Ancient History & Civilisation


The Fatal Dictator

Here you have a man who was ambitious to be the king of the Roman people, and he achieved it. If anyone says that this desire is morally right, he is mad, for he is approving the death of the laws and liberty and is thinking that their hideous and detestable oppression is glorious.

Cicero, De Officiis 3.83 (late October 44 BC)

Utterly deplorable! According to Gaius Matius, our problems are insoluble: ‘for if a man of such genius as Caesar could not find a way out, who will find one now?’ In short, he was saying that everything has had it–I am inclined to agree, but he said it with glee… ’

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 14.1.1, in April 44 BC,
three weeks after Caesar’s murder

After crossing the Rubicon, Caesar moved south with exceptional speed, helped by minimal resistance on his route through Italy. It was not that he was profiting from a continuing coolness between the Italian towns and Rome, as if it had been persisting since the Social Wars of the 80s. Rather, he had prepared his ground. For some while he had been sending funds from Gaul to supporters who were to apply them to local sympathies in Italy, here with a benefaction, there with new buildings. Back in the autumn of 50 young Caelius had already written unforgettably to Cicero that in political conflicts men should take the more honourable course unless matters came to a fight: then they ‘should take the stronger course and identify the better with the safer’.1 In Italy, people agreed and received Caesar because they were terrified. Their only precedent for this sort of civil war was Sulla’s, a dreadful one. The peasantry did not want to be conscripted to fight for Pompey and the property owners feared for their estates and ‘darling villas’, as Cicero acidly commented, ‘and their lovelymoney’, putting their ‘fishponds’ before freedom.

Caesar encouraged them by keeping up his campaign of spin. He emphasized his ‘clemency’ and proved it by a readiness to pardon enemies. He was the defender of ‘liberty’, he said, especially the ‘liberty’ of the Roman people’s tribunes. His enemies had just harassed these tribunes with the ‘ultimate decree’. Even Sulla, Caesar coolly observed, had left the tribunes a right of ‘intercession’ (arguably, Sulla had not left them the right of veto, but only the right to intercede against the harassment of individuals). His enemies (he said) were a minority, ‘the Faction’. Caesar would have nothing to learn from modern political advisers on presentation. But he also emphasized his concern for his own ‘dignity’, his rank and esteem, which were driving him to stand again as consul. ‘But what is dignity’, Cicero aptly commented, ‘if there is no honour?’2

If Caesar championed ‘liberty of the people’, Pompey championed ‘liberty of the Senate’. Recently the towns of Italy had celebrated Pompey’s recovery from an illness and perhaps this recent flattery misled him. In fact, they had faked it, in Cicero’s view. For Pompey’s hopes of support in Italy were far too optimistic. In mid-Januaryhe and many senators had to abandon Rome and head south to Brundisium where theywaited until 17 March. Meanwhile, offers of compromise multiplied. If Pompey would demobilize and go off to govern in Spain, Caesar would retain only the Dalmatian coast and keep out of Italy. Pompey even offered him a second consulship and a triumph, but he refused Caesar’s offers of a personal interview and did not state that he would disband his troops too. Mediators, including Cicero, had real hopes of peace, but the offers and counter-offers were yet more ‘spin’. Neither side could really demobilize or climb down. Pompey’s abandonment of Rome made a very bad impression, but he was said to be defending it, just as the Athenians had abandoned Athens to ‘defend’ it against the Persian tyranny in 480 BC. His aim was to set up in Greece and surround Caesar in Italy. He could gather help from foreign princes and squeeze away Caesar’s popular support, not least by interrupting grain imports. So in mid-March he crossed by sea to regroup in north-west Greece and summon foreign help.

