DICTATOR FOR LIFE
On the Roman calendar, the first day of the month was known as the Kalends. Well before dawn on the Kalends of March, Julius Caesar walked the few yards from the Regia, the official residence and headquarters of the pontifex maximus on the Via Sacra, or Sacred Way, to the small, circular Temple of Vesta, goddess of hearth and home, which dated from the seventh century B.C. There, in predawn darkness lit by flickering torches, Caesar presided over the annual religious ceremony where the six vestal virgins rekindled the perpetual flame of Rome, symbol of Roman life.
The fl ame burned year-round inside the ancient temple, its circular design emulating the original round huts of Rome at the time of Romulus and Remus. The rekindling of Vesta’s fl ame took place on March 1 because, earlier in Rome’s history, March 1 was for centuries the Roman New Year’s Day, and the rekindling was intended to bring good fortune to Rome and its people for the coming year.
It was one of the duties of the pontifex maximus to select new vestal virgins. The vestals were daughters of leading noble families. Entering the order between ages six and ten, they served for thirty years, with duties including guardianship of the eternal flame and the temple that housed it, preparing ritual food, and conducting the week-long Vestalia, or Festival of Vesta, each June. As their title implied, the vestals were required to remain virgins. They were permitted to marry once they left the order, but it was considered unlucky if they did.
A vestal who failed to carry out her duties could be beaten. A vestal found to have violated her vow of chastity—and there are several instances of this occurring—faced execution by being buried alive. On the other hand, vestals were revered by the Roman populace. To have a daughter serving as a vestal, and particularly as chief vestal, brought great honor to a Roman family. And in recompense for their restricted lives, the vestal virgins received numerous privileges: the carriage of the vestals was the only passenger vehicle permitted to use the streets of Rome in daylight, and white marble front- row benches would be reserved for them when the Colosseum was built so they could watch public spectacles from the best seats in the house; those benches can still be seen in the Colosseum today.
Once the ceremony at the Temple of Vesta had concluded, Caesar made his way to the temple where the day’s sitting of the Senate was scheduled to take place, passing temples and the houses of priests, which, like the Regia, were being festooned by slaves with fresh laurels. The original Senate House had been burned to the ground during rioting prior to the Civil War. Caesar was building a new Senate House in the Forum, but until its completion the Senate met in various public buildings, frequently temples. While the leading men of Rome attended the Senate sitting today, their wives and daughters would be celebrating the Matronalia Festival. Forerunner of today’s Mother’s Day, the Matronalia celebrated the Roman mother, and during daylight hours its ceremonials were restricted to women.
As dawn broke over Rome, hundreds of senators arrived at the day’s temporary Senate House. Caesar had increased the Senate’s rolls to include nine hundred members, in part by granting membership in the Senatorial Order to foreign-born provincials, “including semi-civilized Gauls,” as one critic wrote.¹ Caesar had even made a former army centurion a senator. This, too, had all brought Caesar much criticism. Traditionally, only noble natives of the city of Rome could sit in its Senate. An anonymous poster had recently gone up in Rome; referring to out-of-towners who had been made senators by Caesar, it declared: “Long live our country, but if any newly appointed senator inquires the way to the Senate House, let no one direct him there!”²
It could be argued that the resistance to Caesar’s senatorial appointments was born of prejudice and age-old resistance to change, and that to be truly representative of the Roman people it was time for senators to be appointed from Rome’s provinces. And some centurions in Caesar’s day were actually members of the Equestrian Order, which was the traditional path to the Senate, so the elevation of a centurion to the Senate was perhaps not so exceptional.
Some modern authors have claimed that by broadening the base of the Senatorial Order, Caesar was acting through a desire to make the Senate more representative and egalitarian. In fact, Caesar was merely filling the Senate with men who would be beholden to him for their elevation and who would outnumber the aristocrats who sat in the House, thus ensuring that he always had a majority and the Senate acted as nothing more than a rubber stamp to his wishes.
Both Cassius and Brutus were among the throng of chattering senators who filled the chamber this morning. Like all around them, the pair was adorned in the toga praetexta, the white toga edged with a broad purple stripe that signified their senatorial rank. Brutus, who previously had not planned to attend, sat with his brother-in-law. Both dreaded the possibility that the rumored prediction about the Sibylline Books would be announced today, followed by a call for Caesar to be declared king. As serving praetors, the pair sat on wooden benches in the front row, together with the ex-consuls, the latter having the privilege of being called on by the presiding consul to speak next in debates following the current magistrates.
