The day had come. A fine, late winter’s day in mid-March of 44 B.C., almost exactly a year since the Battle of Munda had heralded the end of the civil war and of armed opposition to Julius Caesar. Before this day had ended, the history of Rome would be altered, dramatically and irrevocably.
At Rome this March morning, Gaius Cassius, former chief of staff to the triumvir Crassus at the Battle of Carrhae, an admiral under Pompey at the outset of the civil war, now a praetor, a senior judge, and trusted associate of Caesar, rose well before dawn. Cassius was a notoriously pale man, a worrier, with little patience, a short temper, and a sense of humor that had a sarcastic edge. His first duty, as it was every morning, was to say a prayer in his city house’s small private chapel—of a kind that was in all Roman homes, often no more than a niche in the wall.
Having asked for divine aid in the day’s venture, Cassius then readied himself and his household for guests, sending his servants bustling about in preparation. The Roman business day always commenced at sunup, and as the first rays of the new day streaked the eastern sky, Cassius’s guests began to knock at his front door—friends, relatives, clients—and were admitted by his chief steward.
Roman society at the upper level was based on a client-patron system. Every man of substance had a gaggle of “clients” who owed their allegiance to him. Invariably some were relatives; others were business associates; others, former staff members. Every morning at dawn, clients would call on their patron and ask what service they could render, what favors they could do for him. The patron in turn would look after their interests, would recommend them and their sons for sought-after government posts, would support their applications to buy property at a reasonable price, act as their referees or advocates in legal cases, and so on. It was an open, aboveboard, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” system that worked. Up until five years back, Gaius Cassius’s patron had been Pompey the Great. Now it was Julius Caesar, the one man in Rome who didn’t have a patron and who didn’t need one.
It’s from Plutarch that we know what took place at the house of Judge Cassius this particular morning. Once upward of a hundred male guests had assembled with Cassius in one of his reception rooms, his teenage son was ushered in by staff. We don’t know the boy’s name, only that he had turned fifteen and that this was his coming-of-age party. No women were present, not even Junia, the boy’s mother. This “party” was a solemn, men-only affair, a religious ceremony, the depositio barbae.
There are numerous accounts of what took place at the depositio, from Petronius, Martial, and Juvenal, among others. The boy was seated on a stool in the middle of the room and was surrounded by a band of servants. A wrap of cambric or muslin was tied around his neck like a large napkin, and a servant dabbed his face with water from a silver bowl. Cassius’s personal barber, his tonsor, then stepped up and produced an iron razor, which he sharpened with great show on a whetstone, lubricating it by spitting on it. He then proceeded to ceremoniously shave the young man as the beaming audience watched. This was the youngster’s first ever encounter with a razor; until he came of age, a Roman boy of this era was not permitted to shave. Now, whether he’d managed a full growth or just a few wispy hairs jutting from his chin, the facial hair of the young man was removed.
As the barber worked, another servant stood close by with a bowl containing a poltus of spider webs soaked in oil and vinegar, commonly used to stop the bleeding caused by nicks of the tonsor’s razor. But Cassius would have employed a skilled barber, and the shave required on this occasion is unlikely to have been particularly vigorous, so Cassius Jr. probably had no need of spider webs.
Every hair that was cut was deposited in a small golden casket, and once the boy’s face was hair-free the tonsor closed the casket and presented it to his father. Cassius then left the room with the casket, going alone to the house’s chapel. There he deposited the casket as an offering to Capitoline Jove. In the Satyricon, Petronius has his hero place his casket between the silver statuettes of his two lares, or household gods, and a statuette of Venus.
By the time Cassius had returned to the gathering, the boy’s face would have been washed and freshened with water and pampered with soft, sweet-smelling oil. Now his father called on him to stand. Once the teenager was on his feet, Cassius, bursting with pride and accompanied by loud cheers and applause from those watching, took a toga from his valet and draped it around his son.
As the young man was about to learn, the application of a toga required some skill and practice. In wrapping it around his body, his father covered the boy’s left arm but left his right arm free in the customary fashion. This was no regular toga, the formal garment and equivalent of our tuxedo adopted by the Romans from the Greeks for special occasions. This was the toga virilis, a white garment with a narrow purple border that marked the youth as a man and a member of the Equestrian Order.
As the boy was led away in his new toga by the proud, excited servants, Cassius conducted his friends out to his portico, looking over the enclosed garden at the center of the house. While they took refreshment, he moved among them, thanking them for coming, receiving their congratulations.
His brother-in-law Marcus Brutus was there. Brutus’s half sister Junia Tertia was Cassius’s wife. Even though Brutus had saved Cassius’s life by gaining a pardon for him from Caesar when Brutus and Caesar had walked and talked about the pursuit of Pompey at Larisa back in August 48 B.C., the brothers-in-law had never been close. In fact, in recent months they had been quite at odds, but their relationship had been patched up a few weeks back by the need to unite in the interests of a common cause. When Cassius now asked Brutus if all was well with him, Brutus would have replied in the affirmative and gently patted his waist. Brutus had left home that morning wearing a belt beneath his tunic, and on the belt there hung a sheathed dagger.