The Civil War imposed choices which are enduring examples in the history of all politics: their results changed world history. It caught many prominent Romans with conflicting allegiances and it tested principles which others had long professed. We can still follow them unforgettably in the surviving letters to and from Cicero who had returned to Italy in December 50, hoping initially for the honour of a triumph for his minor victory in his minor province in the East. Events swept that hope away, and Cicero found himself being leaned on as a mediator by Caesar, who was predictably so amicable to him and others around him. Cicero was certainly no fighter, but he was still a great speaker and a senior figure who would lend respectability to Caesar’s cause. It also so happened that he had borrowed hugely from Caesar to finance his houses and his career and had not yet repaid. But he refused Caesar’s direct offers at interview and wrote: ‘I think Caesar is not pleased with me. But I was pleased with myself, which is more than I have been for a long time.’3 Caesar’s supporters were a frightful collection of men on the make, unprincipled time-servers, the ‘army of the underworld’, as Cicero and his friend Atticus so wonderfully described them.4 But the interview with Caesar ended ominously: ‘if Caesar could not get my advice, he said he would take the advice of anyone he could, and stop at nothing.’5

He certainly did not: on reaching Rome in April 49 Caesar waited outside the city-boundary, correctly, but then crossed it and threatened to kill one of the tribunes who had, equally correctly, denied him the money in the Treasury. His next step was less expected: a quick march west to Spain, to break Pompey’s possible hold on the province. He succeeded (not without trouble), returned to Rome and was appointed dictator (for a brief eleven days), and then elected consul for 48. It sounds easy, but it was not. He had repeatedly promised bonuses to his troops since reaching the Rubicon, but although he had booty in Gaul, he did not have the cash at hand with which to pay. On returning to Italy, some of his troops actually mutinied, and not for the last time, either. In Rome, there was no magistrate left to preside over an election to the consulship, so Caesar had to be made dictator in order to preside over the election of himself. He then had to cross to Greece from Brindisi in order to cope with Pompey’s army. It took months to contrive a safe departure by sea and even then he was running huge risks.

In superb letters, we can watch Cicero meanwhile wavering and wondering where he could possibly go. His close friend Atticus was going to stay on in Rome, rich, uninvolved and artfully neutral. Cicero’s womenfolk were there too and, so far, Caesar had not been too radical. He had not cancelled existing debts or systematically redistributed land. The land of some of his enemies had passed to some of Caesar’s friends, but at least it had been auctioned or sold to them. And yet Caesar was a manifest enemy of Cicero’s ideal of senatorial liberty. Should I go somewhere neutral, Cicero wondered? Should I go to Malta? Should I try Sicily or take a military command in Africa? Basically, he hated the option of war and the destruction it would bring.

On the other side, Pompey did stand for the ‘liberty’ of the Senate and he had done Cicero one great favour: in 57 he had helped to restore him from exile. Yet, as so often, Cicero was not entirely deceived. If Pompey returned from Greece, he would attack Italy and allow the most dreadful reprisals. In the end, Pompey too would want to dominate (though at least he was older and would last less long). Obliged by a past favour and believing in what Pompey used as spin, Cicero crossed to join him in Greece. When he eventually arrived he found Pompey’s supporters there to be awful: ‘their talk was so bloodthirstyI shuddered at the thought of victory.’ They were already carving up their jobs for the future and ‘all those great men were deep in debt. Why go on? The only good thing was the cause itself.’6 So Cicero resorted to his unfailing verbal wit. He made his ‘disapproval of Pompey’s plans obvious, but did not refrain from jokes at the foreigners who were come to help’7 (Pompey had called on help from ‘barbarian’ dynasts from Asia and even from up by the Danube). ‘Cicero went round camp darkly without a smile, but he made others laugh in spite of themselves.’8

When Caesar eventually landed in north-west Greece he should have been defeated promptly on two occasions. Instead, the second occasion became his crucial victory near Pharsalus (in Thessaly) on 9 August 48 BC, in which his supporter Mark Antony commanded the left wing with distinction. Caesar’s agents, meanwhile, had gone south to woo Athens. They had even gone through the motions of selling the obstinate Megarians as slaves and then freeing them, a sure way (still) to the neighbouring Athenians’ hearts. Unprepared for defeat, Pompey fled and eventually set foot on the coast of Egypt by the eastern arm of the Nile Delta. On arrival he was killed on the advice of a Greek, a rhetor from the island of Chios. Years later, in 130, Hadrian would rediscover the simple tomb of Pompey; ‘the man’, Cicero wrote coolly, ‘whom I knew to be honest, decent and serious’.9 Devious and inscrutable were also apt words for him. Hadrian cleared away the sand, restored the statues which Pompey’s family had put up (and others, later, had defaced) and wrote verses for his tomb. ‘How lowly a tomb…’, theybegan. Hadrian did not understand the legal and personal complexities which we have been following.

