XII

MARCH 15, 44 B.C., THE IDES OF MARCH

IN THE DARK BEFORE DAWN

Well before sunrise, scores of members of Rome’s male elite crowded noisily into Gaius Cassius’s city house. Using the excuse of a party to celebrate the coming of age of his son, Cassius had organized a meeting where all the members of the conspiracy to murder Julius Caesar could meet en masse for the first time. Of the hundred or so senators and members of the Equestrian Order invited to Cassius’s house this morning, more than sixty were party to the assassination plot.¹ This gathering would give the more committed plotters the opportunity to bolster the courage of their more nervous associates in crime and let them see the quality and number of the men who were prepared to strike a blow against kingship and for democracy.

In two days’ time, on March 17, it would be the Liberalia, the religious festival when, traditionally, Rome’s young men officially came of age. In Roman society, a youth came of age at the Liberalia closest to his sixteenth birthday, meaning that many actually came of age at fifteen. Just as an eighteenth birthday is a time when friends and family gather to celebrate the coming of age of their children today, the Romans, from whom we derive this coming-of-age custom, also made the Liberalia a time of celebration.

Cassius had brought the Liberalia party of his son forward by two days, apparently using the excuse of pressure of public business in the days leading up to Caesar’s departure to the East for the early celebration. The real reason was, clearly, to provide the occasion for the meeting of all the assassination conspirators under the one roof without raising any suspicions.

Because some of those attending the party were not members of the conspiracy, those who were had to be careful what they said, speaking in innuendo to those whom they knew to be their fellow conspirators. This would have lent the affair a certain air of excitement, which, combined with apprehension about the success or failure of the venture, would have sent adrenaline pumping through the plotters’ veins at a rapid rate.

As Cassius welcomed his guests, who would have included relatives, clients, and old friends, he was one of the few present who would have known the identity of each conspirator. The central core of conspiratorial leaders—Cassius, Brutus, Labeo, Albinus, and Trebonius—had been the plot’s motivators and recruiters, and during the coming-of-age gathering those present would have carefully introduced plotters to one another using words and signs that revealed that each was in the same conspiratorial boat. The conspirators had come to the party ready for the day’s business. Over a plain tunic they wore a white toga with a thick purple border. The toga was the tuxedo of the ancient world, worn only on official occasions, and the toga with a thick purple border was the sole preserve of members of the Roman Senate.

This toga, no more than a large piece of woolen cloth, was worn in a very particular way, so that the left arm was covered. Only the right arm was left exposed. This permitted the conspirators to conceal a dagger beneath the left arm. Before Marcus Brutus had left home that morning, his wife, Porcia, now privy to the murder plot, had helped him strap a dagger under his arm. Here, now, in Cassius’s house, were the conspirators, wearing their togas and carrying their concealed murder weapons.

Apart from Cassius, Brutus, and Labeo, the conspirators included a number of men with similar backgrounds to themselves, supporters of the Republic and opponents of Caesar during the Civil War, men who had all been pardoned by Caesar during or after that war. They included the praetor Sextius Nasso, the senators Rubrius Ruga, Quintus Ligarius, and Marcus Spurius, the brothers Caecilius and Bucilianus, and the tribune of the plebs Pontius Aquila.²

From among Caesar’s subordinates and supporters, in addition to Albinus and Trebonius, conspirators numbered leading senators such as Servius Sulpicius Galba, a praetor in 54 B.C., who had served Caesar faithfully throughout the Gallic and civil wars. Others from Caesar’s own ranks included Lucius Tillius Cimber, Minucius Basilus, and the brothers Gaius and Publius Servilius Casca, who were both current tribunes of the plebs.³

Several of these men, from both camps, undoubtedly had personal axes to grind with Caesar: Aquila the humiliated tribune, for example. Likewise, it was rumored that Caesar had once seduced Galba’s wife, reason enough for Galba to bear him a grudge. But others who were close to Caesar, such as Albinus and Trebonius, had no apparent reason to join the plot other than the stated motive of pulling down a tyrant and restoring the Republic. Even family members turned against Caesar—Lucius Cornelius Cinna, brother of Caesar ’s first wife, was still considered family by Caesar, who made him a praetor this year of 44 B.C. Yet Cinna, too, had become one of the assassins.