The presiding consul today would be Caesar. In addition to holding an unprecedented ten-year senatorial appointment as Dictator, he also was one of the two consuls for the year, with Mark Antony as his consular colleague. Even Caesar’s appointments of consuls had come in for criticism. There was the obvious complaint that under the Republic the consuls had been elected by the people; now they were appointed by Caesar. Under the Republic, too, consuls had been appointed annually, giving their names to the year. Under Caesar, the primary consuls stepped aside after several months, to be replaced by suffect, or substitute, consuls chosen by the Dictator, enabling many more men to enjoy the consulship and the privileges it entailed, including the provision, at state expense, of twelve lictors, or attendants.
One such suffect consul appointed by Caesar, Quintus Maximus, who had served for three months, had, when he entered the theater on one occasion, been preceded by his chief lictor crying, as his job required, “Make way for the consul!” To this, many in the audience had protested, “He is no consul!”³ When one of the previous consuls had died on New Year’s Eve, Caesar had appointed a replacement for just the single day that remained before January 1, when the new consuls were due to take office. This one-day consulship, to many staid Romans, made a mockery of the office. To Caesar, it was one way of putting a member of the nobility in his debt.
“Make way for the Dictator!” came the heralding cry of Caesar’s chief lictor. The men in the chamber fell silent and respectfully came to their feet. Caesar strode in, wearing his purple cloak and laurel crown of a triumphant. As custom required, before arriving, he had presided as a bird had been sacrificed and the augurs had examined its entrails. Unblemished entrails signified that the Senate’s deliberations this day would go well. Caesar seems not to have enjoyed Senate sittings of late. Merely going through the motions for propriety’s sake, he would have much preferred to be devoting his time to the final planning for the upcoming military campaign. Taking his place on the throne of gold and ivory voted to him by this Senate, Caesar opened proceedings.
A variety of motions were put and discussed that day. Then came a motion that, to many, would be the final nail in Caesar’s coffin. This was not the motion feared by Cassius and Brutus, that Caesar should be declared king. Instead, it was proposed that Caesar be appointed Dictator for life. This was unheard of. Prior to Caesar’s dictatorship, only twice in 170 years had the Roman Senate considered such an emergency to exist to make it necessary to appoint a Dictator. The last recipient of the dictatorial powers had been Cornelius Sulla, who had overthrown the consul Marius in a bitter civil war. In that civil war a young Caesar had supported Marius, and had narrowly escaped with his life when proscriptions ordered by Sulla had resulted in the execution of numerous political opponents. Yet, for all the severity of his rule, Sulla had given up the dictatorship, returned the Republic to the people, and gone into retirement.
After Caesar had pardoned many of those who had fought against him in the Civil War, and given a number official appointments, “the people hoped that he also would give them back democracy, just as Sulla had done.”⁴ The people were to be disappointed. Now it was being proposed that, against all precedent, Caesar be made Rome’s sole ruler until the day he died. As if this were somehow different from being granted the title of king, and almost out of relief that kingship had not been proposed, the majority of senators voted in favor of the motion. Caesar was now Dictator for life.
There were two final motions put to the House before it rose. One required all senators to take an oath of loyalty to Caesar. The motion passed without dissent, with all senators vowing their loyalty. The final motion of the sitting was that all the senators and Equestrians of Rome would swear to act as the protectors of Caesar’s life. Again, the motion passed unopposed, and the vow was taken.⁵
The House rose, the attendants flung open the doors, and in small groups the senators took their leave, talking among themselves. As Cassius and Brutus departed the Senate House, they would have agreed that in declaring Caesar Dictator for life the Senate had as good as made him their monarch. The only difference was in the title. The result was the same: Caesar was now ruler of the Romans for the remainder of his days.
Caesar, himself preparing to depart the chamber, noticed Brutus and Cassius leaving together, and saw that Cassius was animated with furtive conversation. Caesar was surprised. The fact that the two men had not been on speaking terms was common knowledge, and until now Caesar was unaware that they had reconciled. As he left the meeting place and walked toward his waiting litter, Caesar said to an aide, “What do you think Cassius is up to? I don’t like him, he looks so pale.”⁶
The litter returned Caesar to the Regia, where, during the day, his wife, Calpurnia, had played hostess to Matronalia celebrations with Rome’s leading women. The Regia had been Caesar’s home for the past eighteen years, ever since he had been popularly elected to the lifetime post of pontifex maximus. Prior to that, Caesar had lived in a modest house in Rome’s disreputable Subura quarter.⁷
The roughly triangular-shaped Regia was one of Rome’s oldest buildings. Its name means “royal” house; according to Roman tradition it had been built by the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (Romulus being the first), and was subsequently the residence of the kings of Rome. Under the Republic, the Regia had become the domain of the pontifex maximus. It was not a large building. Its three main, high-ceilinged rooms contained the sacred shrines to Mars and to Ops, a fertility goddess and wife of Saturn, and also Rome’s religious archives. Caesar lived and worked there. The Regia, its servants, and its upkeep were provided by the State. Early in 44 B.C., Caesar had lavished golden decorations, ornaments, and statues on the building.⁸
The prestige of the post of pontifex maximus had attracted Caesar’s candidacy. He was not a particularly religious man. In fact, in none of his writings, speeches, or acts did he show the slightest religiosity, unlike other writers and speakers of his time, who frequently invoked the help of the gods or praised them for their favorable intercession in human events.
