Was Caesar’s murder justified? Was he a despot, as Brutus, Cassius, Cicero, and others claimed? Suetonius, Caesar’s first-century biographer, said that while Caesar did much that was creditable, numerous were his words and deeds that “justify the conclusion that he deserved assassination.”¹ “It has also been suggested,” Suetonius noted, referring to writers of his day, “that constant exercise of power gave Caesar a love of it, and that after weighing the strength of his opponents against his own, he took this chance of fulfilling his youthful dreams by making a bid for the monarchy.”²
Plutarch, Greek historian of the late first century and early second century, from whom we know most about Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra, and who was Shakespeare’s key source, was in no doubt that Brutus and Cassius were liberators of democracy and that both Caesar and Antony were despots. “Antony, who enslaved the Roman people, just liberated from the rule of Caesar, followed a cruel and tyrannical object.”³
Appian, another Greek historian, while considering Caesar’s assassination a crime, saw the murder conspiracy arising out of the title of king, and its clumsy handling by Caesar and his supporters. “On reflection,” Appian wrote, “I am of the opinion that the plot did originate over this additional title.” Yet Caesar, in Appian’s view, was monarch of the Romans already, by another name. “The difference it made was only of a word, since in reality the dictator is exactly like a king.”⁴
Seneca, famed, flawed, but oft-quoted first-century Roman philosopher, was in no doubt that none of the members of the so-called First Triumvirate—Caesar, Pompey, or Marcus Crassus—could justifiably be considered a friend of freedom.⁵
Support for the Liberators lived on among the Roman people for hundreds of years after their deaths. Pliny the Younger noted that in the second century, during the reign of the emperor Trajan, the senator Titinius Capito set up the busts of Brutus, Cassius, and Caesar’s other great adversary, Cato the Younger, in his home. There, he paid respect to them, “not being able to do so elsewhere,” with the emperors frowning on any outward commemoration of the heroes of republicanism.⁶
Cassius Dio, writing three hundred years after Caesar’s death, expressed the view that Caesar had acted badly when he celebrated his final Triumph, in 45 B.C., following his victories in Spain: “He showed no moderation, but was filled with arrogance, as if immortal. ”⁷ Did Caesar come to think of himself immortal? Certainly he was famously considered lucky in his lifetime; he knew it, and he exploited it.⁸
Was his reported epilepsy a symptom of a form of mental illness that eventually led him to believe he was immortal, and untouchable? And was that why he dispensed with bodyguards? Caesar’s known symptoms, including epileptic fits and other seizures, heightened sexuality, and an inability to sleep deeply, together with a belief that he could ward off his seizures by staying off his feet and by keeping himself constantly busy, indicate that he may have suffered from a form of mania connected with bipolar disease and schizophrenia. That mania would have made him a workaholic, charismatic, and self-confident to the point of ultimately feeling indestructible.
Mental illness also could have given Caesar a belief that he knew best and that rules and laws did not apply to him. Even Caesar’s closest friends knew that what he did to gain power was questionable. Gaius Matius wrote to Cicero seven months after the assassination, “I am well aware of the criticisms which people have leveled at me since the death of Caesar. They make it to my discredit that I am sorely grieved by the death of a very intimate friend and resent the fall of one I loved. For they declare that patriotism must come before friendship, as if they have already proved that his death had been to the benefit of the State.” Matius then made an interesting observation. “I was not a follower of Caesar in our civil dissensions but of a friend whom I did not abandon, however much I was offended by his actions. Nor did I approve of the Civil War, or even of the cause of the quarrel.”⁹
Like Matius, other friends of Caesar had not approved of his waging war on his own country and seizing power by force. Yet some, like Matius, had continued to serve him despite his bloody military coup. Matius’s excuse was that he considered Caesar “a great man to whom I was intimately bound.”¹⁰
Gaius Asinius Pollio, who crossed the Rubicon at Caesar’s side and served under him faithfully until his death, also would claim that he did not approve of the Civil War. He said that he chose a side on which he had the least enemies, as an act of self-preservation, and was “forced along a path far from pleasing to myself” by Caesar.¹¹ In both these cases, the unspoken plea, the Caesar’s henchman plea, seems to have been one of “I know what Caesar did wasn’t right, but it was right for me at the time.”
