Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Seventy-Eight

New Men

Between 78 and 44 BCSpartacus leads a revolt, and Julius Caesar forms a partnership with Pompey and Crassus

IN 78, SULLA DIED at his country estate. He had married five times and sired twenty-three children; the last, Postumus Cornelius Sulla, was born after his death.

The aftershocks of the rivalry between Sulla and Marius rumbled on. Sulla’s right-hand man Pompey led an army over to the Iberian peninsula to fight against one of Marius’s allies. Another army went east in an attempt to wrap up the war against the king of Pontus, which Sulla himself had left unfinished when he returned to Rome. Between these two wars and an ongoing Roman battle against pirates in the Mediterranean, much of Rome’s army was off the Italian peninsula.

This absence of armed men led another band of slaves to launch a revolt. But these slaves were skilled fighters, trained to take part in Rome’s public games: gladiators.

Fights carried on by slaves for the entertainment of onlookers had been going on since the days of the Etruscans, and Roman public festivals had made increasing use of gladiatorial combats since the third century BC.220 Rome’s foreign wars had brought more and more slaves suitable for the games into Rome and the surrounding cities: captive soldiers from Gaul, the Iberian peninsula, Thrace, Syria, and Greece.1 A successful gladiator could attract his share of hero worship (“Men give them their souls, women their bodies,” the Roman theologian Tertullian wrote, a little later), but he remained a despised member of Roman society. “[Romans] glorify and degrade and diminish them,” Tertullian concluded, “indeed, they openly condemn them to ignominy and the loss of civil rights…. They belittle whom they esteem; the art they glorify, the artist they debase.”2

One of the most notorious training schools for gladiators was in the city of Capua, south of Rome, where a gladiator master kept a whole assortment of slaves cooped up. “Most of them were Gauls and Thracians,” Plutarch writes. “They had done nothing wrong, but, simply because of the cruelty of their owner, were kept in close confinement until the time came for them to engage in combat.”3 In 73, seventy-eight of these gladiators managed to break out of their quarters. They raided a nearby butcher’s shop for knives and spits and headed out of the city. When troops came after them from Capua, the gladiators polished them off and took their weapons away.

This was the beginning of a fight that would go on for more than two years, and earned the title of the Gladiator War.221 The gladiators elected as their leader a man named Spartacus; Plutarch says that he was a Thracian “from the nomadic tribes,” but “most intelligent and cultured, being more like a Greek than a Thracian.” (This was by way of a compliment.) He turned out to be a brilliant strategist. Three thousand Roman soldiers were sent out against the gladiators, and drove them up a mountain where there were only two routes of escape: through a pass guarded by the Romans, and down a steep cliff-face on the other side. But the ground was covered with wild vines. Under Spartacus’s direction, the trapped gladiators cut them up and made them into ladders, which they dropped to the bottom of the cliff and scrambled down. Then they went around to where the Romans were camping, totally unprepared, and took the whole camp.4

After this, they routed several other Roman assault forces sent out against them, and began to gain a greater and greater opinion of their own strength. According to Appian, Spartacus’s army grew to seventy thousand men, and the Romans had to entirely change their opinion about the contest: “Ridiculous and contemptible in the beginning,” Appian says, the war had become “formidable to Rome.”5

Spartacus, who apparently just wanted to go home, tried to convince them to turn their backs on Rome and march up through the Alps, where they could then scatter to their homelands of Thrace and Gaul. But they would not listen: “They were strong in numbers,” Plutarch says, “and full of confidence, and they went about Italy ravaging everything in their way.”6

This alarmed the Senate to such a degree that both consuls were sent out against the gladiator army. When both failed, the Senate appointed Sulla’s junior lieutenant Crassus to the job of wiping out the revolt. His first foray against Spartacus ended with an ignoble Roman retreat; with the ruthlessness that characterized Sulla’s associates, Crassus pulled out the five hundred foot soldiers who had been at the forefront of the flight and put fifty of them to death by lottery, while the rest of the army watched: a vicious punishment known as “decimation.”

This had the intended effect of strengthening them for the next encounter. Spartacus was driven back towards the coast, where he made arrangements with a pirate fleet to ferry his army over to Sicily. However, the pirates took his money and then sailed away, leaving him standing on the shore at Rhegium, the very tip of the Italian boot.

