FEBRUARY 22, 44 B.C.


Over the past few mornings, graffiti and pamphlets had been appearing around Rome. The most prominent graffiti was on the Capitoline Mount, where there stood a brass statue of Junius Brutus, sword in hand. This Brutus, Rome’s first consul, had famously removed from his throne Tarquinius, last king of Rome, in the sixth century B.C., and inaugurated the Roman Republic. And now there appeared scrawled on the pedestal of the statue of Brutus messages such as “O that we had a Brutus now!” and “If only Brutus were alive!”¹

It was widely known that the family of esteemed forty-year-old Roman judge Marcus Junius Brutus claimed descent from Brutus, father of the Republic. During this week, when Marcus Brutus arrived at his tribunal, a raised platform on which his judge’s bench was placed, to hear the latest cases in his capacity as city praetor, he found it covered with graffiti, including “You are asleep, Brutus” and “You are not a true Brutus.” Similar sentiments were written in pamphlets that mysteriously appeared around the cityovernight.²

All Rome knew that this referred to Caesar and his rumored thirst for kingship. Brutus was fully aware that it was aimed also at encouraging him to emulate his ancestor by doing something to stop Caesar from becoming king of the Romans. Even though Caesar’s slaves would have quickly washed the graffiti away, its messages would have rapidly spread. And its import would not have been lost on a population astir ever since the incident outside the Porta Capena four weeks before and the more recent crowning affair during the Lupercalia Festival.

“Even the commons had come to disapprove of how things were going,” said Suetonius, “and no longer hid their disgust at Caesar’s tyrannical rule.”³ The glowing embers of popular discontent had been fanned by the many honors heaped on Caesar by a Senate he had personally appointed. Many of these acts, including Caesar’s deification, were honors that, in the opinion of Suetonius, “as a mere mortal, he certainly should have declined.” Not only was Caesar now celebrated as a god, he also was officially titled “Father of his Country,” he was made censor for life, he was permitted to sit on a golden throne in the Senate House, and the month of Quinctilius was renamed July in his honor. Some senators even “addressed him outright as Jupiter Julius,” ranking him with Jupiter, king of the gods.

On one particular day, after the Senate had passed a long list of such honors for Caesar, the entire body had hurried to inform him of its latest act of flattery. The hundreds of senators found him in Caesar’s Forum, sitting in front of the Temple of Venus Genetrix. Prior to the Battle of Pharsalus, he had vowed to his patron deity Venus that he would build this temple at his own expense should he be victorious. Now he was installing two statues inside the temple. One was of Venus herself. Beside it would stand another, in gold, of Cleopatra, queen of Egypt.

Ever since 48 B.C., Cleopatra had been Caesar’s principal mistress. When Caesar had departed from Egypt a year later, after fighting and winning a particularly grueling war against the Egyptians that had made Egypt a province of Rome in all but name, Cleopatra was pregnant. In 46 B.C., twenty-three-year-old Cleopatra had arrived at Rome. She had come with her “husband” and a large entourage. That husband was her younger brother Ptolemy XIV. Past Egyptian rulers who were brothers and sisters went through a marriage ceremony when they became king and queen that also made them husband and wife. There is no indication that this incestuous royal marriage was ever consummated. Cleopatra also had brought her newborn son with her to Rome. She had named him Ptolemy XV Caesar. In Egypt the boy was known as Caesarion, and people far and wide were convinced that this was Caesar’s son. “Some Greek historians say that the boy closely resembled Caesar in features as well as in gait,” Suetonius noted.

At Rome, Cleopatra and her party had taken up residence in a villa owned by Caesar atop the Janiculum Hill, on the western bank of the Tiber outside Rome. Luxuriant gardens covered the hillside all the way down to the river; in his will, Caesar would bequeath these gardens to the people of Rome. From the villa on the hill, Cleopatra could look down into the city across the river. Leading members of the Senate trooped to Caesar’s villa to cast their eyes on the vivacious young woman as they officially paid their respects to Caesar’s guests, for Caesar had formally presented the queen and her brother to the Senate, in the Senate House, as “friends and allies of the Roman people.” “He would not allow her to return to Alexandria without high titles and rich presents,” said Suetonius.

