The Forum was packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, with men and women who had come to pay their last respects to Julius Caesar. Caesar’s body was carried from the Regia on an ivory couch spread with purple and gold cloth. It would have come out feet first, in accordance with an ancient Roman belief that this ensured that the spirit of the deceased would be less likely to return. A funeral procession led by Piso, Caesar’s father-in-law, moved through the Forum the short distance to the Rostra. The pallbearers were magistrates and former magistrates, and the bier was followed by professional mourners who wailed with practiced grief, and singers who sang funeral dirges, as was the custom. The couch, bearing Caesar’s body, was carefully and reverently placed on the Rostra.¹
According to Appian, a large body of armed men gathered to guard the corpse—a number of the retired legionaries. “Wailing and lamentation arose again for a long time, and the armed men clashed their weapons.” Finally, with the dramatic scene set, Mark Antony mounted the rear steps to the Rostra and took his place beside the funeral couch.²
With a herald standing close by, Antony looked out over the solemn gathering. Cassius Dio would credit Antony with a lengthy, articulate speech on this occasion, but it was the historian’s invention. Sixteen hundred years later, Shakespeare would put his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen ” speech in Antony’s mouth, but that, too, although inspired, was a fiction. While Antony was a street-smart political player, all the indications are that he was in fact a poor public speaker. His writings were even less elegant; letters of his to Octavian reveal a vulgar, boorish man possessed of neither style nor wit, indicating that Antony did not have the capacity to compose a brilliant speech of the kind credited to him by some later writers.
Suetonius and Appian seem to have the most accurate takes on how Antony eulogized the fallen Dictator. Suetonius wrote, “He instructed a herald to read, first, the recent decree simultaneously voting Caesar all divine and human honors, and then the oath by which the entire Senate had pledged themselves to watch over his safety. Antony added a very few words of comment.”³ Appian elaborated on those few words, saying that Antony reminded his audience of the key contents of those decrees, which referred to Caesar as “sacrosanct,” “inviolate,” “father of his country,” “benefactor,” and “leader.”⁴
Appian continued that Antony, stretching his hand toward the temples standing on the Capitoline Mount behind him, loudly called, “O Jupiter, god of our ancestors, and you other gods, for my part I am prepared to defend Caesar according to my oath and the terms of the curse I called down on myself.” The vow taken only weeks before by all senators, including Brutus and Cassius, had stated that any man who took the oath and subsequently failed to defend Caesar would be accursed forevermore. “But since it is the view of my peers that we have decided what will be for the best, I pray that it will be for the best.”⁵
Numerous senators in the crowd called out in protest at this, so Antony said, to calm them, “We must attend to the present instead of the past,” and proceeded to recite a customary funeral chant for Caesar, in his priestly capacity. But once he had completed the chant, he held up the clothes that Caesar had worn on the Ides of March, complete with dried bloodstains and rents caused by the blades of the assassins’ daggers.⁶ According to Plutarch, Antony declared that those who had performed this foul deed were “villains and bloody murderers.”⁷ Incited by this, many in the crowd erupted, some wailing in lamentation, while others yelled and raised their fists, fired with anger and indignation.⁸ This uproar prompted those Liberators and their supporters who were present to hastily withdraw.
A horde of men swept up onto the Rostra, took up Caesar ’s bier, and attempted to carry it up onto the Capitoline Mount, intending to cremate it there on Rome’s most sacred ground, against all precedent. But the priests deliberately and stubbornly barred their way, so the mob turned around and carried the ivory couch across the Forum and set it down just outside the Regia, Caesar’s residence. They then rampaged around the Forum, stripping chairs, tables, and benches from the many shops lining the market arcades, creating a massive funeral pyre in front of the Regia. The couch, bearing Caesar, was then placed on top of the pyre. Someone—no one knew who—brought fire and set the wood alight. And soon, the pyre was burning fiercely.
From the crowd surrounding the pyre, retired soldiers threw their bravery decorations onto the blaze. Women tossed their jewelry and children’s breastplates and ceremonial robes into the fire. Mourners who had been wearing the robes used by Caesar in all his Triumphs removed them and added them to the conflagration. The crowd swelled, as people who had kept away from the funeral were summoned by the astonishing news of a crematory fire in the Forum.
