Julius Caesar

The Asssassination of Julius Caesar

Hoping to save the Republic, the conspirators murder Caesar. However, the death of Caesar does not restore the old freedoms.

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[March 16, B.C. 44.] The tyrannicides, as the murderers of Caesar called themselves, had expected that the Roman mob would be caught by the cry of liberty, and would hail them as the deliverers of their country. They found that the people did not respond as they had anticipated. The city was stunned. The Forum was empty. The gladiators, whom they had secreted in the Temple, broke out and plundered the unprotected booths. A dead and ominous silence prevailed everywhere. At length a few citizens collected in knots. Brutus spoke, and Cassius spoke. They extolled their old constitution. They said that Caesar had overthrown it; that they had slain him, not from private hatred or private interest, but to restore the liberties of Rome. The audience was dead and cold. No answering shouts came back to reassure them. The citizens could not forget that these men who spoke so fairly had a few days before fawned on Caesar as the saviour of the Empire, and, as if human honors were too little, had voted a temple to him as a god. The fire would not kindle. Lepidus came in with troops, and occupied the Forum. The conspirators withdrew into the Capitol, where Cicero and others joined them, and the night was passed in earnest discussion what next was to be done. They had intended to declare that Caesar had been a tyrant, to throw his body into the Tiber, and to confiscate his property to the State. They discovered to their consternation that, if Caesar was a tyrant, all his acts would be invalidated. The praetors and tribunes held their offices, the governors their provinces, under Caesar's nomination. If Caesar's acts were set aside, Decimus Brutus was not governor of North Italy, nor Marcus Brutus of Macedonia; nor was Dolabella consul, as he had instantly claimed to be on Caesar's death. Their names, and the names of many more whom Caesar had promoted, would have to be laid before the Comitia, and in the doubtful humor of the people they little liked the risk. That the dilemma should have been totally unforeseen was characteristic of the men and their capacity.

Assassination of Julius Caesar

Nor was this the worst. Lands had been allotted to Caesar's troops. Many thousands of colonists were waiting to depart for Carthage and Corinth and other places where settlements had been provided for them. These arrangements would equally fall through, and it was easy to know what would follow. Antony and Lepidus, too, had to be reckoned with. Antony, as the surviving consul, was the supreme lawful authority in the city; and Lepidus and his soldiers might have a word to say if the body of their great commander was flung into the river as the corpse of a malefactor. Interest and fear suggested more moderate counsels. The conspirators determined that Caesar's appointments must stand; his acts, it seemed, must stand also; and his remains, therefore, must be treated with respect. Imagination took another flight. Caesar's death might be regarded as a sacrifice, an expiatory offering for the sins of the nation; and the divided parties might embrace in virtue of the atonement. They agreed to send for Antony, and invite him to assist in saving society; and they asked Cicero to be their messenger. Cicero, great and many as his faults might be, was not a fool. He declined to go on so absurd a mission. He knew Antony too well to dream that he could be imposed on by fantastic illusions. Antony, he said, would promise anything, but if they trusted him, they would have reason to repent. 1 Others, however, undertook the office. Antony agreed to meet them, and the next morning the Senate was assembled in the Temple of Terra.

Antony presided as consul, and after a few words from him Cicero rose. He disapproved of the course which his friends were taking; he foresaw what must come of it; but he had been overruled, and he made the best of what he could not help. He gave a sketch of Roman political history. He went back to the secession to Mount Aventine. He spoke of the Gracchi, of Saturninus and Glaucia, of Marius and Sylla, of Sertorius and Pompey, of Caesar and the still unforgotten Clodius. He described the fate of Athens and of other Grecian states into which faction had penetrated. If Rome continued divided, the conquerors would rule over its ruins; therefore he appealed to the two factions to forget their rivalries and to return to peace and concord. But they must decide at once, for the signs were already visible of a fresh conflict.

"Caesar is slain," he said. "The Capitol is occupied by the optimates, the Forum by soldiers, and the people are full of terror. Is violence to be again answered by more violence? These many years we have lived less like men than like wild beasts in cycles of recurring revenge. Let us forget the past. Let us draw a veil over all that has been done, not looking too curiously into the acts of any man. Much may be said to show that Caesar deserved his death, and much against those who have killed him. But to raise the question will breed fresh quarrels; and if we are wise we shall regard the scene which we have witnessed as a convulsion of nature which is now at an end. Let Caesar's ordinances, let Caesar's appointments be maintained. None such must be heard of again. But what is done cannot be undone." 2