Cleopatra had not come simply to pay a fleeting visit. She had “settled in Caesar’s own house.” It appears that she was still there now, in March 44 B.C., with plans to accompany Caesar when he set off for the East in the middle of the month, then continue on back to Alexandria while he launched his military campaign.¹ Caesar himself was of course at liberty to regularly visit his own villa and to see Cleopatra. No one in Rome would openly criticize Caesar for keeping his exotic Egyptian mistress on the Janiculum, and his wife, Calpurnia, seems to have turned a blind eye to her presence.

But behind closed doors “he incurred the greatest censure from all because of his passion for Cleopatra,” said Dio. Not so much the passion he had displayed for her when in Egypt, Dio noted, “but that which was displayed in Rome itself.” Yet, even though Caesar “derived an ill repute” from this, “he was not at all concerned.”¹¹ By placing a statue of his ladylove in the temple he was erecting for his goddess, Caesar was not only snubbing his nose at his critics, he also was ranking Cleopatra with a goddess, just as he himself was being ranked with the gods. The statue of Cleopatra would still be standing in that temple at Rome hundreds of years later.

As the senators flooded around Caesar outside the Temple of Venus, to their dismay he made no attempt to stand, but remained in his chair, as if he were superior to them. Like so many of the “sins” credited to Caesar during these weeks, to modern eyes this may seem no great crime. But in republican Rome, all Roman citizens were considered equal. Augustus, who would later become Rome’s first emperor, would recognize this basic tenet, and to give his rule an egalitarian veneer he would adopt the title princeps, which literally means “first among equals.”

Standing beside Caesar, the senator and eminent jurist Gaius Trebatius Testa, a friend of Cicero and a supporter of Caesar for the past ten years, is said to have suggested that as a courtesy, Caesar should rise to receive the senators. But Caesar’s Spanish friend and business adviser Cornelius Balbus quickly spoke up, counseling Caesar to stay seated: “Will you not remember you are Caesar, and claim the honor which is due to your merit.”¹²

Caesar obviously agreed with Balbus, for he “grimaced angrily” at Trebatius for suggesting he stand, and remained in his seat. Suetonius was to say that this “open insult to the Senate” by Caesar is what caused “Romans to hate him so bitterly.”¹³ Plutarch echoed the sentiment. “This treatment offended not only the Senate, but the commons too, as if they thought the affront on the Senate equally reflected on the whole Republic.”¹

Senators departed the scene looking visibly disconcerted by the affair. Too late Caesar appreciated “the false step he had made, ” and once he returned home he again dramatically offered his throat to any of his associates who felt he deserved the maximum penalty. Of course, they all assured him he had done nothing wrong. Afterward, said Plutarch, Caesar made the excuse that he had remained seated because of the “malady from which he suffered”—he was history’s first recorded sufferer of epileptic seizures—claiming that he was more likely to bring on a seizure while standing.¹

Some of Caesar’s supporters would subsequently try to excuse his action that day by claiming that “owing to an attack of diarrhea he could not control the movements of his bowels and so had remained where he was in order to avoid a flux.” Cassius Dio would write that this excuse failed to convince most people, for, not long after, Caesar was seen to walk home; a man suffering such severe diarrhea could have been expected to have been carried home in a litter. The upshot, said Dio, was that “most men suspected him of being inflated with pride, and hated him for his haughtiness.”¹

Before long, another of the many rumors about Caesar circulating around Rome would have met Marcus Brutus’s ears. Now it was said that Lucius Cotta, the senator who was chief of the college of fifteen priests known as the Quindecimviri, which had responsibility for the safekeeping and interpretation of the Sibylline Books, would make a startling announcement to the Senate.¹ The Sibylline Books were three books of prophesies by a Greek prophetess, the Sibyl, acquired by Tarquinius Superbus, last king of Rome, and only consulted in times of emergency. According to a persistent rumor, Cotta would before long announce to the House that “the Sibyl had said the Parthians would never be defeated in any other way than by a king.”¹ Then, so the rumor ran, Caesar’s friends in the Senate would move that he be made king, to enable him to go east to conquer the Parthians in fulfillment of the sacred prediction. It was a rumor with a logical and persuasive ring to it.

