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The Assassination Of Julius Caesar

Beware The Ides Of March!?

Towards the beginning of his second "Phillipic" against Antony, Cicero gave a brief resumé of what he, and, very probably, the individuals concerned, saw as the motivations of the conspirators who murdered Caesar on the notorious ides of March.

According to Cicero, Brutus was following the noble example of those of his ancestors whose memory he had celebrated in his coin issue of 54 BCE; Cassius was acting as the scion of a family "...which has never been able to tolerate any political boss, never mind anyone with a monopoly of power..."; Gnaeus Domitius (son of Ahenobarbus) was acting in pursuit of the blood-feud, as was required to avenge his injured dignitas; Gaius Trebonius and Tillius Cimber, despite their friendship with, and the obligations they owed to, Caesar, were acting as patriots concerned for the well-being of the res publica; the Servilii, like Brutus, were out to realise noble traditions of tyrannicide.

Thus, only a matter of six or so months after the event, Cicero explained the ides of March as a glorious episode which liberated the res publica from the yoke of a tyrant

Well and good, but it must still be asked: to what extent can the immediate aims, as distinct from the subsequent rationalisations, of the conspirators, be understood in those Ciceronian terms

Caesar's involvement in the civil wars did not end with the rout of the Pompeian forces at Pharsalia in 48 BCE. Until September 47, when he landed a Tarentum, he was tied up in Alexandria and Asia Minor. He left Rome again in November 47 to campaign against "republican" forces in Africa; defeating them at Thapsus in April of the next year. He returned to Rome at the end of July, but left again before the end of the year. After the defeat of Gnaeus Pompeius at Munda he finally returned to Rome in October 45, with barely six months to live.

During the four years from Pharsalia to the ides of March Caesar spent no more than eleven months at Rome. Only during the last six months of his life was he at Rome in relative peace and quiet, without the active menace of hostile armies dominating his attention. And for those six months he was preoccupied with preparations for a fresh campaign against the Parthians

That background is essential to an understanding of Caesar's activity during his dictatorship, the character of which is crucial to an understanding of why he was killed. If that seems obvious, it isn't; not to modern historians. Ignoring it Gelzer manages to disregard his own qualifications about the lack of any surviving political program, Caesar's brief residence at Rome and his Parthian preoccupation to describe him as engaging in a reconstruction of the Roman State in line with a "grand design" and "grandiose conception of government".

Cicero bears eloquent witness to the haphazard nature of Caesar's administration. Writing to L. Papirius Paetus in 47 or thereabouts he commented:

"...make no mistake about this, it is not me y I who am not in their counsels and do not know what will happen; even our leader himself doesn't know. I do as he tell me; he does as the times dictate; , Caesar cannot know what the times are going to demand, nor do I know what Caesar thinks" (Ad fam. IX, 17).

The ramshackle, ad hoc, character of the tyranny is reflected again in Cicero's further complaint, during Caesar's absence this time, that "...when I'm in Rome, and pounding away in the forum, decrees are drafted in Balbus' house...And as often as it occurs to him to do so, my name is added to the list of sponsors, and I hear that a decree has reached Armenia or Syria, and to have been passed on a motion proposed by me, before I have heard one word about the question at all" (Ad fam. IX 15,).

According to Gelzer, the only indication of Caesar having a definite political programme occurs in a letter he wrote to Metellus Scipio in which he declare his aims to be "...tranquillity for Italy, peace for the provinces and security for the Empire". It seems to me that a much more immediate and practical programme is contained in the letter to Oppius and Cornelius, in which, declining to imitate the proscriptions of Sulla, Caesar declared as "...the new style of conquest...to make mercy and generosity our shield" (copy preserved in Cicero, Ad. Att. IX 7C).

This clementia was a considered policy which necessarily followed from Caesar's immediate ambitions

Caesar had no intention of staying at Rome for several years, as Sulla had done, crushing every last vestige of opposition. He preferred to spend his time wiping Parthia off the face of the map and, to give himself the time and freedom for that enterprise, he had to conciliate rather than obliterate his opponents He had, in Syme's phrase, "to transcend faction".

The story of Caesar's assassination is ultimately the story of his attempt to achieve that transcendence; to make the party of Caesar the only party in, the party of, the state. It is the story of his failure

(This explanation of the matter is problematic in that clementia existed a a policy before Caesar can have conceived his Parthian ambitions. But why shouldn't what was initially a ploy appropriate to the civil war be adopted to other ends? Then again there is Caesar as he was in himself. Following the Sullan precedent he would have had to virtually annihilate his peer group. Such an urbane and convivial chap will hardly have wanted to dine out with his social inferiors A fate worse than twenty-three stab wounds?)