This meant that his army was on a little peninsula, and Crassus ordered his men to build a wall across the neck of the peninsula, with a fifteen-foot ditch in front of it. Spartacus was trapped, but not for long; when a snowstorm descended on the two armies, he filled up part of the ditch with dirt, logs, and tree branches, and got a good part of his army out of it and away.

At this point the Romans back home decided that Crassus needed help: Appian says that the Senate “ordered up the army of Pompey, which had just arrived from Spain, as a reinforcement.”7 Crassus redoubled his efforts, desperately hoping to finish the war before his colleague (and competitor) Pompey should arrive to steal some of the glory. “A number of people were already loudly proclaiming that victory in this war belonged to Pompey,” Plutarch writes; “it only remained for him to come and fight a battle, they said, and the war would be over.”8 Crassus was preparing for a last assault when Spartacus’s men, who had been ruined by success (they were so overconfident that they no longer paid any attention to their general), made an ill-timed and badly judged attack on the Roman lines. The Roman troops were finally able to turn the attack back. Most of the gladiators fled; Spartacus himself, making straight for Crassus, was deserted by his fellows and killed.

Unfortunately for Crassus, Pompey had just arrived. He caught and killed many of the fleeing slaves as they ran past him. Six thousand of them, captured alive, were crucified along the road from Capua to Rome; the crosses stretched almost the entire length of the Appian Way.9 Most people saw this as a monument to Pompey, not Crassus, which Pompey himself encouraged by sending a letter to the Senate saying that while Crassus had managed to win a battle, he himself had “dug the war up by the roots.”10

The following year, 70 BC, both Crassus and Pompey were elected as consuls. Plutarch says that they quarrelled the whole time and got nothing done, but they made themselves popular with the people by giving out grain.11 They were increasingly seen as champions of the common man; and for a little while, it must have seemed to the Roman voters as though the aristocratic control and corruption that had plagued Rome were finally on the wane. Crassus’s shady moneymaking strategies were in abeyance; Pompey’s biggest flaw was his propensity to claim credit for things that others had done. And another young politician, Cicero, was campaigning against senatorial corruption with zeal; in 70 BC, he prosecuted and convicted the aristocrat Verres of corruption, and the man was unable to escape.


78.1. Pompey. Pompey the Great, 106–48 BC. Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. Photo credit Alinari/Art Resource, NY

So when piracy in the Mediterranean became a major problem, it seemed reasonable for the tribunes, representing the people, to suggest that Pompey be given the task of wiping it out. He would be given temporary command of a huge military force, which included not only all Roman ships in the Mediterranean but also over a hundred thousand Roman troops, in order to tackle the problem.12 The Senate, disliking so much power concentrated in the hands of one man, objected; but the Assembly voted to approve Pompey’s appointment.

His success was drastic and enormous and made him increasingly popular. His family was rapidly rising to become one of the most powerful in Rome; in fact, Julius Caesar (who had returned to Rome after Sulla’s death) asked to marry his daughter Pompeia. Pompey agreed to the wedding, and immediately set off again on campaign. After his triumph against the pirates, he had been awarded command of the ongoing fight against Pontus in the east.

In 66, Pompey brought a quick end to this war and then swept down along the coast of the Mediterranean and conquered the Syrian holdings of the fading Seleucid empire. In Jerusalem, he went into the temple for a quick look, even sticking his head into the Holy of Holies. This shocked the priests, but they were reconciled to the heathen invasion when Pompey gave them control of the city. Under this new arrangement, Jerusalem would be part of the Roman province of Palestine, and would no longer have a Hasmonean king. Instead, Pompey appointed a priest named John Hyrcanus (known as Hyrcanus II) to be “High Priest and Ethnarch,” a combined religious and secular office. The priests would run Palestine for Rome, and would report to a Roman governor who had charge over all of Syria, Rome’s newest acquisition.


78.1 The Wars of Pompey and Caesar

And then Pompey went home covered with glory.