There were others in the crowd at Cassius’s house who might have been invited to join the plot, men such Marcus Favonius, had their responses to guarded test questions not made the plotters wary of revealing the scheme to them. There can be no doubt that Cassius would have preferred to have made the much-admired elder statesman Marcus Cicero the spiritual leader of the plot, had Cicero not been inclined to philosophize when the times called for action. As it was, Cicero was currently away from Rome, staying at one of his many country estates.

Now, the coming-of-age ceremonial involving Cassius’s son took place. It was called the deposito barbae. As the guests crowded into the reception room, Cassius’s boy took a seat on a stool and was surrounded by proud and excited male slaves, servants of the Cassius household. A wrap of cambric or muslin was tied around the youth’s neck before a servant wet the boy’s face with water from a silver bowl. At this time, and until the second century, it was the custom for all Roman citizens to be clean-shaven. Only in the reign of the emperor Hadrian would beards, which were long common among “barbarians” such as the Germans, become universally fashionable. On the other hand, it was the Roman custom that boys who had not come of age never shaved. Their first shave came on the occasion of their coming-of-age party, when the full beard or few wispy hairs on their jaw were removed as part of the deposito barbae ceremony.

Cassius’s personal barber, his tonsor, now stepped up and took an iron razor from a tray held by another servant. The barber would have made a great show of sharpening the razor on a whetstone, lubricating the blade by spitting on it. As the barber commenced to shave the youth, yet another servant stood by with a bowl containing spiderwebs soaked in oil and vinegar, which would be quickly applied to any nicks or cuts. But Cassius’s barber would have been expert at his trade, and there would have been no need of the spiderwebs today. Each hair removed from the boy’s face was placed in a small golden casket made specially for the deposito. When the last hair was removed, the barber closed the casket and, to the cheers and applause of the watching guests, turned and presented it to the proud father.

Cassius would then have left the room, taking the casket to the house’s private chapel, which, in the homes of ancient Romans, could range from a small, dedicated room to just a wooden cupboard in a corner. The casket was deposited in the chapel as an offering to Capitoline Jupiter. In the Satyricon, first-century Roman author Petronius Arbiter has his hero place a deposito casket between the silver statuettes of his two lares, or household gods, and a statuette of the goddess Venus.

By the time Cassius returned to the gathering, his seated son’s face had been washed and freshened with water and soft, sweet-smelling oil. Cassius called on the young man to stand, then took a plain white garment, the toga virulus(toga of manhood), and personally draped it on his son. To the applause of the guests, the servants then led the boy from the room. His father and all the guests fell in behind. The entire gathering then walked from Cassius’s house to the Forum, where Cassius perambulated his son for all the world to see, clad in his manly gown for the first time, as was the custom. From there, with Cassius’s chattering household servants escorting the young man home, Cassius and his guests set out for Pompey’s Theater and the momentous Senate sitting.

In groups large and small, and preceded by torch-bearing attendants, the senators bustled through the capital’s streets. Around them, the city stirred, and other members of the House not invited to Cassius’s celebration joined the exodus from the city, making their way on foot or carried in litters from the city proper to the temporary Senate House on the Field of Mars.

To replace the republican Senate, Caesar had stacked the House with men who would support him in return for their elevation. The precise number of senators who made their way to the Theater of Pompey on the Ides of March is not recorded, but it would have been many hundreds.

The first light of dawn was just beginning to streak the eastern horizon as the senators made their way from the suburbs and out of the northern city gates. The Roman day always began this early; Senate sittings invariably commenced at dawn, and could run all day until dusk, without a break.

Caesar had personally chosen the site for the day’s sitting, the Theater of Pompey. Prior to the Civil War, Pompey the Great had erected this complex to house the city’s first permanent drama theater, paying for it from his own pocket. It had been dedicated in 55 B.C., but by 44 B.C. the vast complex, which included four temples, including one, ironically, dedicated to Luck, and an art gallery, was still a work in progress. Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, would complete the project.

By these Ides of March, the majority of the work had been done. The huge, roofless theater, built in tufa and travertine to the semicircular pattern established by the Greeks for their drama theaters, was already being used for drama, comedy, mime, poetry readings, and musical concerts, and could accommodate several thousand people on its tiered seating.