To return to the point: in line with his policy of using clementia to tie former opponents to his personal rule, Caesar appointed Brutus (who was only of quaestorian rank) to the governorship, with proconsular imperium (power), of Cisalpine Gaul. In July 45 he promised him an urban praetorship for 44 and the consulship of 41. His co-conspirator Cassius (of the lean and hungry look) was one of his colleagues in 44. True to the reality of the res publica being all things to all men offering the promise of all things for one man, Brutus saw this highly irregular proceeding as evidence that Caesar was returning to the fold of the boni (the goodfellas, the wiseguys) and setting about restoring the ancestral constitution (Ad Att., 13, 40). L'etat, c'est moi! It helps make nonsense of Brutus' claim that he was fighting against the appalling practice of extraordinary commands.

Caesar's powers with regard to magistracies and provincial commands were certainly very sweeping. Ignoring normal practice he appointed governors directly to specific provinces and carried a law that proconsuls should govern for no longer than two years (propraetors for one). A law, proposed by Antony's brother, Lucius, gave him the right to nominate half of all magistrates, except consuls. The popular decree for his Parthian command allowed him to nominate the officials for the years 43, 42 and 41 (another of the conspirators, Decimus Brutus, was to be consul in 42). Ten ex-praetors were advanced to the rank and insignia of consulars, a procedure which was repeated down along the line of the cursus honorum. When the consul, Maximus, died during Quaestorian elections on 31 December, 45, Caesar had Gaius Caninus Rebilus elected consul for the rest of the day and treated the affair as a huge joke. All very sweeping indeed; but does it amount to evidence of monarchical ambitions?

Gelzer stresses the remarks attributed to Caesar by that "trumpet of the civil war", T. Ampius Balbus (in Suetonius, DJ 77). He reportedly dismissed the republic, saying "nihil esse rem publicam, apellationem modo sine corpore ac specie" and further that "Sulla had proved himself a political dunce by resigning the dictatorship". Gelzer is certainly correct in concluding that Caesar had "grown increasingly contemptuous of political life in the capital".

So, fair enough, the republic was demonstrably a mere name, without form or substance and Caesar would have been insane to trust his future to the unfettered workings of the Senatus Populusque Romanum. He had to have his own men in power at Rome and in the provinces—he couldn't risk having hostile armies at his back when he embarked on a very risky campaign in the east—and couldn't afford to waste much time on the formalities of advancing his nominees to power and authority.

But that doesn't imply anything about Caesar's leaning towards monarchy of an oriental (or any other) kind. The remark about Sulla may seem to imply something sinister, though nothing at all definite, about his long-term plans (assuming he had any). What after all did Sulla actually lose by resigning the dictatorship; what harm did it do him?

Which leaves the affair of the crowning of Caesar's statue in the rostra, the fate of the tribunes, Gaius Epidus Marcellus and Lucius Caestius Flavius, the Lupercalia episode and Caesar's attitude to the divine (or quasi-divine) honours voted to him by an obsequious senate.

Caesar did not complain when the tribunes uncrowned his statue. When spectators in a crowd saluted him as king he replied "Caesarem se, non regem esse":—My name is Caesar, not Rex. The tribunes were removed, not for frustrating his monarchial designs, but for putting their tribunician potestas (tribunes' power) before his over-riding authority. Far from the Lupercalia episode providing evidence for an attempted coronation that went wrong it seems to have been a straightforward attempt to scotch persistent and highly malicious rumours. I cannot see Caesar having been the source of the rumours about the Sybilline Oracle supposedly declaring that the Parthians could only be conquered by a king—rumours which allegedly led to, and were presumably advanced as an ante facto justification of, his murder.

The question of Caesar's attitude to divine honours is a very complex one and I can only add one point to North's very respectful criticisms of Weinstock's thesis. First, North's criticisms. He points out that Weinstock relies very heavily on the detail of Dio's account of the honours voted to Caesar but ignore Dio's interpretation of the events: "...that Caesar declined some of the honours voted (XLIII, 46, 1), that he was embarrassed by the number and novelty of them (XLIV, 3), that there was a certain malice behind some of them and even that their specific intention was to provoke hostility against him while lulling him into a false sense of security (XLIV, 7)." In his discussion of Weinstock's argument concerning Sepullius' coin issue of 44, the obverse of which showed the head of Caesar Imperator with an apparently very significant star behind it, North points out that, though the chronology of Sepullius' issues is very unclear "...it is difficult not to regard the DICT (IN) PERPETUO coins as reflecting the very latest stage in Caesar's titulature and propaganda; if so the implication would be that the star first appeared and then disappeared. But if the star represents a public announcement of Caesar's new divine status, it seems quite incredible that it should be withdrawn—unless, indeed, one is to take it that the deification, like the coronation, was a botched job."

In addition, I am not sure on what grounds both Weinstock and North can take it that Caesar was fully in control of the Senate. For much of the period in question he was not present in Rome. He was certainly not present in April 45 when the Senate receiving word of his victory at Munda voted him the most extraordinary honours, including that "a statue with the inscription 'To the unconquered god' was to be erected in the temple of Quirinus...implying that "the ruler-cult was officially introduced to Rome by senatorial and popular decree" (Gelzer). Caesar simply wasn't present at the time and it cannot seriously be argued that his agents could have been so sure of his aims and intentions as to say "Oh no boys, just say he's a jolly good chap and leave it at that; control yourselves, you crawling little beggars!"

