CAESAR MUST SUFFER CAESAR’S FATE
The vestibule at Pompey’s Theater was overflowing with senators; the marble walls echoed with chatter. This being Caesar’s last appearance in the Senate prior to his departure for the East, a great many members had made an effort to attend. Some senators were outside Italy serving in official capacities, men such as Asinius Pollio, who had crossed the Rubicon with Caesar in January 49 B.C. and who was currently serving as governor of Farther Spain. Other senators, such as Cicero, were away from Rome on personal business, while others, such as Brutus’s friend Ligarius, were too ill to attend the sitting.
The sun rose over the Eternal City, and, at the Theater of Pompey, there was no sign of the Dictator. After some time, a runner was sent to the Regia to announce that the Senate was ready to sit, and to find out what was keeping Caesar; Dio wrote that the senators “called for Caesar.”¹ In the meantime, all the praetors present offered to hear suits from citizens who wished to present them for adjudication, as the praetors were obliged to do by Roman law.
Each praetor dealt with different areas of law. Caesar had doubled the number of praetors to twenty, allowing him many more positions of favor to endow on men who pleased him. Among the current year’s praetors was Mark Antony’s younger brother Gaius. But Marcus Brutus, as city praetor, was the most sought-after by litigants. Now temporary law courts were set up under the colonnades behind the theater by the praetors’ lictors, and announcements made to the crowd now milling around the theater complex that suits would be heard.²
Brutus was about to seat himself on his tribunal to hear a case when the runner returned from the Regia with the information that, after the portents of two sacrifices had been negative, Caesar intended sending Antony to adjourn the sitting of the Senate. On hearing this, the attendant in charge of Caesar’s golden throne “carried it out of the Senate, thinking that there now would be no need of it.”³
This news that Caesar was not coming to the sitting caused consternation among the conspirators, until it was suggested that Decimus Brutus Albinus, “as one supposed to be his devoted friend,” should be sent to the Regia to convince Caesar to come to the Senate House, even if it was only to personally adjourn the sitting.⁴ It was probably the cool-headed Cassius who came up with this suggestion, or perhaps it was Albinus himself, being “one in whom Caesar had such confidence that he had made him his secondheir.”⁵
With the Senate water clocks showing that the day was well into the second Roman hour, Albinus set off on his mission to Caesar at the Regia.
When Albinus arrived at the Regia on the Via Sacra, he would have seen Caesar’s litter and its bearers standing in readiness in the Forum outside, and, behind it, Mark Antony’s litter, indicating that Antony was at the Regia. When Albinus was eventually ushered into the Dictator’s presence, he found Mark Antony in conversation with a seated Caesar. Apparently it had taken some time for Caesar’s messenger to locate Antony, or at least for Antony to answer the summons to come to Caesar at the Regia.
When Albinus politely asked the cause of the Dictator’s delay, Caesar told him of his wife’s dream overnight and of the two negative divinations that morning. In response, Albinus “spoke scoffingly and in mockery of the diviners.” Continuing on the offensive, Albinus “blamed” Caesar for giving his critics in the Senate an opportunity to claim that he had offended the House; after all, “they had met on his summons.”⁶
Antony would later claim that he counseled Caesar against attending the sitting. Seeing that the Dictator was inclined toward Antony’s view, Albinus became highly inventive and persuasive. According to Appian, Albinus claimed that his fellow senators “were ready to vote unanimously that he [Caesar] should be declared king of all the provinces outside Italy, and might wear a crown in all places but Italy, by sea and land.”⁷
This succeeded in winning Caesar’s attention. Albinus went on, with a nod in Antony’s direction, “If anyone should be sent to tell them they might break up for the present, and meet again when Calpurnia should chance to have better dreams, what would your enemies say?” Caesar probably now had a pained expression on his face. “Or who with any patience would listen to your friends,” Albinus continued, “if they should presume to defend your government as being neither arbitrary nor tyrannical?”⁸
Albinus reached out and, taking the Dictator by the hand, helped him to his feet. As Caesar rose, Albinus told him that if he was convinced that the day was ill-starred, the decent thing for him to do under the circumstances would be to go to the Senate and adjourn it in person, which at least showed respect for the Senate.⁹
With these words, and holding Caesar by the hand, said Plutarch, Albinus “conducted him forth.”¹⁰ As Antony trailed along behind like a pet dog, Albinus led Caesar from the Regia. “For,” as Appian was to write, “Caesar must suffer Caesar’s fate.”¹¹
At Marcus Brutus’s house, his wife, Porcia, very much aware of what her husband planned to do that morning, and equally aware that Caesar was supposed to present himself at the Senate sitting at dawn, became more and more worried as the sun rose higher in the morning sky and no word came that the deed had been done, that Caesar had been dispatched. The only construction that Porcia could put on this was that something had gone wrong with the murder plan and that consequently something had happened to Brutus.
