Countless conversations were filling the air in the vestibule of Pompey’s Theater when the Dictator’s chief lictor appeared at the door and, with raised voice, announced Julius Caesar’s entrance. The hall quickly fell silent as all the members of the Senate respectfully came to their feet.
The front row of the assembly was reserved for the most senior members of the House, among them the current year’s praetors, including Cassius, Brutus, and other conspirators, as well as Caesarians such as Antony’s brother Gaius, and pro-Caesar men set down for senior appointments once Caesar left Rome, among them Dolabella, Hirtius, and Pansa. Other senators and tribunes engaged in the plot against Caesar had positioned themselves as close to the Dictator’s golden throne as possible.
Caesar, wearing his gold-embroidered palm tunic, unique purple toga, and laurel-branch crown, entered the chamber and walked to his throne, which its attendant had hurriedly restored to its position at the front of the chamber just in time. The sixty-plus conspirators then bustled forward “and all crowded round about him.”¹ Caesar eased himself onto his chair and adjusted his toga. The five primary classical accounts of Caesar’s murder vary slightly from version to version in some details, but all basically corroborate one another. The following description of Caesar’s murder is an amalgam of those accounts.
The plotters had agreed that one of their number, Lucius Tillius Cimber, would pretend to implore Caesar to agree to allow his brother, whom Caesar had exiled, to return home to Rome. This Cimber did, as, crowding around the throne, “they all joined their prayers with his,” said Plutarch, “and took Caesar by the hand and kissed his head and his breast.”² Caesar, obviously irritated by this, “would not agree at all,” Appian wrote, “and wished to defer a decision.”³ “When he saw they would not desist,” Caesar “violently” rose to his feet.⁴ “Cimber then took hold of Caesar’s purple toga as though he were still pleading with him,” then pulled it down over his arms, “shouting, ‘What are you waiting for, friends?’ ”⁵
The shocked Caesar exclaimed, “This is violence!”⁶
All, or most, of the other conspirators pulled out their concealed daggers. Gaius Casca, who had asked for the privilege of drawing first blood, was standing behind Caesar and went to strike him over the shoulder, aiming for the throat. Caesar, meanwhile, had wrenched his toga out of Cimber’s hands.⁷ Instinctively, Caesar grabbed Casca’s wrist, staying his blow.
“ Vile Casca!” Caesar exclaimed. “What does this mean?”⁸
Suetonius, the least reliable of the classical sources in many respects, would claim that Caesar now stabbed Casca with his stylus, driving it right through Casca’s arm.⁹ The stylus was a small penknife used by Romans to write on notebooks made up of one or two sheets of beeswax with a wooden backing. The sharp end of the stylus was used to inscribe words or images on the wax, while the blunt end was used to erase them. The stylus and the notebook—which would fit in the palm of the hand—were carried in a cloth or leather bag attached to the belt.
No other classical author mentions Caesar using a stylus to defend himself, and, unless he already had one in his hand, it seems highly improbable that he had the time to reach to his waist, open a bag on his belt, and withdraw a stylus, when he was at that time wrenching his toga free of Cimber’s grip and then grabbing Casca’s wrist. Suetonius’s tale about the stylus seems, at best, questionable.
With Caesar gripping his arm and the dagger, Gaius Casca desperately looked around to his brother Publius, a fellow conspirator. “Brother, help!” Casca yelped in Greek.¹⁰
Almost immediately, Caesar received a vicious stab wound in the side, apparently from Publius Casca. Other conspirators followed suit, r aining frantic blows on Caesar, who continued to retain his hold on Gaius Casca’s arm. “Some say that he fought and resisted,” Plutarch wrote, “shifting his body to avoid the blows and calling out for help.”¹¹ But no help came. According to Appian, despite the Dictator’s avoiding tactics, Bucilianus plunged his dagger into Caesar’s back. Cassius’s dagger struck Caesar in the face, Brutus’s in the thigh.¹²
Caesar, in shock, looked at Brutus. The Dictator spoke several words, in Greek. There are various version of precisely what he said. There is Shakespeare’s famous line, in Julius Caesar, “Et tu, Brute?”meaning, “ And you, Brutus?” Of the classical sources, Suetonius and Dio both reported that Caesar cried out, “You, too, my child?”¹³
In the short, sharp killing frenzy, as blades flew and blood ran, some of the conspirators’ blows missed altogether, while “in the scuffle many of them struck each other with their daggers.”¹⁴ Brutus was jabbed in the hand—apparently the right, his weapon hand—“and all of them were covered with blood.”¹⁵
Having all made their almost ritualistic strikes, the assassins stood back. Caesar let go of his grip on Casca’s arm and staggered a few feet until his strength gave out. He collapsed at the foot of the statue of Pompey the Great. The irony of this would not escape classical authors. “Pompey himself seemed to have presided, as it were, over the revenge enacted against his adversary,” Plutarch was to remark. Caesar, knowing that he was mortally wounded, dragged his toga up around his head, determined not to let his enemies see his face as he breathed his last.¹⁶
Hundreds of stunned senators, all still on their feet, had witnessed the attack on Caesar. Now that he had fallen, chaos erupted in the chamber. Certain that the assassins would murder every man associated with the Dictator, or even all who had not taken part in the conspiracy, the vast majority of men in the House fled in panic, streaming out the exits and down the steps to the street outside.