BACK IN ROME, both Caesar and Cicero were rising in the political firmament. Cicero had been elected consul in 63, in a startling departure from tradition; it had been thirty years since a new man (a novus homo, from a family where no man had ever been consul before) had been appointed to the office. Julius Caesar too had been elected to two high-profile public offices: he became a financial official, an aedile, in 65, and Pontifex Maximus (high priest of the state religion) in 63.222 Unfortunately, he ran so deeply into debt campaigning that by the end of his term as Pontifex Maximus, he was in danger of being arrested for unpaid bills. He needed to leave Rome, and he needed to make some money. He managed to get himself appointed to the governorship of Hispania, the Roman province on the Iberian peninsula, but his creditors caught him at the ports and tried to confiscate his luggage.

Crassus, who was a good businessman—he owned silver mines, huge tracts of farmland, and enough slaves to work it all—guaranteed Caesar’s debts for him, and the creditors agreed to let him go.13 Crassus was a good judge of men. In Hispania, Caesar made enough money to pay off the creditors and was able to return to Rome. Once there, he called together Pompey (the popular conqueror) and Crassus (the prosperous businessman) and suggested that the three of them have a private arrangement. If they would give him enough public support and money to make his run for the consulship of 59 a success, once he was in power he would push for whatever laws they wanted.

Pompey was willing; he wanted extra benefits for the veterans in his army. Crassus was harder to convince. He was still peeved by Pompey’s self-glorification after the Gladiator War, and he did not trust Pompey now. (When he first heard Pompey’s nickname, “Pompey the Great,” he snorted and asked, “As great as what?”)14 However, he could see the advantages of having Caesar press for new financial regulations that would benefit his business, rather than doing so himself, and eventually the triumvirate of politicians agreed on their three-way deal. Caesar also broke his daughter’s engagement and offered her to Pompey, who was almost a quarter-century her senior and had already been married three times. Pompey agreed, and the wedding cemented the alliance.223

The campaign succeeded, and Caesar became consul. At once he introduced all sorts of measures to redistribute land to the poor. This made him extremely unpopular with his fellow consul Bibulus and with the Senate, which did not like to see a consul behaving like a tribune and championing the cause of the masses. (“This was a lowering of his great office,” Plutarch sniffs.) The masses were pleased, though; the Assembly approved Caesar’s measures, and Pompey sent armed men to the Forum to make sure that the Senators did not interfere. Bibulus himself got a bucket of manure dumped on his head when he came down to the Forum to object. After that, Plutarch says, he “shut himself up in his house and stayed there for the rest of his term of office.”15

When his year as consul was over, Caesar (with the help of Pompey’s armed men) got himself appointed as governor of “Transalpine Gaul,” the western part of the province on the other side of the Alps (the eastern portion was known as “Cisalpine Gaul”). Here he set about building himself a reputation as a conqueror that would rival Pompey’s own. First he pushed back the Celtic tribes of the Helvetii and the Tigurini, who were trying to invade Transalpine Gaul; then he took the war into the enemy territory, towards the Rhine river, against the tribes known collectively as “Germans.” Taking a lesson from Pompey, he also made sure that the Romans back home knew about every single victory; he sent back constant reports on how well he was doing, always couched in terms of gains for the Republic. “On the receipt of the dispatches in Rome,” he wrote, in his own history of his Gallic wars, “a public thanks-giving of fifteen days was decreed to celebrate [my] achievements—a greater honor than had previously been granted to anyone.”22416

Meanwhile he was keeping a thumb in affairs at home. He came down into Italy as far as the Rubicon river, which was considered to be the northern border of Italy proper, and built himself a satellite camp at the city of Luca. From there, Plutarch says, he “employed his time in political intrigues,” and handed out plenty of bribes: “Many people came to see him…everyone left him with something in hand for the present and with hopes for more in the future.”17

In 56, two of those travellers were Crassus and Pompey, who came to work out the next stage of their three-way alliance. They decided that Crassus and Pompey would run for the consulship of 55; once they were in power, they would award Caesar another five years in Gaul, so that he could go on extending his power there. Then, after the consulships ended, Crassus would make himself general of an expedition to the east against the Parthians, now the strongest power on the other side of the Mediterranean, which would give him a chance for the military glory which had so far eluded him. Pompey, who was done with fighting, would give himself the governorship of Hispania and, like Caesar, make a profit from it.

