On March 15th 44 B.C., Julius Caesar entered the Senate of Rome and was brutally murdered by twenty-three dagger strikes. His death is commonly understood to be the end of the Roman Republic and to have inaugurated the age of great Roman emperors.
Historians of the time, such as Cicero, were not particularly sympathetic towards him and remember the historical figure of Caesar as being quite authoritative to the extent that Marcus Aurelius vouched for himself to “never become another Caesar.”
Caesar as a Politician
Caesar’s great military accomplishments had garnered him great respect in Rome, and the Senate’s politics had become the battleground for internal factions as would future colonies. This was supported by ancient Roman aristocracy.
Based on unresolved tensions between factions, when Caesar advanced past the Rubicon River in 49 B.C., this introduced a new crisis in the ongoing Roman civil war. Caesar’s victory upon Pompeus in Tapsus, Tunisia in February 46 B.C garnered him the title of dictator for ten years. His victory in Munda, Spain the following year put an end to the civil war and consolidated Caesar’s following.
In theory, his opposition defended the Republican ideal. In practice, a handful of families held judiciary power and would divide political roles in the provinces and Rome amongst themselves. Consuls, who wielded the real political power in Rome, held their role for a year and would rotate. The title of dictator was reserved for political emergencies in which the Republic was under attack. In practice, Caesar would be the only figure in Roman history to hold the title.
Julius Caesar claimed his family, the gens Iuliaa, descended from the first kings and Jupiter. This was quite common practice for contemporary Roman aristocracy, but it wasn’t a random choice for Cleopatra to seduce him in particular in order to gain favor in Rome. Much like the emperors that succeeded him, Caesar had begun shaping the urban landscape of Rome, building the Forum of Caesar. In many ways, the civil war was fought militarily with conquests and culturally in the same way emperors would always strive for popular support even during the empire.
But is it true that Caesar was killed because he desired to be king of Rome? Caesar was a controversial figure in Rome during his time, but three episodes in the months leading up to his death sealed his fate.
The Statue of Caesar is Crowned
In January 44 B.C. just three months prior to the death of Caesar, the statue of the dictator in the public square in Rome was mysteriously crowned. Ancient Greek historian Nicolaus of Damascus, who lived during Augustus’ time, described the scene:
On the head of Julius Caesar’s statue at the rosters a diadem appeared. Diadems, a string of wool or silk, had been Alexander the Great[‘s]…symbol for regal power. Romans considered it a symbol of servitude and suspected him. Two tribunes of the plebs appeared, Lucius Cesecius Flavus and Gaius Epidius Marullus, and ordered one of their servants to remove it. As soon as Caesar came to know of this, he called for a meeting at the Senate in the Temple of Concordia (the Roman goddess of unity, a symbolic choice) and accused the tribunes, claiming they had put the diadem in secret to vilify and [dishonor] him, in disregard of the Senate and of him. The event showed a larger plan, since they could accuse him of being power-hungry and to disregard the law, and thus instigate a revolt to kill him. Having said this, Caesar tried to find a common ground with the Senate and exiled them.
The rosters were a spot for popular gathering and for politics in the public arena, and the effect on the population was strong. According to Svetonius, it was Caesar himself who had crowned his own statue and was dismayed the gesture had been received so poorly by the plebeians. Alternatively, he could have been upset because he had been deprived of the glory of refusing it. Since then, Svetonius mentions, “he has never been able to shake the suspicion that he was aspiring to the title of king.
“I’m not king, I’m Caesar”
On January 26th of the year 44 B.C., the people acclaimed Julius Caesar as “Rex,” or king. He was returning to Rome from the neighboring countryside during Feriae Latinae. However, Rex was also a name and thus Caesar humorously replied: “I am Caesar, not Rex.” According to Cassius Dio, another Greek historian, it was on that occasion that Caesar dealt with the tribunes. However, Cassius Dio lived much later than Nicolaus of Damascus.
For the purpose of our tale, the episodes occurred quite close together. Caesar showed a lot of political wit in his dealings during the turbulent times of Rome. However, it was not enough to save him. Since that time, Caesar has become synonymous with ‘king,’ as have all the translations into other languages (tzar, Kaiser).
It is possible that these two events had been planned by Caesar to try and gauge popular sentiment in terms of taking on the role of king, but neither had gone well. In the first case, the tribunes’ rapid action led to popular sentiment not even being expressed. In the second case, the aftermath of the first event had led to Caesar having his hands tied. Due to the tense political climate, it is entirely possible that his opponents had been spreading rumors about him.
Caesar Is Offered the Crown
On February 15th of 44 B.C., during the celebration of one of the most important Roman holidays, Lupercalia, Caesar refused the crown. Lupercalia was one of the more solemn and darker of the Roman holidays, with sacrifices being carried out in secret by elected patrician Vestal Virgins. Public celebrations included priests wearing loincloths and waving goatskins in the air as well as hitting women who got close to them to ensure easy conception or childbirth.
During celebrations, people laughed and cheered as the dictator sat in a place of honor. One of the priests made his way through the crowd, and the Lupercus neared the place of honor where Caesar was sitting and held a diadem, intertwined with a crown of laurel. This signified both Eastern regality and Latin accomplishment. Numerous people clapped, though unconvincingly and despite the fact that this was actually not a part of the celebrations. The Lupercus was Mark Anthony, consul and one of the highest positions of power in the Roman state.
Anthony was asking Caesar to put an end to the Republic then and there, and, after some hesitation, Caesar declined. Instead, the republic put an end to him.
Led by Brutus and Cassius, senators stabbed Caesar to death at the Theatre of Pompey during a Senate meeting on the Ides of March of 44 B.C. The unstable and undemocratic institution of the triumvirate, as instituted by Caesar and his future enemy Pompey along with Crassus, eventually paved the way for Augustus to be crowned emperor. The rest remains history.