The highly strung Porcia, said Plutarch, “being extremely disturbed with expectation of the event, and unable to bear the greatness of her anxiety, could scarcely remain indoors.” She was so on edge that she would jump “at every little noise or voice she heard.” As staff came in from early morning shopping at the shops of the Basilica Aemilia in the Forum, Porcia asked them what Brutus was doing, but none had any news to convey. Sitting with the ladies of her entourage, probably spinning, a common pastime for Roman matrons, Porcia “sent one messenger after another to inquire” about what was happening, but each returned to say that there was no word of either the master or of Caesar.¹²
“After long expectation and waiting, the strength of her constitution could hold out no more.” The blood had drained from Porcia’s face. So choked with emotion had she become, she could no longer speak. And then she fainted. The women with her let out a scream of horror and crowded around her. Houses in Rome were built side by side, without any intervening gardens or lawns—neighbors of Porcia and Brutus heard the women scream next door, and sent staff to Brutus’s door to find out what had taken place. “The report was soon spread about that Porcia was dead.”¹³
But Porcia was not dead. With the help of her ladies, she regained consciousness. But she looked so ghastly that Brutus’s steward, who would have had orders from his master to keep Porcia and members of the household well away from the Senate House that morning, decided that Brutus must be told.
Under a colonnade at the Theater of Pompey, the praetors who were party to the conspiracy were hearing civil suits and making judgments. They “did not only calmly hear all who made application to them and pleaded against each other before them,” wrote Plutarch, the conspiratorial praetors, like their colleagues, acted as if they were “free from all other thoughts,” and “decided causes with as much accuracy and judgment as they had heard them with attention and patience.”¹⁴
For all his attention and patience, Brutus found himself dealing with a difficult litigant. Brutus had just ruled against the man in a civil suit, and the unsuccessful litigant was not happy. “With great clamor” this man protested Brutus’s decision and declared that he would appeal to Caesar. Brutus looked around at all who were present and said, “Caesar does not hinder me, nor will he hinder me, from ruling according to the laws.”¹⁵
As lictors hustled the litigant away, Brutus rose and stepped down from his tribunal. Outsite, he joined Cassius on the theater steps, looking back toward the city and the buildings on the Capitoline Mount, knowing that Caesar’s house was just below the hill and that Caesar was probably still there. None of the hundreds of senators who had assembled at the theater had gone home; Caesar had called this sitting of the House, and until he advised otherwise, they had to wait for him.
The conspirators’ nerves were being tested to the limit by the wait, which was stretching into hours. This delay inevitably bred the fear that the plot had been discovered and that at any moment the game would be up. The tribune of the plebs Gaius Casca was particularly keyed up, for he had asked for the right to strike the first blow at Caesar, a request that Brutus and Cassius had granted. It is likely that Casca’s colleagues the tribunes of the plebs Marullus and Flavus, who had been dismissed and banished by Caesar over the incident concerning the crowned statue, had been Casca’s friends, and he was intent on seeking revenge on their behalf.
Out of the crowd in the theater vestibule, a senator came up to Casca and shook his hand. “You concealed the secret from us, although you are my friend,” said the senator with an ambiguous expression, “but Brutus has told me everything.”¹⁶
Casca paled, with the dread of discovery overwhelming him. As later events were to prove, Casca was a person whose instincts for self-preservation were finely honed. His mind raced. He looked dumbly at the man, unable to speak, and apparently thinking that, although he had not seen this fellow at Cassius’s house that morning, he must be a fellow conspirator. Casca was “so near” to letting out the secret by welcoming the man as a comrade assassin when the senator laughed, obviously amused by Casca’s dumbfoundedreaction.¹⁷
“How is it that you are so rich all of a sudden that you can stand for election as an aedile?” said the senator.¹⁸
The relieved Casca broke into a smile and made light of the business. Once the man had moved away, Casca went looking for Cassius and Brutus. Finding them standing together on the theater steps, he shared his frightening little encounter with them.
