It was another important day on the Roman calendar of religious holidays. That calendar was not broken up into weekdays and weekends as we know them, but “vacated” days, when business was conducted, and public holidays—days when religious festivals were celebrated and during which no official business could be conducted, temples were closed, and marriages were forbidden. This is where the term holiday comes from; it was literally a holy day. This particular holy day, February 15, was reserved for the Lupercalia Festival.
The Lupercalia celebrated the brothers Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome. According to legend, the two boys were the sons of the war god Mars and Rhea Silva, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa. Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who, to remove any threats to his long enjoyment of the throne, ordered his niece’s baby sons drowned in the Tiber River. The trough in which the two boys were placed floated down the river and came to rest at the foot of the Palatine Hill, the future site of Rome. There, the babies were suckled by a wolf—lupis in Latin—and fed by a woodpecker before being found by a shepherd and raised as his own children. On reaching maturity, the boys defeated Amulius and restored their grandfather Numitor to his throne before establishing the settlement that became Rome, where Romulus killed Remus.
The legend had it that the she-wolf had cared for the boys in a cave, called the Lupercal, at the base of the Palatine Hill, and by Julius Caesar’s time this cave had become a shrine to Romulus and Remus. Modern historians doubted the existence of such a cave until 2007, when it was accidentally discovered by archaeologists fifty feet beneath the ruins of the Palatium, or palace, of Augustus. The richly decorated cave shrine, twenty-five feet high and twenty-two feet across, has a domed ceiling, and was partly filled with rubble that would have been used to seal the cave entrance following the decree by Pope Gelasius I that banned the Lupercalia in A.D. 496. By that time the Lupercalia was the last of the ancient Roman religious festivals permitted by the Christian Church. Gelasius would replace the Lupercalia by declaring February 14 the feast day of St. Valentine.
Julius Caesar had been Rome’s Pontifex Maximus, or high priest, since being elected to the part-time, lifetime post in 62 B.C., and as such was required to preside over religious festivals such as the Lupercalia. This particular festival had much more poignancy this year, for, only recently, Caesar’s fawning Senate had voted in favor of declaring him a living god. Caesar’s family claimed descent from the goddess Venus, but even so the declaration that a mortal Roman was a god was without precedent. Whether this was Caesar’s own idea is unclear, but he did not oppose his own deification. “Few in fact,” wrote Suetonius 150 years later, “were the honors that he was not happy to accept or assume.”¹
Among the trappings of “the Divine Julius,” as Caesar came to be called, would be temples dedicated to him; images of him as a god that the people could worship in temples and their own homes; a senior priest dedicated to his cult; and a new college of priests, called the Julian College. It became the task of the Julian order to oversee the Lupercalia Festival in Caesar’s name and “to celebrate his divinity.” This year, and every year for more than five hundred years to come, the Lupercalia Festival would not only commemorate Romulus and Remus, it also commemorated Julius Caesar, the former as founders of Rome, the latter supposedly as Rome’s “savior” from republicanism.²
As custom required, the Lupercalia Festival of 44 B.C. involved a variety of activities. In the morning, goats and a dog were sacrificed by the priests of the order in the Lupercal shrine, the cave in the Palatine Hill. Two teams of young Roman nobles and magistrates then gathered in the crowded Forum to take part in an unusual footrace. This year, one of the teams was led by Mark Antony in his capacity as a consul.
The team members, all wearing goatskins sprinkled with the blood of the sacrificed animals, sat down to eat a sumptuous banquet, with the teams on opposite sides of the long dining table. The banquet was traditionally a lighthearted affair, with team members poking fun at their opponents across the table. The gaiety continued as the teams then stripped to the waist, were anointed with oil, and assembled at a starting line in the Forum.
Caesar, as high priest, took his place on the raised Rostra, or speaking platforms, in the Forum, to officially start the race. As he was entitled to do, he wore the triumphal garb he had earned from celebrating a Triumph.³ This consisted of a rich scarlet cloak and a tunic embroidered in gold with palm trees, a symbol of victory. He also wore the laurel crown of a triumphant. As Caesar took his seat on the Rostra in a golden chair placed there for him, he was flanked by the praetors and the priests. Below, the competitors were given goatskin straps, which they would carry throughout the race. On Caesar’s “Go,” and to the roar of the watching crowd, the competitors dashed away, to run around the base of the Palatine Hill and return to the starting point.
The runners’ route, which was lined with the city populace, would take them out one city gate, across the Campus Martius, or Field of Mars, and back in through another gate. It was their privilege to strike whomever they passed with their goatskin strap. But the runners faced an unusual obstacle. It had become customary for Roman women of childbearing age, including those of the highest birth, to step into the path of the competitors with hands outstretched, “as boys in school do to the master,” said Plutarch, hoping to be struck by the straps.⁴ According to superstition, if the women were hit by the strap, those who were barren would conceive, and those who were pregnant could expect an easy delivery—this was an era when death during childbirth was tragically very common.
