Ancient History & Civilisation



The murder of Julius Caesar was a messy business. As with all assassinations, it was easier for the conspirators to plan the first blow than to predict what would happen next – never mind to have an exit strategy in reserve, should things go wrong. At a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of March in 44 BC, Tillius Cimber, a backbencher, gave the cue for the attack by kneeling at Caesar’s feet and grabbing his toga. Then Casca struck with his dagger; or tried to. Clumsily missing the target, he gave Caesar the chance to stand up and defend himself by driving his pen (the only instrument he had to hand) into Casca’s arm. This lasted just a few seconds, for at least twenty reinforcements were standing by, weapons at the ready, and quickly managed to dispatch their victim. But they had no time to take careful aim, and several of the assassins found themselves wounded by the ancient equivalent of friendly fire. According to the earliest surviving account, by the Syrian historian Nicolaus of Damascus, Cassius lunged at Caesar, but ended up gashing Brutus in the hand; Minucius missed too, and struck his ally Rubrius in the thigh instead. ‘There must have been a lot of blood’, as T. P. Wiseman crisply remarks in Remembering the Roman People.

Not just blood, but in the immediate aftermath there was chaos, confusion and, at moments, almost farce. That, at least, is the picture Wiseman reconstructs by carefully comparing the surviving ancient versions of the event. The main lines of their story, he argues, go back to an eyewitness account by some senator with a ring-side seat, transmitted perhaps in the lost history of Asinius Pollio – plus some later, less reliable elaborations taken from Livy, whose narrative of the year 44 BC is also lost. Wiseman may be too confident in the accuracy of this underlying account: an eyewitness is not necessarily the best historical guide to an assassination, and in any case it is harder to distinguish Livy’s imaginative insertions from the earlier core than he allows. Nonetheless, his reconstruction of what happened is, by and large, compelling.

The watching senators, several hundred of them, were at first stunned by the attack. But, as soon as Brutus turned away from the body to address them, they regained their wits and took to their heels. In their flight from the Senate house, they must have almost bumped into the thousands of people who were just at that moment pouring out of a gladiatorial show in a nearby theatre. Hearing rumours of the murder, this crowd too panicked and ran home, shouting ‘Bolt the doors, bolt the doors’. Meanwhile Lepidus, a leading Caesarian loyalist, left the Forum to rally the troops stationed in the city, just missing the blood-stained assassins who turned up there to proclaim their success – closely followed by three loyal slaves carrying Caesar’s body home on a litter, with such difficulty (you really need four people to carry a litter) that his wounded arms trailed over the sides. It was two days before the Senate dared to meet again, and perhaps another two before Caesar’s body was cremated on a bonfire in the Forum.

Shakespeare’s version of the confusion, in Julius Caesar, is not far short of the truth – though the murder of Cinna the poet, which Shakespeare based on the Greek biographer Plutarch’s account of events, does not pass Wiseman’s scrutiny. For him, this ghastly case of mistaken identity (‘I am Cinna the poet … not Cinna the conspirator’, as Shakespeare put it) comes from one of Livy’s additions to the story. Livy himself, he suggests, probably took it from some lost Roman drama on Cinna the conspirator and on the aftermath of the assassination more generally. Wiseman is renowned for ‘reconstructing’ lost plays to fill gaps or explain puzzles in the Roman historical narrative. Here he is typically ingenious, yet implausible. Intriguing as it would be to picture the ancient Romans themselves sitting down to watch a tragedy on Caesar’s death, or to trace a memorable scene in Shakespeare back to a scene in an ancient Roman play, there is no evidence whatsoever for any such thing – beyond the fact that some incidents recorded in the historical accounts of the period are so vivid that it is easy to imagine them in performance or in dramatic form. But ‘dramatic’ writing exists both off and on stage. There is no strong reason here to suppose a direct reference back to the theatre at all.