On 2 October 48 Caesar arrived, to be presented with Pompey’s head which had been cut off for him. He then entered Alexandria and became involved in a fateful strife in the Ptolemaic royal house. Since the previous king’s death in 51, the kingdom had been bequeathed by will to Rome. Caesar now settled an outstanding feud by upholding the joint rule of the previous king’s young son and his slightly older daughter. As Ptolemies, this brother and sister were already married to each other, but the sister, Cleopatra, arrived in Caesar’s presence, hidden in a linen bedding-sack. Aged twenty-one, she was to fascinate the thrice-married Caesar. His wife Calpurnia was back in Rome, but he was not yet a love-sated man past his prime.10 Love now accompanied Rome’s hand in Egypt.

News of the victory at Pharsalus reached Rome byOctober 48 and caused Caesar, the consul in absence, to be named ‘dictator’ for a whole year. Yet for another nine months Rome was not even to see him: was he dead? In fact, he became caught up in a savage war in Alexandria which was begun by two discontented Alexandrian Greek courtiers: during it, his troops began a fire which did irreparable damage to Alexandria’s royal bookstores and libraries, perhaps Caesar’s most permanent ill-effect. It was his turn, now, to depend on ‘barbarian’ help: Jewish soldiers arrived to help him, and in return Caesar would be a firm supporter of Jews and their status. Eventually, peace was restored and in spring 47 it does seem that he could relax by boating up the Nile with Egypt’s newly secured queen, who was so sweet-voiced and accomplished in conversation. She had already become pregnant. In the summer she bore a son and called him Caesarion, a name which Caesar did not repudiate. Caesarion’s birth-date and parentage continue to be questioned, but when he appears in Cicero’s surviving letters in spring 44 he is not described as if his origin was disputed at the time. Julius Caesar had no other surviving children by anyone else.

Even after the death of Pompey, Caesar had to fight three more wars to assert his dominance. They are ample evidence that there was nothing inevitable about his supremacy or about the ‘fall’ of the Roman Republic. The first war was over quickly in July 47, a victory in Asia over Mithridates’ son: it was so quick that it was here that Caesar said ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ (at Zela). Then he returned to Rome, to confront yet another mutiny among troops who had been left in Italy. Here his deputy, Mark Antony, had not proved a safe pair of hands, quite apart from his carryings-on with a notorious courtesan, a woman whose presence at dinner was denounced by Cicero, a fellow guest, who was both shocked and intrigued.11 In late December 47 Caesar was off again, this time to north Africa against another major pocket of republican resistance. Again, he ran huge risks by landing with far fewer troops against some fourteen enemy legions. After three separate victories, his constant republican opponent, Cato, killed himself. Ever the man of principle, Cato first read Plato, then took a sword and succeeded at the second attempt.

Back in Rome in spring 46 BC, news of this failed ‘last stand’ seemed to mark a decisive turn: Caesar was voted the first cluster of what were to proliferate as exceptional honours. A chariot and a statue with a globe were to be set up on the Capitol hill, and most remarkably an inscription on the statue was to call him ‘demi-god’, in the very heart of Rome. The senators, perhaps, were outrunning even Caesar’s expectations. More mundanely, Caesar was voted another dictatorship, but this time for ten whole years. How was he going to rule? He was not going to legislate for a whole new system in one transforming package. He had very few changes to make to Rome’s existing system of justice. Instead, laws would come out one by one, and they were to be reasonable enough. The calendar, hopelessly out of line, was to be reformed. Debts were certainly not to be cancelled (many people owed big sums to Caesar, including Cicero), but there was to be a suspension of rent, but only up to a modest limit and for one year. In Italy, debtors were finding that their security for their loans, their land, was collapsing in value in the crisis: a new ruling, therefore, obliged creditors to accept land at its pre-war value. The harsh old rules of bankruptcy were also moderated. This sort of legislation was very far from the red-blooded abolitions of debt in previous Greek history, and other populists would try to go further. In Caesar’s Rome, however, the populist groups which had been the focus of Clodius in the 50s were restricted: the people’s clubs and ‘colleges’ would not now be allowed unless they were licensed (few were) and the numbers who were eligible for grain doles were steeply cut.

