How the war ended

The Ides of March

On 15 February 44, Caesar’s dictatorship and other powers were extended for life. A month later he was stabbed to death by a group of senators that included men who had served him for years, as well as pardoned Pompeians. Before discussing why the conspirators acted in this way, we must consider the difficult question of Caesar’s own long-term aims—a subject of continuing scholarly debate and little agreement. It has often been stated that the Roman Republic failed and was replaced by the rule of emperors because the system, designed to regulate the public affairs of a city-state, could not cope with the changed circumstances of governing a world empire. There is some truth in this as we have seen, for during the last years of the Republic it became increasingly difficult to accommodate and regulate the competition between a few overwhelmingly powerful individuals. At the same time the Senate failed to acknowledge the emergence of a professional army or to do anything to provide for discharged soldiers who were no longer men of property, encouraging them to a closer bond with generals who offered them more. Yet, even under the empire, the institutions of Rome were to a great extent those of a city-state, but the emperors imposed more control of the system and encouraged the integration of first Italy and then the provinces. Institutions developed to support a permanent army, kept loyal to the emperor alone. Senators still held most of the senior positions in imperial government, although usually with authority delegated from the emperor, but the number of people, both citizen and non-citizen, benefiting from the regime was greatly increased. The empire, or Principate as it is more often known, gave Rome and the provinces a remarkable level of stability, broken only twice by civil war in the first two centuries of its existence, in comparison to the period from 133 BC to 31 BC.

Augustus was Caesar’s adopted heir, had risen to power as his father’s avenger, and copied some of Caesar’s innovations to create the Principate, although in other respects he learned from the dictator’s mistakes and did things very differently. The Roman Republic faced many political, social, economic and military problems in the first century, and it is worth considering to what extent Caesar was aware of these. He had fought the Civil War to maintain his own honour and political status. Had a compromise been reached that permitted him to stand for a second consulship and go on to a further provincial command, the future would have been very different, with Rome dominated by two great men, Caesar and Pompey, instead of just one. This did not occur and, whether or not Caesar had long aimed at supreme power, he did achieve it through his victory. His reforms as dictator were wide ranging, but did they have the coherence of a clear plan to solve Rome’s problems, whether or not the solutions in themselves were practical?

There are essentially two ways of viewing Caesar. The first is to see him as a man perceptive enough to understand that the Republican constitution could no longer function. Throughout his career he had taken considerable interest in the conditions of the poor in Rome and the native population in Rome’s provinces, and realised that the territories could not be run simply for the selfish benefit of a tiny elite in Rome. Observing the incompetence and weakness of the Senate as a group and of individual senators, and contrasting this with his own abilities, Caesar knew that the state needed to be guided by a single individual who could discern the general good and act accordingly. In this way he tried to bring to Rome the stability it would gain from the Principate, and failed only because the Romans were not yet ready for this revolution; and perhaps because he let his impatience show. If Caesar thought in this way, then he may not have been entirely unique. On several occasions Cicero had talked of the need for the Republic to have a rector, a powerful leader who would help to guide the Senate and magistrates in making decisions for the common good. He had hoped that Pompey might fulfil this role, but even at his most optimistic had lower expectations for Caesar. Cicero’s rector was certainly a less powerful figure than the dictator Caesar had become.

The alternative is to see Caesar more as an aristocrat steeped in the traditions of the Senate than as a visionary. Caesar, like all men of his class and upbringing, wished to have a distinguished public career, holding high office and winning fame and glory on the state’s behalf. Perhaps because his family had for generations been removed from the inner circle of the Senate, or perhaps just because he was aware of his own great gifts, his ambition was especially great, and he not only wished to succeed, but to achieve more than anyone else. This is the man who is supposed to have said that it would be harder to push him down from first to second place in the state than from second to last. He pursued his ambition with relentless purpose, adopting any radical measure to achieve his ends, even to the extent of fighting a civil war. By 45 Caesar had achieved his objective, for all potential rivals were dead and he was able to celebrate more and greater triumphs than any other Roman, permanently commemorating his achievements in a massive building programme. That he now had supreme authority in the state and the ability to reform the Republic were largely incidental. There was no grand plan for solving Rome's problems, for Caesar was either unaware of them or could not think of any way of solving them. Instead he wasted his energy with huge numbers of unconnected initiatives and reforms, tinkering with minor problems rather than confronting the real issues. It was not long before he wished again for the simple objectives of an army commander, and so decided to leave his political problems behind and instead to go and fight long wars in Dacia and Parthia.

This coin bears the head of Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the principal leaders of the conspiracy which murdered conduct and was a particular favourite of Caesar; who Caesar Brutus was highly respected for his learning and pardoned him even though he fought for Pompey at Pharsalus. Brutus committed suicide after the Second Battle of Philippi in 42. (Barber Institute of Fine Arts)

We do not know what Caesar's long-term plans were, and the contradictory propaganda of both sides after his death will probably forever make these uncertain. Perhaps he was a mixture of the two extremes. Certainly there is no evidence that he planned ever to resign his considerable powers, but whether he thought of these as personal, or planned to create a permanent position of dictator, emperor or king and to pass this on to a successor is impossible to state with certainty. At the time many Romans certainly feared that this would happen, and at least some of the conspirators thought that they were striking a blow for liberty, in the sense of desiring that Roman aristocrats had freedom to pursue their political careers without the supervision of one all-powerful individual.