What is certain is that, within a few months, the assassins managed to give this chaotic mess a positive spin, and to recast an almost bungled murder into a heroic blow against tyranny. In 43 or 42 BC, Brutus, who had negotiated an amnesty and safe passage out of Rome, issued what was to become the most famous Roman coin ever minted. It carried an image of two daggers, and between them a ‘cap of liberty’ or pileus, the distinctive headgear worn by Roman slaves when they were freed. The message was obvious: through the violence of these daggers, the Roman people had gained their freedom. Underneath was written the date, ‘Ides of March’. Despite the political failure of the assassination in the medium term (Caesar’s nephew Octavian soon established exactly the kind of one-man rule that the assassins had wanted to destroy), the Ides of March became as resonant a date in ancient Rome as 14 July in modern France. In fact, when Galba, the elderly governor of Spain, led a coup in 68 AD against the corrupt, murderous and possibly mad Emperor Nero, he issued a copy of Brutus’ coin, showing the same two daggers and a ‘cap of liberty’, with the slogan ‘The Liberty of the Roman People Restored’. Caesar’s murder, in other words, offered a template for resistance to imperial tyranny more generally.

In Remembering the Roman People, Wiseman is not concerned with how the myth of Caesar’s assassination was later exploited by the Roman governing class. His main reason for trying to get back to the truth about the events of 44 BC is to discover what the reaction of the ordinary people was to the assassination of Caesar. The prevailing modern view is that there is little reliable evidence to gauge the popular response, but that what there is hardly suggests a particularly hostile reaction to the murder from the crowd. In fact, writing less than a year later, Cicero could claim that the Roman people viewed the toppling of the tyrant as ‘the most noble of all illustrious deeds’.

We should probably distrust this kind of conservative wishful thinking. A vociferous section of the political elite may have felt excluded, even humiliated, by Caesar’s increasing control over the institutions of the state. But Caesar’s reforms, from corn distribution to settlements for the poor overseas, were popular with most of the inhabitants of Rome, who no doubt regarded elite ideas of ‘liberty’ as a convenient alibi for self-advancement and for the exploitation of their less privileged fellow citizens. Wiseman unravels the various accounts of the murder’s aftermath, to find plenty of evidence that the people as a whole had little sympathy with the assassins – even if occasionally he cannot resist using that ‘lost play’ about Cinna as a convenient way of disposing of material he wishes to bypass. ‘This episode is immediately suspect’, he writes of an alleged attack on Cinna’s house, ‘as the second act in our putative drama.’

This analysis of Caesar’s murder is the last of a series of fascinating case studies that together make up Remembering the Roman People. In each of these Wiseman tries to unearth some aspect of the popular, democratic side of political ideology in the late Roman Republic, from the mid-second century BC on – whether public reaction to particular political crises, a forgotten hero of the popular cause, or a long-lost democratic slogan that was once the rallying cry of the Roman people. He has no time for the conventional view of Roman politics as ‘an ideological vacuum’, in which a small group of aristocrats fought for power without principles. And he has still less time for the view that Rome was a place where democratic ideals had no part to play, whether in its early history or in the violent century that led up to the assassination of Caesar. His aim, in short, is to put some ideology back into our understanding of Roman political life, and to bring the important democratic traditions of Rome to the surface once more.

Wiseman is not alone in challenging the modern orthodoxy. Fergus Millar, in particular, has already argued for a much more radically democratic element in the political institutions of the Republic (stressing, for example, the importance of popular elections and speech-making). But Wiseman is attempting something much more ambitious. He is trying to recover the popular heroes, symbols and myths that spoke for the democratic side of Roman political culture. What version of Roman history, he is asking, would the Roman people have told?

This is, of course, a very difficult question to answer, for the simple reason that the surviving Roman literature is so overwhelmingly conservative, and largely blind to the impact of democratic opinion. The task Wiseman has set himself is almost as formidable as searching for the ideology of the sans-culottes in the writing of Mme de Staël, or attempting to document the viewpoint of the English industrial poor through the novels of Jane Austen. In the case of Rome, the works of Cicero are so dominant among the surviving sources for the late Republic that it has proved hard for modern historians not to see the Roman world through his conservative eyes. Cicero’s devastating caricature of most radical politicians as crazed, power-hungry, would-be tyrants has regularly been taken as a statement of fact rather than a reflection of his political prejudice.