Two pillared porticoes extended from the theater, running east either side of a garden to a lofty vestibule. The vestibule was fronted by a line of columns, from which a broad flight of stone steps ran down to the street. The theater’s vestibule was so vast that large meetings could be held beneath its soaring roof. Today’s sitting of the Senate was due to take place in this vestibule, which some later authors would call the Hall of Pompey; others, Pompey’s Assembly Room; others still, the Portico of Pompey, or Pompey’s Porch.

Today, Decimus Brutus Albinus’s troupe of gladiators was onstage in the theater. Their number is unknown, but a troupe of several hundred was probable. Arriving well before sunup, the gladiators were rehearsing the exhibition that Albinus had promised to give Caesar once the business of the Senate was wrapped up. Because the wall behind the stage had yet to be completed, a temporary screen rose up behind the stage, preventing anyone on the porticoes or vestibule from seeing into the theater.

These gladiators, usually either slaves or prisoners of war, were trained for individual combat, in which they excelled. As later Civil War experience was to prove, generally, gladiators were no match for legionaries when the soldiers fought as a unit. The gladiators’ standard weapons were sword, javelin, trident, and net. Some carried shields, and all wore armor of one type or another. Their skin shining with body oil and marked by scars from past combat, these physically fit, well-fed professional fighters made imposing figures.

In the theater’s vestibule, slaves were making final preparations for the day’s Senate sitting. Wooden benches had been arranged in several curving rows, facing a single, low-backed chair made of gold and ivory—the arms of which were probably solid elephant tusks—and decorated with precious stones. This throne had been crafted for Caesar on the orders of his Senate, just one of the many honors bestowed on him his since he had come to power. Caesar’s throne had been put in position by the attendant whose sole task was its care.

Male secretaries at desks set to one side were preparing piles of wax writing tablets. It was Caesar who, in 59 B.C., when consul for the first time, had required that every word spoken in the Senate be recorded verbatim and kept in the official archives, the Tabularium. These Senate records were known as the Acta Senatus, and, at this time in Roman history, could be consulted at the Tabularium by the general public. The emperor Augustus would revoke this right, after which the Senate records could only be consulted with the emperor’s permission.

The Senate secretaries used the Roman shorthand invented by Marcus Cicero’s secretary, the freed slave Tiro, “by means of which,” Seneca observed, “even a rapidly delivered speech is taken down.” Inscribed in wax, this shorthand would later be written out in full, in ink, on papyrus rolls, for filing and access at the Tabularium. These records would be destroyed in the famous A.D. 64 Great Fire of Rome; those that were originated after that date would fall victim to the fifth-century barbarian sack of Rome.

The other Senate staff included the water-clock attendants, who would have been checking that their devices were in working order. As soon as the sun was fully over the horizon, the water in the mechanisms would be permitted to begin to trickle, to record the passing of the first hour of the day. These devices were not particularly accurate. Seneca would quip, a century later, that all the philosophers of Rome were more likely to agree than the city’s water clocks. But at least the clocks gave an indication of time to senators cloistered in the Senate House all day.

Outside, at the bottom of the steps, security was provided by a company of members of the Equestrian Order, who traditionally guarded sittings of the Senate. By this time, the ancient Praetorian Guard had fallen into disuse; within months of Caesar’s death Mark Antony would reform that famous corps, as his personal bodyguard unit. The task of the company of Equestrians today was to screen all persons entering the Theater of Pompey. They would only grant admittance to the vestibule to senators. Unlike Rome’s courts, there was no provision for a public gallery in the Senate.

At this time, senators were not searched for weapons. In the first century, several emperors would employ that practice, but in 44 B.C. the Equestrians providing security would of course have stopped any senator seen to have a weapon on his person; a sword, for example would have been virtually impossible to hide, even under a toga. Writing almost three hundred years later, Cassius Dio would claim that in the planning stage of the murder plot, the conspirators had intended to have “swords instead of documents brought into the chamber in boxes.” No other classical source mentions this. In the event, other classical sources spoke of daggers, not swords, as the weapons used by the murderers. Not even Dio actually described swords being used to kill Caesar on the Ides of March.

