On March 15, 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of senators hoping to restore the Roman republic.
Caesar Murdered on the Ides of March
In early 44 B.C., after defeating Pompey and his legions in a civil war, Caesar emerged as the most powerful man in Rome and accepted the role of dictator in perpetuity. Many senators resented Caesar’s power and feared that he had monarchical ambitions that threatened the future of the Roman Republic.
Caesar further alienated the Senate when he failed to rise to greet a group of senators bestowing new honors upon him. It was this incident, according to second century historian Suetonius, “in particular that roused deadly hatred against him.”
A group of senators, calling themselves the “Liberators,” believed that Caesar had grown too powerful and needed to be killed. Among the conspirators was Marcus Junius Brutus, a descendant of Junius Brutus, who in 509 B.C. had killed Tarquin Superbus, the last king of Rome. Marcus Brutus was a close associate of Caesar, but he was persuaded to join the Liberators.
The conspirators decided that they would attack “while he sat in the Senate, where he would be by himself since non-Senators would not be admitted, and where the many conspirators could hide their daggers beneath their togas,” according to Nicolaus of Damascus, a Greek historian writing several years after the assassination. They planned to commit the murder on March 15, just days before Caesar was set to leave on a military campaign in Parthia.
Suetonius and Nicolaus wrote that Caesar had been warned by a soothsayer to beware of danger on the Ides of March—March 15. Caesar encountered a number of bad omens before his death and his wife urged him to stay home. However, his trusted friend Brutus convinced him to “cast aside the forebodings of all these people, and come,” according to Nicolaus.
Marc Antony, Caesar’s co-consul, heard that there was a plot on Caesar’s life and raced down to the Senate to warn the dictator. However, as Brutus led Caesar into the Senate chamber, Anthony was delayed by Brutus Albinus, “who purposely engaged him in a lengthy conversation,” according to first century Greek historian Plutarch.
When Caesar sat down, Senator Tillius Cimber stepped forward and tried to present him with a petition to end the exile of his brother, but Caesar repeatedly rebuffed his request. Cimber then launched the conspirators’ attack; Suetonius describes: “Cimber caught his toga by both shoulders; then as Caesar cried, ‘Why, this is violence!’ one of the Cascas stabbed him from one side just below the throat.”
Servilius Casca’s blow caught Caesar in the neck, but it was not a deep blow. According to Plutarch, Caesar exclaimed, “You villain, Casca, what are you doing?”
Caesar tried to fight back against Casca, but he was immediately surrounded by the other conspirators, who had pulled out the daggers they had hidden in their togas. Plutarch wrote, “Those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all.”
Caesar was stabbed 23 times by the conspirators, including Brutus. According to Plutarch, “When he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood.”
Suetonius recorded that he uttered “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?’”
The conspirators quietly marched out of the Senate chamber, leaving Caesar to die at the foot of Pompey’s statue. Of the 23 wounds Caesar suffered, just one to the heart proved to be fatal, the physician Antistius determined.
Primary Source Accounts of Caesar’s Death
“The Parallel Lives,” by Plutarch (First Century A.D.)
“The Lives of the Twelve Caesars,” by C. Suetonius Tranquillus (121 A.D.):
Later Developments: Civil War
Caesar’s assassination failed to restore democracy to Rome; instead, it marked the end of the Roman republic. His death sparked a civil war in which Caesar’s heir Octavian, Marc Antony, and Lepidus defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius.
After defeating Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian established himself as the emperor Augustus, the first in a line of emperors, initiating an era of stability considered the high point in Rome’s history and known as the Pax Romana.
Sources in this Story
- National Geographic: Ides of March Marked Murder of Julius Caesar
- Eyewitness to History: The Assassination of Julius Caesar, 44 BC
- De Imperatoribus Romanis: Augustus (31 B.C.—14 A.D.)
- VROMA: Julius Caesar: Historical Background
- The BBC: The Romans
- Livius: Brutus
Biography: Julius Caesar
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 100 B.C. to a family that “had noble, patrician roots, although they were neither rich nor influential in this period,” writes Professor Barbara F. McManus of The College of New Rochelle.
In 61 B.C., Caesar became propraetor in the province of Further Spain, later joining his future rivals Pompey and Crassus in the First Triumvirate. But infighting began when Pompey switched to the Optimate faction in 56 B.C., while Caesar consolidated power in Gaul.
Realizing the Optimates would persecute him upon his return to Rome, Caesar famously “crossed the Rubicon” from Gaul into Italy with his army in 49 B.C., sparking a civil war with Pompey and the republicans. Caesar marched on Rome and quelled Pompey and the senatorial forces.
Caesar then began to form a personality cult around himself, issuing “coins with his likeness” and having his own statues “adorned like…the gods.” The Senate frequently bestowed Caesar with honors, including inscriptions such as “to the unconquerable god,” writes McManus.
Biography: Marcus Brutus
Marcus Junius Brutus Caepio was born around 85 B.C. to a father who was a politician with the same name. Brutus’ father was killed in 78 B.C., and his mother was one of Gaius Julius Caesar’s mistresses.
When Marcus Brutus was wrongly accused of being involved in a plot to kill Gnaeus Pompey, Caesar helped get him out of trouble. He started his political career in 53 B.C., and was a military commander. He was always a conservative, siding against Caesar, though they were friends. When Caesar took power, he made Brutus governor of Cisalpine Gaul for two years.
After Caesar’s assassination, Brutus and his conspirators were in danger, as many Roman citizens loved their emperor. He left the city and went to Crete, where he and Cassius built an army. In 42 B.C., they were defeated by Marc Antony and Octavian in Macedonia, and Brutus committed suicide after.
Related Topic: Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”
Cummings Guides provides a plot summary of William Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar,” with themes, speech patterns, metaphors and study topics. The plot, loosely based on contemporary historians’ accounts, follows Brutus and Cassius leading the assassination of Caesar, and the resulting war against the forces of Antony and Octavian.
Shakespeare portrays Brutus as a nobleman fighting for republicanism against tyranny, but shows the darker sides of the conflict by highlighting Caesar’s sense of betrayal when attacked by his former ally.
“Julius Caesar” is available at the Dulcinea Media Store.