MARCH 19, 44 B.C.


This was the day on which Caesar had planned to depart from Rome to launch his wars on the Getae and the Parthians. In Macedonia and Syria, the legions and cavalry units assigned to that campaign were encamped, their men going through their drills in anticipation of Caesar’s imminent arrival, and in ignorance of the fact that their commander in chief was lying dead at the Regia in Rome, awaiting a funeral and cremation.

It being the first day of the Quinquatria Festival, later in the day the Salii would still dance in the Comitium as custom required, and the arma ancialia would be sanctified under the watchful eye of the celerum tribunes, representing the army, and all the pontiffs bar the dead pontifex maximus. Across the empire, army commanders would be presiding over similar ceremonies as the standards of the legions were sanctified in preparation for the year’s planned military campaigns.

As dawn approached, all the members of the Senate flooded to the Temple of Tellus for another sitting of the House. Today, Brutus, Cassius, and the more than sixty senators and tribunes of the plebs who had participated in the murder of Caesar were joining their fellow senators for the first time since the fateful morning of the Ides of March. As the sun rose, and with Brutus, Cassius, Albinus, and the other Liberators sitting on the benches in front of him with their peers, Mark Antony called the sitting to order.

There followed a succession of fulsome speeches in praise of Antony for having prevented a new civil war through his temperate and conciliatory behavior as consul. A vote of thanks to Antony passed without opposition. From the other side of the House, similar speeches were given in praise of Brutus, Cassius, and their colleagues as protectors of democracy.

Antony then turned the Senate’s attention to the matters of Caesar’s will and the Dictator’s funeral—which had already been delayed longer than was the custom of the Romans. Antony asked Piso to have the will brought to the House to be read. Piso hurried away to fetch the document. While Caesar lived it had been kept at the House of the Vestals in the Forum, in the safekeeping of the chief vestal virgin. But Caesar’s elephant seal had already been broken—according to Suetonius the will had been read at Antony’s house, meaning that Antony, Piso, and probably also Lepidus were aware of its contents.¹

In Piso’s absence, Antony proposed to the Senate “that the body should not have a private or dishonorable interment,” on the grounds that this might “further exasperate the people.”² More than that, Antony proposed that Caesar’s funeral depart from Roman custom and be conducted within the city walls. In the same way that Roman priests were not permitted to touch the dead, funerals were normally banned from inside cities and towns for fear of polluting the abodes of the living. Similarly, all Roman crypts and tombs were outside built -up areas, usually lining the roads into metropolises.

Cassius quickly came to his feet and violently opposed a public funeral for Caesar within the city. He could see political advantage for Antony, Lepidus, Dolabella, and other Caesarians in such a public and potentially stage-managed event. He wanted a small, private affair, devoid of both crowds and of opportunities to exploit Caesar ’s death. Cassius also had wanted to destroy Caesar’s will, and to kill Mark Antony on the Ides of March, but had been dissuaded by brother-i n-law Brutus. To Cassius’s exasperation, Brutus now rose to speak in support of Antony’s proposal of a public funeral in the city. Brutus, for his part, saw this as a concession to Antony that would help cement the rift between the pro- and anti-Caesar factions. But, as Plutarch was to write, in doing this, Brutus made “a total and irrevocable error.”³

With Brutus, recognized as the leading assassin, and also the current city praetor, supporting this departure from precedent, the Senate voted to give Caesar the state funeral in the Forum of Rome that Antony had called for, followed by cremation of the Dictator’s body beside the tomb of his daughter, Julia, outside the city walls on the Field of Mars. In addition, the Senate chose Antony to deliver the funeral oration, “as a consul for a consul, a friend for a friend, and kinsman for a kinsman.” Caesar’s funeral was set for the following day.

Now the Dictator’s last will and testament arrived. The vast crowd that had again gathered outside the temple saw the document borne ceremoniously into the building by Caesar’s father-in-law, and immediately realized what it was. Many in the throng bayed for it to be read aloud for all to hear. They were not to be disappointed.

Silence descended on the Senate as Piso, standing before his expectant peers, unraveled the papyrus document. Senators leaned forward and pricked up their ears. Caesar had rewritten his will just six months before, at his country villa near Lavicum, not long after his return to Rome from Spain. His previous will had been written more than a decade earlier. In that will, Caesar had left the bulk of his estate to his son-in-law Pompey the Great, loving husband of his only child, Julia, and, at that time, Caesar’s loyal and supportive ally. At the height of their alliance, Pompey had even read portions of that will to his troops to show how close he and Caesar were.

As Piso’s listeners now heard, Caesar’s new will contained several surprises. The first was that Caesar had left two thirds of his estate to his grand-nephew Gaius Octavius, son of his sister’s daughter, and had adopted him as his son. The balance of the estate went to Octavius’s cousins Lucius Pinarius and Quintus Pedius. Mark Antony was named chief executor of the will. This bequest meant that eighteen-year-old Octavius, who was at this moment in Greece, could take Caesar’s name, and from this time forward would be entitled to call himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Much later, historians would contract the young man’s new last name to Octavian.

Caesar’s will contained more surprises. He had bequeathed his gardens on the Janiculum Hill to the people of Rome, for perpetual public use. Had Cleopatra and her party indeed been resident at Caesar’s villa outside the city on the Janiculum at the time of the Dictator’s murder, they would almost certainly have departed that same day, to escape the explosion of violence that seemed likely to erupt in Rome. Cleopatra’s column of wagons, litters, and multitudes of pedestrian servants would have hurried away with almost indecent haste, heading for the East, bound for Alexandria, home, and safety.

In addition to giving the people his gardens, Caesar also left three hundred sesterces to every adult male Roman citizen living in Rome at that time. To an individual, this was a not insignificant amount, the equivalent of four months’ pay for a soldier in Rome’s legions. Word of these bequests to the people both perplexed and disturbed the crowd outside the meeting place, once news of them was relayed outside by Caesarian senators who left the sitting to curry favor with the mob by announcing the will’s contents. Ever since the assassination, Brutus and the other Liberators had been telling the Roman people that Caesar had been a despot. Yet here, said Appian, “they were now faced with the testamentary provisions of a public-spirited citizen.”

When it also was revealed that Caesar had named as his principal heir in the second degree Decimus Brutus Albinus—the same Albinus who had turned against Caesar and been chief among his assassins, what’s more providing his gladiators as bodyguards to the Liberators—many people became incensed. Under Roman law, had Octavius been unable or unwilling to accept Caesar’s bequest, two thirds of the estate would have gone to Albinus, and he could have become Caesar’s adopted son. The crowd became restive. “They thought it monstrous and sacrilegious that Decimus Brutus [Albinus] should have plotted against Caesar when he had been named as a son,” said Appian.

News of the contents of Caesar’s will quickly spread throughout the city, and the public mood, which had become one of acceptance of the necessity of the removal of Caesar the despot, began a transformation. In some quarters, especially among Caesar’s retired soldiers, resentment grew. Overnight, Caesar came to be seen as a benefactor rather than a despot, and “the whole city was fired with a wonderful affection for him, and a passionate sense of the loss of him.”

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