Brutus, one of the leaders of the conspiracy and the man felt by all to have had the most altruistic motives, certainly acted because he feared what Caesar might become. Married to the daughter of Cato, and a learned and serious student of philosophy himself, Brutus objected to the idea of a dictator or king, but did not hate Caesar himself. Caesar was indeed very fond of Brutus, and had once had an affair with his mother, the lively and intelligent Servilia, whom he appears to have regarded far more highly than any of his other mistresses with the exception of Cleopatra. This relationship prompted rumours, undoubtedly false but no less persistent for all that, that Brutus was in fact Caesar’s illegitimate son. Others among the conspiracy acted more from personal hatred, or in the case of his former officers, who included Decimus Brutus and Caius Trebonius, disappointment with their rewards.

This coin was also minted by the conspirators during their war with Caesar’s heirs. it shows two daggers and in the centre the cap traditionally worn by a slave after he had been given his freedom. Beneath is the simple dates, the Ides of March (EID Mars). (Barber Institute of Fine Arts)

Caesar had already been voted many exceptional honours, not unprecedented but usually on a grander scale than any of his predecessors. Caesar’s link with the goddess Venus seemed to be more public and was represented as closer than the claims of past commanders, such as Sulla and Pompey, to be especially favoured by the gods. A temple was dedicated to Caesar’s Clementia, the clemency with which he had pardoned so many of his bitter enemies. In public Caesar was granted the right always to wear a laurel wreath—an honour which is said to have especially pleased him for he was concerned over his growing baldness—as well as the other robes of a triumphing general, and he sat on a gilded chair instead of the magistrate’s simpler seat. Rumours abounded that he wished to go a stage further and become a king, perhaps after the model of the Hellenistic world where the monarch was considered to be a god. When a crowd hailed him as rex (king), he replied that he was ‘Not Rex, but Caesar’ for Rex was also a family name in Rome. Later he made great show of refusing a crown offered to him by the mob.

Yet his behaviour gave sufficient grounds for doubting his long-term intentions. He dressed in the long-sleeved tunic and high boots of the kings of Alba Longa, a long-vanished city that had been a rival of early Rome, and from the royal family of which the Julii Caesares claimed descent. Caesar, having lost his only legitimate child, Julia, had already adopted his nephew Octavian as his heir, sending the teenager to Greece to prepare for the eastern expedition, but it was not clear whether he was to inherit just his private possessions or also his position. Even more worryingly, Cleopatra had come to Italy and been openly installed in a big house as Caesar’s mistress. A statue of the Egyptian queen was placed next to that of the goddess in Caesar’s great temple to Venus. Wild rumours circulated about special legislation being planned to permit Caesar to marry her. After Caesar’s death a boy was produced by the queen and Mark Antony, who claimed that he was Caesar’s illegitimate son and named him Caesarion, claiming that the dictator had acknowledged him. There is no contemporary record of the child dating to before March 44, and considerable doubt must exist as to his actual paternity. Another rumour current at the time spoke of an ancient prophecy, part of the Sybilline Books that had often guided the Republic at times of crisis, which declared that Parthia would only be conquered by a king. The Senate is supposed to have been planning a decree that would grant Caesar the title throughout the empire but not in Italy itself. Yet, whatever his ambitions Caesar made no attempt to rule by force, dismissing his personal bodyguard and travelling through the streets of Rome just like any other senator.

Persistent, although unfounded rumour claimed that Brutus was in fact Caesar’s illegitimate son. More than any of the other conspirators he was believed to have been motivated by his sense of the common good rather than personal ambition or vindictiveness. (AKG Berlin)

Caesar planned to leave Rome on 18 March 44 and, given the scale of his planned campaigns, would be most unlikely to return for several years. Brutus, Cassius and the more than 60 other conspirators decided that they must act. They were a disparate group, but had preserved their secret for several months. On the morning of 15 March (a date known as the Ides) there was some dismay when Caesar did not arrive at the Senate on time. Eventually he came and the Senate rose to greet him. The conspirators clustered round his chair, using the excuse of pleading for the recall of Publius Cimber. For a while the charade went on, but when Caesar stood to leave and tried to shake them off, the conspirators drew their knives, Casca striking the first blow from behind. Caesar died of multiple stab wounds. There was a final irony about his death, for Caesar’s own Senate House had not been completed and the old curia still lay in ruins from its destruction by Clodius’s men. As a result, the Senate had assembled in a temple attached to Pompey’s theatre complex. When Caesar fell, his body lay at the foot of a statue of Pompey.

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