With this agreement sealed, Pompey and Crassus went back to Rome. The Roman public was still suspicious of both of them, but neither one intended to leave the election to fair means. After an amount of vote-buying which exceeded any bribery ever seen before in Rome, they were both appointed to the consulship for the second time, fifteen years after their first term of service. The Senate duly voted to extend Caesar’s command: “It was a question of compulsion,” Plutarch notes, “and the senate groaned at the decrees for which it voted.”18

But the people were still on Caesar’s side: Caesar the compassionate, Caesar the all-conquering. The Triumvirate had succeeded again. They were poised, as far as all three were all concerned, on the very edge of glory and wealth beyond their wildest dreams.

AS SOON AS the two consuls had taken office, Caesar launched a new offensive, against a brand-new frontier. In 55, he landed on the southeast coast of Britain for the first time for a reconnaissance.

The inhabitants of this part of Britain were a mixture of the earliest residents of the island, perhaps living there since the days when Britain had been a peninsula instead of an island, and Celts who had moved west from the European mainland across the channel. In Britain, these tribes didn’t have the space to be nomadic; they settled down into a network of little tribal kingdoms. What we know of them comes from Caesar’s own account and, in distorted form, from a much later history: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia, which combines Roman and medieval place names with Welsh legend, a thin thread of fact, and a strong patriotic bent (“Britain, the best island, is situated in the western sea between Gaul and Hibernia,” he begins, showing his Roman orientation).19

The history starts out with the very unlikely story of a great-grandson of Aeneas, Brutus, setting out on an expedition and stumbling upon the island, which he named Britain after himself. This obligatory linking of British history with ancient myth is followed by Geoffrey’s account of the earliest kings of Britain.225 Prominent in this story is one Cassivelaunus, whom Geoffrey of Monmouth calls “king of the Britains,” but who appears in Julius Caesar’s account as a rogue warrior who usurped the throne of the Trinovantes tribe.


78.2 Britain

Pieced together, Monmouth and Caesar suggest that the king of the Trinovantes, King Lud, had managed to make the Trinovantes one of the most powerful tribal kingdoms of the south; he was best known for expanding and walling in the main settlement on the river Thames, which became known as Lundres in his honor. When Lud died, his brother Cassivelaunus claimed the throne over the head of Lud’s own son. The displaced prince, Mandubracius, fled across the water to Caesar’s headquarters in Gaul and asked the Romans to help him get his kingdom back. Like most kings who asked for Roman intervention, he would regret it later.

On his first visit, Caesar evaluated the opposition. (“All the Britons dye their bodies with woad, which produces a blue color,” he wrote on his return, “and shave the whole of their bodies except the head and the upper lip.”)20 The following year, 54, he returned with a fighting force to take over.

Cassivelaunus came out to meet him with a fleet of chariots, the first time Caesar and his men had encountered these in war. Fighting against charioteers demanded a swift change in tactics: “It was seen that our troops were too heavily weighted by their armour to deal with such an enemy,” Caesar observes, especially since the British charioteers were able to leap down from the chariots, fight on foot, and then make a quick retreat: “They can run along the chariot pole, stand on the yoke, and get back into the chariot as quick as lightning.”21 Caesar sent his cavalry out front instead and managed to push Cassivelaunus back to the Thames, which was protected by sharp stakes driven into the riverbed beneath the surface of the water.

Here he halted, but the nearby tribes were already sending envoys to surrender to the Roman forces. Roman troops also managed to find and raid Cassivelaunus’s headquarters, killing all of the cattle and making food very short indeed. Finally Cassivelaunus too sent a messenger offering terms of surrender. Caesar, who could see winter coming on, agreed to a peace as long as Mandubracius was put back in charge of the Trinovantes as a subject king of Rome; he extracted a promise from Cassivelaunus to leave the new king alone, and then went back to Gaul.

Caesar’s fame was now unmatched, but dreadful news was waiting for him: his beloved daughter Julia, Pompey’s wife, had died in childbirth.

