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Explaining The Ides of March: Why was Julius Caesar Assassinated?


On the 15th of March 44 BC Julius Caesar, victor of the civil war and leading man of the Roman Republic, was stabbed to death in the Theatre of Pompey as a result of a conspiracy of over 60 senators. [1] The assassination was justified as a victory against tyranny undertaken by a righteous group of men to protect the essence of the Republic, or at least that is what the senators would have you believe. The reality, as with any conspiracy of that size, is much more complicated than this and involves a varied set of interacting motives. Therefore, on the 2068th anniversary of Caesar’s death, we are going to explore some of the possible causes that contributed to his killing, focussing chiefly on the last five years of his life.



An oil painting of Roman senators leaving the theatre of pompey while cheering. Caesar lies dead on the floor
Figure 1. The Death of Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1859-1867. Source: The Walters Art Museum, Accession Number: 37.884. Credit Line: Acquired by Henry Walters, 1917.

 

One problem with this task is the paucity of sources available for the events of 49-44 BC. While the events of the Civil War are relatively well-known to us, when it comes to Caesar’s policies or political aspirations some of the sources seem to be influenced by the rhetoric of the conspiracy or focus too heavily on the gossip and gory details to constitute wholly reliable accounts. [2] Thus, some of the evidence presented here must be taken with a pinch of salt.



Power and Political Status: Caesar the Dictator


The advent of the civil war between Pompey and Caesar in 49 BC threw the constitutional machinery of the Republic into disarray. Pompey had the broad support of the senators therefore when he chose to flee Rome, he took most of the political class, including that year’s consuls, with him. [3] When Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army he was thus met with a power vacuum and a stop-gap government that bestowed upon him the political position of Dictator. 





Despite the modern connotations of the word, the dictator was an established, short-term role in the Roman Republic that was deployed to respond to immediate threats when the consuls were unable to do so. It did not override the power of other magistracies in doing this and thus (in theory) did not pose a threat to the Republican way of life. [4] Indeed the pressures of the civil war took precedent over any possible “dictatorial” ambitions, and, while Caesar did use his power to elect himself consul, he only spent 11 days in Rome and undertook most of his administrative duties whilst chasing Pompey around the Mediterranean. [5] His second dictatorship from 48-47 BC was bestowed after Caesar had emerged victorious at Pharsalus. Even with his nemesis crushed, he only set foot in Rome for a brief period and instead devoted his time to vanquishing the remaining Pompeians. [6] 




 

A shift came in 46 BC when the senate appointed Caesar dictator for 10 years, a move that broke with previous constitutional measures and would have put many of the hard-line Republicans in the senate on edge. [7] Other deviations from political norms during this time came with Caesar’s appointment of himself as sole consul in 45 BC, following the end of the civil war at the battle of Munda. This was a position that he quickly abdicated from, but nevertheless spat in the face of 500 years of Republican tradition. [8] The final straw in terms of Caesar’s political status was his nomination as dictator in perpetuum (“For life”) in 44 BC. No man had ever exercised this level of power over the political system and the sources concur that the conspirator’s jealousy and anger over this unprecedented monopoly largely precipitated the assassination. [9]



The Man Who Might be King?


The sources recount that, with Caesar’s inevitable triumph in the civil war approaching, several lavish, quasi-monarchical honours were heaped upon him that made his peers suspect his aspirations towards kingship. Appian provides a comprehensive if slightly exaggerated list of these measures, stating that:


All kinds of honours were devised for his gratification… He was proclaimed the Father of his Country and…his person was declared sacred and inviolable. It was decreed that he should transact business on a throne of ivory and gold; that he should himself sacrifice always in triumphal costume; that each year the city should celebrate the days on which he had won his victories; that every five years priests and Vestal virgins should offer up public prayers for his safety; and that the magistrates immediately upon their inauguration should take an oath not to oppose any of Caesar's decrees. In honour of his birth the name of the month Quintilis was changed to July. Many temples were decreed to him as a god, and one was dedicated in common to him and the goddess Clemency, who were represented as clasping hands. Thus whilst they feared his power they besought his clemency. [10] 


