The Assassination of Julius Caesar

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Why was Caesar assassinated? To what degree was his murder his own fault?

Born in 100 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar[1] is one of history’s most prolific conquerors, playing a critical role in the gradual transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire[2]. Born into an ancient patrician family, the gens Iulia, Caesar was successful in both the political and military spheres of Roman life, having achieved great victories in the Gallic Wars and Civil War, and having achieved the office of dictator perpetuo by his death on the Ides of March 44 BC, the result of a conspiracy by a group of Romans, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, known as ‘the Liberators’[3]. Whilst many ancient and contemporary writers assign the reason for Caesar’s assassination to his display of arrogance and tyrannical nature, it was the manner in which he used his powers to manipulate the magistrates, particularly through controlling the election of consuls and reforming the senate, and his implementation of the policy of clementia that brought about his assassination. It was through the introduction of these political reforms and policies that Caesar drained the Senate’s political dignitas and libertas, and thus Caesar’s murder, to a fair degree, is seen to be his own fault.

The existing evidence presents a rudimentary issue of analysis due to the fact that important writers, such as the contemporary and political opponent of Caesar, Cicero, and those writing long after his death, such as Suetonius, whose concern was the moral shortcomings of his subjects, were determined, for the purpose of their own arguments, to construct a negative image of Caesar.[4] It was this mindset which presented him as a ruthless tyrant, determined to succeed, even at the cost of the res publica.[5] However, whilst his aims and ideologies associated with his political reforms remain debatable, there is little doubt that Caesar was an ambitious politician, who, through the implementation of his reforms and policies, aroused resentment amongst the senatorial elite, lead to his assassination.[6]

For the Republican senatorial aristocracy, the purpose of public life was the procurement of magistracies, principally the consulship, which would sanction one’s heritage or glorify one’s family.[7] A consul was the highest-ranking magistratus ordinarius, with two elected each year, and possessing supreme power in both military and civil matters.[8] Consuls were elected by the Comitia Centuriata, however their powers were only formally assumed upon the ratification of their election by the Comitia Curiata, which granted the consuls their imperium through enacting the lex curiata de imperio.[9]

Throughout his dictatorship, Caesar had dominated the office of consul, having himself elected as sole consul in the years 48, 46, and 45 BC, thus going against the republican tradition of a shared consulship.[10]  However, it was Caesar’s control over the consulship elections that was seen by the senatorial elite to have drained this office of its dignitas, through removing the political competition amongst aspiring politicians.[11] Whilst he did not abolish elections entirely, Caesar’s imperium magnum sanctioned his control over elections, whereby his proposals were always conceded, as is recorded by the Greek historian and philosopher Nicolaus of Damascus:

…that the people were now rendered powerless to make appointments to office, and that Caesar was now given the right of investiture to bestow upon whomsoever he pleased. An ordinance voted not long before provided this.[12]

It was through this that many of his followers were rewarded with positions as magistrates, and aspiring senators were now only able to ascend to the consulship on the favour of Caesar, such as occurred with the one-day consulship of Gaius Caninius Rebilus in 45 BC, as is recorded by the philosopher and statesman Cicero:[13]

Caesar … announced the election of a consul to hold office till the 1st of January, which was the next day. Thus I may inform you that no one breakfasted in the consulship of Caninius. However, no mischief was done while he was consul, for he was of such astonishing vigilance that throughout his consulship he never had a wink of sleep.[14]

It is through this anecdote that Cicero stresses the control Caesar had over this prestigious magistracy, in vast contrast to the traditional Republican power of the Comitia Centuriata. His further comment also reveals his opinion as to how, by means of controlling who would rise to the post of consul, Caesar had turned what had once been the most respected and powerful of political magistracies, into an insignificant imitation of its former use:[15]

You think this a joke, for you are not here. If you had been you would not have refrained from tears. There is a great deal else that I might tell you; for there are countless transactions of the same kind.[16]

There is little doubt that Caesar’s actions were seen by many as a serious departure from traditional provisions and an abolition of traditional opportunities to obtain political dignitas.[17] Therefore, with the Senate perceiving a constraint to their opportunities to obtain political dignitas, Caesar can be credited, to a fair degree, with causing his own murder.