Of course there were to be new settlements for veteran soldiers and also, again, for the urban poor. But they were to be settlements abroad for the most part, not on land in use in Italy: here, there were plans only to drain the Pomptine marshes and make a new fertile area available for colonists. In Caesar’s new towns abroad, freedmen (unusually) would be able to hold civic office. They would pay, perhaps, for the honour, but they would also be alert to potential trade and profit, not least in sites like Corinth or Carthage, places which Caesar proposed to resettle. Caesar as city-founder is the real heir to the commercial alertness attested by some of the settlements made in Asia by Alexander the Great.

For Italy, there was the grant of citizenship to the north, ‘beyond the Po’; there was even a proposal that at least one-third of the herdsmen on farms for grazing should be free-born. In the south of Italy, especially, big landowners had tended to use slaves to tend their huge herds of livestock. This practice had forced the free peasantry out of a widespread job and had also assured the landowners of a useful source of slave-recruits whenever they needed a private gang of armed retainers. There was a broader social vision in all this legislation by Caesar, as in the detailed laws on ‘clean government’ or even in the recent reduction of Asia’s tribute by one-third; the reduction was made possible byeliminating the hated contractors at Rome who used to bid for the right to collect the tribute and make a profit. It all befitted a man of the highest nobility who had served for so long outside Rome and looked back on it with a wider view. Caesar also looked down on his political rivals, people who were really rather common in comparison with his patrician self. Yet his supporters had to be honoured, too, and so the Senate was to be increased to 900 members, a vast body: many of the new intake seemed outrageous to the members from traditional families.

Of popular reactions, there was now no doubt. In Caesar’s absence, with grain scarce, there had been discontent, but on his return the people were to be treated to the most amazing of all Roman triumphs, in a celebration of four victories at once. For four days in August 46 great processions passed through Rome, including a statue of Cleopatra beside Caesar’s own ancestral goddess Venus (it survived in Rome for at least two centuries). There were the usual jokes by followers in order to keep the triumphing general’s feet on the ground, about his supposed sex with King Nicomedes (it had to be an old joke, because there had been no homosexuality in Caesar’s life then or since) or, more ominously, about Caesar as ‘bad boy’ and ‘king’. At the games afterwards, there were animal hunts and even Rome’s first sighting of a giraffe. After the concluding banquet on the fourth day, Caesar, still in slippers, was escorted from his newly planned Forum by a popular crowd and even by elephants bearing torches. It was all hugely expensive, and when a few of his soldiers protested, they were put to death: the heads of two of them were nailed up by priests on the ‘royal house’ in the Forum.12 So it was as well that there were to be massive payments for the soldiers (an entire lifetime’s pay) and even a payment for every single citizen. Loot from the provinces was paying for them, not least the plunder which had been collected from Spain and Asia in the Civil War of the past two years. The spending was to exceed even the final year of Alexander the Great, a tribute to Caesar’s massive plundering.

More permanently, there were to be great new buildings, a temple to Mars, the biggest ever, the huge new Forum (never finished in his lifetime), a temple to mother Venus (dedicated in September), a statue of Caesar on horseback in front of it in which both Caesar and his beloved horse (now fourteen years old) were modelled in the likenesses of Alexander and the great Bucephalas. So much, at last, for Caesar’s alleged tears of regret over Alexander’s glory in Cadiz in 69 BC. When the Venus temple was dedicated, Caesar celebrated two evocative rituals: a ‘Troy Game’ on horseback for young participants, supposedly tracing back to his ancestor Aeneas, and funeral games for his daughter Julia, who had died back in 54.13 In her honour, gladiators fought in the Forum: the ‘Troy Game’s’ riders may perhaps have been led by a young unknown quantity, his adopted great-nephew, Octavian. Nobody could have imagined that this boy, some twenty years later, would repeat such games for himself.