To win the election to become pontifex maximus, Caesar had “used the most flagrant bribery,” racking up “enormous debts” in bribing the voters. Suetonius says that as Caesar’s mother had kissed him good-bye on the morning of the election, he told her that if he did not return as high priest, he would not return at all. Caesar’s two opponents in this election were “much older and more distinguished than himself.” Yet, when the votes were tallied, Caesar had won more votes from members of these two candidates’ own tribes than from all the others; for election purposes all Roman citizens were members of voting tribes, the names of which they even included on their tombstones.⁹
This house, the Regia, and the Matronalia Festival had among them been the scene of one of the most sensational episodes in Caesar’s tempestuous marital life. Years before, Mark Antony’s handsome and debauched friend Publius Clodius had crept into the Regia one March 1 when the women were celebrating the Matronalia and seduced Caesar’s second wife, Pompeia. Once this was revealed, it provoked a huge public scandal, and when Pompeia was accused of adultery by both her mother and sister, Caesar himself had refused to offer any evidence. “I cannot have any members of my household accused or even suspected,” he had said.¹⁰ But he divorced Pompeia nonetheless.
By 44 B.C. Clodius the seducer was long dead and the affair all but forgotten as Caesar and his current wife were joined at the Regia on the evening of the Matronalia by some of his closest colleagues and their wives for a celebratory dinner. Throughout the capital, Romans were enjoying the last hours of the high-spirited Matronalia Festival. Among the men who would have joined Caesar that evening would have been Lepidus, his Master of Equestrians; his business agent, Cornelius Balbus; and the Dictator’s faithful assistant Aulus Hirtius, who was marked down by Caesar to be consul the following year. Perhaps other close friends of the Dictator, such as Gaius Oppius and Gaius Matius, also joined this gathering at the Regia.
Caesar’s innermost circle no longer included Mark Antony. Even though Antony was Caesar’s co-consul for the year, he had ceased to be the Dictator’s favorite. Just prior to the Civil War, Pompey the Great had rated Antony, then just a tribune of the plebs with a good military record as a middle-ranking officer, as no more than a “feckless nobody.”¹¹ During the Civil War, the government of Caesar “obtained a bad repute through his friends; and of his friends, Antony, as he had the largest trust, and committed the greatest errors, was thought the most deeply at fault.”¹²
There was no doubting Antony’s reliability as a soldier. Commanding Caesar’s left wing at the 48 B.C. Battle of Pharsalus against Pompey, Antony had contributed significantly to Caesar’s victory. But as an administrator, Antony was sadly lacking. “He was too lazy to pay attention to complaints,” said Plutarch, “listened impatiently to petitions, and had an ill name for familiarity with other people’s wives.”¹³
As a youth, Antony had lived a life of wine, women, and song. The father of his best friend, Gaius Curio, had even banned him from his house because he considered Antony a bad influence on his son. In adulthood, Antony had continued to lead a dissolute life. But because of his loyalty, his family ties to Caesar, his military skills—of Caesar’s commanders, Plutarch considered him, justifiably, “the best officer of all that served under him”—and the fact that many rank-and-file legionaries admired his fearlessness and military prowess, Caesar had at that time employed Antony as his deputy.¹⁴
In 48 B.C., following the victory at Pharsalus, Caesar had sent his own rebellious legions back to Rome with Antony while he himself pursued Pompey with several legions made up from Pompey’s surrendered troops. Antony, as Caesar’s then Master of Equestrians, had the task of ruling at Rome in Caesar’s absence, but he had performed woefully in the role. Instead of diligently running the capital, Antony had made himself “absolutely odious” to all classes through “his drinking bouts at all hours, his wild expenses, his gross lovemaking.” He spent the days “sleeping or walking off his debauches” and the nights “in banquets and at theaters.” After attending the wedding of a comedian named Hippias, Antony had turned up drunk for a public speaking engagement next morning and proceeded to vomit in front of his audience.¹⁵
