In the afternoon of 15 March 44 BC, the Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar entered the Senate meeting room where he met his doom. This is the story of how the most famous assassination in ancient history unfolded.
The Senate meeting room was situated in the Theatre of Pompey, which itself was located in the Campus Martius, one of the key centres of ancient Rome. Marc Antony, Caesar’s right-hand man, did not accompany Caesar into the meeting. At that time, Marc Antony held the office of consul: he was one of the most powerful men in Rome beneath Caesar, and had intended to attend the meeting. But outside the Theatre, his and Caesar’s paths would diverge.
It was there that Gaius Trebonius, an old ally of Marc Antony, pulled the consul aside to discuss some pressing matters. Trebonius was another longstanding ally of Caesar. He had served alongside Caesar, Marc Antony and Decimus Brutus since the Gallic Wars. But like Decimus, he too had grown disillusioned with Caesar, he too had joined the conspiracy against the dictator. It was his mission to separate Marc Antony from Caesar. And he succeeded.
Soon after, Caesar would enter the meeting room and be greeted by a bloody coup. Before long, he would be dead.
Interestingly, some of the conspirators, such as Cassius, had wanted to kill Marc Antony along with Caesar at the senate meeting. But Marcus Brutus, according to the likes of Appian and Cassius Dio, convinced them not to. Their sole aim was to kill Caesar, the dictator. To free Rome from a tyrant. To murder the man whose power and position were eroding the ideas of the Republic. Marc Antony was a problem for another day.
With Marc Antony preoccupied, Caesar entered the meeting room devoid of this loyal adjutant. Straight away, he headed for his gilded chair, the senators rising to greet Caesar as he walked through the room. In total, the senators present numbered in the few hundreds. Most were not expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen before the meeting commenced.
For those 30-80 senators involved in the conspiracy, however, the time had come. They had arrived early, they had watched as Caesar entered the room, their daggers hidden within the folds of their togas.
The moment of the assassination was nearly at hand.
A senator approached Caesar. His name was Tillius Cimber. Cimber had supported Caesar in the preceding civil war, but since then relations between the two had soured. Especially after Caesar had exiled Cimber’s brother.
As soon as Caesar had seated himself on his ornate chair, Cimber walked up to the dictator, hoping to speak to him before the meeting officially began. Cimber threw himself to his knees before Caesar. He asked Caesar for clemency, on behalf of his exiled brother. Let him return from exile.
For Caesar, this issue was not a priority; recalling Cimber’s exiled brother was not a pressing matter. He shrugged off Cimber’s plea, telling the senator that he would consider the issue.
Standing up, Cimber grabbed hold of Caesar’s toga, shocking the seated dictator and many of those surrounding them. There was Cimber, grabbing onto the revered Caesar. A man who had recently been declared sacrosanct, untouchable. It was a shocking, blasphemous move, but Cimber had his reason. He was one of the conspirators; his grabbing of Caesar’s toga, either to hold Caesar down in his chair or to expose the dictator’s neck, was the agreed upon signal for the assassination to begin.
The first assassin stepped forwards: Publius Casca. Like Cimber, Casca was another former supporter of Caesar who had since become disillusioned with the statesman. Casca had positioned himself directly behind Caesar and his gilded chair, centimetres from the seated tyrant. Now, with Cimber holding Caesar down, Casca took out his dagger from the folds of his toga, raised his weapon and aimed for Caesar’s neck. Presumably in a downward attack motion, if he was striking at a seated Caesar from right behind his target.
He missed. Rather than stab Caesar in the neck, Casca drove his dagger into Caesar’s shoulder. Casca cried out to his brother, another senator also in on the plot, to help. But Caesar would not sit idly by. Immediately he leapt up and reacted to Casca’s blow.
By this point, the meeting room had descended into pandemonium. Marcus Brutus was among the wounded, having been accidentally struck on the hand by Cassius as the latter tried to land a blow on Caesar. Those senators not involved in the plot watched on in panic and soon started to flee. Only two senators attempted to aid Caesar, but their efforts proved fruitless. Soon they too were forced to flee.
