It was 15 March 44 BC. Gaius Julius Caesar, 55 years old, had risen to become the most powerful man in Rome. He was a master of battle, of bribery and of benefaction. He had recently emerged the victor of a brutal civil war. He had reformed the calendar, making it more fixed and regulated. And he had received an unprecedented number of honours from the Roman people.
15 March – the Ides of March – was set to be a big day for Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome. He had called a senate meeting for that day: he planned to gather together the most esteemed men in Rome for one final assembly before he left the city and embarked upon his next great military campaign against the Parthian Empire.
But during the meeting, a group of senators oversaw Caesar’s death, stabbing him 23 times. Amongst the conspirators was Decimus Brutus, whom Caesar had considered a trusted friend and ally, and who ultimately led Caesar into the bloody coup.
Here’s the story of how, and why, Decimus Brutus helped bring about the death of Julius Caesar.
Caesar’s grand plan
At the time of the assassination, Caesar was planning a vast military campaign. Backed by his legionaries, Caesar’s first objective was to subdue the Dacians in present-day Romania. His armies would then march further east, across the Hellespont into Asia, following in the footsteps of Caesar’s hero Alexander the Great.
Caesar’s ultimate goal was a campaign of vengeance against the Parthian Empire, east of the Euphrates River. He aimed to avenge the disastrous defeat that his former rival/colleague Marcus Licinius Crassus had suffered against the Parthians just over a decade earlier, at the catastrophic Battle of Carrhae: a crushing defeat, where the Parthians had destroyed seven legions in a day and had seized several precious Roman standards.
Caesar’s planned Parthian expedition was set to be a massive military venture. Finally, here was Caesar’s chance to march east, to the wealth-laden lands of Babylonia and Susiana. Here was his chance to follow in the footsteps of his great hero Alexander. For 3 years, if not for longer, Caesar expected to be away, fighting in the east. Hundreds of miles away from Rome and the Central Mediterranean.
As the sun rose on 15 March 44 BC, the beginning of Caesar’s greatest military venture to that point in his career was only days away. But first, Caesar had to attend this senate meeting.
The omens begin
On the morning of 15 March, Caesar was at home. And it’s here that we have the first of many ‘bad omens’ that have come to dominate the Ides of March story.
According to the later Greek writer Plutarch, one of Caesar’s first actions of the day was to offer a series of animal sacrifices. The previous night Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, had a nightmare. She had dreamt that something terrible would befall Caesar that day if he ventured to the senate meeting. One version has Calpurnia envisaging their house collapsing. Another has her holding Caesar’s murdered body in her hands. She begged Caesar to postpone the meeting.
Concerned by Calpurnia’s distress, Caesar arranged for his seers to conduct the necessary sacrifices, hoping for a favourable sign from the Gods for the upcoming meeting. But the sacrifices failed to reassure him. In fact, they did quite the opposite. Sacrifice after sacrifice returned unfavourable omens.
But it wasn’t just these sacrifices that seemingly portended ill-fortune for Caesar on the Ides of March. Over the preceding days, our sources include a whole host of other foreboding, fantastical omens predicting Caesar’s demise. One story has a small bird, called a king-bird, enter the Theatre of Pompey carrying a laurel wreath in its mouth. Only for the king-bird to be subsequently attacked, and killed, by a large group of pursuing birds.
The Romans loved to have terrible omens precede infamous moments in their history; the fantastical bad omens that supposedly targeted Caesar, in the run-up to 15 March 44 BC, are great examples of this.
Whatever the truth among all of these troubling signs, Caesar ultimately decided that he would not attend the senate meeting that day (he was also slightly unwell). He would stay at home on the 15 March.
But that wasn’t the end of the matter
Enter Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, better known as Decimus Brutus. Decimus was one of Julius Caesar’s closest allies. A leading military subordinate and a personal friend of the dictator. For years, Decimus has proven his loyalty to Caesar, having served with Caesar throughout both the Gallic and Civil Wars.
Politically too, Decimus’ career looked set to thrive under Caesar’s authority. Already Caesar had selected Decimus to receive the consulship in 42 BC. The consulship was one of the highest positions in the Roman Republic at that time, below Caesar himself. Caesar rated Decimus very highly. He had even named Decimus in his will.
