Chronicle of a Death Foretold
By Nick OwcharApril 5, 2015
The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination by Barry Strauss
STABBING A MAN to death isn’t easy.
The men who attacked Julius Caesar had a tough time of it. You only have to look at the body to see that.
The mighty leader-declared-dictator of Rome “in perpetuity” in early 44 BC received no fewer than 23 stab wounds on the Ides of March later that same year. But only one of them was fatal.
“Very few soldiers, even good ones, have what it takes to stab a man to death,” Barry Strauss tells us in The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination. “It takes sheer physical strength and a certain brutality to drive a dagger through a man’s flesh.”
It probably didn’t help that the killers were amateurs or that several dagger strokes probably hit bone — or that Caesar’s thick woolen toga got in the way.
Strauss blends small forensic details like these — the kind found in any good true-crime story — with dominant political themes to give us a fresh, accessible account of the archetypal assassination, 2,059 years ago last month, that shook the Roman world.
That’s not easy to do. The story of Caesar’s death has been bent and refracted by many historical mirrors (Livy, Plutarch, Suetonius, etc.), each placing emphasis on different information and raising plenty of questions. For instance, did the conspirators use swords or daggers? How did Caesar react — did he curse the assassins when they struck or did he just groan under their blows? Was he really warned by a soothsayer to beware the Ides?
Much of Strauss’s narrative, then, tries to find the through line between these accounts to give us his version, a composite, and to tell us why the conspiracy, which should have saved the Roman Republic, was already falling apart before Caesar’s blood was dry on the floor of Pompey’s Senate House.
“The Ides of March changed the world,” writes Strauss, a history professor at Cornell and the author of several popular military histories about Troy, Spartacus, and Salamis, “but not as the men who held the daggers that day planned.”
The lead conspirators — Brutus, Cassius, Decimus — never dreamed that eliminating a dictator would pave the way for another one. Nor did they think they’d ever be regarded as anything but heroes (or, for that matter, that a future poet of their homeland would have a giant demon chew on them like cud for all eternity).
But why would they? Caesar wasn’t the first Roman ever carried away by his power — the Republic had already suffered through the likes of Sulla, Marius, Clodius, and several others. “The senators had known victorious generals breathing fire before, demanding primacy or dictatorship and, sometimes, cutting off a few heads,” Strauss tells us.
Unlike the rest, though, Caesar refused to step down, and his abuse of power was so blatant that the conspirators felt a deep reassurance — whether it came from Cicero, awesome defender of the Republic, or from the anonymous graffiti around Rome — that justice was on their side.
Even so, Strauss shows us how they were scrupulous in their planning of the execution but helplessly outmaneuvered afterward — by the public’s response, by the alphas around them, especially handsome, eloquent Mark Antony. They hesitated when they should have showed more decisiveness and force.
“What they needed to secure their status,” Strauss explains, “was a military coup. Instead, they committed murder and made speeches. Revolution, as Mao said, is not a dinner party.”
It’s ironic to want more dictatorial-style action from the men removing a dictator — a dose of the more brutal realpolitik we see (too often) now in other parts of the world, whether it’s ISIS or the killers of anti-Putin politician Boris Nemtsov. But, in light of what happened to them, it’s easy to understand why Strauss suggests that — and why the conspirators hesitated.
Rome swelled with angry veterans in the wake of the assassination. They didn’t care about Caesar’s misuse of power — it didn’t matter that he’d hollowed out the authority of elected offices or seemed to be planning a dynasty (first with Cleopatra; then with his adopted son, Octavian). He’d built his power base on them and the urban plebs. He gave them things — grain, land, jobs. They loved him for it.
When Caesar thumbed his nose at the optimates — the “best men” — and “promoted men who horrified the snobs of the Senate,” they loved him even more. Then there was Lepidus, one of Caesar’s generals (and the third leg of the triumvirate eventually formed with Antony and Octavian), and his troops encamped on the Tiber Island. They were close by — uncomfortably so.
