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The Burial of Caesar


Bust of Caesar. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. On 15 March 44 BCE, the Roman dictator Julius Caesar was murdered. A few days later, he was cremated on the Roman forum. 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 may have consulted eyewitness accounts.

The following fragment from his Lives of the twelve Caesars (Caesar 84-85) was translated by Joseph Gavorse.

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Bust of Marc Antony. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (Hungary). Photo Jona Lendering.
Marc Antony (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)

When the funeral was announced, a pyre was erected in the Field of Mars near the tomb of Julia. In front of the rostra [1] was placed a gilded shrine, made after the model of the temple of Venus Genetrix. Within was a bier of ivory with coverlets of purple and gold, and at its head a pillar hung with the robe in which he was slain. Since it was clear that the day would not be long enough for those who offered gifts, they were directed to bring them to the Campus by whatsoever streets of the city they wished, regardless of any order of precedence. At the funeral games, to rouse pity and indignation at his death, these words from the Contest for the arms of Pacuvius were sung:

Saved I these men that they might murder me?

and words of a like purport from the Electra of Atilius [2].

 


Instead of a eulogy the consul Marc Antony caused a herald to recite the decree of the Senate in which it had voted Caesar all divine and human honors at once, and likewise the oath with which they had all pledged themselves to watch over his personal safety; to which he added a very few words of his own [3]. The bier on the rostra was carried to the Forum by magistrates and ex-magistrates. While some were urging that it be burned in the temple of Jupiter of the Capitol, and others in the Hall of Pompey [4], on a sudden two beings [5] with swords by their sides and brandishing a pair of darts set fire to it with blazing torches, and at once the throng of bystanders heaped upon it dry branches, the judgment seats with the benches, and whatever else could serve as an offering. Then the musicians and actors tore off their robes, which they had taken from the equipment of his triumphs and put on for the occasion, rent them to bits and threw them into the flames, and the veterans of the legions the arms with which they had adorned themselves for the funeral. Many of the women, too, offered up the jewels which they wore and the amulets and robes of their children. At the height of the public grief a throng of foreigners went about lamenting each after the fashion of his country, above all the Jews, who even flocked to the place for several successive nights.[6]

The populace, with torches in their hands, ran from the funeral to the houses of Brutus and Cassius and after being repelled with difficulty, they slew Helvius Cinna when they met him, through a mistake in the name, supposing that he was Cornelius Cinna, who had the day before made a bitter indictment of Caesar and for whom they were looking; and they set his head upon a spear and paraded it about the streets. Afterwards they set up in the Forum a solid column of Numidian marble [7] almost twenty feet high, and inscribed upon it, To the Father of his Country. At the foot of this they continued for a long time to sacrifice, make vows, and settle some of their disputes by an oath in the name of Caesar.

Caesar left in the minds of some of his friends the suspicion that he did not wish to live any longer and had taken no precautions, because of his failing health; and that therefore he neglected the warnings which came to him from portents and from the reports of his friends. Some think that it was because he had full trust in that last decree of the Senators and their oath that he dismissed even the armed bodyguard of Spanish soldiers that formerly attended him. Others, on the contrary, believe that he elected to expose himself once for all to the plots that threatened him on every hand, rather than to be always anxious and on his guard. Some, too, say that he was wont to declare that it was not so much to his own interest as to that of his country that he remain alive. He had long since had his fill of power and glory. But if aught befell him, the commonwealth would have no peace, and, involved in another civil war, would be in a worse state than before.






Notes

[1]
The speaker's platform on the Comitium, where the people could meet.

[2]
Marcus Pacuvius (c.220-c.130) was a poet from Brindisi. He was also known as painter. In the Contest for the arms, he described how Ulysses and Ajax quarreled about the possession of Achilles' weapons and armor.
Atilius was a contemporary of Pacuvius. His Electra is a translation of the play of the Athenian playwright Sophocles (fifth century BCE).

[3]
The speech of Marc Antony can be found in the History of the Civil wars by Appian of Alexandria (text).

[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]
It is tempting to see in these two 'beings' Castor and Pollux, the divine twins who had their temple nearby. If so, this story came into being in an early attempt to make some sort of god of the murdered dictator. This early attempt was ignored when a more powerful symbol was seen: after several weeks, a comet appeared.


Roma crowning the statue of Caesar with a star.
Roma crowning the statue of Caesar with a star.(!!)

[6]
It is possible that at least some Jews identified Caesar with the Messiah. After all, he had defeated Pompey, the destroyer of Jerusalem; moreover, Caesar had done much for the Jews. Now that a comet was visible, all prophecies seemed to be fulfilled: the star was the sign of the Messiah, there were theories that he would die, and nobody had ever said that the Messiah had to be Jewish (e.g., the Persian king Cyrus the Great had been recognized as Messiah by Isaiah).

[7]
Numidian marble was yellow like gold. Numidia had been conquered by Caesar.





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