The first senators began to arrive in the vestibule, their voices echoing around the polished, yellow-white travertine marble walls. The conspirators among them would have attempted to hide their anxiety at what lay ahead, some engaging in overly enthusiastic conversation about trivial matters, others remaining silent and aloof. They had every reason to be tense; the conspirators had agreed among themselves that should Caesar fail to die as a result of their assassination attempt, or should the plot be discovered at the last moment, all would turn their concealed daggers on themselves and take their own lives, rather than be arrested and tortured for the names of other conspirators before being executed.

This was normally a joyous day on the Roman calendar, for the Ides of March were sacred to Annae Perena, the personification of the succession of the years. Represented as an old woman, she was celebrated by men and women. One of the party games on Annae Perena’s day required players to attempt to drink as many cups of wine as the years they wished to live. On a more formal note, public prayers and sacrifice would be observed, to ensure prosperity during the coming year. The murder conspirators would have been hoping that the grim venture they were embarked upon this day would prosper and that they would subsequently live to a ripe old age.

As the numbers of senators filling the vestibule continued to swell, Cassius and Brutus arrived, having walked all the way from the city preceded by the six lictors to which each was entitled as praetors. Inside the vestibule, a life-size statue of Pompey the Great, the theater’s benefactor, stood on a plinth behind Caesar’s throne. Like other statues of the time, the marble figure would have been painted over in lifelike colors. And, no doubt, this stone Pompey stood in the standard toga-clad pose common to most surviving statutes of Roman senators, with his right hand outstretched, as if he were delivering a speech.

For years, Pompey had been Caesar’s close ally and son-in-law, having married Caesar’s only child, Julia. It was after Julia’s death, during childbirth in 54 B.C., that the pair’s alliance had unraveled. Pompey, the Dictator Sulla’s youngest general and one of Rome’s greatest military commanders when Caesar was still only a callow youth, became the general defeated by Caesar to overthrow the Republic and seize sole power for himself.

More than one classical author reported that as Cassius stood there in the vestibule in the torchlight, he looked up to Pompey’s stone face and “silently implored his assistance” in the forthcoming murder of Gaius Julius Caesar.¹

Caesar rose well before dawn; there were official duties he must perform even before he presided over the sitting of the Senate, which was due to begin at sunup as usual.

Calpurnia rose at the same time. Either encouraged by Caesar or of her own volition, a concerned Calpurnia now revealed the contents of her troubling dream the night before. As Plutarch was to relate, there were several different accounts of the form that Calpurnia’s dream took. According to one, passed on by Plutarch, she had dreamed that she was holding a bloodied Caesar in her arms and weeping over him. In another version of the dream, related by both Plutarch and Suetonius, the triangular gable ornament on the high priest’s house, erected by the Senate as one of the many honors to Caesar, had come tumbling down. Suetonius, in his account, combined the two dreams, writing of the gable tumbling and Calpurnia nursing a bloodied Caesar.

Calpurnia begged Caesar not to leave their residence that day if it was at all possible, instead adjourning the Senate to another time. Seeing Caesar’s disbelieving expression, she rushed to add that if he did not take the warning contained in her dream seriously, she was prepared to consult Caesar’s fate “by sacrifices and other kinds of divination.”¹¹

Plutarch says that Caesar was unsettled by his wife’s outburst, for he had never before encountered “any womanish superstition in Calpurnia.”¹² His first task, presiding over the taking of official auspices for the day’s sitting of the Senate, was to take place within the Regia’s walls, so Caesar dressed for the business of the day and joined his religious attendants at the shrine of Mars inside the Regia, where the sacrificial altar stood. The entire month of March was sacred to Mars, so sacrificial auguries were made to him throughout the month.

It had become Caesar’s habit to attend the Senate dressed in the outfit of a triumphant—the tunic decorated with golden palm branch motifs, a laurel crown, and a richly embroidered purple cloak. Caesar had gone further, inventing a new costume for himself for official occasions, having a new toga made in the style of the triumphant’s cloak. When Caesar joined the priests taking the auspices, it was wearing his palm tunic, purple toga, and laurel crown—which, as Suetonius noted, effectively disguised his baldness.¹³

Chief among the augurs, or priests conducting the sacrifice, was an official with the title of haruspex—literally “diviner from entrails.” It was the job of the haruspex to look for good or bad omens in the entrails of the bird or animal sacrificed at these ceremonies, and from these to pronounce the prospects of an enterprise. Entrails clear of blemishes were good omens, which promised a successful outcome.