The conspirators had their hands pretty full.
Strauss underscores their dilemma with an urgency that makes each page crackle with suspense even though we have the benefit of hindsight on this story.
For this reviewer, that makes the verdict of some early reviews of this book a little surprising, especially those faulting Strauss for not quite capturing the character of Brutus — that he remains too slippery and cipher-like, they say, in the author’s hands.
The great strength of this book isn’t its characterization of Brutus but what the title advertises — the story of the planning and logistics of the assassination and the event itself. In these sections of his book, Strauss paints a fascinating, tragic picture of hopeless idealists — hopeless because they thought symbolism and staging, along with negotiation, would somehow be enough to smooth the way back from dictatorship.
Usually, but not always, modern political assassinations share a few tropes in common: invisible conspirators, hired killers, destruction waged from a safe distance — like a book depository window, for instance.
But Caesar’s was different. It had none of these elements. It was an intentionally public act. The conspirators (perhaps 60 or more) staged the murder as carefully as a theatrical production — which, Strauss says, it was supposed to be.
“It was one thing to ambush him with hired thugs on the Appian Way,” he explains, “[…] It was another thing to kill Caesar by themselves in a public place in the heart of Rome. The very act could inform and change public opinion.”
Location was crucial. Brutus and his companions believed that committing the act during a gathering in the Senate House of Pompey, or in one of the Senate’s other meeting places, would resonate powerfully with the public.
Strauss cites Appian’s explanation of the plotters’ reasons: “Precisely because it took place in the Senate, it would appear to have been done not as a plot but on behalf of the country […].”
For many the venue would also recall the death of Romulus, another tyrant assassinated by senators, and the example of Pompey — to some, it might even look like the gods had ordained this death as an act of revenge on behalf of Caesar’s old enemy.
But, as Strauss points out, the venue was chosen for pragmatic reasons, too.
Though an official bodyguard no longer accompanied Caesar around the city, he wasn’t an easy target. Hardly. “Not having a bodyguard did not mean lacking protection completely,” Strauss says. Instead, Caesar’s entourage included plenty of intimidating types — ex-soldiers, gladiators, and axe-wielding lictors. Launching an attack in a public square or hall, especially by unpracticed killers, was almost guaranteed to fail.
During Senate meetings, though, no one else was allowed inside except for the senators and Caesar himself. “The dictator,” Strauss explains, “would not have a throng of ‘friends’ to protect him there.”
When Caesar entered the room that day, on the Ides of March, he wore a special toga “dyed a reddish purple and embroidered with gold.” That choice of toga is probably the reason why the conspirators could later emerge from the room with mostly clean hands — its thickness, Strauss points out, would have soaked up most of the blood.
An assassination using such a large ensemble requires a bit of choreography — after all, how does a group of 60 men casually come forward and surround Caesar without raising any alarms?
Strauss slows down the assassination, tracing its stages for us from the minute Caesar entered the room. The conspirators watched him and waited until he took his seat in his golden chair on the tribunal. Then they stepped forward to seemingly pay him their respects. It wasn’t an unusual gesture.
Some were already stationed behind the platform before Caesar entered the room and sat down. It was a cunning decision. This not only made the approaching group a little smaller, a little less intimidating, but it also put several assassins behind him. Meanwhile, Mark Antony was purposely kept in a long conversation outside the room to prevent him from intervening.
The conspirators quickly established a perimeter around Caesar. Some, Strauss thinks, probably stood back in the outer ranks of this circle to form a buffer against anyone who tried to come to Caesar’s aid.
Tillius Cimber, someone whom Caesar regarded favorably and had no reason to distrust, was the first to touch him. He respectfully clasped his hands. He kissed the ruler’s head and breast … and then grabbed at his toga and held it down so that Caesar couldn’t stand.
That sudden shift, from praise to aggression, wasn’t lost on the dictator. He cried out, in Suetonius’s account, “Why, this is violence!” Daggers appeared, and the attack began.