Soon after, Crassus met with disaster in his war against Parthia. In 53, the year after Caesar’s triumphs in Gaul, Crassus marched towards the Euphrates river (which was now the Parthian border) with about seventy thousand foot soldiers and four thousand cavalry. The Romans met the Parthian army at the town of Carrhae: old Haran, the city where Nabonidus was born and where Terah, father of Abraham, had died. Almost at once, they found themselves outarmed; the Parthian archers, shooting from a distance, could easily penetrate their armor. “They were thus hit and killed,” Plutarch says,

dying, not by a quick and easy death, but with miserable pains and convulsions; for writhing upon the darts in their bodies, they broke them in their wounds, and when they would by force pluck out the barbed points, they caught the veins, so that they tore and tortured themselves. Many of them died thus, and those that survived were disabled for any service…their hands nailed to their shields, and their feet stuck to the ground, so that they could neither fight nor fly.22

Crassus sent his son Publius, who had come with him as his second-in-command, to charge the line; the Parthians withdrew, pulling Publius and his men onwards, and then swung around and surrounded them. Almost all of Publius’s troops fell fighting. Publius, seeing that defeat was inevitable, killed himself. The Parthians beheaded him and stuck his head on the end of a spear, waving it at his father as they harassed the remaining Romans.

Two days later Crassus was killed as well, with almost all of his men. The Parthian general, Surena, took Crassus’s head back to Orodes, king of Parthia, who (according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius) used it as a prop in a victory play.

The eastern frontier of Rome’s empire had been closed off. The Roman garrisons in Syria braced themselves under a Parthian attack which failed only because the Parthians were not yet experienced at sieges. King Orodes now ruled over a Parthia which stretched across much of the old Seleucid territory, from the Euphrates almost all the way to the border of China.

And the Triumvirate had been reduced to two. The year after the Parthian victory, Caesar—having put down a serious rebellion in Gaul—prepared to march back into Rome richer than Pompey and with more triumphs to his credit.

The Senate regarded this prospect with horror: Caesar’s glorious reputation, his wealth, and his army together all spelled dictator. And they were no longer compelled by Pompey’s armed men to grant Caesar’s wishes. The deaths of Julia and Crassus had weakened the bond between the two men, and Pompey was increasingly jealous of Caesar’s victories. “Pompey had come to fear Caesar,” Plutarch says. “Up till this time, he had despised him.”23

Together, Pompey and the Senate sent a message north: Caesar would not be allowed to enter Rome unless he surrendered his entire army.

Caesar suggested several compromises, including permission to enter with only a few legions, but Pompey convinced the Senate to refuse. Caesar knew that if he came to Rome unprotected, his career might end in hasty assassination. He decided that—like Sulla before him—he would enter with his army, as a conqueror; and so he set out, from Gaul, towards the north of Italy.

Plutarch says that Caesar knew perfectly well that this would start a bloody civil war, and that he halted, before he reached the Rubicon, and thought through the matter again. But finally, “in a sort of passion, as though casting calculation aside,” he shouted out “Alea iacta est!” which was the gambler’s traditional cry: “Let the die be cast!” He crossed the river, and “the broad gates of war were opened.”24

Immediately Italy was struck with panic. Men and women fled from one coast to the other, trying to get out of the way of the inevitable clash. Reports constantly flew down to the city that Caesar was just over the horizon. Pompey, panicking himself, left Rome and told the Senate to come with him; clearly he was afraid that the people of Rome would throw the gates open to Caesar. He fled down south to Brundisium, on the eastern coast, set up a rump government there, and then sent his own army across the water to reassemble itself at the Greek city of Dyrrhachium.

Caesar thought that this showed tremendous weakness, and Cicero later thought it a bad decision as well. But the delay gave Pompey enough time to round up a huge army with a very strong fleet of ships, since Caesar (rather than chasing him on out of Italy) turned back towards Rome. And, like Sulla years before, Pompey soon found himself joined by hundreds of prominent Romans, including Cicero.

Back in Italy, Caesar entered Rome and “found the city in a more settled state than he expected,” with a good part of the Senate still in residence and inclined to pacify the great conqueror.25 He did not, like Marius and Sulla, institute a purge; he simply took control of the city and scared the resistance out of everyone by sheer force of personality. When the remaining tribune objected to Caesar’s raiding the treasury in order to prepare for war against Pompey, Caesar remarked, “Young man, if you don’t stop interfering, I may just kill you. And I dislike saying this much more than I would dislike doing it.” The tribune, Plutarch says, “went off in a fright,” and for the rest of the war Caesar had all the money he needed.