Antony had then come to blows with another of Caesar’s favorites, Publius Cornelius Dolabella. Boastful, overweight young Dolabella—he was then only twenty-one years old—was considered “delightful company” by Caesar, who felt that Dolabella possessed “kindness of heart” and “goodwill.”¹⁶ Dolabella had supported Caesar from the outset of the Civil War, despite the fact that he had married the daughter of Marcus Cicero, who in turn had initially supported Pompey. After Pharsalus, Dolabella had returned to Rome with Antony and the disgraced legions, taking up Caesar’s appointment as one of the tribunes of the plebs. Dolabella, up to that time Antony’s close friend, being “a young man and eager for change,” decided to use his position to bring about the cancellation of all debts, including, of course, his own.¹⁷
To overcome the opposition of other tribunes, Dolabella wanted Antony’s support, but Antony suddenly turned against him, for Antony was overcome “by a terrible suspicion that Dolabella was too familiar with his wife.”¹⁸ This was Antony’s second wife, Antonia, who also was his cousin. Antony not only separated from Antonia over this, when he heard that Dolabella had seized the Forum and intended to force through his debt-cancellation law, he sought and received a vote of the Senate that Dolabella should be restrained by force of arms. He had then descended on the Forum with troops—one of the four mutinous legions camped outside Rome at that time was still responding to Antony’s orders. A bloody fi ght had ensued, with casualties on both sides.
Antony had prevailed. Dolabella’s bill failed to pass, much to the chagrin of many people who had been looking forward to their debts being canceled. As for Dolabella, he was charged with an unlawful act, with his fate to be decided by Caesar. When Caesar returned to Rome from Spain, he heard the case and acquitted Dolabella. He also removed Antony from office. From that time forward, Antony and Dolabella, once firm friends, were enemies.
Antony, meanwhile, had made a successful bid for Pompey’s city mansion, in Rome’s Carinae, or Keels district, when it was put up for auction on Caesar’s orders. But when it came time for Antony to make payment, he complained bitterly. Antony himself was to write that he felt he should not have to pay “because he thought his former services had not been recompensed as they deserved.” Caesar did not agree, forcing Antony to pay full price. For this reason, Antony was to say, he declined to accompany Caesar when he invaded North Africa that December to do battle with the republican forces that had assembled there.¹⁹
Antony had been out of office and out of favor for the remainder of the Civil War. In October 45 B.C., news reached Rome that Caesar was marching down through northwestern Italy on his way back from Spain. Having finally wrapped up the Civil War there in September, Caesar was returning at the head of thousands of cavalrymen and thousands of discharged soldiers who had been promised land in Italy by their leader. When all of Rome’s leading men had flooded out of the city to meet Caesar on the road and escort him back to the capital, Antony joined the exodus. Many went several days’ distance north, but Antony went farther than all the rest, traveling a hundred miles from Rome to be the first to greet Caesar.
To Caesar, loyalty was everything. “Even as a young man Caesar was well known for the devotion and loyalty he showed his dependants,” said Suetonius, “and he showed consistent affection to his friends.”²⁰ Antony was a ruffian with a boyish charm that endeared him to five wives, including, eventually, Cleopatra. On the road to Rome he begged Caesar’s forgiveness, and the Dictator softened, inviting Antony to join him in his litter for the remainder of his journey back to the capital.
Caesar had subsequently rehabilitated Antony by appointing him his co-consul for 44 B.C. But Antony, a man who held grudges, remained a bitter opponent of Dolabella—so much so that, when early in 44 B.C., Caesar had proposed in the Senate to resign his consulship for the year in favor of Dolabella, Antony, as Caesar’s co-consul, had stood up and “opposed it with all his might, saying much that was bad against Dolabella, and receiving the like language in return” from Dolabella. Caesar had abhorred the very public “indecency” of this squabbling between his favorites, and postponed the matter.
Within a few weeks, when Caesar attempted once again to announce that he was proclaiming Dolabella consul in his stead, Antony had again objected, this time claiming, in his capacity as a priest, that the auspices were unfavorable. In the face of Antony’s intransigence, Caesar, “much to Dolabella’s vexation,” had dropped the idea. But later, Caesar had decreed that Dolabella would take up his consulship once he departed for the East on March 19 to conduct the Getae and Parthian campaigns, and Antony was unable to prevent it.²¹ Leaving Antony and Dolabella again at Rome together, with equal power as consuls, had its risks, but this time Marcus Lepidus, as Master of Equestrians, would be standing above and between the pair, armed with the authority of seniority.