In this rumor-rich atmosphere, Marcus Brutus this week received an approach from his brother-in-law Gaius Cassius Longinus, who would become known to history simply as Cassius. Brutus and Cassius had not been on speaking terms for months. While Brutus was famously the most easygoing and affable of men, Cassius was equally well known for his quick temper and dislike of injustice. And to Cassius’s mind, he had been on the receiving end of an injustice, with Brutus promoted ahead of him by Julius Caesar.

Cassius was older than Brutus and more senior in terms of years spent in the senatorial order. Cassius also had extensive military experience, while Brutus had next to none. Yet Caesar had appointed Brutus to the post of praetor urbanus, city praetor, the most senior of the twenty chief magistrates of Rome, responsible for sitting in judgment in legal cases involving suits brought in Rome. Cassius had also received a praetorship from Caesar, that of peregrine praetor, but this was a less prestigious post. Caesar also had promised both men consulships, but had subsequently only announced that Brutus would be a consul, in four years’ time.

None of this was Brutus’s fault, but Cassius had blamed him for being the recipient of preferential treatment, or for acceding to it. That favored treatment had much to do with the fact that Brutus was the son of Servilia, the beautiful widowed half-sister of the famous orator Cato the Younger. In the past, Servilia had notoriously been Caesar’s favorite mistress. One persistent rumor even made Caesar the father of Brutus. Some modern writers have ridiculed this, pointing out that Caesar was only fifteen when Servilia gave birth to Brutus. In fact, this does not preclude Caesar from fathering Brutus, for the Romans began their sex lives quite young. Roman women could legally marry at age thirteen, and frequently did, bearing children while still only children themselves. Roman men, meanwhile, were legally able to marry once they came of age at the end of their fifteenth year.

Those who dispute Caesar’s paternity of Brutus also point out that some classical accounts of the affair between Caesar and Servilia date the relationship to some years after Brutus was born. Appian, however, says quite categorically that Caesar was “Servilia’s lover when Brutus was born.”¹ Whatever their blood relationship, if any, there is no doubting the fact that Caesar favored Brutus, if for no other reason than that he was Servilia’s son. Following the Battle of Pharsalus, for example, during which Brutus had sided with Pompey and the Senate against Caesar, Caesar had instructed his commanders not to harm Brutus if they came across him, and to bring him safely to him; alternatively, if Brutus would not surrender, they were to permit him to escape.²

After Brutus surrendered to him in August 48 B.C., Caesar had entrusted him with the governorship of Cisalpine Gaul in 47 B.C., even while Caesar continued to wage war against those whom Brutus had up till then supported. When it came to the praetorships for 44 B.C., Plutarch reported that Caesar said to his friends, “Cassius has the strongest case, but we must let Brutus be the first praetor.”²¹ Cassius, feeling slighted by Caesar on Brutus’s account, had vented his swift anger on Brutus, for he dare not vent it on Caesar.

But, now, out of the blue, Cassius had sought to reconcile with his brother-in-law—Cassius was married to Brutus’s half-sister Junia Tertulla, to whom Brutus was very close. February 22 was when the Romans annually celebrated the Caristia holiday. This was a kind of thanks-giving day, when Roman families came together for reunion dinners, when they traditionally patched up quarrels and forgave offenses. This was an ideal and natural time for Cassius to initiate a reconciliation, and Brutus, on receiving an invitation for his family to dine with Cassius’s family on the occasion of the Caristia, would have readily accepted.