Even so, for Cicero there were still flickering hopes that a republic would somehow be restored. As a dictator for a fixed term, Caesar was appointed nominally to ‘settle the res publica’ (the ‘state’ or the ‘republic’). In the Senate, during the summer, there had been a sudden wonderful pardon for noble Marcus Marcellus, the man who as consul in 50 BC had insisted on Caesar’s return from Gaul. Cicero was cheered by the event and hailed Caesar’s ‘justice’, but a pardon, like all Caesar’s power, depended on one man’s ‘will, or shall I say “whim”?’14 Senators had grovelled to receive it. In fact, the beneficiary of the pardon was killed in Greece before he ever enjoyed it, and some said his death was on Caesar’s orders. As Cicero makes plain at the time, Caesar was still afraid of conspirators against himself. When a mime-writer, Laberius, put a play on with the words, ‘Citizens, we have lost liberty’, Caesar preferred to do nothing against him.15

In December 46 trouble did break out, but it was in Spain, not in the Senate. Pompey had left two brave sons there and one of them, Gnaeus, led a major rebellion in Spain, forcing Caesar into one more Civil War which was probably his most dangerous. It was fought in rough terrain with difficult supplies and determined enemies. On 17 March 45 BC Caesar won decisively at Munda, although he had to rally his troops personally, jumping from his horse and shaming them into standing firm; he had really thought it was his last hour. It proved the last, instead, for Gnaeus Pompey, although the other son of Pompey, Sextus, was left at large. Caesar never imagined that Sextus would have a political future, so he left him, settled veterans in Spain and returned to Rome.

In his absence, meanwhile, it is Cicero’s difficulties which we know best, not just his admirable sense of a real loss of freedom but difficulties, too, in his family. After quarrels, Cicero had divorced his long-standing wife, Terentia; he had always disliked his latest son-in-law, Dolabella, and now the bounder was putting up a statue to Cicero’s blackest enemy, Clodius. In the years since returning to Italy, Cicero had been struggling to pay his beloved daughter Tullia’s proper dowry (for her third marriage); he had been reduced to handing it over in instalments. Now his daughter was wanting a divorce from Dolabella anyway. Friends, meanwhile, found Cicero a second wife, Publilia, a rich young woman: his first wife said the marriage was all for sex. Then Tullia died after childbirth, throwing him into extreme grief. He had loved her so dearly; he even planned to build her a temple (not a tomb) on ground which is now near the Vatican in Rome. But Julius Caesar took the ground first. Then Cicero’s second wife Publilia turned out to be a mistake, not least for the reason that she was jealous of his grief and love for his daughter. So Cicero backed quickly out of the cul-de-sac and wisely divorced her.

Through his letters we can follow identifiable stages of his extreme ‘grieving process’ for Tullia. We can also read a classic letter to him, sent by the politician and lawyer Sulpicius Rufus.16 It is an extraordinary text, which is at first sight deeply moving: it expresses Sulpicius’ awareness, while sailing past the coastline of Greece, of the disasters which had brought many of the old cities in Greece so low. Tullia, he reminds Cicero, was only one person, whereas these cities had lost so many. But in fact, this ‘consolation’ is very far from what we would nowadays expect. Sulpicius and Cicero agree that the real tragedyis the contemporarydeath of the Republic. Young Tullia was lucky, we read, to have died first, and the loss of the Republic is so much more regrettable than the loss of just one daughter. There could be no more vivid instance of a political Roman’s priorities and the balance between male freedom and domestic loss.

Books, at least, persisted for Cicero, his honoured, beloved companions. At Rome, Caesar was planning to build the first public library (having burned down so much of Alexandria’s) and to appoint the hugely learned Varro as its librarian, although Varro, Pompey’s assistant, had opposed Caesar in Spain in 49. In his grief, Cicero turned to writing a spate of new books of his own, on the gods, on aspects of religion, on the history of oratory and above all on philosophy (as the creator of a new Latin vocabulary for Greek philosophy) and on the sceptical theories to which he inclined. His letters of these months remind us of his extraordinary mental range, but also of his love for his various country villas and their woods and grounds (one, even, had an area called the Academy): he had a real affinity here with the eighteenth-century English gentlemen who would so admire him. His philosophywas more encyclopedic than original, and none of it would ever have been written if he could have had the continuing thrill of a free political career, speaking, attacking and being his ‘own man’. But his first philosophy dialogue, with its warnings against sex and the quest for riches, was to inflame, four centuries later, an unexpected young reader, St Augustine.

