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The Ides of March: The Assassination of Julius Caesar Explained

The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March (March 15th) in 44 BC is one of the most notorious political murders in history. Caesar‘s bloody death at the hands of his fellow senators sent shockwaves through the ancient world and triggered a chain of events that ultimately led to the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. The story of Caesar‘s assassination is a timeless tale of power, ambition, betrayal, and unintended consequences that still resonates over 2,000 years later.

The Rise of Caesar and the Fall of the Republic

By 44 BC, the Roman Republic had already entered a state of terminal decline. A century of political violence, corruption, and civil wars had left Rome‘s traditional republican institutions severely weakened. The Senate, once the most powerful governing body in the Republic, had seen its authority steadily eroded by the growing power of military strongmen, populist reformers, and political bosses.

Julius Caesar was the most successful of these new breed of Roman politicians. A brilliant general and charismatic leader, Caesar leveraged his military victories and immense popularity with the people to become the most powerful man in Rome. In 46 BC, Caesar was appointed dictator for ten years, giving him absolute power over the Roman state. The following year, the Senate voted to make Caesar "dictator for life."

Many senators viewed Caesar‘s dictatorship as the death knell of the Republic. Caesar‘s reforms threatened the traditional power and privilege of the Roman aristocracy. He passed legislation redistributing land to his veteran soldiers, granted citizenship to foreigners, and even placed his own portrait on Roman coins. To his enemies in the Senate, Caesar was a king in all but name, and a tyrant who had to be stopped.

The Conspiracy Against Caesar

The plot against Caesar began to take shape in late 45 BC and early 44 BC. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, at least 60 senators were involved in the conspiracy, led by Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius. Brutus was a close friend of Caesar and had fought on his side in the civil war, but he was also a committed Republican who believed that Caesar‘s death was necessary to save the Republic. Cassius nursed a personal grudge against Caesar and resented having to grovel once to the dictator for his life.

The conspirators planned to strike on the Ides of March, when they knew Caesar would be appearing before the Senate. They chose to act in the Senate because they believed this would give their action legitimacy, portraying it as a tyrannicide to restore the Republic rather than a simple murder. They also planned to move quickly after the assassination to seize key points in the city and secure the support of the people.

On the morning of the 15th, Caesar‘s wife Calpurnia begged him not to attend the Senate meeting. Plutarch records that she had dreamed of his bloody body the night before and feared for his life. Caesar himself was also reportedly wary after several ill omens, including a soothsayer‘s warning to "Beware the Ides of March." However, one of the conspirators, Decimus Brutus, convinced Caesar that the Senate was planning to crown him king that day, and Caesar decided to attend.

The Assassination

Caesar entered the Theatre of Pompey, where the Senate was temporarily meeting, shortly after noon on March 15th. As he took his seat, the conspirators gathered around him, as if to present him with a petition. Then, according to the ancient Roman historian Nicolaus of Damascus, this is what happened:

"The signal for the attack was given; all quickly unsheathed their daggers and rushed at him. First Servilius Casca struck him a glancing blow on the left shoulder, at which Caesar cried out, caught Casca‘s hand, and attempted to jump up. He was prevented by another stab which hit him in the breast. Within moments, he was surrounded on all sides by drawn daggers, and whichever way he turned, met blows and stabs raining down on him. He fought back against his murderers for some time, but after receiving a wound in the groin, gave up the struggle. Drawing his toga over his head, he fell down at the base of Pompey‘s statue, drenching it in blood, and expired after receiving no less than twenty-three stab wounds."

Caesar‘s famous last words, "Et tu, Brute?" (You too, Brutus?) were a later invention, most famously deployed by Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar. In reality, the ancient sources say Caesar said nothing as he died, or cried out in Greek, "You too, my child?"

The Aftermath

In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, the conspirators attempted to restore order and rally popular support for their actions. Brutus addressed the stunned senators, declaring that Caesar‘s death was necessary to preserve the Republic. The assassins then marched to the Capitol, which they occupied with gladiators, and Brutus delivered a speech to the crowd in the Roman Forum justifying Caesar‘s murder.