“Public grief was enhanced by crowds of foreigners lamenting in their own fashion,” said Suetonius, “especially Jews, who came flocking to the Forum.”⁹ Caesar was especially popular with Jews after he had granted special dispensations to them throughout the Empire, in gratitude to Jewish fighters who had helped him win the war in Egypt in 48-47 B.C. Those dispensations included relieving Jews from military service with the Roman army because their religion forbade them to bear arms or travel on their Sabbath day, and permitting them to celebrate certain Jewish feasts. At the time of Caesar’s death those measures had not been committed to law, so this demonstration of grief was partly designed to convince Rome’s leaders to ratify the dispensations to the Jews.
As the growing crowd watched, the body of Gaius Iulius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, conqueror of Gaul, victor over Pompey the Great and his father-in-law Scipio and King Juba of Numidia, victor over Pharnaces, ruler of the Bosporan Kingdom, conqueror of the Egyptians, victor over Pompey’s sons Gnaeus and Sextus, initiator of Rome’s first daily newspaper and first traffic laws, and reformer of the Roman calendar, was consumed by flames.
By the time that only his blackened bones remained, those Liberators who had attended the funeral had long since slipped away from the Forum, returned to their homes, brought their families around them, and bolted their doors. It was a wise retreat, for once Caesar’s body had been consumed, a number of people grabbed up burning brands from the funeral pyre and ran throughout the city, bent on burning down the houses of Caesar’s assassins and incinerating the occupants.
Helvius Cinna, a minor poet and friend of Caesar, was the tribune of the plebs who earlier in the year had led the call for the banishment of fellow tribunes Marullus and Flavus for punishing those who had crowned Caesar’s statue. Cinna had been suffering from a fever and had not left his bed to attend Caesar’s funeral. During the night, Cinna had experienced a feverish dream in which Julius Caesar had come to him and invited him to dine; when Cinna had declined the invitation, Caesar had taken his hand and forced him to go, although Cinna had hung back all the way.
This dream was still fresh in Cinna’s mind when, during the morning, word reached him that Caesar’s body was burning in the Forum marketplace, close by the Regia, and not on the distant Field of Mars, as expected. Having been a friend and supporter of the Dictator, Cinna decided to make the effort to go to the nearby Forum out of respect for Caesar. Cinna dragged himself from his bed, although a little apprehensive after his odd dream the night before.
Weakly making his way through the streets toward the Forum with several servants, Cinna was met by wild-eyed men running with burning brands in their hands, fresh from Caesar’s funeral pyre. One of these men asked Cinna his name. When Cinna gave it, the man passed it onto his colleagues. The hotheads, mistaking the tribune Cinna for the praetor Cornelius Cinna, who had taken part in Caesar’s murder and who had delivered a bitter speech against Caesar in the Forum the day after the assassination, “immediately seized him and tore him limb from limb upon the spot,” ignoring his cries that he was a friend of Caesar.¹⁰ The mob then “paraded the streets with his head stuck on the point of a spear.”¹¹
This was the most damage that the rioters were able to do. With the Liberators’ doors closed and bolted, and the occupants ready to repel them from the rooftops, the mob failed in its bid to burn down their houses, despite igniting several fires across the city. The Roman city house had no ground-floor windows facing the street, so that if confronted with a closed door, the rioters had no other way to gain entry. And no Liberator was foolish enough to venture out into the street in daylight.
The message that it was not safe to remain in the capital was made clear to the Liberators by this riot. Once night fell, many of the assassins and their families discreetly left the city and headed for country estates—their own or those of friends. Brutus, Cassius, and their families headed south-southwest for the coastal town of Antium, modern-day Anzio, a year-round resort for wealthy Romans on a peninsula jutting into the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Among the assassins and those who had thrown in their lot with them since the murder were several men due to take up Caesar’s appointments as officials in the provinces before the spring was out, and these men, including Trebonius, who was slated to become governor of Asia, and Murcus, whose allotted province was Syria, soon set off for the comparative safety of their new foreign seats.¹²
Gaius Casca, the tribune of the plebs who had sought the right to aim the first blow at Caesar on the Ides of March, was so frightened by this latest turn of events that he published a statement declaring that he had not participated in the stabbing of Caesar. This was technically true—the Dictator had held his arm throughout the time that others were striking their blows at Caesar, so that Casca had never actually drawn blood. More than making this hairsplitting defense, Casca wrote that the Casca who was known to have been one of the assassins of Caesar was in fact Publius, his brother.¹³
Mark Antony had adeptly turned the tables on the Liberators with his funeral oration, and here, with Casca’s spineless and traitorous statement, was the first sign of the unraveling of the bonds that had bound the conspirators.