Brutus was not in the habit of going about the city armed. For one thing, it was against the law. Earlier in the year he’d taken up the latest appointment granted to him by Caesar, the post of the most senior judge of Rome, the Urban Praetor, making him chiefly responsible for punishing lawbreakers within the city. Since reconciling with his “father” Caesar at Larisa following the Battle of Pharsalus, Brutus had been among the Dictator’s most trusted subordinates, serving as governor of Cisalpine Gaul in 46 B.C. prior to his current highly prized appointment. But today Brutus was planning not only to break the law on an arms count; he also intended to commit murder.
Judge Cassius continued to circulate. He asked Senator Lucius Tillius Cimber if he was ready for all the day would bring, and Cimber acknowledged that he was. Cimber also carried a concealed weapon beneath his clothes. He had volunteered to be the one to make the first move in the assassination of Julius Caesar that was planned to take place this day, March 15, or the Ides of March, as it was known on the Roman calendar.
A meeting of the Senate was due to take place later that morning, the final sitting before Caesar set off for Syria in four days’ time to lead a new military offensive he’d been contemplating for years and planning in detail for close to twelve months. This meticulously organized operation was aimed initially against the Parthians, involving sixteen legions and ten thousand cavalry, to punish Rome’s old enemy for the humiliation of Carrhae. To create that army, and to leave additional legions stationed in Spain, Gaul, Illyricum, Africa, and the East, Caesar had ordered new enlistments to be raised for those of his legions that had discharged their veterans into retirement at the conclusion of the civil war—including the 6th.
Several colonels and generals assigned to the Parthian operation had already headed to the East, and the task force itself was currently being deployed. Six legions waited in Macedonia for Caesar to arrive from Italy. Eight more legions in the East, four of the units then stationed in Egypt, were due to march to join the 28th Legion at the operation’s final assembly point, the city of Apamea, on the Orontes River to the east of Antioch in central Syria.
Apamea had been the traditional military headquarters of the Seleucid kings, rulers of the Middle East in centuries past, the place where they kept their cavalry, their war elephants, their armory. Caesar intended emulating the greatest military deeds of the Seleucids and more, with the largest army he had ever led and a campaign he expected could last as long as three years, first conquering Parthia and then invading Germany via the back door by going around the Caspian Sea, then returning through Gaul.
It was to be more than a campaign, it was to be a war of conquest, designed to destroy the power of Rome’s enemies and create the greatest empire the world had ever known. Camped outside the city on Tiber Island, the men of the new enlistment of the 7th Legion, last of the sixteen legions assigned to the offensive, waited to escort their commander in chief on his march to the East commencing on March 19.
The upcoming Ides of March meeting of the Senate was seen by the assassination conspirators as the ideal opportunity, if not the last for as long as the three years that Caesar planned to be away, for their plot to be carried out. More than sixty senators were party to the conspiracy. The original murder plan had called for Caesar to be killed in the Forum during elections, but that location had been dropped in favor of the Senate’s meeting place, for there the conspiratorial senators could get close to Caesar without raising suspicion.
The deadly deed had been planned with care, so that each man knew the part he was to play. Once Caesar was seated in his golden chair in the Senate chamber, Senator Cimber would approach him with a petition to have his brother returned from exile. As he did so, other conspirators would crowd around the Dictator’s chair, vocally supporting Cimber’s petition. Cimber would then grab Caesar’s robe and pull it down over his arms so he couldn’t defend himself. This would be the signal for the others to act, to draw their weapons, to plunge the blades into the body of Julius Caesar.
Now, in the chattering throng in the shade of his portico roof, Cassius came on Senator Publius Servilius Casca, the man who had volunteered to strike the first blow, to be the first to put the knife into Caesar. Casca’s brother and fellow senator Gaius Casca also was in on the plot, but it was Publius who had the fire in the belly, who wanted the honor of striking first. Again, without speaking openly of the deed they were planning, Publius Casca confirmed to Cassius that he was ready, willing, and primed to act.
All the plotters were here now under Cassius’s portico, mingling with other senators and knights who were oblivious to the real significance of the day. The coming-of-age ceremony for Cassius’s son had been the perfect cover for the final gathering of the conspirators before they put the plot into effect, an opportunity to strengthen the resolve of any faint hearts. Seeing all these well-known and respected faces served as a graphic and reassuring reminder to the plotters that they were in solid company.
Their number not only included former supporters of Pompey. Some of Caesar’s ablest and longest-serving generals were with them, men including Gaius Trebonius, who’d made his name as one of Caesar’s most dependable subordinates during the conquest of Gaul, and Decimus Brutus Albinus, Caesar’s best admiral. Even members of Caesar’s inner circle such as Lucius Cornelius Cinna, son of the Cinna who’d been the consul Marius’s great general and deputy, were conspirators. Cinna, another of Caesar’s sixteen current praetors, was even related to him by marriage—his late sister Cornelia had been Caesar’s first wife, and he was still considered family. Yet he, too, felt there was only one drastic course to be followed if Rome and democracy were to be saved.
This was the first time that all the conspirators had assembled under one roof. For security reasons they’d only met in small groups before now. Nothing had been put on paper, no one made a special sacrificial offering at a temple for the success of the venture that might have tipped off a priest or temple attendant that something suspicious was in the works. Not even the plotters’ wives had been allowed to know what they were planning.