To find what he is looking for, Wiseman must read the sources against the grain, searching out hints of a different view of events, and looking for the cracks in the conservative story through which a glimpse of a popular tradition might be seen. He must look beyond the accounts of surviving ancient authors to the alternative versions that they were (consciously or unconsciously) concealing. In doing this, he not only depends on a rare familiarity with Roman literature, from the mainstream to its remotest byways, but also on a capacity for bold historical speculation that takes him right to the edge of (and in some cases beyond) what the surviving evidence can reliably tell us.

Sometimes he succeeds with panache. In the casual references of ancient writers to the equal distribution of agricultural plots to the earliest citizens of Rome (‘seven acres of land’), he ingeniously detects one of the radical rallying cries of the late Republic – harking back to that mythical age of equality under Romulus and his successors which was, he suggests, central to later democratic ideology. Elsewhere, he carefully reconstructs the career of a certain Gaius Licinius Geta, the consul of 116 BC, of whom we seem at first sight to know almost nothing beyond a puzzling aside in a speech of Cicero. Geta, claims Cicero, was expelled from the Senate by the censors in 115 BC (the year after he had been consul), but was later restored and elected censor himself.

Starting from this unpromising skeletal information, Wiseman reconstructs a radical career for Geta, basing his argument partly on the traditions of Geta’s own family (several of the Licinii are known to have introduced legislation in favour of the poor), partly on the links that he uncovers between Geta and Gaius Gracchus, the well-known reforming ‘Tribune of the People’. Wiseman’s hunch is that Geta also introduced popular reforming legislation during his consulship, or in some other way fell foul of the elite, and this caused the hard-line censors to take revenge the following year. But his exclusion from politics did not last long. We know that, in the years around 110, several conservative aristocrats were put on trial and condemned for corruption. That may well have been the context for the restoration of the popular Geta and for his own election to the censorship in 108.


7. Caesar stabbed to death: a nineteenth-century comic view.

Of course, much of this can be no more than speculation, and the picture of Geta’s activities still remains very hazy. But thanks to Wiseman’s detective work, we can begin to get a glimpse of a leading popular politician who became consul, then a victim of the conservative aristocracy, and finally bounced back. At the time he must have been a very significant figure in Roman politics, as both consul and censor, but he has been almost entirely lost to the historical record.

Some of Wiseman’s reconstructions are far less plausible. Different readers will no doubt disagree about where to draw the line that separates his brilliant insights from his flights of fancy. For my taste, he is far too confident about what is to be found in the work of ‘lost historians’ and far too confident about his putative ‘lost plays’ – one of which (a tragedy on Licinia, the wife of Gaius Gracchus) finds its way into the story of Geta and is even trailed as one possible reason for his expulsion from the Senate. In short, he doesn’t always know where to stop. But Wiseman can be inspirational too. The importance of his work lies not only in what he argues, but in how – and in the vision of the Roman past he invites us, with such enthusiasm and elegance, to share.

This book is ground-breaking for its simple suggestion that the ideology of Roman popular politics is not entirely lost to us, and for its virtuoso demonstration that, fragmentary, inadequate and intensively studied as our sources for the period are, they may still have more to tell us. Here as elsewhere, Wiseman offers us a view of late Republican Rome not preoccupied solely with elite self-interest, wealth and dignity – but where some voices still spoke out for equality, the sharing of wealth and land and for the rights of the common people. It is a far cry from a nearly bungled assassination of a people’s champion by a group of disgruntled aristocrats in the name of (their own) liberty.

Review of T. P. Wiseman, Remembering the Roman People: Essays on Late-Republican politics and literature (Oxford University Press, 2009)

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