"Beware the Ides of March" - The Assassination of Julius Caesar

15 March 44 BCE, on the Ides of March, Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Theatre of Pompey by a large group of conspirators, fearing that Caesar wanted to establish a monarchy.

“How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport, / That now on Pompey’s basis lies along / No worthier than the dust!“ (William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”)

The French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme’s imagination of “The Death of Caesar” (between 1859 and 1867, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)*

The subtle difference of words’ meanings and what they signify play a crucial part in politics and propaganda, probably since the first human herds capable of speech chose their leaders. The word “rex”, king, usually quite archetypical for depicting such a leader, was tainted with a lot of unfortunate connotations since the days of yore, when the Romans drummed out their last monarch to name and shame. Nevertheless, as a dictator perpetuo ("dictator in perpetuity"), Julius Caesar had the powers of a king, in anything but the portentous name. At least within the reference frame of the res publica, the republic, it is highly disputable if Caesar had even a concept beyond that frame. His power was personal and not institutional. However, he planned a considerable campaign to subdue the Parthians, a major threat on the borders of Rome’s recently acquired eastern possessions and client states. Since it had been prophesied that Parthia could only be conquered by a king, it was not far off the mark to assume that he would cast the last republican ressentiment to the wind when hoi polloi shouted “Io triumphe!“ to the conquering hero coming back to Rome. 

"You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown"

Caesar might have refused the kingly crown offered by Marc Antony during the Lupercalia thrice, but the liberatores already planned his demise and four weeks later, while everybody around him had premonitions, supernatural and quite mundane conspiratorial ones, about the impending doom, beware, on the Ides of March, Caesar entered the Theatre of Pompey to attend a session of the senate, Marc Antony was distracted and the senator Lucius Tillius Cimber addressed the dictator on the steps of the edifice about a pardon for his exiled brother and while Caesar’s attention wavered, Senator Casca stabbed him with his dagger, the signal for the other conspirators, between 40 and 60 men, to make a dead set at Caesar. The famous last words to his foster-son, uttered in Greek, “καὶ σύ, τέκνον” – “You too, my son?", changed in Shakespeare’s days to "Et tu, Brute?" were probably fictional, even Suetonius agreed, that it was quite improbable that a victim of 23 stab wounds was still able to utter words fit for the stage.

Karl Theodor von Piloty (1826 - 1886): " Murder of Caesar" (1865)

What followed was the epic funeral of Caesar, the two famous speeches by Marc Antony and Brutus, and the dogs of war were let slipped and raged for the next 15 years until the dead dictator’s grandnephew Octavian closed the Gates of Janus on the Forum in 29 BCE, signalling that the wars were over, as well as the dead throes of the Republic, and set himself up as Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.

* “Characteristically, Gérôme has depicted not the incident itself, but its immediate aftermath. The illusion of reality that Gérôme imparted to his paintings with his smooth, polished technique led one critic to comment, "If photography had existed in Caesar's day, one could believe that the picture was painted from a photograph taken on the spot at the very moment of the catastrophe." (wikipedia)

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