Pen and ink drawing of the assassination of Julius Caesar
Figure 4. Assassination of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1793–96. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 87.12.171. Credit Line: Gift of Cephas G. Thompson, 1887

While almost all of the sources recount that Caesar publicly denied being hailed as king, there is still fierce debate among modern scholars around whether he was seeking to set himself up as a monarch or was simply trying to find short-term solutions to a Republic in disarray. [11] Regardless of intention, the mere assertion of kingship by others was enough dangerous to him. [12] That Caesar knew this is proved by Cicero’s account of a staged refusal of the crown at the Lupercal, done to publicly demonstrate Caesar's aversion to kingship. [13]





This is important because hatred of monarchy was a founding principle of the Republic, which was born after a group of aristocrats overthrew the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in response to the rape of the noblewoman Lucretia by his son. [14] This deep-seated Roman fear of kingship was still alive and well in the 1st Century BC. Suetonius recounts that, either due to a sense of righteousness or a keen eye for political manoeuvring, the conspirators sought to connect themselves with the mythical avenger Brutus, writing on Caesar’s statue:


"First of all was Brutus consul, since he drove the kings from Rome;

Since this man drove out the consuls, he at last is made our king." [15]

 

It was thus reasonable and indeed quite convenient for the conspirators to argue that, in accordance with ancestral tradition, it was morally right to kill Caesar to prevent the ascension of a new monarch. [16] It may have been the case that some of them truly believed it so.



A picture of tarquin attacking the roman noblewoan lucreatia with a knife
Figure 6. Tarquin and Lucretia by Johann Peter Pichler After Simone Cantarini, 1792. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 51.501.3000. Credit Line: The Elisha Whittelsey. Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951

 


Political Policies: The Enemy of the Senate


Julius Caesar’s attacks on the status of the senatorial class in the form of public policy changes constituted another strong motive for his assassination. Caesar distinguished himself as an able administrator during his many dictatorships. For example, his establishment of colonies in Carthage and Corinth effectively dealt with the problem of mass military retirement, sending over 80,000 soldiers overseas whilst relieving the pressure on the public services of Rome.[17] However, when it came to the senate, Julius Caesar and the fathers rarely saw eye to eye. The senate had by and large sided with Pompey during the war, and Cicero relates in a letter after Caesar's death that he was well aware of the continued hatred of the nobles towards him following the defeat of their champion. [18] Decisions such as Caesar's choice to rebuild the senate house as the “Curia Julia” added fuel to the fire, as he effectively put his stamp on the Republic’s traditional seat of power. [19]

 

Another policy that was even less well-received was Lex Cassia, a law instituting an increase in the number of magistracies, a practical measure that would produce a swathe of new proconsuls, praetors and quaestors to properly administer the rapidly increasing Empire and make up for losses in the civil war.



denarius featuring the head of roman and the dioscouroi on horses.
Figure 7. L. Sempronius Pitio Ar. denarius. Ca. 148 BC. £200.


This did not sit well with the existing nobility. The elite of Rome had had a chokehold on political office for hundreds of years, indeed their very status was due to their attainment of curule positions. [21] As attaining a quaestorship and above guaranteed one a seat in the Senate, Caesar’s decision to change the number of available positions diluted the elite method of distinguishing themselves from others by throwing the Senate House open to new blood.


Suetonius recalls how new senators were scorned for their provincial backgrounds and deemed "irreputable" by the incumbent political class, a sure reflection of the unease caused by this reform. [22] This was exacerbated by the fact that Caesar, in view of going on campaign in Parthia, named all of the new magistrates for the next three years rather than allowing free election. [23] It could therefore be argued that the desire to regain control of the political machinery of the republic drove the assassins of Julius Caesar just as much if not more than ideas of liberty of justice.




 

Personal Vendettas: The Enemy of The Individual


Finally, there is also evidence to suggest that certain conspirators had more personal grievances with Julius Caesar that they sought to avenge through assassination. The famous Brutus for example had reason to hate Caesar because he slept with his mother, Servilia, which led to the persistent rumour that Brutus was Caesar’s son. [24] C. Cassius Longinus, another big player in the conspiracy, had also been slighted by Caesar when the dictator stole some lions that Cassius had deposited in Megara for his aedileship in Megara. [25] There are many other tales of personal mistreatment, along with many others which are probably lost to time, which ultimately serve to demonstrate that the killing of Julius Caesar could also be construed as a personal as well as public affair.