The core conspirators had sounded out potential recruits to the plot with extreme caution. One obvious candidate had been Brutus’s good friend and Pompey’s former dedicated aide Major General Marcus Favonius, who’d been pardoned by Caesar. But, Plutarch says, when Brutus had casually asked Favonius whether he preferred civil war to the worst and most illegal form of monarchy—as there was a feeling among some conspirators that Caesar’s friends might go to war with the assassins to avenge his death—Favonius, who’d seen Pompey murdered at Pelusium, had said there could be no excuse for civil war. This was probably meant as a condemnation of Caesar’s initiation of the civil war just passed, suggesting that Favonius could have joined the plotters, but to be on the safe side Brutus said no more to his friend on the subject.
It would have taken only one person to run to Caesar with information about what was in the offing for the plotters to be dead men. One hundred years later, a plot to kill the emperor Nero that also would involve some of the leading men of Rome would be discovered when one of the plotters ordered his steward to sharpen a rusty ceremonial dagger that normally was never taken from its sheath. The steward knew his master would soon be meeting with the emperor, and, suspicious, he would tip off a contact at the palace. That would be all it took for that particular plot to unravel—under torture one plotter after another would confess and spill the names of their colleagues.
Classical authorities agree that the plot to kill Caesar started with Cassius. Even though most acknowledge Cassius’s reputation as a righteous man who could be counted on to stand up for a just cause, some still felt that his motives were ultimately personal. On the other hand, all authorities credit Brutus with the purest of patriotic motives for his involvement in the murder plot. Both Plutarch and Appian say that Cassius was unhappy with Caesar for giving Brutus the more important job of Urban Praetor while assigning him the less senior judgeship of Peregrine Praetor, who was responsible for judging legal cases involving issues beyond Rome’s walls. According to both historians, Caesar had told friends that Cassius had the better claim to the Urban Praetor’s job, but he chose Brutus anyway, out of favoritism. Plutarch says that following their appointment, Cassius had refused to talk to Brutus for weeks, or months.
Plutarch also says there was a story put about later by Cassius’s detractors that his main reason for hating Caesar was that he’d confiscated a collection of African lions Cassius had put together at Megara in southern Greece in 48 B.C. when Cassius was still sailing for Pompey. This seemingly petty and out-of-date provocation to murder was, according to Plutarch, hogwash. He says that as far back as his school days Cassius had displayed a passionate hatred for tyranny in any form. And it was the tyranny of Julius Caesar that drove Gaius Cassius to plan his death.
Cassius’s dissatisfaction with Caesar’s rule had been simmering for many months. And that dissatisfaction had begun to show. In all the rush to vote Caesar a torrent of honors in the Senate over the past year or so, only one or two senators had dared to sometimes vote against this proposal or that, and Cassius had been among them, although Caesar had seemed not to notice. Some of the honors were so outrageous that even Caesar had turned them down. As it was, he now had special privileges in the Senate, in the theater, and at the circus. He had a special chair, a fabulous throne of gold and ivory, for his public appearances. The name of the seventh month of the year had been changed from Quintilis to July in his honor. It was also voted that Caesar was sacred and inviolate, as if he were a living god, and a new religious college was established to celebrate his divinity, with its own priesthood devoted to him. Temples were built to him, and one to him and Clemency with statues depicting Caesar and Clemency hand in hand, in commemoration of the clemency he had shown many of his civil war enemies.
Just the month before, in February 44 B.C., no one in the Senate had dared vote down a motion from Caesar’s keenest supporters—a motion they knew had originated with Caesar himself—that he be appointed Dictator for life. There was no precedent in Roman history for this. Even Sulla had resigned the dictatorship and gone into reclusive retirement. As Dictator, Caesar was the sole ruler of Rome. As Dictator for life he could not be voted out of office. No man could remove him; only death could. In the eyes of some, this made him a king in everything but name. And Romans had an abhorrence of kings after a history prior to the republic of despotic rule by a succession of monarchs.
Under Caesar the Dictator, democracy died. Key offices of state were no longer filled via elections. The aediles, commissioners for public works and spectacles, still could be elected, because their roles involved prominence but little real power, but even then, Caesar wrote to the voters urging them to support the candidates he favored. Caesar selected and appointed the quaestors, or junior magistrates, the praetors, the consuls, the army commanders, the provincial governors, and for whatever length of term he saw fit.
He also ignored the constitution of the republic, which required men running for consul to be a minimum of forty-two years of age. To take over his consulship once he left Rome on March 19, Caesar appointed his relative Publius Dolabella, Cicero’s son-in-law, who was just twenty-five, ignoring Dolabella’s lack of years, his lack of restraint while a tribune at Rome during Caesar’s enforced absence in the East, and his reputation as a flabby young fool.
The Senate had no say in any of this. Its sittings became less frequent, and when they did sit, the senators were left to debate, then to rubber-stamp one measure or another of Caesar’s that was merely put up for decorum’s sake. Caesar had become so contemptuous of the Senate that, without even troubling the House with any debate on the matter, let alone allowing the senators to put his nominees to the vote, he had recently published a list of appointments he’d decided on, extending over the next five years, as he planned to be absent from Rome for at least the next three years on his Parthian campaign. Rome was now ruled by the decree of Julius Caesar.