However, popular opinion quickly turned against the conspirators. At Caesar‘s funeral a few days later, his lieutenant Mark Antony gave a eulogy that roused the Roman crowd into a fury against the assassins. As Shakespeare immortalized in his version of Antony‘s speech:

"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones."

Antony then revealed Caesar‘s bloody toga and read his will, which left money to every Roman citizen. The mob, now convinced the assassins were traitors, ran wild through the city, forcing the conspirators to flee Rome.

The Liberators‘ Civil War

The assassins, styling themselves the Liberators, fled to Greece and attempted to raise an army against Antony and Caesar‘s supporters. They were joined by several prominent senators, including Cicero, who supported the Liberators as the "last hope of the Republic." In the meantime, Caesar‘s great-nephew and adopted son Octavian arrived in Rome to claim his inheritance. Octavian, Antony, and Caesar‘s loyal cavalry commander Lepidus agreed to share power between them in a Second Triumvirate, on the condition that they eliminate their enemies. As part of the proscriptions that followed, Cicero was hunted down and killed.

After raising an army of over 100,000 men, Antony and Octavian crossed over to Greece to confront the Liberators. In October 42 BC, the two sides met in a pair of battles at Philippi in northern Greece. The first battle was indecisive, but in the second battle, Antony and Octavian crushed the Republicans. Both Cassius and Brutus committed suicide to avoid being captured. The Liberators‘ cause was doomed.

The Empire Rises from the Republic‘s Ashes

After the Liberators were defeated, the Triumvirs divided the Republic between them. However, it was not long before they turned on each other. Lepidus was quickly pushed aside, and Antony and Octavian fought a final civil war for control of Rome. Antony allied with his lover Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, while Octavian positioned himself as the defender of Rome against eastern decadence. In 31 BC, Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra‘s fleet at the Battle of Actium in Greece. With his rivals dead by their own hands, Octavian was left as the unchallenged master of Rome.

In 27 BC, Octavian arranged for the Senate to grant him the title "Augustus" (meaning "great" or "venerable"), and he became the first Emperor of Rome, inaugurating the age of the Roman Empire. Although Augustus was careful to preserve the outward forms of the Republic, and to avoid Caesar‘s mistakes, he was an absolute monarch in all but name. The Republic was dead, and the dream of the Liberators was dead with it.

The Legacy of the Ides of March

The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March is one of the great turning points in Western history. It represents the last gasp of the Roman Republic, a desperate attempt by Rome‘s elite to turn back the tide of social and political change. In the end, the assassination only hastened the fall of the Republic and the rise of the autocratic Roman Empire.

The murder of Caesar also poses enduring questions about the use of political violence in a democracy. Was Brutus right to betray his friend for the good of the state? Can an act of murder ever be justified in defense of a republic? These are questions we still grapple with today in an age of assassinations, coups, and political polarization.

The Ides of March also serve as a warning about the unintended consequences of political violence. The conspirators believed that removing a tyrant would restore the Republic, but instead they ushered in a series of bloody civil wars and put an end to republican government in Rome for good. As the historian Barry Strauss puts it in his book The Death of Caesar:

"Some of the assassins thought that they were reenacting the glorious tyrannicide of Brutus the Elder, who had founded the Republic by driving out the last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, late in the sixth century BC. It turned out that they were creating a new Tarquinius, and his name was Caesar."

The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC, is a seminal moment in world history, marking the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire. The story of Caesar‘s shocking murder at the hands of his colleagues and the political fallout that followed has inspired countless works of art and literature over the centuries, from Shakespeare‘s Julius Caesar, to HBO‘s Rome, to the recent Hulu series Catch-22.

At its core, the Ides of March is a cautionary tale about the death of a republic. It reminds us of the fragility of democratic institutions and the ever-present danger posed by charismatic strongmen and political violence. The bloody toga of Caesar, as much as the American Constitution or the Magna Carta, remains an enduring symbol of the precious nature of self-government and the rule of law.