RECRUITING FELLOW ASSASSINS
To the Romans, the public bath was more than a place for cleaning the body. It was a center of public life. Since the third century B.C., wealthy Romans had built baths in their town houses and country villas, but by Caesar’s time public baths, sometimes built by philanthropists, other times built by businessmen who charged for admittance, had begun to appear in cities and towns.
Within a decade of Caesar’s death, 170 public baths were recorded at Rome.¹ Within several more centuries the number of public baths at Rome would approach 1,000.
In Caesar’s day, men and women bathed separately. The complexes in which they bathed included cold, lukewarm, and hot baths, changing rooms, gymnasiums, and even exercise courts where leather balls were tossed around to work up a sweat. There were massage rooms, and rooms where naked customers were coated with mud that was then scraped off, supposedly as a means of invigorating the skin. The larger bath complexes boasted libraries, museums, and exhibition halls. Most had gardens surrounded by covered promenades.
Here, most afternoons, the Roman citizen would come to bathe, socialize, and discuss and debate. Here, Marcus Brutus was able to chat daily with leading men from all sides of Roman politics. Here, he could sound out potential affiliates in homicide, to decide who could or could not be safely admitted to the conspiracy. It took only one man to murder another, but Brutus was convinced that for the murder of Caesar to have legitimacy as a patriotic act of removal of a tyrant, a great number of Rome’s leading men must jointly participate in the Dictator’s execution.
Brutus’s questions had to be carefully phrased. They could give no hint of what he and Cassius were plotting, in case the men he spoke to reported him to Caesar or in case someone else overheard the conversation and blew the whistle. Subtle philosophical questions posed while walking around a bathhouse promenade would be Brutus’s way of testing the proverbial waters with his colleagues.
One man whom Brutus felt sure would be a likely recruit to the plot was Marcus Favonius. A friend and admirer of Brutus’s late father-in-law, Cato the Younger, Favonius had been a republican praetor in 49 B.C. and had fought in Pompey’s army at Pharsalus. When that battle turned against the republican side, Favonius had been just one of four men to accompany his dazed commander in chief, Pompey, as he made his escape, first on horseback and then by commandeered cargo vessel. Favonius had acted more like Pompey’s personal servant on the flight across the eastern Mediterranean, and would have been present when Pompey was murdered by the Egyptians as he went to step ashore at Pelusium in Egypt. Surviving the republican defeats in North Africa and Spain, Favonius had been pardoned by Caesar. His devotion to both Cato and Pompey put him high on Brutus’s list of potential collaborators.
Brutus was joined this day by Favonius, Statilius the Epicurean, and Marcus Antistius Labeo. When Brutus asked Favonius which he felt was worse, a civil war or an illegal monarchy, Favonius earnestly replied, “In my judgment a civil war is worse than the most illegal monarchy.” This response prompted Brutus to back off; he decided not to make any further attempt to recruit Favonius.²
Another potential supporter also disappointed him. Talking with Statilius the Epicurean, Brutus asked whether it was wise for a man to put himself into troubles and danger on account of evil or foolish men. Statilius replied that such an act did not become a man who possessed any wisdom or discretion. But Labeo contradicted them both, declaiming against monarchy and stating his belief that it was worth a man putting himself in danger’s way if it meant overcoming evil or foolish men.
Brutus made no reply, merely nodding, as if taking on board the conflicting points of view and planning to decide which he favored at some future time. But when he and Labeo were alone, suspecting that Labeo had caught his drift, he risked disclosing the plot to him. To his relief, Labeo not only readily joined the conspiracy, he also undertook to recruit others of like mind.³
Other targets for recruitment were obvious. One such man was Pontius Aquila, a tribune of the plebs. Over the past several years, Caesar had conducted five Triumphs through the streets of Rome. In these theatrical victory parades of soldiers, spoils, and prisoners, Caesar had driven a golden chariot drawn by four horses and wearing the official garb of a triumphant, celebrating his victories in Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, Africa, and Spain. The man in the street had lapped up these Triumphs and the massive public banquets that followed them. But some of Rome’s leading citizens had not been so impressed, for Triumphs were intended to celebrate victories over foreign enemies, whereas in Africa and Spain Caesar had been victorious in Civil War battles, primarily over Roman citizens, including friends and relatives of Rome’s most prominent men.
Possibly that was why Pontius Aquila had remained seated on the benches of the tribunes of the plebs when Caesar drove by in his golden chariot in one of these Triumphs. Around Aquila, everyone else had respectfully come to their feet. Seeing this, Caesar had shouted, “Hey there, Aquila the tribune! Do you want me to restore the Republic?” Over the next few days, Caesar had sarcastically added to every undertaking he gave, “with the kind consent of Pontius Aquila.”⁴ Aquila, nursing his grievance with Caesar, humiliated by the Triumph affair, and affronted by Caesar’s dismissal of his fellow tribunes Marullus and Caesetius, was quick to join the murder plot.
Some, like Aquila, were to join the conspiracy for personal reasons. Others acted to restore the Republic, despite its past faults, to liberate the people from a despot. Caesar’s attitude to the Republic was widely known. Titus Ampius Balbus, a senator who had governed Asia and Cilicia before fighting on the republican side during the Civil War, was pardoned by Caesar and permitted to return from exile in 46 B.C., probably at the intercession of his friend Marcus Cicero. Ampius Balbus would later publish a book containing some of Caesar’s public utterances. According to Ampius, Caesar had stated, “The Republic was nothing, a mere name without form or substance.” On another instance, Caesar was supposed to have said that “Sulla was a dunce for resigning hisdictatorship.”⁵ True or not, sayings such as these attributed to Caesar quickly gave weight to claims by republicans that while Caesar lived, the Republic was dead.
It was not as if Caesar had turned into a despot overnight. His earlier career had been marked by one attempt after another to subvert the Republic and win personal power. Suetonius was to report that as early as 65 B.C., Caesar had first contemplated urging the Latin colonists of Cisalpine Gaul to rise in revolt against the Senate. He later teamed up with Marcus Crassus and two other leading men to make “an even more daring attempt at revolution in Rome itself.” According to Suetonius, these four conspirators had planned to attack the Senate House one New Year’s Day and kill numerous senators before proclaiming Crassus Dictator, Caesar his Master of Equestrians, and the other two consuls. That plot had fallen to pieces when Crassus lost his nerve. On another occasion, Caesar was rumored to have plotted to use force to seize power with an ex-consul, Gnaeus Piso, but that scheme had collapsed when Piso died.⁶
No one at Rome could have been surprised that Caesar had eventually made a bid for sole power in 49 B.C. Now his one-man rule gave many a Roman reason to despise him. But how many leading men were prepared to put their lives on the line by joining this conspiracy against Caesar hatched by Cassius and Brutus?