78.2. Julius Caesar. Roman marble bust of Julius Caesar, 100–44 BC. Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Photo credit Alinari/Art Resource, NY

It took him two years to defeat the expatriates over in Greece. Months of “desultory fighting,” as Plutarch terms it, finally ended in 48, in a huge clash on the plain of Pharsalus. Caesar’s infantry fought against Pompey’s cavalry as they had learned to do against the Britons, by running up to the horses and aiming their javelins at the riders’ faces. The cavalry was completely unaccustomed to this mode of fighting, and stampeded. The resistance collapsed. Pompey, watching his army fall apart, went back to his tent and sat down until he could hear Caesar’s troops storming through the camp itself; then he changed into old clothes and slipped away unnoticed.

At news of the victory, the Senate proclaimed Caesar first dictator, and then, after eleven days, consul instead. Caesar’s aide Mark Antony, who had led one of the wings of his army during the Battle of Pharsalus, ran the city as his deputy; Caesar had learned that Pompey had been sighted heading towards Egypt, and had decided to chase his enemy a little farther.26

Whatever personal reasons Caesar had for following Pompey to Egypt, his pursuit made good political sense as well. Egypt, much fallen from its old greatness, was still a rich and potentially troublesome kingdom, and it had a weak young king: Ptolemy XIII, distant descendent of the great Ptolemy himself.

The Ptolemys had followed each other in a bickering, contentious, but more or less unbroken line for the last century, since we saw Ptolemy VI quarrelling with the Seleucids over Coele Syria. However, Ptolemy XIII was in the middle of a quarrel with his sister, Cleopatra VII, over which one of them should have the throne. When Pompey sailed into view of Egypt’s shores, Cleopatra was in Alexandria, while young Ptolemy was in Pelusium with an army, getting ready to attack his sister.27

Ptolemy, Plutarch says, was “a very young man,” and his advisors made most of his decisions for him. They decided that since Caesar was already on the way down to Egypt to catch and punish Pompey, they would get on Caesar’s good side by doing the job for him. So an official delegation of welcoming Egyptians sailed out to greet Pompey’s approaching ship, saluted him as “Imperator,” and invited him aboard so that they could ferry him ashore. Just as they were reaching the landing, as Pompey began to stand up to get off the boat, one of Ptolemy’s men ran him through from behind; and then two more cut off his head and threw his body into the water. Pompey was sixty years old; he had just celebrated his birthday on September 28, the day before his murder.28

When Caesar arrived, the Egyptian officials brought him Pompey’s head in a basket. He was, reportedly, furious: he had intended to humiliate his old ally, but not kill him. But this gave him a marvelous excuse for taking control of Egypt, which he could now do by way of punishment. He ordered Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII to both come to Alexandria, where he would choose one of them as rightful ruler of Egypt (under his supervision).226

His choice turned out to be less than objective. He was smitten with Cleopatra’s beauty and ordered her brother deposed in her favor. Ptolemy XIII died fighting against the Roman troops who arrived to enforce Caesar’s decision. Cleopatra was coronated and ceremonially married to her younger brother, an Egyptian custom that the Ptolemys had been following for some time.

Meanwhile Caesar carried on a furious affair with Cleopatra which kept him idle (politically, at least) in Alexandria for some months. When he was finally able to tear himself away, leaving her pregnant, he made a military tour around the edge of the Roman Republic: up the eastern border, where he destroyed the armies of Pontus; back down along the African border; up through the Iberian peninsula; and then back to Rome.

During his travels, he had been reelected consul four times, as a way of keeping up a legal pretense for his power. In 46, Caesar’s supporters (and the Romans who were afraid of them) agreed to give him a victory parade into Rome that had in it uncomfortable echoes of the ancient Etruscan kingship. Statues of him were placed around the city, alongside those of the ancient kings. He was allowed to wear a purple robe, and was hailed with the ceremonial title Imperator; the parade was led by a placard that read Veni, vidi, vici! (“I came, I saw, I conquered!”)29

After the parade, he took over the jobs of appointing magistrates, passing laws, and generally behaving as Senate, Tribune, Assembly, and Council all wrapped into one; all with the support of the army, which was loyal to him (he gave all the men who had fought in the Gallic Wars Roman citizenship), and the people, who still saw him as their benevolent guardian. He even changed the calendar: in order to institute the four-year system of leap years that we follow now, the year 46, that of his greatest public triumphs, was 445 days long.