As the race neared its end, the crowd parted, and Mark Antony came running at the head of the competitors into the Forum. Contrary to ancient custom, Antony ran up to the Rostra, where Caesar was seated. Someone handed Antony a crown around which a laurel, another victory symbol, had been entwined. A number of Antony’s friends had gathered for this moment, and they hoisted him up, allowing Antony to hold out the laurel crown to Caesar.⁵ “The people offer this to you through me,” said Antony.⁶
The act of offering the crown generated an approving shout from some members of the crowd surrounding the Rostra, “but only a slight one, made by the few who were planted there” by Antony.⁷ “The majority booed,” said Appian.⁸ Caesar “drew aside to avoid it,” declining to accept the crown, and in response, applause erupted from the majority of his audience.⁹ Again Antony offered the crown to Caesar, and again Caesar waved it away. This time, only a few spectators applauded. For a third time, Antony offered the crown, and now Caesar came to his feet. “Jupiter alone is king of the Romans,” he declared.¹⁰ Caesar told Antony to take the crown to the Capitoline Mount and dedicate it to Jupiter, king of the gods and primary Roman divinity, in the massive and ancient Temple of Jupiter.
This should have been an end to the matter. But Antony’s act of offering the crown to Caesar, coming in the wake of the affair of the crowned statues and dismissal of the tribunes, was not well received. Velleius Paterculus was to say that Antony “brought great odium upon Caesar” by offering him the crown.¹¹ According to Plutarch, Caesar himself was “very much discomposed by what had passed,” and as the crown was being carried away to the Temple of Jupiter he pulled his cloak down from his neck, exposing his throat, and said to his closest companions that “he was ready to receive a stroke” of a blade “if any of them desired to give it.”¹²
To make sure that no one had missed the fact that he had declined the offer of a kingly crown, Caesar subsequently had it inscribed in the official records that he had refused to accept the kingship when it was offered to him by the people through a consul.¹³ But, again, the damage had been done. As men departed the Forum, many were in whispered conversation. The theatrical performance by Antony and Caesar at the Rostra had many convinced that it had been “deliberately arranged” and that Caesar was in reality “anxious for the name” of king, it being the one honor he had yet to accept, having secretly yearned for it since boyhood. Perhaps, Dio would muse, Caesar “wished to be somehow compelled to take it.”¹⁴
Did Caesar and Antony concoct this crowning performance at the Rostra to test the public mood? If so, it backfired badly, arming a growing number of opponents with what they saw as proof that the Dictator actually wished to be made king of the Romans. Many Roman commentators, such as Dio, became convinced that “these events proved still more clearly that, although he pretended to shun the title, in reality he desired to assume it.”¹⁵
Subtle political maneuvering such as this would have bored Caesar. He was a soldier at heart, and accustomed to decisive action. Happiest at war, he was impatient for more glory and military action, and at this moment was focused on his next military campaign. Details of that campaign were well enough known at Rome; a number of senators and members of the Equestrian Order had been assigned to commands in the army that was forming on Caesar’s orders to carry out the operation.
This campaign was to involve a preemptive war against the Getae, a warlike barbarian nation that lived north of the Danube River, beside the Caspian Sea. It was to be followed by an invasion of Rome’s old eastern enemy Parthia to punish the Parthians for defeating Caesar’s late colleague Marcus Crassus in 53 B.C. Caesar then intended marching around the Caspian Sea, through Germany, and across the Rhine into Gaul from the east. Caesar was preparing for a three-year campaign. While he was away, Rome would be administered by Master of Equestrians Lepidus and by consuls and praetors who had already been chosen years in advance by Caesar.
More than one hundred thousand troops, the single largest army ever put together by Caesar, involving sixteen legions and ten thousand cavalry, were to carry out this campaign.¹⁶ As early as 47 B.C., Caesar had sent a legion from Egypt to Syria in preparation for a move against Parthia. By March 44 B.C., units assigned to the operation were assembling in Syria and Macedonia. A vast cache of arms and ammunition was being collected at Demetrias at Thessaly, Greece, not far from where the legions were encamped inMacedonia.¹⁷
Caesar intended starting his eastern campaign as early as possible in the spring, planning to depart Rome on March 19, the first day of the four-day Quatranalia Festival, an annual and ancient festival dedicated to the war god Mars. On the morning of March 19, a day sacred to both Mars and Minerva, the lustration ceremony would take place, over which Caesar must preside. This involved the anointing of military standards at Rome prior to the commencement of the year’s military campaigning season. Caesar, other priests of the pontificate, and tribunes representing the army would attend a dance of the Salii priests of Mars in the Comitium, the Forum meeting chamber of the Comitia, the assembly of the common people. Following the priests’ dance, the sacred arma ancilia, ancient weaponry dedicated to Mars hundreds of years before, which was kept year-round in a shrine to Mars at the Regia, the high priest’s headquarters, would be purified with perfumes and decorated with garlands, as would the standards of representative military units.
Once he had dispensed with the ceremonial formalities required of a Roman commander in chief prior to going to war, Caesar planned to depart from the city later that same day, March 19, leaving behind all the petty politics, sycophancy, and backbiting of the capital, to concentrate on what he did best and liked best—military conquest.