Dagger after dagger punctured Caesar’s body; his toga was smeared with his own, very mortal, blood. According to Nicolaus, the dying dictator ultimately fell to the ground before the statue of his old rival Pompey. Having received more than twenty stab wounds, there Caesar breathed his last.
That’s the end of the story in Nicolaus, but our later sources include another event during Caesar’s dying moments. An event that has become one of the most famous parts of the assassination story.
According to Suetonius, after receiving multiple stab wounds but before he breathed his last, Caesar caught sight of Marcus Brutus. Standing among the ranks of the conspirators. Suetonius claimed that once Caesar saw Marcus about to deliver his blow, he said the Greek words:
Kai su teknon
‘You too my child?’
That’s the later story anyhow, preserved in the likes of Suetonius’ Life of Caesar. But did Caesar really say ‘kai su teknon’? The legacy of these words are striking; this was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s immortalised line ‘Et tu, Brute?‘ more than a millennia later.
Today, those three Latin words, ‘Et tu Brute‘, have become one of the most famous sayings we associate with Julius Caesar. But it’s important to note here, that in none of our ancient sources does Caesar say these words before he died. For this, we have Shakespeare to thank.
Some now even debate the whole intended meaning of kai su teknon. Rather than ‘you too my child’, they posit that Caesar was actually cursing Brutus. Something along the lines of ‘I’ll see you in hell’. That is, if Caesar even said the words kai su teknon at all, which seems highly unlikely.
Just like Alexander the Great’s supposed, legendary last words ‘to the strongest’, it seems likely that Caesar’s iconic ‘you too my child’ final words are a later fabrication. A colourful addition to the assassination story, inserted in by sources writing much later with the benefit of hindsight. For the Alexander historians, this hindsight was knowing that the tumultuous, chaotic, ‘ancient Game of Thrones’, Wars of the Successors would follow Alexander’s death. Hence the prophetic ‘to the strongest’. For the Ides of March historians, it was the later emergence of a fictional rumour that Marcus Brutus was actually Caesar’s illegitimate son. Hence the ‘you too my son’.
Indeed, if Caesar had really said anything like ‘you too my child’, he certainly would not have said this to Marcus Brutus. More likely, he would have said this to Decimus Brutus. This was the man that Caesar had considered among his most trusted allies. This was the figure who had convinced Caesar to come to the meeting that day, despite all the troubling signs. Seeing Decimus among the ranks of his killers would have been a mental stab in the back for Caesar, alongside the many physical stab wounds he had already suffered.
What followed next, almost inevitably, was a state of complete confusion. Suddenly, with Caesar dead, new figures became bastions of power and authority in the capital. Marc Antony was one such figure. As was Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, Caesar’s master of horse. Like Marc Antony, Lepidus had also remained loyal to Caesar until the end.
It would be Marc Antony and Lepidus who would attempt to calm things down as the conspirators fled up to the Capitol and the people demanded blood. Marc Antony and Lepidus would even meet with leading conspirators such as Marcus Brutus and Cassius, ironing out issues over dinner in the days ahead.
Things, however, would not remain cordial for long. Soon Cassius, Marcus Brutus and Decimus Brutus would find themselves at war with the likes of Marc Antony and Lepidus, as well as another figure. A much younger man who was about to emerge onto the bloody, Roman political stage: Caesar’s nephew and adopted son Gaius Octavius. Octavian. ‘The Young Caesar’.
Contrary to the hopes of the conspirators, Julius Caesar’s death did not bring about an immediate return to the Roman Republic of old. Instead, it marked the start of more than a decade-long struggle that ultimately ended in the rise of Octavian, the later Augustus, and the birth of the Roman Empire (with a capital ‘E’). A return to civil war loomed.
As for Caesar’s body, for a time it remained where Caesar had fallen in the senate meeting room. Soaked in the tyrant’s blood. That was, however, until three of Caesar’s slaves arrived at the curia later that day on 15 March 44 BC. Having placed Caesar’s body on a litter, they then carried his corpse back to his house. Caesar’s funeral would occur three days later, on 18 March.