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The Lupercalia incident


Bust of Caesar. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Caesar's most important problem, and the only one he could not solve with military means, was how he could receive recognition for his one-man-rule from the republican Romans. He never found a solution, but he tried. One of his solutions was to become king. However, the Romans had once been ruled by kings and the last one, Tarquin the Proud, had been a despot; this tyranny was well-remembered. Caesar was unable to overcome the anti-monarchical sentiments, as we can see in the following story, which is told by Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.120)  in chapter 61 of his Life of Julius Caesar. The translation was made by Robin Seager.
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Bust of Marc Antony. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (Hungary). Photo Jona Lendering.
Marc Antony (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)

Another thing which caused offence was Caesar's insulting treatment of the tribunes. The feast of the Lupercalia was being celebrated and at this time many of the magistrates and many young men of noble families run through the city naked, and, in their jesting and merrymaking, strike those whom they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of high rank purposely stand in their way and hold out their hands to be struck, like children at school. They believe that the effect will be to give an easy delivery to those who are pregnant, and to help the barren to become pregnant. According to many writers this was in ancient times a shepherds' festival, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea.

Caesar, sitting on a golden throne above the rostra [1] and wearing a triumphal robe, was watching this ceremony; and Antony, who was consul at the time [2], was one of those taking part in the sacred running. When he came running into the forum, the crowd made way for him. He was carrying a diadem with a wreath of laurel tied round it, and he held this out to Caesar. His action was followed by some applause, but it was not much and it was not spontaneous.

But when Caesar pushed the diadem away from him, there was a general shout of applause. Antony then offered him the diadem for the second time, and again only a few applauded, though, when Caesar again rejected it, there was applause from everyone. Caesar, finding that the experiment had proved a failure, rose from his seat and ordered the wreath to be carried to the Capitol.

It was then discovered that his statues had been decorated with royal diadems, and two of the tribunes, Flavius and Marullus, went round the statues and tore down the decorations. They then found out who had been the first to salute Caesar as king, and led them off to prison. The people followed the tribunes and were loud in their applause, calling them Brutuses (because it was Brutus who first put an end to the line of kings in Rome and gave to the Senate and the People the power that had previously been in the hands of one man [3]).

This made Caesar angry. He deprived Marullus and Flavius of their tribuneship and in speaking against them he insulted the people at the same time.

 




Notes

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

[2]
Marc Antony was Caesar's colleague as consul. The date is 15 February 44 BCE.

[3]
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.





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