Admirable advice, were it as easy to act on good counsel as to give it. The murder of such a man as Caesar was not to be so easily smoothed over. But the delusive vision seemed for a moment to please. The Senate passed an act of oblivion. The agitation in the army was quieted when the men heard that their lands were secure. But there were two other questions which required an answer, and an immediate one. Caesar's body, after remaining till evening on the floor of the senate-house, had been carried home in the dusk in a litter by three of his servants, and was now lying in his palace. If it was not to be thrown into the Tiber, what was to be done with it? Caesar had left a will, which was safe with his other papers in the hands of Antony. Was the will to be read and recognized? Though Cicero had advised in the Senate that the discussion whether Caesar had deserved death should not be raised, yet it was plain to him and to every one that, unless Caesar was held guilty of conspiring against the Constitution, the murder was and would be regarded as a most execrable crime. He dreaded the effect of a public funeral. He feared that the will might contain provisions which would rouse the passions of the people. Though Caesar was not for various reasons to be pronounced a tyrant, Cicero advised that he should be buried privately, as if his name was under a cloud, and that his property should be escheated to the nation. But the humor of conciliation and the theory of "the atoning sacrifice" had caught the Senate. Caesar had done great things for his country. It would please the army that he should have an honorable sepulture.

[March, B.C. 44.] If they had refused, the result would not have been greatly different. Sooner or later, when the stunning effects of the shock had passed off, the murder must have appeared to Rome and Italy in its true colors. The optimates talked of the Constitution. The Constitution in their hands had been a parody of liberty. Caesar's political life had been spent in wresting from them the powers which they had abused. Caesar had punished the oppressors of the provinces. Caesar had forced the nobles to give the people a share of the public lands. Caesar had opened the doors of citizenship to the libertini, the distant colonists, and the provincials. It was for this that the Senate hated him. For this they had fought against him; for this they murdered him. No Roman had ever served his country better in peace or war, and thus he had been rewarded.

Such thoughts were already working in tens of thousands of breasts. A feeling of resentment was fast rising, with as yet no certain purpose before it. In this mood the funeral could not fail to lead to some fierce explosion. For this reason Antony had pressed for it, and the Senate had given their consent.

The body was brought down to the Forum and placed upon the Rostra. The dress had not been changed; the gown, gashed with daggers and soaked in blood, was still wrapped about it. The will was read first. It reminded the Romans that they had been always in Caesar's thoughts, for he had left each citizen seventy-five drachmas (nearly 3 of English money), and he had left them his gardens on the Tiber as a perpetual recreation ground, a possession which Domitius Ahenobarbus had designed for himself before Pharsalia. He had made Octavius his general heir; among the second heirs, should Octavius fail, he had named Decimus Brutus, who had betrayed him. A deep movement of emotion passed through the crowd when, besides the consideration for themselves, they heard from this record, which could not lie, a proof of the confidence which had been so abused. Antony, after waiting for the passion to work, then came forward.

Cicero had good reason for his fear of Antony. He was a loose soldier, careless in his life, ambitious, extravagant, little more scrupulous perhaps than any average Roman gentleman. But for Caesar his affection was genuine. The people were in intense expectation. He produced the body, all bloody as it had fallen, and he bade a herald first read the votes which the Senate had freshly passed, heaping those extravagant honors upon Caesar which he had not desired, and the oath which the senators had each personally taken to defend him from violence. He then spoke--spoke with the natural vehemence of a friend, yet saying nothing which was not literally true. The services of Caesar neither needed nor permitted the exaggeration of eloquence.

He began with the usual encomiums. He spoke of Caesar's family, his birth, his early history, his personal characteristics, his thrifty private habits, his public liberality; he described him as generous to his friends, forbearing with his enemies, without evil in himself, and reluctant to believe evil of others.

"Power in most men," he said, "has brought their faults to light. Power in Caesar brought into prominence his excellences. Prosperity did not make him insolent for it gave him a sphere which corresponded to his nature. His first services in Spain a deserved triumph; of his laws I could speak forever. His campaigns in Gaul are known to you all. That land from which the Teutons and Cimbri poured over the Alps is now as well ordered as Italy. Caesar would have added Germany and Britain to your Empire, but his enemies would not have it so. They regarded the Commonwealth as the patrimony of themselves. They brought him home. They went on with their usurpations till you yourselves required his help. He set you free. He set Spain free. He labored for peace with Pompey, but Pompey preferred to go into Greece, to bring the powers of the East upon you, and he perished in his obstinacy.