It was not long after Casca had related his tale to them that Brutus and Cassius were approached by a senator named Popillius Laenas, who was not a party to the conspiracy. Laenas, “having saluted them more earnestly than usual,” leaned close to the pair and whispered, “My wishes are with you, that you may accomplish what you design. And I advise you to make no delay, for the thing is now no secret.”¹⁹
As Laenas moved away, Brutus and Cassius looked at each other in shared alarm, suspecting that word of the murder plot must have escaped the bounds of the conspiratorial ring. But before they could fully absorb this, one of Brutus’s lictors brought him word that there was a messenger from Brutus’s house at the foot of the steps. The messenger had brought Brutus word “that his wife was dying.”²⁰
Plutarch wrote that “when Brutus received this news he was extremely troubled, not without reason.” But Brutus knew his emotional wife all too well, and guessed that the strain of waiting on news of the assassination had proven too great for her. As much as he loved Porcia, Brutus was not prepared to deviate from his course. As Plutarch wrote, Brutus “was not carried away with his private concern ” for his wife and was not prepared “to quit his public purpose.”²¹
Brutus would have sent a message back to his house that all was well with him and that his business had been a little delayed but would soon be accomplished.
According to Cassius Dio, who was a highly superstitious Roman author particularly attracted to omens, as Albinus was leading Caesar out the door of the Regia and they were passing though the house’s vestibule, a bust of Caesar fell from its plinth and smashed on the floor, but Caesar took no notice.²²
Outside the Regia, in the Forum, Caesar’s litter was waiting, with its bearers and the Dictator’s twenty-four lictors in readiness, as they would have been since well before dawn. A crowd of onlookers quickly grew. Behind Caesar’s litter, Mark Antony’s litter also sat on the pavement, awaiting its passenger.
Caesar clambered into his litter, which was hoisted onto the shoulders of the brawny slaves whose task it was to bear the Dictator. Most of these slaves would have been relatively young, but strong. Ahead of the litter, the two dozen lictors formed up in two rows, each man carrying a cylindrical fasces. Antony also took his position, in his own litter, as his twelve lictors formed up in front of it. At the command of Caesar’s chief lictor, the little pedestrian convoy set off. Albinus joined the crowd that fell in behind the pair of conveyances. The time was close to 10:00 A.M.²³
The little procession proceeded down the Forum toward the Rostra. There, Marcus Lepidus was waiting. Lepidus would have been in his toga, and had obviously been waiting to accompany Caesar to the Senate sitting. At the Rostra, Caesar ordered his bearers to halt, after which he alighted, then stood briefly conversing with Lepidus. Caesar apparently told Lepidus that he did not intend spending long at the Theater of Pompey, and advised his deputy not to bother accompanying him, as he would soon return, but to await him there. As Caesar slid back into his litter and set off again, Lepidus remained behind in the Forum.
There is no record of what Calpurnia thought of her husband venturing out of the house after previously assuring her he would not stir that day. Her fears for her husband’s safety were compounded when, not long after Caesar had departed from the Regia, she was informed that the servant of a leading personage had arrived at the Regia and was asking to see her on a matter of grave importance. When Calpurnia agreed, the servant was ushered into her presence.
The man, without doubt a freedman, proceeded to beg Calpurnia to keep him safe there at the Regia until Caesar returned. “He had matters of great importance to communicate to him,” he told Calpurnia. The servant said that he had arrived at the Regia just as Caesar was leaving, but the crush of people around Caesar’s litter had prevented him from approaching. The servant would not reveal to Calpurnia the nature of the information he had for Caesar, or even who his master was. But Calpurnia was sufficiently concerned to tell the Regia staff to permit the man to wait in the vestibule until her husband returned.²⁴
As the litters passed from the Forum, the crowd fell in behind them. This, said Appian, was a “large throng made up of inhabitants of the capital, foreigners, and numerous slaves and ex-slaves.”²⁵
From the Forum, the informal procession proceeded along the Street of the Banker, passing the City Prison, which stood on the left, at the base of the Capitoline Mount. Caesar had plans to build a massive theater here, using the natural slope of the hillside, to outshine Pompey’s Theater.²⁶ The litters passed out the city gate that opened onto the Flaminian Way, and traveled along this for a little distance until reaching a three-way intersection. Turning left, the litters and their large following headed west toward the Tiber, alongside the Villa Publicus, a vast, grassy space dedicated to public use, toward the Pompeian Theater complex.