Plutarch says that during this period, Cicero, who had by now returned to public life after keeping a low profile over the past five years, and who had become increasingly unhappy with Caesar’s management style, was told by an astrologer friend that a particular star would be rising the next night. “What? By decree?” Cicero is said to have sourly responded.
The chief conspirators had actually considered bringing the influential Cicero into the murder plot. They knew how much he had come to dislike Caesar’s autocratic rule—even Caesar felt sure that Cicero detested him, so a member of Caesar’s staff had recently told Cicero. The conspirators also knew how much Romans at large respected the former consul and great orator. But they decided against telling Cicero anything about the plot, for the simple reason, says Plutarch, that they feared Cicero would want to analyze every detail of the scheme, as was his habit. At best, wise but cautious Cicero could delay them and cause them to miss their opportunity to strike, and once Caesar was surrounded by his army in the East, he would be impregnable to attempts on his life from within. There was also the distinct possibility that Cicero might come up with too many reasons why they shouldn’t risk carrying the plot forward. After all, when the passions are involved, some causes just don’t stand up to rational analysis.
The passion among the most idealistic of the conspirators such as Brutus was for a return to the Republic as men such as Brutus’s ancestor Junius Brutus had conceived it—a true democracy. The reality of the Republic over the past sixty years had not matched the ideal, with strongmen with strong armies, men such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar, dictating Rome’s future with the point of a sword.
The pragmatic Caesar considered the Republic an illusion. Titus Ampius Balbus, who had been banished by Caesar after attempting to rob the Temple of Diana at Ephesus in 48 B.C., had been pardoned by him in 46 B.C., and he came to record Caesar’s thoughts on a number of subjects. Suetonius quotes Ampius quoting Caesar on the Republic: “The Republic was nothing,” said Caesar disdainfully, “a mere name without form or substance.”
Caesar had come to ignore the fact that there were many leading Romans who hankered for the republican ideal, an ideal made all the more attractive by the fact that now that he was Dictator for life, Caesar’s autocratic rule would last until the day he died, which may be another thirty years if nature were allowed to take her course. There was even the concern at the back of many of his critics’ minds that Caesar intended to establish a ruling dynasty that continued after him. Already he’d caused a motion to be passed by the Senate decreeing that his son would be appointed Pontifex Maximus after his death, even though he did not yet have a legal son. Caesarion, his son by Cleopatra, was considered illegitimate under Roman law at that time, but that could easily be changed by yet another Senate decree. And after that there was nothing stopping Caesar from declaring his son heir not just to some of his titles and positions, but also to his throne. To the minds of the conspirators, there was only one way to stop Caesar, to liberate Romans from his autocracy, and to bring back the Republic for which they yearned.
Both Plutarch and Appian indicate that the plot was only four or five weeks old by the time the Ides of March came around. They say that a rumor reached Cassius in February that Caesar planned to call a meeting of the Senate for March 1, at which it would be proposed that his title be changed to “king.” The rumor was given credence by what took place at the Lupercalia Festival at Rome on February 15, when Mark Antony had several times offered Caesar a crown, seeming to making a joke of it, and Caesar had turned it down each time, telling him to instead have the crown taken to the Temple of Capitoline Jove and placed on the statue of the god that stood there.
Cassius Dio would speculate that this rejection of a kingly crown was a deliberate act, a little scheme cooked up between Caesar and Antony to dispel the growing rumors that Caesar wanted to become the king of Rome. But the scheme had the reverse effect, and only stoked the rumors. After all, it was said, hadn’t Caesar given his approval for a statue of him to be set up on the Capitol beside those of the seven ancient kings of Rome? As if he ranked himself as their equal.
Suetonius also reports a popular belief that the naming of Caesar as king of Rome was imminent in the late winter of 44 B.C., amid a flurry of rumors flying at the time. One rumor suggested that with Caesar about to embark on his Parthian offensive, the priestly keepers of the prophetic Sybaline Books would announce that as the books predicted that only a king could conquer the Parthians, then Caesar must be proclaimed king of Rome before he departed on March 19.
According to Suetonius, another rumor then current had Caesar planning to move the seat of government from Rome to Troy, or to Alexandria, where he could be closer to his mistress Cleopatra. Caesar couldn’t marry Cleopatra—Roman law prevented Roman citizens from marrying foreigners. But Suetonius also says that Tribune of the Plebs Gaius Helvius Cinna would later claim that Caesar had instructed him to draw up a bill for approval by the Senate that would permit him to marry any woman he chose, Roman or foreign, opening the way for him to make Cleopatra his wife.
At this very moment, on March 15, the Egyptian queen was still in residence with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV and her son Caesarion just across the Tiber from Rome, where she had been living for many months at Caesar’s expense. No one seemed to mind that Caesar was so blatantly keeping her there at his estate outside the city. No one had even complained when Caesar set up a golden life-size statue of Cleopatra in the new Temple of Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother) that he erected at Rome, setting Cleopatra’s statue beside the statue of Venus herself—Venus was Caesar’s patron deity, with the family of the Caesars claiming descent from the goddess. According to Appian, that statue of Cleopatra was still there in the temple of Venus in his day, two hundred years later, despite her ultimate role as an enemy of Rome—because it had been installed by the deified Caesar. But for Caesar to marry the Egyptian queen, and, worse, to move his capital to Alexandria—few at Rome would stomach such a prospect.