Half a century after Caesar’s assassination, in August A.D. 14, his ultimate successor, Octavian, who became the emperor Augustus, also died, but from natural causes. As the day for Augustus’s funeral approached, his successor, Tiberius, issued a proclamation warning the Roman populace “not to indulge in that tumultuous enthusiasm which had distracted the funeral of the Divine Julius [Caesar].”¹²
As leading Roman historian Tacitus, himself a closet republican, made it clear, half a century after Caesar’s murder the opinion of the people of Rome was split between those who thought his assassination justified and the assassins heroes, and those who reviled both the act and its perpetrators. Tacitus wrote, “On the day of the funeral [of Augustus], soldiers stood round as a guard, amid much ridicule from those who had either themselves witnessed or who had heard from their parents of the famous day when slavery [of Roman citizens] was still something fresh, and freedom had been resought in vain, when the slaying of Caesar, the Dictator, seemed to some the vilest, to others, the most glorious of deeds.”¹³
There can be no escaping the fact that by any definition Caesar was a tyrant: he gained power via a bloody premeditated coup; employed brutal force; suppressed democracy; and, brooking no opposition, ruled through fear. Furthermore, he may have been a tyrant suffering from brain disease who had come to think of himself as immortal. However, at a distance of more than two thousand years, and without an accurate medical diagnosis, we can only speculate on the state of his mental health.
Yet, despite the fact that he was a tyrant and the possibility that he might have been mentally ill, what did the murder of Caesar achieve? Cicero wrote glumly to Cassius the year following the assassination,
“We seem to be rid of nothing except our detestation for a vile being and indignation under tyranny, while the country lies still prostrate amid the troubles into which he plunged her.”¹⁴
Caesar opened historical floodgates, washing away the old democratic system. Modern scholars suggest that the republican ideal for which Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero gave their lives was an illusion, that one strongman or another would always rise to power within Rome’s republican system. Perhaps so. But after taking power, Sulla soon bowed to the system and retired, and Pompey was tamed by it. Only Caesar overthrew the system, and buried the ideal. And to this day many a patriot, misguided or not, still will give his or her life for an ideal.
The most striking thing about the more than sixty assassins is that in putting their lives on the line to join the conspiracy, none asked for anything; all were content simply to take the appointments that Caesar had laid out for the next five years. They merely wanted to be rid of Caesar, the man Cicero described as “odious.” Only a barely concealed hate of Caesar and a driving lust for his removal can explain why the assassins were blind to what would follow his death.
The Liberators were seasoned politicians, some were hardened generals, yet none properly thought through Caesar’s removal. Even if Brutus and Cassius had made more careful provision for the return to democracy, backed by the military—and it is astonishing that they thought the system would simply right itself once Caesar was removed—and even if they had murdered Antony at the same time, Caesar had shown that the legions were more powerful than the Constitution, that the man who commanded the loyalty of the legions could rule Rome.
All the evidence shows that Caesar precipitated his own violent death. Not only did he make some poorly calculated moves in the last weeks of his life, he also was a poor judge of character, trusting men who ultimately participated in his murder or who failed to warn him and allowed it to take place. Dolabella is said to have been aware of the assassination plot and done nothing to warn Caesar. It is possible that Antony likewise knew but did nothing, in hopes of himself taking power. Yet if that were the case, like Brutus and Cassius, Antony made no preparations to win the allegiance of the legions, as he must.
As Shakespeare was to write, Brutus was an honorable man. Brutus was also compassionate and well intentioned. Cassius was none of these things, and his brutal rule in the East during 43-42 B.C. suggests that had he and Brutus defeated Octavian and Antony, he may have rid himself of Brutus, taken sole power for himself, and been just as oppressive a ruler of Rome as Caesar, Antony, and Octavian.
In the end, Caesar’s murder achieved nothing more than opening the door to the next tyrant, Antony, and then the next, Octavian, and imperial rule. One hundred twenty years later, when the emperor Nero considered executing all potential claimants to his throne, Seneca dissuaded him with the reminder that a ruler can never kill his successor, for the line of successors waiting outside a tyrant’s door is endless.