Perhaps the Senate was afraid of the army’s retaliation and of public resistance, should they cease to shower him with honors. In 44, the Senate agreed to name him dictator for life. But this was not the same as being king; and now it became clear that somewhere in his youth, Caesar had allowed the idea of becoming a king to take root in his imagination.

On February 15 of 44, Mark Antony made a trial run at putting a crown on Caesar’s head. Antony, as part of a religious festival, was carrying a diadem with a laurel wreath tied to it. He offered it to Caesar, but the crowd responded with only scattered applause. Caesar, reading their mood, pushed it away several times, which brought on a much bigger cheer. The people of Rome had made it quite clear that they would not like Caesar to become an actual king. Perhaps king had too many echoes of the Parthians to the east; perhaps the lingering idea that Rome should be a meritocracy made the hereditary nature of a kingship repugnant. Caesar had no legitimate sons (although Cleopatra had given birth to a son, Ptolemy XV Caesarion), but he had named his eighteen-year-old great-nephew Octavian, son of his sister’s daughter, as his legal heir in his will.

Not long afterwards, the Senate agreed that Caesar could wear a crown, but only when he was out of Rome campaigning against Parthia—because myth said that only a king could conquer Parthia. Perhaps this was the last straw for those senators who were increasingly worried that the Republic would lose even its half-mythical reality. These hostile senators, which included Caesar’s own cousin Marcus Brutus (one of the heirs named in his will), made plans to assassinate the Dictator for Life when he entered the Senate next, on March 15 of 44 BC: the Ides of March. Everyone knew that Caesar’s right-hand man Mark Antony would not join in the plot, and so plans were made to stall him at the door while the act was done.

In his biography of Caesar’s heir Octavian, the Greek writer Nicolaus of Damascus describes the assassination with clinical detail:

When he came in and the Senate saw him, the members rose out of respect to him. Those who intended to lay hands on him were all about him. The first to come to him was Tullius Cimber, whose brother Caesar had exiled, and stepping forward as though to make an urgent appeal on behalf of his brother, he seized Caesar’s toga, seeming to act rather boldly for a suppliant, and thus prevented him from standing up and using his hands if he so wished. Caesar was very angry, but the men held to their purpose and all suddenly bared their daggers and rushed upon him. First Servilius Casca stabbed him on the left shoulder a little above the collar bone, at which he had aimed but missed through nervousness. Caesar sprang up to defend himself against him, and Casca called to his brother, speaking in Greek in his excitement. The latter obeyed him and drove his sword into Caesar’s side. A moment before Cassius [Longinus] had struck him obliquely across the face. Decimus Brutus struck him through the thigh. Cassius Longinus was eager to give another stroke, but he missed and struck Marcus Brutus on the hand. Minucius, too, made a lunge at Caesar but he struck Rubrius on the thigh. It looked as if they were fighting over Caesar. He fell, under many wounds, before the statue of Pompey, and there was not one of them but struck him as he lay lifeless, to show that each of them had had a share in the deed, until he had received thirty-five wounds, and breathed his last.30


Plutarch says that he died crying out for help; several Greek accounts, that he called out in Greek to Brutus, “Even you, my son?”227 And Suetonius says that, as Caesar was first stabbed, he cried out in blank surprise: “But this is force!”31

Caesar’s killers were simply at the logical end of a process that had begun with the Gracchi a hundred years before. No constitution or balance of powers had ever been able to restrain the ambitions of the powerful; Caesar himself had demonstrated this, and now he had fallen by the same methods he had used. But his shock reveals that the idea of the Republic still had a grasp on the Roman imagination. The official name of the Republic, engraved on the standards of the legions and on the buildings of Rome itself, was SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romani, The Senate and the People of Rome.

Rome is a place where the people have power: this had not been true for decades, but the Romans had no other way to think of themselves and no other name for their collective identity. It was a powerful lie, and even a dictator could still be aghast when its falsity was forced in front of his eyes.

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