In February, Cassius had been sufficiently concerned by these swirling rumors, and the urgent need to do something about them before March 19 if anything was to be done at all, that he decided to make up with his brother-in-law, and had hurried to discuss the matter with him. Brutus, one of nature’s gentlemen, greeted Cassius warmly, as if nothing had happened between them. But a frown must have clouded Brutus’s face when Cassius told him of the royal rumors.
Appian and Plutarch both record Cassius putting this question to Brutus: “What are we going to do if Caesar’s friends do propose at the next meeting of the Senate that he should become king?”
“I hadn’t planned to attend the next sitting,” Brutus replied.
“What if they send for us as praetors?” Cassius continued. “We’ll have to go.”
“Then,” Brutus said, according to Plutarch, “it will be my duty to not hold my tongue but to boldly stand up and, if necessary, to die for my country’s liberty.”
The plot to rid Rome of Julius Caesar was born that day. Both men began to canvass colleagues to find support for a drastic step that would eliminate the threat to democracy once and for all. Cassius’s friend Antistius Labeo, another former admiral in Pompey’s service who’d been pardoned by Caesar, quickly joined the scheme. Cassius and Labeo had then jointly approached Caesar’s general Decimus Brutus Albinus, who was shortly to take up the post of governor of Cisalpine Gaul. As would soon be learned, Albinus was so much in Caesar’s favor that he was included in the Dictator’s will as his secondary heir; in the event of the death of Caesar’s principal heir, Caesar’s great-nephew Octavius, Albinus would inherit much of Caesar’s by now massive estate.
After Cassius asked him to join the conspirators, Albinus had reserved his answer and had gone to see Brutus, who was a distant relative, to sound him out. When he received confirmation from the horse’s mouth that Brutus was not only for the plot but also was one of the party’s leaders, Albinus committed as well. He wouldn’t be the last to join the conspiracy on learning of Brutus’s involvement.
Like all the other conspirators, Albinus was at Cassius’s house on the morning of March 15 for the coming-of-age celebration. When Cassius joined him in the garden, Albinus, trying to make it sound of no real importance for the sake of other listeners, told his host that the previous evening Caesar had taken him to dinner with Marcus Lepidus, at Lepidus’s house. Lepidus now held the post of Master of Horse, making him the Dictator’s official deputy.
According to Appian, as Caesar, Lepidus, and Albinus were drinking after their meal, Caesar had posed this question: “What do you think is the best sort of death for a man?” After Albinus and Lepidus had given their views, Caesar had said, “Personally, I think a sudden death is the best of all.”
Cassius and Albinus would now have exchanged knowing glances, both with the same thought in mind—they and their colleagues in crime would soon oblige Caesar with his wish for a sudden death.
Before long the congregation at Judge Cassius’s house broke up, as men hurried off to conduct their business of the morning before most of them answered Caesar’s summons to attend the Senate sitting. The meeting was to take place at the Theater of Pompey, the massive complex erected at the western end of the Field of Mars by Pompey the Great. Construction had begun in 55 B.C. and had yet to be fully completed, but the majority of the building, the first drama theater to be built entirely of stone at Rome, was already in use.
The Senate House had been destroyed by fire during riots several years before and had yet to be repaired. In the interim, Senate meetings took place at convenient locations such as Pompey’s Theater. Attached to the theater, now Rome’s finest, were covered colonnades of one hundred massive columns under whose cover public business could be conducted. The theater also had a massive portico that was frequently used as a meeting hall, and it was here that the Senate sitting was due to take place.
The choice of the theater complex as the venue had everything to do with Brutus Albinus. He had been putting together a large band of gladiators for a major public show, and knowing that Caesar was a big fan of gladiators, even maintaining his own gladiatorial school, Albinus had suggested a demonstration by men from his collection in the huge, half-moon-shaped theater next door to the meeting hall once the Senate had finished its business, and Caesar had agreed.
With increased pulse rates, Cassius and Brutus left Cassius’s house and made their way in litters to the theater complex dressed in their senatorial togas—white with a thick purple stripe to denote their status—and preceded by their lictors, the five official attendants bearing the fasces to which each was entitled as a praetor. As they arrived, somewhere around 8.30 A.M., they would have heard the distant sounds of metal on metal and wood as the gladiators rehearsed their show—the professional fighters had been at the theater for just that purpose since before dawn.
Rome’s judges were required to make themselves available to the public on days like this to hear civil cases, so the praetors seated themselves on benches under the colonnades and called to order sittings of their individual courts, which would continue until just before the Senate convened.
Brutus had the most business before him that morning, and he tried to deal with each case with his usual unruffled manner and scrupulous fairness, listening to the advocates for the plaintiff and the defendant while trying to keep an open mind. But Brutus had other things on his mind. Not only could he feel the dagger at his waist, but his thoughts would have wandered from time to time to his new wife, Porcia. She was the daughter of Cato the Younger, Brutus’s uncle. Although Brutus and she were first cousins, marriage between cousins was then legal. It would be outlawed before long, only to be legalized again for personal motives by the emperor Claudius in the following century.