Caesar struggled and fought back, and it took longer to kill him than a few strokes (as mentioned earlier). Strauss describes a flurry of moving limbs and apocryphal utterances (did he say to Brutus “Et tu, Brute?” or “Kai su, teknon?”), all of them true, none of them true … Caesar covered his face with his hands, or maybe he threw his toga over his head (or his legs). In his last moments he might have felt sorrow, horror, or maybe betrayal. (Brutus’s mother, Servilia, had been his lover, and Brutus was rumored to be his bastard).
The senators who weren’t involved in the plot watched in shock. Only two rushed up to help Caesar but were driven back.
In the aftermath, the conspirators were cautiously triumphant. Jean-Léon Gérôme’s famous painting shows them waving their swords over their heads while Caesar’s body cools in the foreground. They’d done it: they’d stopped another tyrant with a killing full of mythic resonance. They marched out of Pompey’s Senate House in triumph, guarded by their own gladiators, eager to share the news with the populace and to place Caesar’s legions under the control of the Republic.
But then, as now, mythic nuances and meanings are easily lost on the general rabble. The plebs, veterans, and legions didn’t see the murder as an act of restoration — they saw it as a power grab by a small group of aristocrats. In the hours and days after the death, Rome quickly turned into a powder keg, and the spark igniting it was Caesar’s funeral.
In death, many sins are forgiven; Strauss’s description of the funeral procession is deliciously rich in the pageantry and heroic details typical of a Ridley Scott movie. No one celebrated death quite like the Romans.
Actors wearing expensive beeswax masks of Caesar’s face gave the “eerie impression of a dead man come back to life.” The crowds along the route were massive, and the procession itself was enormous and majestic:
Torchbearers and freedmen — those just freed by Caesar’s will — probably walked before the corpse. Public officials, present and past, carried the body on an ivory couch covered with purple and gold. Normally the corpse was visible but this time it was covered and a wax image represented the dead man.
That hardly sounds like the treatment given to a dishonored tyrant. Mark Antony delivered the eulogy (Shakespeare’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen …” speech) and won much applause; then an actor impersonating Caesar stirred the people to “a near-riot pitch” after condemning the assassins for turning on the protector and guardian of Rome.
All in all, you could say it was a very bad day to be a conspirator.
The “theater” of the assassination had been matched — and easily trumped — by the theater of Caesar’s funeral. The crowds quickly turned against the conspirators. All those hoped-for mythic resonances and reminders of the Roman past went up in smoke, along with Caesar’s body, on a pyre built by the mob in the Forum.
Brutus and Cassius fled Rome to gather armies in the East — both would commit suicide during the Battle of Philippi — and Antony and Lepidus found themselves joined in a new alliance with Octavian, who proved himself remarkably cunning and sophisticated for a teenager. And wildly rich, too — as Caesar’s sole heir, he shrewdly used his resources to court allies and supporters on the way to becoming Caesar 2.0.
The later pages of Strauss’s book feel a little rushed: too many major events summed up so quickly — from the battles of Philippi to Actium, and Octavian’s rise as Caesar Augustus — but that may be because his attention, even at the end, remains focused on the conspiracy. He chronicles what happened to some of the last survivors and other curious linkages with the assassins as much as the historical record will allow.
The Death of Caesar serves us both as an entertaining, vital act of preservation for those details and figures glossed over by other historians and as a reminder of a plot so daring it would be unthinkable today. (Could you ever imagine a group of congressmen doing the same thing during the president’s visit to the House?) The conspirators gambled so much on orchestrating a public execution — gambled, and lost.
Or did they? Near the end, Strauss tells us that Caesar Augustus’s reign was actually chastened by the memory of the assassination. He “showed a certain fear and a healthy respect for the Roman nobility,” Strauss says, because of what happened to his father.
Maybe the gods had ordained the outcome after all, even if it wasn’t the one that the conspirators had planned.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Fukuyama focuses on political decay by analyzing the slow rot of American institutions.
Who killed Kennedy? His evil father!
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!