“Run! Bolt doors! Bolt doors!” Dio says they bellowed in their terror to the crowd waiting outside.¹⁷ Bystanders and senators swiftly melded into an undisciplined mob that fled in panic back to the city. Appian alone would claim that “some senators were injured and others lost their lives in the pandemonium,” with none of the supposedly dead senators being identified.¹⁸
Mark Antony was standing outside with Gaius Trebonius when the throng came pouring from the Senate chamber in tumult and flooded down the steps. He would have looked questioningly at Trebonius, and Trebonius would have calmly and deliberately informed him that Gaius Julius Caesar was a dead man. Realizing that there had been a conspiracy to murder Caesar and that his own good friend Trebonius was a party to that conspiracy, Antony immediately “concluded that the plot was against himself as well as against Caesar.”¹⁹
According to Appian, Antony himself later said, “I was not yet clear about the conspiracy or the number of its targets.”²⁰ So Antony dove into the fleeing crowd to make himself scarce. At his first opportunity, said Plutarch, Antony, discarding his stand-out senatorial toga, “took a servant’s garment, and hid himself.”²¹
Brutus had planned to give a prepared speech to the Senate once Caesar had been cut down, explaining why the conspirators had acted in this way and announcing that they proposed to immediately reinstate the Republic. But the mass exodus made this impossible. Albinus, meanwhile, had hurried to the theater proper and summoned his gladiators, who, fully armed, ran to the Senate chamber.²² Albinus’s gladiators apparently distributed swords among the conspirators, for many of the assassins were soon reported carrying them. If the swords did not come from the gladiators, then Dio’s claim that swords were smuggled into the theater complex in round document cases had a basis in fact, and these swords were now accessed. Either way, several classical sources now put swords in assassins’ hands.
Some senators who had not participated in the assassination had not fled, but instead joined the conspirators. Chief among these was Marcus Favonius, whom Brutus had left out of the plot after the discouraging response to his initial veiled approach. Favonius, it turned out, fully endorsed the murder of Caesar, and became one of the most committed Liberators, as the conspirators quickly became known—because they had, in their opinion, and in the opinion of their supporters, liberated Rome from the tyranny of Gaius Julius Caesar.
Other senators who now spontaneously joined the Liberators included Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Spinther, son of one of Pompey’s generals, as well as Gaius Octavius, Marcus Aquinus, and Quintus Patiscus. Another was the ex-praetor Lucius Staius Murcus, who was due to take up Caesar’s appointment as governor of Syria this year. The latter three had all supported Caesar during the Civil War. Most surprising of all, Publius Dolabella, Caesar’s youthful pet and consul-designate, also threw his lot in with Brutus, Cassius, and the other assassins. These new recruits, too, were soon flourishing swords.²³
With the Senate House having emptied of most of its senators, and the opportunity for speech-making lost, Brutus and Cassius agreed that their best course now was to march to the Capitoline Mount, a walled religious sanctuary in the heart of the city that could be defended in an emergency, from where Brutus could deliver the speech he had intended making in the Senate chamber. In case of trouble, the Liberators removed their togas and wound them around their left arms to serve as shields of a sort.
They had swords in their right hands now instead of the daggers they had used to strike Caesar down. Appian said that these swords were “bloody,” but Appian himself described how Caesar had been killed with daggers.²⁴ Plutarch more accurately wrote that it was the hands of the assassins that were bloody. These hands, covered with Caesar’s blood, he said, they showed to passersby, while their swords were “naked.”²⁵
Accompanied by Albinus’s well-armed gladiators, the assassins and their new senatorial recruits departed the chamber and hurried down the steps outside. En masse, they set off along the now nearly deserted street, retracing the route that Caesar had taken from the Forum to reach Pompey’s Theater. As they went, the Liberators brandished the swords and shouted “that they had destroyed a tyrant and a king.” Caesar himself was left where he had fallen.²⁶
One of the senators in the Liberators’ party found a cap lying on the ground, dropped by a fleeing freedman. These leather caps, on which the caps worn by revolutionaries during the French Revolution in a much later period in history would be modeled, were worn to show the world that the wearer was a slave who had gained his freedom. Seeing the symbolism of the cap, the senator took a spear from one of the gladiators and carried the cap aloft on the end of it, calling out that all Romans had now been freed from the slavery of Julius Caesar. Heading into the city, the Liberators urged everyone they met along the road “to embrace the Republic of their ancestors, and reminded them of the first Brutus and the oath they [the Roman people] had sworn at that time against the kings of long ago.”²⁷
Once the assassination party, several hundred strong, was out of sight, people began to emerge from hiding places near the Theater of Pompey. One of the first to come out from hiding was Artemidorus of Cnidus, the Greek logic teacher. Having unsuccessfully attempted to warn Caesar about the murder plot, and fearing the worst for the Dictator, Artemidorus ran up the theater steps and entered the vestibule. ²⁸ The vast marble hall, deserted now, echoed to the Greek’s footsteps. The wooden Senate benches were no doubt now jumbled, with some overturned in the rush by senators to escape the chamber. The water clocks and the desks of the secretaries had probably been tipped over in the panic. The Dictator’s golden throne was still in its place, soiled now with Julius Caesar’s blood.
Artemidorus edged closer to a bloodied bundle lying at the foot of the statue of Pompey the Great. The base of the statue, too, was bloodied. Artemidorus realized that he was looking at the dead body of Julius Caesar, with the Dictator’s cloak dragged up over his head. Later Roman historian Cassius Dio would comment on the irony of the place where Caesar fell—“Inasmuch as he had been slain in Pompey’s edifice and near the statue which at that time stood there.” (Pompey’s statue was later relocated by the emperor Augustus.) Dio wrote that Caesar “seemed in a way to have afforded his rival his revenge.”²⁹
As the terrified Artemidorus withdrew from the vestibule, three of Caesar’s litter-bearers warily entered. The trio of slaves lifted up their master’s bloodied body and carried it out to the litter in the street. Loading Caesar’s corpse into the conveyance, the three bearers raised it up, two at one end, one at the other, and with difficulty headed back to the city, bound for the Regia, with one of the dead Dictator’s arms hanging limply over the side.³⁰