In April 45 news of the victory in Spain reached Rome. It promoted a further, crucial flood of honours. Not only was the message timed to arrive just before the city’s ancient festival of the Parilia, with its links to Romulus and Rome’s foundation which Caesar, therefore, could exploit. The Senate decreed that Caesar should be called ‘Liberator’ and a temple to Libertyshould be built.17 It is a cardinal moment in the history of freedom, for no Roman had ever been entitled ‘Liberator’ before. It flatteringlyrecalled Caesar’s claims at the very start of the Civil War and ascribed ‘freedom’ to a man who had yet again killed honest Roman citizens in battle. His statue was even to stand on the Capitol beside the founders of the Republic. But then the ‘liberated’ senators went on to call him ‘Father of the Fatherland’, to vote him crowns, fifty days of supplications and, above all, two extreme divine honours. His ivory statue was to be wheeled in procession with those of the gods, and another statue, set in a temple, was to be inscribed ‘To the Invincible God’. The inscription had strong overtones of Alexander the Great.18 Even so, in summer 45 one shrewd noble Roman, Cicero’s equal in the writing of moral philosophy, did still think that the Republic would be restored. This nobleman, Marcus Brutus, had benefited, so far, from Caesar and he was to be a praetor for the next year. Even in 45 freedom of speech still existed away from Caesar’s table: in his work on oratory, Cicero had just hinted that Brutus should live up to his noble ancestors. It was a highly charged remark. Atticus, Cicero’s friend, had recently helped Brutus to construct his family tree. Brutus had then had it painted in the main room of his house, the house he called his ‘Parthenon’, in honour of Athens. On its wall, he could look daily at a genealogy which went back (it was said) to the two great tyrant-slayers in the earliest history of Rome.19 One of them, also called Brutus, had killed proud King Tarquin and had then also killed his own sons for favouring Tarquin. This famous Brutus then became the first consul in the first year of the Republic which replaced kingship; his statue, long before Caesar’s, had stood in honour on the Capitol. This heritage was not lost on his descendant. Brutus had represented it on coins, probably struck in 55/4 BC, with the word ‘Liberty’ too. Caesar was known to have had a sexual affair with Brutus’ mother, but this private matter was not behind Brutus’ growing discontent. The roots were political: and, as a young man, whose father was dead (killed by Pompey), Brutus had been brought up as Cato’s protégé. He had philosophic interests, and in summer 45 he remarried: significantly his new wife was Porcia, the widowed daughter of the arch-republican, Cato.

While curbing political freedom, Caesar had legislated, inevitably, on that feared phantom, personal luxury. Inspectors were even said to be checking on people’s dinner-parties and on food-markets and to have banned pearls and extravagant clothes. The law was not totally ignored, because we find Cicero remarking that cooks were learning to prepare new vegetarian dishes and that the obligatory new diet of roast vegetables was giving him stomach ache.20 In October 45 Caesar did celebrate a triumph, his second, for the victories in Spain. But many resented it, as it was for victories over Romans in Civil War, not legal objects for a triumph. For the most memorable insight into what Caesar now represented, we must look to Cicero. In the festive season of mid-December 45 Caesar came to pay a ‘social call’ on his old friend. He arrived at Cicero’s villa with about 2,000 soldiers and attendants, all of whom had to be dined too. The two of them then talked pleasantly enough over dinner, as if they were ‘just human beings’.21 But they talked not a word of politics, the lifeblood of Cicero’s previous existence. Instead, they talked only of literature. It was a restriction unimaginable in their previous years together. ‘But my guest’, Cicero wrote afterwards, ‘was not the sort to whom one says, “Do please come again when you are back”. Once is enough.’ At one point on the way back, he noticed, the entire troop of soldiers moved up and rode on either side of Caesar, to guard him.