Brutus was Porcia’s second husband. She had married very young—perhaps close to the legal marrying age of twelve. Her first husband, Marcus Bibulus, had died not long after, leaving her a widow with a baby son, Bibulus. Only the previous year, in the summer of 45 B.C., Brutus had divorced his previous wife to marry Porcia. It seems that Brutus and his stepson Bibulus, approaching or in his teens by 44 B.C., had an excellent relationship, for Bibulus would later write a favorable memoir of Brutus.
Brutus’s new wife was to become the only wife of a conspirator to know what was planned for the Ides of March. Porcia was highly strung. And it’s no wonder, having tragically lost a husband and a famous father, the latter in notoriously heroic circumstances when he’d taken his own life two years back at Utique in Africa rather than surrender to Caesar. Porcia’s sensitivity made her alert to Brutus’s mood, and as the month of March arrived, she began to sense that the husband she loved was keeping a secret from her. Was it another woman? Did Brutus have a health problem he was keeping from her? What was his secret? It drove her crazy not to know.
Plutarch says that one day, after sending her servants away and closing herself up in her bedroom, Porcia took a cultellus, a small iron knife about the size of a modern nail file normally used for cutting the fingernails, then stabbed herself in the thigh with it, causing a deep and painful gash. Bandaging the wound herself, Porcia kept it from her husband and her servants, but it became infected. When Porcia broke out in a fever, Brutus became concerned, but never once did she let on that she was in pain or reveal how her “illness” had originated, until, just days before the Ides, she revealed her act of self-mutilation to Brutus.
Appalled, he asked her why she would do such a thing. According to Plutarch, Porcia answered that if she had the strength to defy pain and prove she was no weak woman, and at the same time keep such a nasty wound secret, she could keep Brutus’s secrets, too. After all, she said, she’d married him to share his fortunes, good or bad. So Brutus had shared his secret with his wife, despite the agreement he’d made with his coconspirators that no wives would be let in on the plot. When Brutus had prepared to go off to Cassius’s house before dawn on March 15, the devoted Porcia had helped him strap on his concealed dagger.
At the court sitting at the theater colonnade, Brutus made a ruling in what was to be the last case brought before him that morning. When Brutus decided against the plaintiff, the man in question was far from happy. According to Plutarch, the plaintiff jumped up and angrily, noisily protested. “You can’t do this to me! I’ll appeal to Caesar. He’ll see me right!”
Plutarch says that, in response, Brutus cast his eyes around those present and then said, calmly and deliberately to the unhappy plaintiff, “Caesar doesn’t prevent me, nor will he, from doing my duty according to the laws of Rome.”
Once he’d terminated the court session, and his lictors had joined with those of the other praetors to clear the public from the colonnade, Brutus strolled to join Cassius and a growing number of senators who were milling at the top of the steps to the meeting hall and looking east along the street that ran beside the Villa Publicus, which Caesar was expected to use to reach the theater. It was moments before the fifth hour in the Roman way of keeping time, or, close to 10.00 A.M., as the modern clock would say.
According to the praetors’ water clock, which had been carefully set by attendants using a portable sundial, the hour nominated by Caesar for the start of the Senate sitting had arrived. Even allowing for the vagaries of Rome’s water clocks—Seneca was to say that it was easier to get the philosophers of Rome to agree among themselves than the clocks—Caesar could be expected to be already on his way from his home on the Via Sacra in downtown Rome. Carried in a litter, the trip would take him perhaps fifteen minutes.
At the top of the long, broad flight of steps, Cassius and Brutus would have nodded to each other as they came together in the crowd of toga-clad senators and their attendants, but very little would have passed between them. Just for a moment, the pensive Cassius may have turned his gaze southwest across the Tiber River, to the slopes of the Gianicolo, rising above the far bank. Then, as now, lush gardens sprawled along the slope. Then, the gardens were owned by Julius Caesar. And, set among the greenery was a mansion, a guesthouse, also the property of Caesar. Cassius would have been aware that the mansion contained a guest of Caesar that day—Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.
It’s probable that Caesar had plans for Cleopatra to accompany him when he set off for the East on March 19—parting in Syria, they would go their separate ways for the time being, he leading his army into Parthia, she going home to Alexandria. That being the case, Cleopatra’s servants would have been busy preparing a massive baggage train for her departure even as Cassius looked up to the house on the hill through the haze of smoke that typically hung over the city from the cooking and workshop fires of Rome. Did Gaius Cassius and his friends have a surprise for Cleopatra!
The tension was rising among the men clustered at the top of the theater steps; Caesar was late. Was he still coming? As the waiting senators chatted in low voices and wondered where Caesar might be, one of their number went up to Senator Publius Casca, the man who was primed to be the first to strike Caesar. Appian and Plutarch say the senator took Casca’s free right hand, and, with a wink and a smile, said, “You kept the secret from us, my friend, but Brutus has told me everything.”
Casca’s heart missed a beat. He was convinced the assassination plot had been exposed. In an instant, the blood would have drained from his face. He opened his mouth, and was about to beg the man to keep the secret of the murder conspiracy to himself when, Plutarch says, the anonymous senator burst out laughing at the obvious surprise he’d caused.
“How come, Casca,” the senator went on, “you’re so rich all of a sudden you can afford to put your name up to become an aedile?”
This wasn’t to be the only scare the plotters had that morning. While Brutus had been conducting his court session, he’d noticed runners from his domestic staff appear in the public gallery and try to attract his attention, and each time he’d waved them away. Now, as Brutus stood at the top of the steps outside the meeting hall, one of those runners tugged at his sleeve.