Besides, Antony had promised Caesar that he would turn over a new leaf and reform his private life, and to date he had kept his word. He had remarried, this time to Fulvia, ambitious widow of Antony’s late friend and fellow carouser Clodius Pulcher, who had been murdered in 52 B.C. And Antony had given the appearance of being cured of “a good deal of his folly and extravagance,” although he had yet to shed all the excess weight gained during his late career of perpetual wining and dining. With Antony and Dolabella not even inclined to be in the same room together, and with Caesar “about as much disgusted with the one as with the other” for falling out and disappointing him, the pair had ceased to be part of the Dictator’s most intimate circle.²²
As Caesar’s invited guests dined with him on the evening of the Matronalia, an unidentified guest took the Dictator aside and warned him that it was rumored that Antony and Dolabella were plotting against him. Plutarch was to write that Caesar dismissed the suggestion. “It is not these well-fed, long-haired men that I fear,” he responded, “but the pale and hungry-looking ones.” He was referring to Cassius.²³
Across town on March 1, pale, lean Cassius was dining with his brother-in-law. The Matronalia gave them the perfect excuse to spend time in each other’s company out of the public eye and without raising suspicions. It is likely that Cassius brought his family to Brutus’s house on this occasion, to return the compliment after their meal at Cassius’s house during the Caristia. The nature of the holiday, when men honored both their wives and their mothers, combined with later events, suggest that it is probable that Brutus’s widowed mother, Servilia, Caesar’s former lover, also was present.²⁴
As was customary on the Matronalia, the members of the two families would have exchanged gifts, with the men offering prayers for the well-being of their wives and mothers. As tradition required, the women would have worn their hair long and unbound, just this once, in public. Romans considered the custom of foreign women letting their hair hang long and loose to be barbaric, and Roman women went to great trouble to coif their hair in elaborate rolls, with the help of curling irons and the hairdressers on their household staff. But when celebrating the Matronalia the Roman matrona left her hair unbound and did not even wear anything knotted on her person, so that, symbolically, she did not hinder safe childbirth in the future.
After dinner, Brutus and Cassius would have adjourned, probably strolling in the mansion’s internal courtyard garden. Wafting on the mild March night air from the streets outside would have been the sounds of revelry. During the day, the Salii, twenty-four priests of the religious college sacred to the god Mars, had danced through the streets of Rome—their title literally meant “leapers.” Wearing ancient armor and carrying the sacred shields and spears of Mars, which according to legend had fallen to earth from heaven, they leaped about reciting a traditional chant, the Carme saliare. At the end of their progress through the streets, the Salii sat down to a gala feast, as they did every March 1. By night, all the people of Rome joined in the festivities of this traditional day of renewal.
In addition to the Matronalia feasting, gambling on dice and cards, which was otherwise strictly regulated, was permitted, and there was music and dancing in the streets. To the distant accompaniment of flutes and singing, clapping hands, and chattering and laughter from the city’s streets, Cassius and Brutus gravely discussed the state of their world.
The appointment in the Senate that day of Caesar as Dictator for life would have shaken the pair, and galvanized their resolve. Caesar was now king in everything but name, and Rome was encumbered with what Cassius and Brutus believed to be an illegal and intolerable monarchy. As Dictator for life, Caesar could look forward to a lifetime of sole rule, with the likelihood that his son would lay a claim to be his successor. Caesar seemed to be preparing the way for the latter—one of the latest honors voted for him by the Senate was the right of his son, natural or adopted, to receive his post as pontifex maximus on Caesar’s demise.²⁵
Cassius would have reminded Brutus that time was running out. In eighteen days’ time, Caesar would depart from Rome for the East, and with him would go any chance of terminating his autocratic rule. There was no argument that this rule was indeed autocratic; another of the latest honors bestowed on Caesar by the Senate was the power to declare any man who insulted him by word or deed an outlaw, without any right of defense or appeal by the accused.²⁶ Any comment, any act, a hint of displeasure, a disapproving look: these would be enough to be earn a man the status of outlaw. This, to lovers of democracy, was the last straw.
By this time, Brutus could see, and Cassius would have reiterated, that there was only one way to remove Caesar from power, permanently and irrevocably. Even if the Senate were by some miracle to oppose Caesar, he controlled the army. To the minds of the brothers-in-law, Caesar could only be stopped one way. Cassius and Brutus agreed: Caesar had to be killed.