At Rome, Caesar was prepared now to accept a continuing stream of honours without precedent, sacrifices on his birthday (a divine honour for kings in the Greek world), annual vows for his welfare and ‘sacrosanctity’ for his person, like a tribune. He was old now, by ancient standards, and his health was not good, but nonetheless his next plan was widely recognized. It would be more of what he had always done best, military campaigning, three years of it, to win glory in the East against the Parthians, old Crassus’ recent undoing. There were even rumours that he would then swing round by the Black Sea and return, a conquering champion, by the river Danube through Dacia. In cities in the Greek East, Caesar had already been given ‘honours equal to those of the gods’. Other Romans before him had received these honours in the Greek world, and like Caesar they had met local kings on their travels. But unlike them, Caesar had actually brought a queen with him (Cleopatra was in the city, where she had ‘diplomatic business’). Was Caesar planning to be a king (like his ancestors) and to be worshipped outright as a god with formal cult? Honours were still showering on him, perhaps purely so as to see what he would refuse. In early 44 we are told that he was voted a cult in which Antony, his fellow consul, would be his priest. His house was to have an honorary pediment like a temple; the Senate is even said to have called him ‘Jupiter Julius’. Proposals for a cult of the living Caesar thus seem to be a certainty, but the ultimate horror, his willingness to take the title of king, remains uncertain. Certainly, elements of ‘royalty’ were proposed for him: a golden throne (but to be left empty, and in the theatre only), a golden crown (like a triumphing general). In late January crowds called out ‘King!’ as he returned with a solemn ovation from a festival celebration: he corrected them.22 In mid-February 44 crowds gathered in Rome for the religious festival of the Luperci, when young men ran naked to ‘touch’ women with rods and assist their future fertility. While running with them, Mark Antony and others did offer Caesar a royal diadem, only to see him throw it ostentatiously away. The ‘refusal’, perhaps, was planned to allay traditionalists’ doubts, much to the plebs’ regret. But there was no doubting one thing: by mid-February 44 Caesar had accepted another ‘dictatorship’, his fourth, but this time it was defined as one for life. So much, then, for the Republic’s future. Not unjustly, Caesar was believed to have called the Republic ‘a mere name without body or form’, and to have criticized Sulla for not knowing his political ABC, because Sulla had resigned the dictatorship which he had achieved.23 There was no question, now, of Caesar restoring the senators’ liberty. Here was a clear turning point.

With hindsight, various omens and warnings were remembered, but there had never been any shortage of them. Up by the Rubicon, however, the horses whom Caesar had left free were said to be refusing to eat.24 How right the horses were: Caesar had even dismissed his bodyguards in Rome. It was not that he was courting death, surely: it was a confident sign that he was supreme. When the senators had come to honour him extravagantly, he failed (as a dictator could) to rise to greet them: deep down, he felt they were common little men, many of whom were his own creations. However, he promptlyregretted his rudeness and alleged, wrongly, that he had been struck by stomach problems at the time.

The lifelong dictatorship, the imminent cult: these signs were intolerable to those senators who minded deeply about liberty. One was the impetuous Cassius, praetor for the year (with Brutus) but a proven soldier as well as a man with Epicurean philosophic interests: his ancestors, like those of Brutus, had once issued coins with the caption ‘Liberty’. He was also Brutus’ brother-in-law, married to his half-sister. Other men, inevitably, felt personal slights or disappointments, sustained in a system of honour which increasingly depended on Caesar’s ‘grace and favour’. There was also the unresolved question of kingship. It was said to be about to come up again, on the strength of a Sibylline oracle which apparently stated that Parthia could only be conquered by a ‘king’.25On the Ides of March 44, amid routine warnings, Caesar went nonetheless to a meeting of the Senate, only to confront an insistent group of senators, among whom was Marcus Brutus. Sixtysenators or so were in the plot, but no more than five or six of them could have rushed at Caesar and stabbed him, while his fellow consul Mark Antony was detained outside. Caesar’s body fell, streaming blood. Twenty-three wounds were later noted on it, and the conspirators left him to lie till nightfall. It is probably only a legend that Caesar’s last words were ‘You too, Brutus?’, but it is probably true that Brutus called out the name of the one senator whom the conspirators had excluded from the plot for fear that he was too indiscreet: Cicero! By hints, however, and in private letters, Cicero had contrived, most admirably, to protest throughout at Caesar’s despotism. Now Caesar was dead, and he lay in the temple adjoining Pompey’s Theatre, where the Senate had been about to meet, within yards of a statue of Pompey himself.

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