The rift between Cassius and Brutus was well known, so the conciliatory nature of the holiday would have explained their meeting that evening after months of rancor between the pair. Nonetheless, considering Cassius’s passionate nature and growing and undisguised disapproval of Caesar—Cassius was one of the few senators who had consistently voted against the many honors heaped on Caesar by the Senate over recent months—some outsiders may have been surprised by the brothers-in-law’s unexpected get-together, despite their family ties.²² Yet, for the moment, it drew little public attention.

Cassius, a tall, fit, lean man with a pallid complexion, should have been dead. When Marcus Crassus led his army of sixty thousand Roman soldiers into Mesopotamia in 53 B.C. to confront the Parthians, Cassius had marched as his quaestor, or chief of staff. When Crassus and his son Marcus perished at the Battle of Carrhae, where forty thousand Romans were killed or captured by the Parthians in one of the most humiliating defeats in Roman history, young Cassius had not only fought his way out of the Parthian encirclement, he also had led twenty thousand Roman troops back to Syria and safety, and subsequently repelled Parthian assaults on Syria. His reputation as a hard man had been made by this.

Early in the Civil War, Cassius had served Pompey and the Senate as commander of the Syrian Fleet, surrendering his ships to Caesar following Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus. Again, Cassius’s life was on the line—Caesar could have executed him. But Caesar had magnanimously forgiven Cassius, sparing his life and welcoming him into his fold. Despite this, wrote Plutarch, Cassius had grown to hate Caesar. Some would later attribute this hate to the fact that Caesar had confiscated a number of lions that Cassius had collected at the Greek city of Megara for use in spectacles at Rome. Caesar would have subsequently taken the credit for procuring the lions.²³

First-century historian Plutarch was to defend Cassius, saying that those who gave the confiscation of the lions as Cassius’s sole motive for hating Caesar were “much in the wrong. For Cassius had from his youth a natural hatred and rancor against the whole race of tyrants.” Plutarch even gave an example of Cassius as a schoolboy coming to blows with the son of Sulla the Dictator for “extolling the sovereign power of his father.”²

Cassius himself opens a window to his morals and motives, writing in late 45 B.C. to his friend Cicero the orator, “I trust people will realize how intense and universal is hatred for cruelty and love for worth and clemency, so that they will see how the prizes most sought and coveted by the wicked come to the good.” He added a quote from the philosopher Epicurus, “Pleasure and peace of mind are won by virtue, justice, and right.”² Certainly, Cassius would have felt that he had been led on by Caesar, who had promised the same rewards to both Brutus and himself.

In the early evening of February 22, Brutus, his wife, Porcia, and Porcia’s adult son from an earlier marriage, Lucius Calpurnius Bibulus, would have traveled the short distance across the city from their house to Cassius’s house, accompanied by an entourage of servants. Porcia, a petite, attractive, though delicate, woman, was the daughter of the late Marcus Cato, known to history as the revered orator Cato the Younger. Eloquent Cato, though a decade younger than both Caesar and Pompey, had taken on the mantle of the elder statesman in the 50s B.C., campaigning against corruption and opposing both Caesar and Pompey before siding with Pompey and the republican Senate in the Civil War. Cato had considered both Caesar and Pompey corrupt autocrats.²

To Caesar’s dismay—for he was robbed of the satisfaction of granting one of his most forthright enemies a pardon—Cato had committed suicide rather than surrender following the Dictator’s 46 B.C. victory at Thapsus in North Africa. Romans considered suicide a noble end, and Cato made himself a model of the virtuous Roman for generations to come. His reputation was such that first-century Roman writer Valerius Maximus was to say that “anyone who wants to describe an excellent, upright citizen must define him as a ‘Cato.’ ”² This national esteem for Cato the defender of democracy reflected brightly on his daughter Porcia and son-in-law Brutus.