The Roman political institution of the Senate also changed its appearance during Caesar’s period of power, heightening Senatorial resentment towards the great general. An ancient political institution within Rome, being founded in the first days of the city, the Roman Senate was the predominant branch of the government, having control over a considerable amount of Roman politics.[18] In 47 BC, upon Caesar’s return to Rome, the ranks of the Senate had been severely depleted by civil war. Thus he used his censorial powers to appoint a number of new senators, consequently raising the senate’s membership to 900.[19]

Caesar had come to power as a faction leader, whose party was comprised of senators, equites and centurions, businessmen, provincials, and kings. After his victory against the Pompeian forces, these men required suitable rewards for their loyalty, and for some this would mean entry into the Senate; thus, the new senators would be his adherents.[20] The anecdote recorded by the Roman biographer Suetonius, of the trousered Gauls who did not know their way to the Senate-House, merely parodies the idea that, on Caesar’s order, a small number of notables from Gaul were admitted to the Roman Senate[21]: ‘Caesar led the Gauls in triumph, he led them into the Senate too. The Gaul’s have taken off their trousers, and put on the senator’s stripe.’[22]

The senators were well aware that, through further expansions of their numbers, their opportunities financial gain and political power would decrease, and their prestige obtained through gaining political dignitas, achieved through political competition, would be obliterated. [23] Traditionally, only noble natives of Rome were able to sit in its Senate, however Caesar’s broadening of the base of the Senatorial Order allowed entrants from various provinces of the Roman Empire in an attempt to make the Senate more representative and egalitarian.[24] Whilst modern authors perceive this to have been Caesar’s aim, the Senatorial elite saw this action as Caesar’s attempt merely to fill the Senate with men who would be indebted to him for their political elevation, and who would outnumber the aristocrats who had originally sat in the House, thus ensuring a Caesarean majority and a Senate which would act as nothing more than a ‘rubber-stamp’ to his wishes.[25] Cicero, indeed, once complained on an occasion that his name had been added to the signatories of a senatorial degree, although he had not even been present at the meeting: ‘The truth is, you might just as reasonably suppose I was concerned in that decree to which my name was subscribed … though in fact, I was then absent from Rome’.[26] Thus, with the Senate’s belief that further increases in their numbers would dilute the prestige obtained through political dignitas, Caesar can be credited, to a fair degree, with causing his own murder.

Contrasting against the policy of Sulla, who introduced proscriptions in order to dispose of political enemies, Caesar adopted the policy of clementia, or mercy, toward former adversaries, in an attempt to win support from many throughout Italy. Under the Republic, clementia was a virtue that was to be implemented by Roman generals on the state’s behalf, a power only to be held by an autocrat. The recipients of this benevolence were thought to be either defeated foreigners, captured during Rome’s wars of expansion, or subjects living in the provinces.[27] However, under the dictatorship of Caesar, clementia became the virtue of an individual who exercised it toward his equals, a practise that went against Republican tradition.[28] Through his famous act of clemency, enacted after the capitulation of Corfinium, Caesar hoped to portray himself as a man of forgiveness, rather than of terror, as is stated in a letter that was widely distributed:

Let us try whether in this way we can regain the good will of all people and achieve lasting victory, because others have not been able by cruelty to escape hatred and to hold on to victory for any length of time – except only for Sulla whom I am not going to imitate. Let this be our new way of conquering: to protect ourselves by mercy and generosity.[29]

However, Caesar’s contemporaries saw things differently; they presented Caesar as a tenacious violator of traditional law and ancestral customs,[30] and saw ‘clemency [as] his undoing, but for which nothing of the sort could have happened to him’.[31] When Caesar first bestowed clementia on the Pompeian forces at Corfinium in 49 BC, he was bequeathing this mercy, not upon defeated barbarians, but rather fellow Roman citizens who were now bound to him in a belittling debt of gratitude.[32] The Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca[33] wrote that a person ‘has lost his life who owes it another … he is a lasting spectacle of another’s prowess.’[34] Thus, the concept itself was seen to carry notions of an imbalanced relationship between a superior and inferior, in which the spared now owed his life to the granter of the clemency.[35]

Nicolaus of Damascus attributes the significant grievances of the Liberators to the resentment of Caesar’s clementia, stating that ‘many also hated him because they had been saved by him although he had been irreproachable in his behavior toward them in every respect’.[36] Caesar was supposed to be their equal, thus the insinuation that he was now their superior, and had the power to restrict their libertas caused much resentment towards him. [37] Such an attitude is revealed through Cicero’s writings, in which the orator is seen to feel both gratitude towards Caesar, as he was a recipient of his clementia, and also apprehension in regards to the dictator’s policy.[38] Throughout his speech in 46 BC, the pro Marcello, Cicero is seen to be praising clemency alongside hopes of Caesar’s renewal of the traditional res publica:

It would be quite impossible to refrain from commenting on this remarkable leniency, this unaccustomed and indeed unprecedented clemency, this unique moderation on the part of a ruler whose power is supreme, this unbelievable and almost superhuman wisdom…[39]

However, Cicero also presents his disapproval and uncertainty of clemency through presenting a ‘middle style’ between praise and contempt. [40] The excessiveness of his admiration for the clementia Caesaris leaves doubt as to its sincerity; when Caesar is commended for his compassionate actions, through which he surmounts the nature of the conqueror, Cicero is exaggeratingly emphasising the idea that Caesar has, as subjugator in civil war, surpassed the limits of his traditional powers and, thus, is exhibiting the devices of a dynast.[41] Such feelings were most likely shared amongst the senatorial elite, who did not consider themselves to be of a lower status than Caesar, and thus should not be receivers of clemency bestowed by the dictator.[42]

Yet another example of elite discontent with Caesar’s policy of clementia stems from Roman politician and statesman, Cato the Younger. The Greek biographer and historian Plutarch records that, having sided against Caesar, Cato, despite his men’s offers to approach Caesar on his behalf, chose suicide over the humiliation of accepting any overtures of friendship and being deprived of his libertas:[43] ‘I am unwilling to be under obligation to the tyrant for his illegal acts. And he acts illegally in saving, as if their master, those over whom he has no right at all to be the lord.’[44] His refusal to accept Caesar’s clementia reveals the deep resentment held towards the dictator and his actions. Rather than enter into a subservient relationship, one which was seen to hold parallels to the relationship between kings and their subjects, Cato ended his life, and thus, his suicide can be interpreted as a disapproval of Caesar and the king-like power he was exercising.[45] In the end, this virtuous policy was yet another means by which Caesar alienated the senatorial elite and threated their political authority.[46] Thus, with Caesar’s implementation of clementia and the Senates perception of the deprivation of liberates that was consequently attached to accepting this act of friendship, Caesar’s murder can be said, to a fair degree, to be his own fault.

In the end, it can be seen that Caesar’s manipulation of the magistrates, particularly through controlling the election of consuls and reforming the senate, and his implementation of the policy of clementia brought about his assassination. The Liberators were drawn from the senatorial aristocracy and they resented the manner in which the traditional organs of the republican government had been reduced to almost complete dependency upon Caesar, and, consequently, the way in which their political dignity and traditional freedom had suffered from Caesar’s interference. Through Caesar’s reforms and policies, the way of life the senators had lead since the Second Punic War was coming to an end. Their struggle against reforms had opened with the murder of the Gracchi, and it was fondly believed that it would come to an end with the murder of Caesar. Thus, it was through the establishment of these political reforms and policies that Caesar drained the Senate’s political dignitas and libertas, and thus Caesar’s murder, to a fair degree, is seen to be his own fault.

Bibliography

Ancient Sources
Cicero, Letters to Atticus. Translated by E. O. Winstedt. Vol. 4. London: Heinemann,         1918.
Cicero, Letters to Atticus. Translated by E. O. Winstedt. Vol. 6. London: Heinemann,         1918.
Cicero, The Letters to his Friends. Translated by W. Glynn Williams. London: Heinemann,           1972.
Cicero, ‘Pro M. Marcello.’ in The Speeches. Translated by N. H. Watts. London: Heinemann, 1953.
Nicolaus of Damascus. Life of Augustus. Translated by Jane Bellemore. Bristol: Bristol     Classical Press, 1984.
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives: Demosthenes and Cicero, Alexander and Caesar. Translated by          Bernadotte Perrin. Vol. 7. London: Heinemann, 1914.
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives: Sertorius and Eumenes, Phocion and Cato the Younger.           Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Vol. 8. London: Heinemann, 1914.
Suetonius. “The Deified Julius”. In Lives of the Caesars. Translated by Catharine Edwards.          Oxford World’s Classics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Modern Works
Dyer, R. R. ‘Rhetoric and Intention in Cicero’s Pro Marcello.’ The Journal of Roman        Studies 80. 1990, 17 – 30. www.jstor.org/stable/300278
Fuller, John. Julius Caesar: Man, Soldier and Tyrant. New York: Minerva Press, 1969.
Habicht, Christian. Cicero the Politician. USA: The John Hopkins University Press, 1990.
Hoyos, B.D. ‘Imperial Caesar?’ Res Romanae. B. Marshall (ed.). Sydney: Macquarie         Ancient History Association, 2009, 88-104.
Lintott, A.W. ‘The Assassination’, in M. Griffin (ed.), A Companion to Julius Caesar,       Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell,       2009, ch. 6, 72-82.
Raaflaub, K. ‘Caesar the Liberator? Factional Politics, Civil War, and Ideology’, in F.        Cairns and E. Fantham (eds.), Caesar against Liberty? Perspectives on his     Autocracy, Papers of the Langford Latin Seminar 11, Cambridge: Francis     Cairns,             2003, 35-67.
Scullard, H. H. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 BC to AD68. London:   University Paperback, 1982.
Sedley, David. ‘The Ethics of Brutus and Cassius.’ The Journal of Roman Studies 87,       1997. 41 – 53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/301367
Shotter, David. The Fall of the Roman Republic. London: Routledge, 1994.
Tatum, W.J. Always I am Caesar.Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
Taylor, L. R. Party Politics in the Age of Caesar. Los Angeles: University of California     Press, 1949.
Wyke, Maria. Julius Caesar in Western Culture. MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.