Suetonius identified the haruspex on the Ides of March as Spurinna.¹ Cicero referred to Spurinna the haruspex eight months later, in a January 43 B.C. letter. Writing to a friend who had given up dining out, Cicero joked, “When I laid the facts before Spurinna and explained your former mode of life to him, he predicted that the entire Republic was threatened with grave danger unless you reverted to your old habits.”¹

When Shakespeare wrote his account of this day in his play Julius Caesar, he turned Spurinna the haruspex into a nameless soothsayer, which Tudor and subsequent audiences erroneously took to be a fortune-teller of the crystal ball variety. Spurinna the haruspex had conducted several official divinations for Caesar since the Dictator’s return to Rome, and on one of those occasions he had warned Caesar that he was in danger and that “the danger threatening him would not come later than the Ides of March.”¹

Despite the fact that Caesar was high priest of Rome, “religious scruples never deterred him” from anything, according to Suetonius.¹ Acquisition of the post of pontifex maximus had been purely to satisfy Caesar’s political ambitions at the time. As a consequence, while he went through the motions of the role of chief priest, as a rule he was not influenced by the predictions of the augurs. As Caesar joined the augurs with predawn darkness still cloaking Rome on the morning of March 15, he chided Spurinna: “Where are your prophesies now? The Ides of March have come. Do you not see that the day which you feared is come, and that I am still alive?”¹

“Yes, it is come,” Spurinna ominously replied, “but it is not yet passed.”¹

With his characteristic impatience, Caesar instructed the augurs to proceed with the sacrifice. As the Dictator watched, a bird was taken from a cage. The type of bird involved on this occasion is not mentioned in classical texts, but for a similar sacrifice in the presence of the emperor Caligula eighty-four years later, a flamingo would be used. As the bird was held by the haruspex’s assistants, its throat was slit, its chest opened, and its innards removed and inspected. According to Appian, Spurinna announced that the sacrificial bird was “without a head to the intestines,” referring to a projecting part of the liver. “This is a portent of death,” the haruspex gravely pronounced.²

Caesar made light of the divination, laughing and saying, “Much the same happened to me in Spain when I was fighting Pompeius.”²¹ He was referring to a sacrifice he made prior to going to battle against Pompey the Great’s eldest son, Gnaeus, at Munda in Spain in 45 B.C.

Spurinna did not think it a laughing matter. “On that occasion, too, you were in extreme danger,” he said. This was true; the Battle of Munda had turned on a knife edge, and Caesar had come perilously close to losing it, only securing victory by personally leading an uphill charge that had faltered. “But now the portent is even more deadly,” Spurinna added.²²

At any other time, this evil portent was excuse enough for the Senate sitting to be called off until another day. But Caesar wanted to have the day’s sitting, the last prior to his intended departure from Rome in four days’ time, out of the way, so he could concentrate on final preparations for the march to Macedonia and the military campaign that would follow. So the Dictator ordered the augurs to carry out a second sacrifice. A second bird was taken from a cage and killed over the altar. Once he had studied the bird’s entrails, Spurinna the haruspex announced that this victim’s entrails were also impure, and he counseled Caesar not to conduct any official business that day.

Again Caesar thought of Calpurnia’s dream, and of her heartfelt plea for him not to leave the house that day. There was also a dream of Caesar’s own. Suetonius and Dio would both claim that Caesar also had experienced an unusual dream on the night of March 14-15. In that dream, they said, Caesar had soared above the clouds and shaken hands with Jupiter, chief among the Roman gods. The dreams, the inauspicious omens from two sacrifices, and his wife’s plea for him to stay home all combined to unnerve the Dictator.

Caesar sent a messenger scurrying along the city’s stone-paved streets to deliver a message to the house of Mark Antony in the Carinae district, summoning Antony to come to him at once at the Regia. Caesar had decided to send Antony to the Senate at dawn, in his capacity as his co-consul and deputy president of the Senate, to announce that the day’s sitting was being postponed until another date.

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