"Caesar took no honor to himself for this victory. He abhorred the necessity of it. He took no revenge. He praised those who had been faithful to Pompey, and he blamed Pharnaces for deserting him. He was sorry for Pompey's death, and he treated his murderers as they deserved. He settled Egypt and Armenia. He would have disposed of the Parthians had not fresh seditions recalled him to Italy. He quelled those seditions. He restored peace in Africa and Spain, and again his one desire was to spare his fellow-citizens. There was in him an 'inbred goodness.' 3 He was always the same--never carried away by anger, and never spoilt by success. He did not retaliate for the past; he never tried by severity to secure himself for the future. His effort throughout was to save all who would allow themselves to be saved. He repaired old acts of injustice. He restored the families of those who had been proscribed by Sylla, but he burnt unread the correspondence of Pompey and Scipio, that those whom it compromised might neither suffer injury nor fear injury. You honored him as your father; you loved him as your benefactor; you made him chief of the State, not being curious of titles, but regarding the most which you could give as less than he had deserved at your hands. Toward the gods he was High Priest. To you he was Consul; to the army he was Imperator; to the enemies of his country, Dictator. In sum he was Pater Patriae. And this your father, your Pontifex, this hero, whose person was declared inviolable, lies dead--dead, not by disease or age, not by war or visitation of God, but here at home, by conspiracy within your own walls, slain in the Senate-house, the warrior unarmed, the peacemaker naked to his foes, the righteous judge in the seat of judgment. He whom no foreign enemy could hurt has been killed by his fellow-countrymen--he, who had so often shown mercy, by those whom he had spared. Where, Caesar, is your love for mankind? Where is the sacredness of your life? Where are your laws? Here you lie murdered--here in the Forum, through which so often you marched in triumph wreathed with garlands; here upon the Rostra from which you were wont to address your people. Alas for your gray hairs dabbled in blood! alas for this lacerated robe in which you were dressed for the sacrifice!" 4

Antony's words, as he well knew, were a declaration of irreconcilable war against the murderers and their friends. As his impassioned language did its work the multitude rose into fury. They cursed the conspirators. They cursed the Senate who had sate by while the deed was being done. They had been moved to fury by the murder of Clodius. Ten thousand Clodiuses, had he been all which their imagination painted him, could not equal one Caesar. They took on themselves the order of the funeral. They surrounded the body, which was reverently raised by the officers of the Forum. Part proposed to carry it to the Temple of Jupiter, in the Capitol, and to burn it under the eyes of the assassins; part to take it into the Senate-house and use the meeting-place of the Optimates a second time as the pyre of the people's friend. A few legionaries, perhaps to spare the city a general conflagration, advised that it should be consumed where it lay. The platform was torn up and the broken timbers piled into a heap. Chairs and benches were thrown on to it, the whole crowd rushing wildly to add a chip or splinter. Actors flung in their dresses, musicians their instruments, soldiers their swords. Women added their necklaces and scarves. Mothers brought up their children to contribute toys and playthings. On the pile so composed the body of Caesar was reduced to ashes. The remains were collected with affectionate care and deposited in the tomb of the Caesars, in the Campus Martius. The crowd, it was observed, was composed largely of libertini and of provincials whom Caesar had enfranchised. The demonstrations of sorrow were most remarkable among the Jews, crowds of whom continued for many nights to collect and wail in the Forum at the scene of the singular ceremony.