[1] A Roman general and statesman of the late Republic, Julius Caesar (c.100 – 44 BC) was born into a famous family of noble, patrician roots, although they were neither influential nor wealthy at the start of this period. Entering into a political alliance with Crassus and Pompey in 60 BC, Caesar would dominate Roman politics until his assassination in 44 BC.
[2] His cognomen ‘Caesar’ became synonymous with ‘emperor’ within the years after his death and has remained so for more than 2,000 years.
[3]  The Liberators were a group of approximately forty senators led by Cassius and Brutus who, on the Ides of March 44 BC, stabbed Caesar to death in the Theatre of Pompey. It was through his assassination that the ‘Liberators’ believed they had saved the Roman Republic; in fact, they had set in motion its undoing and the creation of the Roman Empire.
[4] Habicht, 1990: 2.
[5] Tatum, 2008: 150.
[6] Wyke, 2006: 140.
[7] Tatum, 2008: 145.
[8] Fuller, 1969: 303 – 304.
[9] Scullard, 1982: 135; Within the constitution of the Roman Republic, the lex curiata de imperio was the law confirming the rights of higher magistrates to hold imperium.
[10] Taylor, 1949: 158.
[11] Tatum, 2008: 152.
[12] Nic Dam, Aug, 20.8 – 11.
[13] Scullard, 1982: 147.
[14] Cic. Fam. 7.30.9 – 13.
[15] Tatum, 2008: 152.
[16] Cic. Fam. 7.30.14 – 15.
[17] Shotter, 1994: 83.
[18] Fuller, 1969: 304; Scullard, 1982: 146.
[19] Habicht, 1990: 4.
[20] Scullard, 1982: 147.
[21] The new senatorial members introduced by Caesar from Gaul, whilst seen to be ‘trouser-wearing’ barbarians, were most likely from the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul. The inhabitants of this province included Italic settlers, and, in 49 BC, all its inhabitants received Roman citizenship; thus, the new members of the senate, introduced by Caesar from Gaul, may have been of Roman origin, and possessed Roman citizenship.
[22] Suet. Iul. 80.2. 5 – 6.
[23] Scullard, 1982: 147.
[24] Habicht, 1990: 4.
[25] Ibid: 4.
[26] Cic. Fam.13.21.
[27] Raaflaub, 2003: 60.
[28] Wyke, 2006: 36.
[29] Cic. Att..9.7C.
[30] Taylor, 1949: 160.
[31] Cic. Att.14.22
[32] Wyke, 2006: 148.
[33] Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4 BC – AD 65) was a Roman philosopher, statesman, and dramatist of the Silver Age of Latin literature. The tutor and, later, advisor to Emperor Nero, he was forced to commit suicide for alleged complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy, in which the assassination of Nero was planned.
[34] Sen. Clem.12.42.
[35] Taylor, 1949: 163.
[36] Nic. Dam. Aug. 19.37 – 45.
[37] Lintott, 2009: 70.
[38] Ibid: 75.
[39] Cic. Marcell. 1.1.
[40] Dyer, 1990: 21.
[41] Taylor, 1949: 167.
[42] Dyer, 1990: 21.
[43] Plut. Cato. 72.4 – 8; Taylor, 1949: 166.
[44] Taylor, 1949: 162.
[45] Lintott, 2009: 74.
[46] Ibid: 74.

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