“Master, my mistress Porcia, your wife, is dying!” Plutarch says the breathless messenger advised. “You must come quickly.”
Horror-struck, Brutus demanded to know what was going on. It turned out that ever since he’d left home that morning, Porcia, well aware of the dangerous mission he’d embarked on, had become increasingly anxious for his safety and had repeatedly sent messengers to determine his welfare and report back. Porcia was still weak from her stab wound, and as the hours passed and her anxiety grew while she waited for the deed to be done at the Senate sitting, she’d become dizzy, then passed out while seated with her female servants. Although Porcia had soon come around, Brutus’s chief steward had panicked and sent the latest message to say that Porcia was dying.
Brutus, confident that he knew the cause of Porcia’s fainting spell, sent the runner back to his wife with the message that he had public business to attend to but would hurry home to her as soon as he had accomplished all that had to be accomplished. Naturally, Brutus’s worried colleagues wanted to know what the urgent message was all about. He was just assuring Cassius that his wife, Cassius’s sister, was unwell but not so unwell that he needed to depart from his public purpose, when Senator Popilius Laenas came up to the pair. Laenus, descendant of a censor of Rome who had given the city its first civic water clock, greeted Cassius and Brutus more boisterously than usual.
Then Laenus leaned in close to the pair and whispered, “My hopes are with you, my friends, that you can accomplish what you have in mind. And I urge you to do it without delay, as the thing is no longer a secret.”
As Laenus hurried away, Cassius and Brutus looked at each other in shock. There could be no mistake this time—there was definitely a leak in the conspiratorial ring. And Brutus would have guiltily wondered whether his wife, Porcia, had been the source of that leak. But two questions were uppermost in the minds of Brutus and Cassius now: Was Laenus genuinely with them? And, had he kept the secret to himself? As the ringleaders contemplated awful failure, and their agreement that if things went wrong on the day they would all take their own lives, there was a sudden buzz of excitement from the crowd: Caesar was coming. Someone was going to die on this day. Cassius and Brutus would soon know whether it was them, or Caesar.
Two enclosed litters came into view, each being carried by burly slaves along the street beside the Villa Publicus toward Pompey’s Theater. The first litter was preceded by junior magistrates of the city and the twenty-four lictors of the Dictator, each lictor carrying a fasces. The second litter followed the twelve lictors of a consul, conveying Mark Antony. A vast crowd of servants and curious citizens came along behind the official procession.
No military guard accompanied the litters. As recently as the previous December, Caesar had been traveling outside Rome on a visit to the western coast of Italy with a mounted bodyguard of two thousand men. But in the city he went without armed guards. The German and Gallic cavalrymen who’d ridden with him throughout the war in Gaul and then from the beginning to the end of the civil war seem to have been given their discharges and sent home. These long-serving troopers had shared the fighting in Alexandria, then beside the Nile, and at Zela with the men of the 6th. Like all Caesar’s troops who had remained loyal to the last, they would have received the long-promised victory bonus. Caesar probably also granted Roman citizenship to the troopers of the bodyguard. Now, within Rome, Caesar merely used his lictors as an escort; their only weapon was their staff of office.
Not that military muscle was far away if the Dictator needed it. The 7th Legion was, after all, camped on Tiber Island, in the middle of the Tiber River just west of the old city walls, its ten cohorts of Spanish legionaries at full strength after a recent reenlistment. But Caesar had resisted calls from his inner circle to use the men from the 7th as his personal bodyguard inside the city, as he had back in 46 B.C. To surround himself with bodyguards, he had recently said, was only to say to the world that he had something to fear, and to invite trouble.
Up on a balcony at the Gianicolo that morning, Cleopatra may well have been looking out over the sprawling gardens of Caesar’s villa, beyond the dirty brown Tiber and across the red-tiled rooftops of the city toward the Theater of Pompey. Caesar would have told her that he planned to attend a meeting of the Senate at the fifth hour, the last such meeting before he began his journey to the East with his Egyptian mistress on March 19.
Cleopatra would have been looking forward to setting off, to going home. For close to two years she had been a virtual prisoner up here on the hill overlooking smoky, noisy Rome, with the man she loved so near, yet so far away. She would have missed the wide, regulated streets and grand architecture of her capital, missed the sweet air of Alexandria, the mild nights with their soft, caressing breezes, and the warm waters of the Mediterranean lapping at her door.
There on the Gianicolo balcony she may have been holding her son and Caesar’s son, Caesarion, pointing to the buildings on the Field of Mars, and telling the child that “Daddy” was down there. Little Caesarion also would have been looking forward to going “home.” Almost three years old now, he would have been talking, in halting Greek, about the crocodiles and palm trees and pyramids that his mother and servants would have told him about. Too young to remember the place of his birth, he could only know “home” from their stories. There, in exotic Egypt, Caesarion’s mother would have promised him, he would one day reign as king of Egypt.
It is unlikely that Cleopatra would have been able to make out Caesar’s litter as it and Mark Antony’s conveyance were carried along the Street of the Banker and then by the Villa Publicus to Pompey’s Theater. The massive theater itself would have been visible from up on the hilltop, but Caesar was much too far away for his mistress to actually see him when he stepped from his litter. Nor would she have had any inkling of what was about to take place there.