When the people were in such a mood, Rome was no place for the conspirators. They scattered over the Empire; Decimus Brutus, Marcus Brutus, Cassius, Cimber, Trebonius retreated to the provinces which Caesar had assigned them, the rest clinging to the shelter of their friends. The legions--a striking tribute to Roman discipline--remained by their eagles, faithful to their immediate duties, and obedient to their officers, till it could be seen how events would turn. Lepidus joined the army in Gaul; Antony continued in Rome, holding the administration in his hands and watching the action of the Senate. Caesar was dead. But Caesar still lived. "It was not possible that the grave should hold him." The people said that he was a god, and had gone back to heaven, where his star had been seen ascending; 5 his spirit remained on earth, and the vain blows of the assassins had been but "malicious mockery." "We have killed the king," exclaimed Cicero in the bitterness of his disenchantment, "but the kingdom is with us still;" "we have taken away the tyrant: the tyranny survives." Caesar had not overthrown the oligarchy; their own incapacity, their own selfishness, their own baseness had overthrown them. Caesar had been but the reluctant instrument of the power which metes out to men the inevitable penalties of their own misdeeds. They had dreamt that the Constitution was a living force which would revive of itself as soon as its enemy was gone. They did not know that it was dead already, and that they had themselves destroyed it. The Constitution was but an agreement by which the Roman people had consented to abide for their common good. It had ceased to be for the common good. The experience of fifty miserable years had proved that it meant the supremacy of the rich, maintained by the bought votes of demoralized electors. The soil of Italy, the industry and happiness of tens of millions of mankind, from the Rhine to the Euphrates, had been the spoil of five hundred families and their relatives and dependents, of men whose occupation was luxury, and whose appetites were for monstrous pleasures. The self-respect of reasonable men could no longer tolerate such a rule in Italy or out of it. In killing Caesar the optimates had been as foolish as they were treacherous; for Caesar's efforts had been to reform the Constitution, not to abolish it. The civil war had risen from their dread of his second consulship, which they had feared would make an end of their corruptions; and that the Constitution should be purged of the poison in its veins was the sole condition on which its continuance was possible. The obstinacy, the ferocity, the treachery of the aristocracy had compelled Caesar to crush them; and the more desperate their struggles the more absolute the necessity became. But he alone could have restored as much of popular liberty as was consistent with the responsibilities of such a government as the Empire required. In Caesar alone were combined the intellect and the power necessary for such a work; and they had killed him, and in doing so had passed final sentence on themselves. Not as realities any more, but as harmless phantoms, the forms of the old Republic were henceforth to persist. In the army only remained the imperial consciousness of the honor and duty of Roman citizens, To the army, therefore, the rule was transferred. The Roman nation had grown as the oak grows, self-developed in severe morality, each citizen a law to himself, and therefore capable of political freedom in an unexampled degree. All organizations destined to endure spring from forces inherent in themselves, and must grow freely, or they will not grow at all. When the tree reaches maturity, decay sets in; if it be left standing, the disintegration of the fibre goes swiftly forward; if the stem is severed from the root, the destroying power is arrested, and the timber will endure a thousand years. So it was with Rome. The Constitution under which the Empire had sprung up was poisoned, and was brought to a violent end before it had affected materially for evil the masses of the people. The solid structure was preserved--not to grow any longer, not to produce a new Camillus or a new Regulus, a new Scipio Africanus or a new Tiberius Gracchus, but to form an endurable shelter for civilized mankind, until a fresh spiritual life was developed out of Palestine to remodel the conscience of humanity.

A gleam of hope opened to Cicero in the summer. Octavius, who was in Greece at the time of the murder, came to Rome to claim his inheritance. He was but eighteen, too young for the burden which was thrown upon him; and being unknown, he had the confidence of the legions to win. The army, dispersed over the provinces, had as yet no collective purpose. Antony, it is possible, was jealous of him, and looked on himself as Caesar's true representative and avenger. Octavius, finding Antony hostile, or at least indifferent to his claims, played with the Senate with cool foresight till he felt the ground firm under his feet. Cicero boasted that he would use Octavius to ruin Antony, and would throw him over when he had served his purpose. "Cicero will learn," Octavius said, when the words were reported to him, "that I shall not be played with so easily."

[B.C. 44-43.] [B.C. 43.] For a year the confusion lasted; two of Caesar's officers, Hirtius and Pausa, were chosen consuls by the senatorial party, to please the legions; and Antony contended dubiously with them and Decimus Brutus for some months in the North of Italy. But Antony joined Lepidus, and the Gallic legions with judicial fitness brought Cicero's dreams to the ground. Cicero's friend, Plancus, who commanded in Normandy and Belgium, attempted a faint resistance, but was made to yield to the resolution of his troops. Octavius and Antony came to an understanding; and Caesar's two generals, who were true to his memory, and Octavius, who was the heir of his name, crossed the Alps, at the head of the united army of Gaul, to punish the murder and restore peace to the world. No resistance was possible. Many of the senators, like Cicero, though they had borne no part in the assassination, had taken the guilt of it upon themselves by the enthusiasm of their approval. They were all men who had sworn fidelity to Caesar, and had been ostentatious in their profession of devotion to him. It had become too plain that from such persons no repentance was to be looked for. They were impelled by a malice or a fanaticism which clemency could not touch or reason influence. So long as they lived they would still conspire; and any weapons, either of open war or secret treachery, would seem justifiable to them in the cause which they regarded as sacred. Caesar himself would, no doubt, have again pardoned them. Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus were men of more common mould. The murderers of Caesar, and those who had either instigated them secretly or applauded them afterward, were included in a proscription list, drawn by retributive justice on the model of Sylla's. Such of them as were in Italy were immediately killed. Those in the provinces, as if with the curse of Cain upon their heads, came one by one to miserable ends. Brutus and Cassius fought hard and fell at Philippi. In three years the tyrannicides of the ides of March, with their aiders and abettors, were all dead, some killed in battle, some in prison, some dying by their own hand--slain with the daggers with which they had stabbed their master.

