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The death of Caesar


Bust of Caesar. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. On 15 March 44 BCE, the Roman dictator Julius Caesar was murdered. There are several accounts of this incident, but the most famous and probably most accurate is the one that was written by Caesar's biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c.70-c.135), who seems to have had access to imperial archives and may have consulted eyewitness accounts.

The following fragment from his Lives of the twelve Caesars (Caesar 80-82) was translated by Joseph Gavorse.

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Gold piece of Brutus, commemorating the murder of Caesar: freedom's cap and two daggers.
Coin of Brutus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

In order to avoid giving assent to this proposal the conspirators hastened the execution of their designs. Therefore the plots which had previously been formed separately, often by groups of two or three, were united in a general conspiracy, since even the populace no longer were pleased with present conditions, but both secretly and openly rebelled at his tyranny and cried out for defenders of their liberty. On the admission of foreigners to the Senate, a placard was posted: 'God bless the commonwealth! Let no one consent to point out the House to a newly made Senator.' The following verses too were repeated everywhere:
The Gauls he dragged in triumph through the town 
Caesar has brought into the Senate house 
And changed their breeches for the purple gown.
When Quintus Maximus, whom he had appointed consul in his place for three months, was entering the theater, and his lictor in the usual manner called attention to his arrival, a general shout was raised: 'He's no Consul!' After the removal of Caesetius and Marullus from office as tribunes, they were bound to have not a few votes at the next elections of consuls. Some wrote on the base of Lucius Brutus' statue, 'Oh, that you were still alive' [1]; and on that of Caesar himself:
Because he drove from Rome the royal race,
Brutus was first made consul in their place.
This man, because he put the consuls down,
has been rewarded with a royal crown.
More than sixty joined the conspiracy against him, led by Gaius Cassius and Decimus and Marcus Junius Brutus. At first they hesitated whether to form two divisions at the elections in the Field of Mars, so that while some hurled him from the bridge [2] as he summoned the tribes to vote, the rest might wait below and slay him; or to set upon him in the Sacred Way [3] or at the entrance to the theater. When, however, a meeting of the Senate was called for the ides of March in the Hall of Pompey [4], they readily gave that time and place the preference.

Now Caesar's approaching murder was foretold to him by unmistakable signs. A few months before, when the settlers assigned to the colony at Capua by the Julian Law were demolishing some tombs of great antiquity, to build country houses, and plied their work with the greater vigor because as they rummaged about they found a quantity of vases of ancient workmanship, there was discovered in a tomb, which was said to be that of Capys, the founder of Capua, a bronze tablet, inscribed with Greek words and characters to this effect: 'Whenever the bones of Capys shall be discovered, it will come to pass that a descendant of his shall be slain at the hands of his kindred, and presently avenged at heavy cost to Italy.' And let no one think this tale a myth or a lie, for it is vouched for by Cornelius Balbus, an intimate friend of Caesar [5].

Shortly before his death, as he was told, the herds of horses which he had dedicated to the river Rubico when he crossed it, and had let loose without a keeper, stubbornly refused to graze and wept copiously. Again, when he was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the ides of March. On the day before the ides of that month a little bird called the king-bird flew into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel, pursued by others of various kinds from the grove hard by, which tore it to pieces in the hall. In fact the very night before his murder he dreamt now that he was flying above the clouds, and now that he was clasping the hand of Jupiter; and his wife Calpurnia thought that the pediment of their house fell, and that her husband was stabbed in her arms; and on a sudden the door of the room flew open of its own accord.

Both for these reasons and because of poor health he hesitated for a long time whether to stay at home and put off what he had planned to do in the Senate. But at last, urged by Decimus Brutus not to disappoint the full meeting, which had for some time been waiting for him, he went forth almost at the end of the fifth hour. [6] When a note revealing the plot was handed him by some one on the way, he put it with others which he held in his left hand, intending to read them presently. Then, after many victims had been slain, and he could not get favorable omens, he entered the House in defiance of portents, laughing at Spurinna and calling him a false prophet, because the ides of March were come without bringing him harm. Spurinna replied that they had of a truth come, but they had not gone.

As he took his seat, the conspirators gathered about him as if to pay their respects, and straightway Tillius Cimber [7], who had assumed the lead, came nearer as though to ask something. When Caesar with a gesture put him off to another time, Cimber caught his toga by both shoulders. As Caesar cried, 'Why, this is violence!', one of the Cascas [8] stabbed him from one side just below the throat. Caesar caught Casca's arm and ran it through with his stylus, but as he tried to leap to his feet, he was stopped by another wound. When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, 'You too, my child?'

All the conspirators made off, and he lay there lifeless for some time, until finally three common slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down. And of so many wounds none, in the opinion of the physician Antistius, would have proved mortal except the second one in the breast.

 




Notes

[1]
According to a very old legend, Lucius Junius Brutus had expelled the tyrannical last king Tarquin the Proud from Rome. This happened in the late sixth century BCE.

[2]
A temporary bridge over which voters one by one passed to cast their ballots.

[3]
The road on the Roman forum.

[4]
The Senate house had burnt down in 52 and Pompey had offered the Senate a new meeting place, situated on the Field of Mars.

[5]
Lucius Cornelius Balbus of Cadiz (Andalusia) had received the Roman citizenship from Pompey (70 BCE) and had reached equestrian rank. He met Caesar when the latter was governor of Andalusia in 61; he briefly served in Gaul and took care of Caesar's interests in the city of Rome during his absence. Cornelius Balbus took no part in the civil war but did his best to establish some kind of harmony. After the death of Caesar, he joined Octavian and became the first consul who had not had the Roman citizenship at his birth (40 BCE). He was still alive in 32 and helped Hirtius publish his continuation of Caesar's Commentaries on the war in Gaul.

[6]
Between ten and eleven o' clock in the morning

[7]
Lucius Tillius Cimber had served in Greece and was an adherent of Caesar. He was designated as governor of Bithynia-Pontus in 44. After the assassination, he went to his provence, built a navy and fought in the civil war against Marc Antony and Octavian. He was killed in action in the battle of Philippi (42).

[8]
Gaius Casca is not well known to us.








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