Conclusion


There is therefore no one reason that catalysed the senatorial conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar, but a multitude of factors that intersect with one another to produce a perfect storm of hatred. Caesar’s perceived aspirations towards kingship tapped into deep-seated Roman fear of monarchy and provided sufficient moral grounds and the public reasoning for the murder. An element of personal vendetta for some senators, given Caesar’s rather brash disregard for personal property or reputation, also fanned the flames of conspiracy. More practically, Caesar’s ever-increasing disregard for the Republican political system in his position as dictator in perpetuum and constitutional changes like the expansion of the magistrates undermined the power and identity of the aristocracy and likely formed the main cause of their murderous ire.


 

Written by Ella Wakefield


 

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Bibliography

 

Carson R. A. G., 1957, “Caesar and the Monarchy” Greece and Rome, Vol. 4, No. 1. 46-53.


Epstein, D. F., 1987, “Caesar’s Personal Enemies on the Ides of March”  Latomus46(3), 566–570. 

 

Ehrenberg, V., 1964, “Caesar’s Final Aims.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology68, 149–161. 

 

Gardner. J. F., 2009, “The Dictator” in Griffin, M. T. (ed.), A Companion to Julius Caesar. Oxford. Ch. 5.

 

Gildenhard, I., 2018, “Caesar’s Assassination: A Deed of Unprecedented Exemplarity.” In Cicero, Philippic 2, 44–50, 78–92, 100–119: Latin Text, Study Aids with Vocabulary, and Commentary. Vol. 6, 406–417.

 

Marsh, F. B., 1925, “The Roman Aristocracy and the Death of Caesar.” The Classical Journal20(8), 451–464.

 

Santangeli Valenzani, R. 2006, “The Seat of Memory and Power: Caesar’s Curia and Forum”, in Wyke. R. (ed.), Julius Caesar in Western Culture. Oxford. 85-94

 

Notes


[1] App. Civ. 2. 117; Suet., Iul. 80.4; Nic. Dam., Vit. Caes. 59 reports that there were at least 80 conspirators; Epstein 1987, 566.

[2] Principal Accounts: Suet., Iul; Plut. Caes. Nic. Dam., Vit. Caes; App. Civ. 2.

[3] Marsh 1925, 452; Gardner 2009.

[4] Gardner 2009, 57.

[5] Gardner 2009, 58.

[6] Cic. Att. 11.7.2; Dio 42.20.3.

[7] Dio 43.14.3.

[8] Dio 43.48; Marsh 1925, 425; Gardner 2009, 60.

[9] App. Civ. 2.111; Dio 44.1.1; Epstein 1987, 566.

[10] App. Civ. 2. 106. Suet. Iul. 40 recounts that Caesar himself instigated the reorganisation of the calendar and the renaming of Quintilis.

[11] For pro-monarchy arguments see: Marsh 1925; Ehrenberg 1964. For the inverse see: Carson 1957; Gardner 2009.

[12] Dio 44.10.1; App. Civ. Gardner 2009.

[13] Cic. Phil. 2.87.

[14] Livy 1.

[15] Suet. Iul. 80-82.

[16] Gildenhard 2018, 406.

[17] Plut. Caes. 57; Suet. Iul 42.8; Gardner 2009, 64.

[18] Cic. Att. 14.

[19] Santangeli Valenzani 2006, 85.

[20] Dio 43.49.1; Tac. Ann. 11.25; Suet. Iul, 41.1

[21] Marsh 1925, 453, 459.

[22] Suet. Iul. 76.3.

[23] Cicero. Att. 14.6; App. Civ. 2.128; Dio. 43.51; 43.14 for Caesar’s monopoly over appointing magistrates.

[24] App. Civ. 2.112; Epstein 1987, 567.

[25] Plut. Brut. 8.6.

 

 

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