Out of the whole party the fate of one only deserves special notice, a man whose splendid talents have bought forgiveness for his faults, and have given him a place in the small circle of the really great whose memory is not allowed to die.

[Dec. 7, B.C. 43.] After the dispersion of the conspirators which followed Caesar's funeral, Cicero had remained in Rome. His timidity seemed to have forsaken him, and he had striven, with an energy which recalled his brightest days, to set the Constitution again upon its feet. Antony charged him in the Senate with having been the contriver of Caesar's death. He replied with invectives fierce and scurrilous as those which he had heaped upon Catiline and Clodius. A time had been when he had affected to look on Antony as his preserver. Now there was no imaginable infamy in which he did not steep his name. He spoke of the murder as the most splendid achievement recorded in history, and he regretted only that he had not been taken into counsel by the deliverers of their country. Antony would not then have been alive to rekindle civil discord. When Antony left Rome, Cicero was for a few months again the head of the State. He ruled the Senate, controlled the Treasury, corresponded with the conspirators in the provinces, and advised their movements. He continued sanguine himself, and he poured spirit into others. No one can refuse admiration to the last blaze of his expiring powers. But when he heard that Antony and Lepidus and Octavius had united, and were coming into Italy with the whole Western army, he saw that all was over. He was now sixty-three--too old for hope. He could hardly have wished to live, and this time he was well assured that there would be no mercy for him. Caesar would have spared a man whom he esteemed in spite of his infirmities. But there was no Caesar now, and fair speeches would serve his turn no longer. He retired from the city with his brother Quintus, and had some half-formed purpose of flying to Brutus, who was still in arms in Macedonia. He even embarked, but without a settled resolution, and he allowed himself to be driven back by a storm. Theatrical even in extremities, he thought of returning to Rome and of killing himself in Caesar's house, that he might bring the curse of his blood upon Octavius. In these uncertainties he drifted into his own villa at Formiae, 6 saying in weariness, and with a sad note of his old self-importance, that he would die in the country which he had so often saved. Here, on the 4th of December, B.C. 43, Popilius Loenas, an officer of Antony's, came to find him. Peasants from the neighborhood brought news to the villa that the soldiers were approaching. His servants thrust him into a litter and carried him down through the woods toward the sea. Loenas followed and overtook him. To his slaves he had been always the gentlest of masters. They would have given their lives in his defence if he would have allowed them; but he bade them set the litter down and save themselves. He thrust out his head between the curtains, and it was instantly struck off.

So ended Cicero, a tragic combination of magnificent talents, high aspirations, and true desire to do right, with an infirmity of purpose and a latent insincerity of character which neutralized and could almost make us forget his nobler qualities. It cannot be said of Cicero that he was blind to the faults of the party to which he attached himself. To him we owe our knowledge of what the Roman aristocrats really were, and of the hopelessness of expecting that they could have been trusted any longer with the administration of the Empire, if the Empire itself was to endure. Cicero's natural place was at Caesar's side; but to Caesar alone of his contemporaries he was conscious of an inferiority which was intolerable to him. In his own eyes he was always the first person. He had been made unhappy by the thought that posterity might rate Pompey above himself. Closer acquaintance had reassured him about Pompey, but in Caesar he was conscious of a higher presence, and he rebelled against the humiliating acknowledgment. Supreme as an orator he could always be, and an order of things was, therefore, most desirable where oratory held the highest place. Thus he chose his part with the "boni," whom he despised while he supported them, drifting on through vacillation into treachery, till "the ingredients of the poisoned chalice" were "commended to his own lips."

In Cicero Nature half-made a great man and left him uncompleted. Our characters are written in our forms, and the bust of Cicero is the key to his history. The brow is broad and strong, the nose large, the lips tightly compressed, the features lean and keen from restless intellectual energy. The loose bending figure, the neck, too weak for the weight of the head, explain the infirmity of will, the passion, the cunning, the vanity, the absence of manliness and veracity. He was born into an age of violence with which he was too feeble to contend. The gratitude of mankind for his literary excellence will forever preserve his memory from too harsh a judgment.

[1] Philippic ii. 35.

[2] Abridged from Dion Cassius, who probably gives no more than the traditionary version of Cicero's words.

[3] [Greek: emphutos chraestotaes] are Dion Cassius's words. Antony's language was differently reported, and perhaps there was no literal record of it. Dion Cassius, however, can hardly have himself composed the version which he gives in his history, for he calls the speech as ill-timed as it was brilliant.

[4] Abridged from Dion Cassius. xliv. 36.

[5] "In deorum numerum relatus est non ore modo decernentium sed et persuasione vulgi."--Suetonius.

[6] Near Gaeta.

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