As tradition dictated, the diners would each have brought something to the Caristia dinner at Cassius’s house, before sharing the meal in front of statues of Cassius’s household gods, to whom offerings were made. The dinner took place in the house’s triclinium, a dining room equipped with three couches around three sides of a square table. Three diners could recline on each couch, eating with their fingers as they took food and drink from the table, served by slaves from the table’s fourth, open end. On special occasions such as the Caristia feast, a dozen or more courses were common, generally starting with an egg dish and ending with apples.

Once the dinner was over, “after the compliments of reconciliation had passed, and former kindnesses were renewed between them,” Cassius took Brutus aside. The pair probably strolled in the house’s internal garden. As they walked around the colonnade surrounding a carefully tended garden where a fountain may have trickled, Cassius took tall, handsome Brutus’s arm and asked him whether he planned to attend the next sitting of the Senate, which was scheduled for a little over a week later, on March 1.²Before Brutus answered, Cassius added that it was rumored that Caesar’s friends planned to move a motion at that sitting that Caesar be named king of the Romans.

“I will not be there,” Brutus replied.

“But what if they should send for us?” Cassius asked.

“It will be my business, then, not to hold my peace, but to stand up boldly and die for the liberty of my country.”²

To which Cassius said “with some emotion,” “But what Roman would stand by and let you die?” Surely, he went on, Brutus was aware of his position in Roman society, aware of the pedestal that many leading Romans had placed him on. Cassius asked him if he thought it was weavers and shopkeepers who had written the messages on his tribunal, or the first and most powerful men of Rome. Those men expected money and spectacles and gladiators from other praetors, said Cassius, but from Marcus Brutus they expected, “as an hereditary debt, the eradication of tyranny.” Cassius assured his brother-in-law that those men were also ready to “suffer anything” on Brutus’s account if he were to show himself to be the man they thought he was and expected him to be.³

Brutus was unhappy with Caesar’s autocratic rule, but unlike Cassius he did not despise Caesar. Brutus, said Plutarch, hated “the rule of oppression,” while “Cassius hated the ruler.”³¹ Despite differing motives, Brutus and Cassius had the same desire, the restoration of republican government. Now Brutus agreed that something must be done to prevent Caesar from becoming king of the Romans, and that it must be done quickly, before Caesar departed from Rome on March 19 to launch his military campaign in the East. Once Caesar did that, he would be surrounded by loyal troops for the next three years. With this momentous declaration by Brutus, the plot to kill Caesar took root.

Cassius embraced Brutus, and the brothers-in-law agreed that they would discreetly sound out friends to see if others shared their view about the need to act against Caesar.³² The first name that came to mind was that of Marcus Cicero, a respected member of the Senate with an extensive network of friends and great popularity among the common people. He also was “Brutus’s principal confidant.”³³ Cicero’s very name would add luster to the conspiracy and attract men to the cause. Cicero had made no secret, among those closest to him, that he considered Caesar’s rule oppressive. Cicero rarely bothered to attend Senate sittings now that they had descended into what might be characterized as meetings of the Caesar admiration society, with sycophantic senators vying with one another for Caesar’s attention and approval like competitive children.

Yet, while Cicero was “very much trusted and loved” by the pair and might be expected to support their goal, they considered him “naturally timorous,” a characteristic the brothers-in-law believed would be exacerbated by “the weariness and caution of old age.” Their fear was that, being overly cautious by nature, Cicero would “blunt the edge of their forwardness and resolution.”³

Cicero might think of countless logical reasons why a certain thing should not be done at a certain time to avoid the risk of disaster. After all, death potentially awaited those involved if the plot went wrong. So the pair agreed that it would be best to conceal the plot from Cicero, and that the type of men they must seek out had to be “bold and brave and despisers of death.”³

As they parted, Cassius reminded Brutus of his declaration that he was prepared to die for the liberty of his country. “Is there a man among the nobility you would not win over with that sentiment?” Cassius asked.³

The violent death of Julius Caesar was one step closer.

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