The date that Julius Caesar, the most famous Roman of them all, was killed at or on his way to the Senate is one of the most famous in world history. The events of the Ides of March – 15 March in the modern calendar – in 44 BC had enormous consequences for Rome, triggering a series of civil wars that saw Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian secure his place as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.
But what actually happened on this famous date? The answer must be that we will never know in any great detail or with any great certainty.
There is no eye-witness account of Caesar’s death. Nicolaus of Damascus wrote the earliest surviving account, probably around 14 AD. While some people believe he may have spoken to witnesses, nobody knows for sure, and his book was written for Augustus so may be biased. Suetonius’ telling of the tale is also believed to be fairly accurate, possibly using eye-witness testimony, but was written around 121 AD.
The conspiracy against Caesar
Even the briefest study of Roman politics will open a can of worms rich in plotting and conspiracies. Rome’s institutions were relatively stable for their time, but military strength and popular support (as Caesar himself showed), could rewrite the rules very quickly. Power was always up for grabs.
Caesar’s extraordinary personal power was bound to excite opposition. Rome was then a republic and doing away with the arbitrary and often-abused power of kings was one of its founding principles.
In 44 BC Caesar had been appointed dictator (a post previously awarded only temporarily and in times of great crisis) with no time limit on the term. The people of Rome certainly saw him as a king, and he may have already have been regarded as a god.
More than 60 high-ranking Romans, including Marcus Junius Brutus, who may have been Caesar’s illegitimate son, decided to do away with Caesar. They called themselves the Liberators, and their ambition was to restore the power of the Senate.
The Ides of March
This is what Nicolaus of Damascus records:
The conspirators considered a number of plans for killing Caesar, but settled on an attack in the Senate, where their togas would provide cover for their blades.
Rumours of a plot were going around and some of Caesar’s friends tried to stop him going to the Senate. His doctors were concerned by dizzy spells he was suffering and his wife, Calpurnia, had had worrying dreams. Brutus stepped in to reassure Caesar that he would be fine.
He is said to have made some sort of religious sacrifice, revealing bad omens, despite several attempts to find something more encouraging. Again many friends warned him to go home, and again Brutus reassured him.
In the Senate, one of the plotters, Tilius Cimber, approached Caesar under the pretext of pleading for his exiled brother. He grabbed Caesar’s toga, preventing him from standing and apparently signalling the attack.
Nicolaus recounts a messy scene with men injuring each other as they scramble to kill Caesar. Once Caesar was down, more conspirators rushed in, perhaps keen to make their mark on history, and he was reportedly stabbed 35 times.
Caesar’s famous last words, “Et tu, Brute?” are almost certainly an invention, given longevity by William Shakespeare’s dramatised version of events.
The aftermath: republican ambitions backfire, war ensues
Expecting a hero’s reception, the assassins ran out into the streets announcing to the people of Rome that they were free again.
But Caesar had been enormously popular, particularly with ordinary people who had seen Rome’s military triumphant while they had been well treated and entertained by Caesar’s lavish public entertainments. Caesar’s supporters were ready to use this people power to support their own ambitions.
The Senate voted an amnesty for the assassins, but Caesar’s chosen heir, Octavian, was quick to return to Rome from Greece to explore his options, recruiting Caesar’s soldiers to his cause as he went. Caesar’s supporter, Mark Antony, also opposed the Liberators, but may have had ambitions of his own. He and Octavian entered into a shaky alliance as the first fighting of a civil war began in northern Italy.
On 27 November 43 BC, the Senate named Antony and Octavian as two heads of a Triumvirate, together with Caesar’s friend and ally Lepidus, tasked with taking on Brutus and Cassius, two of the Liberators. They set about murdering many of their opponents in Rome for good measure.
The Liberators were defeated in two battles in Greece, allowing the Triumvirate to rule for an uneasy 10 years.
Mark Antony then made his move, marrying Cleopatra, Caesar’s lover and queen of Egypt, and planning to use Egypt’s wealth to fund his own ambitions. Both of them committed suicide in 30 BC after Octavian’s decisive victory at the naval Battle of Actium.
By 27 BC Octavian could rename himself Caesar Augustus. He would go on to be remembered as the first Emperor of Rome.