Decimus reaped the rewards that friendship with Caesar offered. He visited Caesar often and had even dined with him the previous night. Over dinner, the two had discussed what kind of death was best. Caesar had said that he favoured a sudden death…
It was after Caesar had decided to stay at home on 15 March that Decimus intervened. Approaching Caesar, Decimus hoped to change the man’s mind. He hoped to persuade Caesar to think again and to still attend this vital meeting. He told Caesar not to be daunted by these bad omens and to ignore the pleas of Calpurnia.
In no uncertain terms, Decimus basically told Caesar to pull himself together. After all, it was Caesar who had called the senate meeting. Hundreds of the most esteemed men in the empire were awaiting his arrival. He should not insult them by now deciding not to attend. Besides, in only a few days Caesar was set to leave Rome for the foreseeable future, as he set forth on his great eastern venture. He must attend the meeting, Decimus stressed.
Decimus’ persuasions worked. Calpurnia’s pleas were ignored. Decimus, a man that Caesar considered amongst his closest allies, had convinced Caesar to ignore the warnings and to attend the meeting. For Caesar, this trust in Decimus was a fatal mistake.
En route to the meeting
Five hours into the day, Caesar was en route to the senate meeting. But still, the warnings kept coming. As Caesar was making his way along the streets towards the awaiting senators, several of our sources include foreboding tales. They state how various people tried to warn Caesar of the plot against him. Suetonius, for instance, stated that someone handed Caesar a note with information about the plot. But Caesar merely added it to the bundle of petitions he already held in his left hand, planning to read it later.
And then there was Spurinna, the soothsayer made famous by Shakespeare. Days before the Ides of March, Spurinna had warned Caesar to “be on his guard against great peril on the Ides of March.”
This warning, as you might have guessed, was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s famous line, ‘beware the Ides of March’. As he was making his way towards the senate meeting, Cassius Dio has Caesar spot Spurinna. Caesar jokily said to Spurinna how the Ides had come and that he hadn’t suffered any harm. Spurinna replied how, yes, the Ides had come. But they had not yet gone.
Caesar pressed on, undeterred by these ‘en-route warnings’. Soon he and his entourage arrived outside the agreed senate meeting location. The old senate house had recently burned down, and construction of a new senate house was currently underway. In the meantime, the Senate was using the curia (meeting hall) of the Theatre of Pompey for its meetings.
Caesar arrived outside the theatre. According to Appian, as soon as Caesar stepped down from his litter a certain senator approached him. The senator’s name was Popilius Laena. Just before approaching Caesar, Laena had called out Marcus and Cassius to their faces, revealing that he knew of their plot. Laena himself was not one of the conspirators. It is fascinating therefore to imagine the horror, the sheer terror, that supposedly gripped the conspirators as they watched from a distance as Laena conversed with Caesar, worried that Laena would reveal all. Fortunately for them, he didn’t.
Fact or fiction, this tale is another good example of all these stories that have come to surround Caesar’s ill-fated trip to the Theatre of Pompey on the Ides of March. And more would follow.
Before entering the meeting room, Caesar oversaw another sacrifice with the priests. He hoped for a more auspicious sign. Once again, however, he was to be disappointed. Again and again, our earliest source Nicolaus of Damascus claimed, the indications from the gods were unfavourable. Ultimately, Caesar had enough. Once again, he pondered postponing the meeting. But once more, Decimus intervened.
Just as he had earlier in the day, Decimus convinced Caesar to ignore these foreboding signs. He played on Caesar’s ego, the dictator’s pride, basically telling Caesar that he was so great that his good fortune would trump any bad omens. Besides, several hundred senators had gathered: they were only metres away and were expecting to see Caesar.
If Caesar was concerned for his safety, then Decimus may also have reassured him by pointing out that he had his own private ‘security force’ nearby. This force was a group of gladiators, owned by Decimus, which he had stationed at the theatre earlier that morning. Caesar, once again, was persuaded. He entered the meeting room, his disloyal friend Decimus close by.
We might overlook Decimus Brutus today, thanks to the minor role he plays in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But make no mistake, his deception – his role in the conspiracy – was the keystone of the whole plot.