Had she been on the spot, Cleopatra would have seen Decimus Brutus Albinus and Gaius Trebonius, two of the assassination conspirators, trot down the steps to meet the pair of litters as they halted at the bottom of the theater steps. Albinus and Trebonius had been delegated to greet the arrivals. Albinus, as the sponsor of the gladiatorial display later in the morning, would officially welcome Caesar. Trebonius, as a friend of Mark Antony’s, was to detain Antony in conversation and prevent his intervention in the assassination, for, as copresident of the House, the physically powerful Antony would take his seat right next to Caesar, where he was in a position to intervene against assassins.
Antony would later put it about that Caesar had seriously considered sending him to cancel the Senate sitting, following two unfavorable sacrifices before Caesar in his capacity of high priest of Rome. But Brutus Albinus had convinced Caesar to attend. Not a superstitious man himself, and impatient to have the meeting out of the way so he could return to his final preparations for the journey to Syria and the massive military operation that would follow, Caesar had needed little persuasion to go to Pompey’s Theater despite the poor omens.
Julius Caesar climbed out of the first litter, taking Albinus’s hand as he came to his feet, and exchanging brief pleasantries. Caesar was wearing his senatorial toga. He had a crown of oak leaves on his head, and was wearing a richly embroidered crimson cloak, both the trappings of a general who had celebrated a Triumph, which Caesar was required to wear when he took the auspices as high priest.
As Caesar began to move up the steps, an eager crowd swamped around him, and his lictors had to struggle to clear a path. From all directions hands thrust petitions at Caesar. He took every roll of parchment, but without opening any passed them on to his personal secretary Quintus Faberius and the undersecretaries trailing him, for later consideration. One of these documents, it was later learned, was a letter from a Greek teacher, warning Caesar of a plot against his life.
From the top of the steps, with Caesar slowly making his way up through the throng, Cassius and Brutus could see that Trebonius was performing his allotted task, detaining solid, muscular Antony in animated conversation at the bottom of the steps. Senators were flooding into the meeting hall, to be in their places ahead of Caesar. As Cassius, Brutus, and several other conspirators were about to do the same, Plutarch says they saw Senator Laenas emerge from the crowd, take Caesar’s arm, and begin to speak animatedly close to his ear. This was the same Laenas who’d revealed he knew all about the conspiracy. In the general hubbub there was no way Cassius or Brutus could hear what was being said, and for a moment they were certain that the game was up, that Laenas was blowing the whistle on them.
Hands were reaching under robes to draw weapons, for murder or for suicide, when Brutus realized from Laenas’s hand gestures that he was asking rather than telling, that he was beseeching Caesar for a favor, and Brutus stayed his colleagues’ hands. Then Caesar nodded, and Laenas briefly kissed his hand in thanks before Caesar moved on and continued to ascend the steps through a narrow avenue of lictors holding back the crowd.
Now Cassius and Brutus and the last of those by the portico doorway turned and hurried indoors. Inside, the meeting hall had been sealed off from the rest of the theater complex by temporary screens. A giant statue of Pompey the Great, benefactor of the theater complex, stood larger than life at one end of the vast room. Wooden benches had been arrayed in a semicircle in front of the curile chair of a consul. Beside it, attendants were hurriedly placing the chair of the Dictator, Caesar’s gold and ivory throne.
Cassius Dio says that when Caesar’s arrival was delayed, the attendants responsible for the chair had carried it out of the meeting hall, believing that the Dictator would not be attending the sitting after all. When news of his approach reached the theater, there had been a flurry of activity as the attendants rushed to return the chair to its place of honor.
The voices of hundreds of senators all talking at once echoed around the portico stones—Caesar had appointed nine hundred men to the Senate, but not all were in Rome at this time. Conspirators were filling the front benches. With the current praetors and former consuls traditionally occupying the first row as a right, Cassius and Brutus took their seats at the front, side by side.
Nearby they saw Cimber, tense and drawn, his rolled petition in hand, and Cinna, and Servius Galba, Sextius Naso, Quintus Ligarius, Marcus Spurius, Munucius Basilus, Rubrius Ruga, and Pontius Aquila, the tribune who had been humiliated in public by Caesar, and scores of other senators whose hands were edging close to weapons concealed beneath their garments.
According to Plutarch, Cassius now turned and looked up at the marble statue of Pompey. Several times life size, the standing figure was dressed in a toga; its right hand was outstretched, as if Pompey had been frozen in the middle of a speech, a typical pose for statues of this kind. Pompey had placed the statue there himself. Later it would be removed from the meeting hall and placed on top of a Triumphal arch erected opposite the theater complex, for the whole world to see.
As he looked up at Pompey’s face, Plutarch says, Cassius addressed a silent prayer to the marble figure, in the hope that the dead general might somehow help them succeed in what they were about to do. And then a hush fell over the meeting hall. Cassius looked around. Holding his fasces, Caesar’s chief lictor was standing in the doorway. “Make way for the Dictator,” the lictor called in a formal, self-important tone.
All conversation ceased, a hush came over the hall, and every man present came to his feet. Then, his footsteps echoing around the cavernous interior, Gaius Julius Caesar made his entrance.