In the enthusiastic crowd surging along behind the two litters was a Greek teacher of rhetoric named Artemidorus of Cnidus. He was friendly with Brutus and a member of his circle and, according to Plutarch, via that connection “came into the secret” of the murder conspiracy.²⁷ As Brutus and Cassius had quite deliberately only recruited members of the Senate into the plot, on the basis that each conspirator had to agree to strike a blow at Caesar in the Senate on the Ides of March as part of their admission to this exclusive and murderous “society,” Artemidorus would not have been approached to join the conspiracy. Either a conspirator had loose lips, or the Greek teacher had overheard parties to the plot talking.
Artemidorus also was on close terms with Caesar, who, when a young man, had stayed with him in Cnidus, which was a famous Greek center of learning not far from the island of Cos.²⁸ Artemidorus had jotted recently discovered details of the plot onto a sheet of papyrus. This he had rolled up and sealed with his personal wax seal, as was the custom. His intention was to hand this note to Caesar, but the size of the crowd surrounding the Dictator had till now prevented him. As the litters were set down at the foot of the flight of stone steps leading up to the theater vestibule, and Caesar stepped out, Artemidorus saw members of the waiting crowd surge around him, with various people handing petitions of one kind or another to Caesar.²⁹
The Greek teacher observed that the Dictator did not read any of these petitions; he merely handed them to his staff behind him. Determined that Caesar must read the warning contained in his note and not just pass it on the way he had done with the petitions, Artemidorus pushed his way through the throng until he reached Caesar. Holding out the little roll of parchment, he urged, “Read this, Caesar, alone and quickly, for it contains a matter of great importance which vitally concerns you.”³⁰
Having apparently recognized Artemidorus, Caesar took the note, opened it, and several times tried to read it, but he was “hindered by the crowd of those who came to speak with him.” To Artemidorus’s frustration, Caesar gave up his attempt to read the note in the jostling throng. After speaking with several people, Caesar began to climb the steps with the roll of parchment in his hand still.³¹
When word arrived at the theater that Caesar was coming, the majority of the waiting senators retired inside the vestibule and took their seats. Cassius and Brutus were among a few who lingered at the top of the steps. The conspiracy’s leaders wanted to be certain that all now went to plan before they took their places inside. The key to the plot’s immediate success lay with keeping Mark Antony detained outside the Senate chamber.
Plutarch, in his Caesar, has Albinus waylaying Antony as per the original plan, but in his Marcus Brutus he writes that “Trebonius, in the meanwhile, engaged Antony’s attention at the door, and kept him in talk outside.” Appian and Dio both concur that it was Trebonius, another close friend of Antony, who now struck up the delaying conversation with the powerful consul and purposely detained him outside.³² Knowing that Caesar intended to quickly adjourn the sitting and would therefore spend only a few minutes in the chamber, Antony decided not to bother going inside, and was content to engage in conversation with Trebonius until the Dictator reemerged.
As Cassius and Brutus were about to hurry into the chamber, they saw the senator Popillius Laenas, the man who had earlier shaken the pair by telling them that he knew what they were up to, stop Caesar at the bottom of the steps and talk to him at length, with Caesar seeming very attentive. Due to the hubbub of the crowd, neither Cassius nor Brutus could hear what was passing between Laenas and Caesar. Other conspirators at the top of the steps also witnessed this meeting. All immediately thought the game was up, that Laenas was informing on them, “and, looking at each one another, agreed from the looks on each other’s faces that they should not stay to be taken, but should all kill themselves.”³³
Plutarch says that Cassius and several others were actually in the process of reaching under their togas to draw their daggers and do away with themselves when Brutus realized that Laenas, from his expression and gestures, was not informing Caesar of a treasonous plot to kill him but was earnestly petitioning him for a favor. Brutus quickly looked to Cassius. There were too many nonconspirators around them for him to say anything, so Brutus simply smiled broadly and nodded toward Laenas and Caesar. Seeing his smile, Cassius and the others stopped short in the act of drawing their blades, and followed Brutus’s gaze to Laenas.³⁴ When “they saw him embrace Caesar at the end,” wrote Appian, “they recovered their courage.”³⁵
Laenas kissed Caesar’s hand and drew aside.³⁶ As Caesar began to climb the steps, Cassius, Brutus, and the others withdrew within to take their places in the Senate chamber.