus dictator of Rome. Emperor Augustus‘ close to half a century in charge of the Empire ushered in two centuries of peace, stability and prosperity, an era historians term as Pax Romana.
Now, the very thing that the conspirators had once feared had come to fruition. The Roman Republic had turned into a monarchy.