It should also be remembered that Caesar, very definitely in the Sullan tradition this time, was busy enlarging the Senate. Who else but provincials could he bring in (again with the aim of creating a wholly Caesarian party) and how could he be expected to account for provincial proclivities? Should he have told them off on his return or did he not have to make the best of a little bit of obsequious silliness?

(With regard to Caesar's provincial policy Gelzer argues that he was striking at the "concept of imperium populi romani as a city state". But Caesar needed to be sure of an obligated majority in the senate; his colonies, with the only truly social innovation of freedmen being eligible to vote in municipal elections, were justified on purely military grounds, as was his prohibition on the sons of senators going abroad on any but official business.)

All in all, a botched coronation and a botched deification must be taken to equal a botched theory. Caesar was not seeking to become the God-King of a restructured Roman Empire. Such considerations did not enter into the minds of the assassins. Syme, I think, has it right in arguing that Caesar was killed not for what he might become but for what he actually was. So just what was Caesar?

(One last point about Gelzer's monarchical theory. Among other honours voted by an obsequious Senate, Caesar's son or adopted son was to be designated pontifex maximus (chief priest). According to Gelzer this was "a veiled recognition of hereditary monarchy..." I cannot understand why, if Caesar was seriously interested in establishing an hereditary monarchy, he didn't make a more determined effort to establish his heir's rights of succession. On the 18th of March Caesar was to be off to the wars with a fair chance of following Crassus into oblivion. If ever there was a time to settle the succession, to settle the detailed arrangements of whatever grand plan he may have had in mind, it was then; yet, after the 15th (the Ides) Caesar's heir was left in a very tenuous situation. The conclusion, I think, is inescapable: that Caesar was living from day to day.)

As for the character of Caesar: alea iacta est. Caesar was a gambling man who let the dice fly high and fall sweetly to win him every scrap of dignitas and auctoritas his world had to offer. To his inimici he was a colossus astride their cursus honorum. To his amici he ultimately was Kronos, swallowing his children whole. Through his policy of clementia he brought his amici and inimici together and left them with no alternative but to remove him from the scene.

Writing to Cicero after the death of his daughter, Tullia, Servius Sulpicius Rufus sketches a view of the res publica as the nobiles believed it had been befor Caesar engrossed it: "...did she hope to be a mother of children, and to enjoy watching them making their way in the world, maintaining the property they had inherited from their fathers, standing for the public offices in the proper sequence, and enjoying freedom of action in public life, and in promoting the interests of their friends?"

Not in the days of the tumbling dice

Cicero complained in his reply:

"...my thoughts had nothing to engage them, there was no business to be seen to for my friends, no affairs of state demanding my attention; I had no stomach for the forum; I could not endure the sight of the senatee; I thought that I had lost all that I had won by the hard work that had brought me my success, and this was true."

Office at the pleasure and/or sufferance of an autocrat was no enhancement of, but rather an affront to, dignitas. Within an oligarchy whose subjectivity was rigidly organised in terms of relations of domination and subordination this was intolerable. Either Caesar had to go or new subjective satisfactions had to be found within Caesar's friendship. Balbus and Matius submitted to luxuriate in novel satisfactions, Brutus and Cassius chose to eradicate the offense.

There were no social principles involved in the assassination of Caesar. It was a wanton, wholly irresponsible act prompted by outraged and circumscribed dignitas (Caesar's assumption of the dictatorship for life in June 44, marked by the issue of the coin DICT (IN) PERPETUO, was simply the last straw.) The assassins gave no thought whatsoever to the consequences of their action. As Cicero put it: "The deed was done with the courage of men, but with the planning of children" (Ad Att XIV, 21).

Some years earlier, in the pro Marcello, Cicero had made the vital connection: "I am filled with sorrow as I think how the very existence of the res publica, which ought to be immortal, hangs upon the thread of one human life". Caesar himself had seen it: "It is more important for Rome than for myself that I should survive. I have long been sated with power and glory; but, should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace. A new Civil War will break out under far worse condition than the last" (Suet. DJ 86). Given his apparent lack of concern for his physical safety Caesar presumably relied on the common sense of his peers to make the same connection. They didn't. And really they should not have been expected to (So what if all the heavens fall; I am Marcus Junius Brutus and could do no other!).

When Caesar died it was a case of "Apres Moi le déluge". With a vengeance. When the floodgates opened up it was not Cato and revived oligarchy but Augustus and refined autocracy that came hurtling out.

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Beware The Ides Of March!?

Suspensions Of Disbelief

Hugh Shapland Swinny—Nationalism And Anti-Theology In Ireland At The Start Of The Twentieth Century

The Wage The Faithful Earn

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