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The Assassination Of Julius Caesar: History And Stories You Might Not Know About

Ancient History | March 15, 2020

The death of Caesar. (Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)

Beware the Ides of March! If you're like most of us, you were introduced to this phrase, as well as the assassination of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, in sophomore English class. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar gave you the CliffsNotes version of events, but there's a lot more to the story of the death of one of Rome's most notorious emperors. Let's look at some stories about the assassination of Julius Caesar that you might not know about.

Julius Caesar was an emperor, turned dictator who wanted to be king. (britannica.com)

The Motive For The Assassination

Ancient Rome was the world's first republic, so the idea of government by representation was a whole new thing, in Rome or anywhere. Since it didn't allow him to do whatever he wanted, Emperor Julius Caesar wasn't a fan. Pretty much immediately, he tried to break the whole system of checks and balances that ensured an equal distribution of powers through the time-honored strategies of bullying and bribery. He wasn't unsuccessful: He got the Senate to name him Dictator, and when that didn't quite satisfy him, the Senate declared him Dictator For Life. It was a pretty sweet deal for Caesar but just about no one else.

Brutus, once a friend of Caesar, conspired to murder him. (shakespearestaging.berkeley.edu)

The Plot

No one besides Caesar was happy about his power grab, but most of the senators felt powerless to stop him (see: bribery and bullying). As a result, Brutus (of "Et tu, Brute?" fame) concluded it was up to him to take Caesar out. After feeling out his fellow senators, he invited those who were deemed trustworthy and sufficiently hated Caesar to get in on his plan. The group, who called themselves the Liberatores, began meeting secretly to discuss their options.

The ancient Roman Senate. (pinterest.com)

The Many Plans To Murder Caesar

The Liberatores considered several different plans to murder Julius Caesar. One plan was to ambush Caesar as he strolled along the Sacred Way, one of his favorite places to walk. Another involved pushing Caesar from a bridge he would have to cross during an upcoming election, while yet another took advantage of the ostentatious weaponry of a gladiator event. All of these plans were shelved in favor of a simpler one: to kill him at the Senate, where he would be alone with the senators. 

Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, had premonitions of his assassination. (proprofs.com)

Unheeded Warnings

In Shakespeare's play, a soothsayer warned Caesar of trouble on the Ides of March, or March 15. The Bard was likely putting his poetic license to use in this scene, but Caesar was urged by several friends and even his own doctor to stay away from the Senate on March 15. Most interestingly, Caesar's wife was plagued by nightmares about her husband meeting a bloody end. When Caesar mentioned these omens to his close buddy, Brutus, the clever turncoat made fun of him for being foolish enough to listen to the ramblings of a woman and the idle gossip of stupid men. Caesar didn't want to look like a coward, so he went to the Senate. 

Caesar was killed on March 15, 44 BC. (smithsonianmag.com)

The Assassination

On March 15, 44 BC, Caesar walked into the Roman Senate and took his place for the last time. The Liberatores, hiding daggers in their togas, sprang into action. They were led by Servilius Casca, who landed the first surprise blow to Caesar's shoulder before turning to his fellow senators and shouting "Help, brothers!" As Caesar was overtaken by sixty stabby senators, he implored "Why this violence?"

Only one of his stab wounds was a fatal blow. (romeprivateguides.com)

Mostly Flesh Wounds

Ironically, in their haste to rush their hated dictator, not every senator got their turn with the dagger. An autopsy later revealed that Caesar was only stabbed 23 times, and only one of the wounds—a stab to the heart—was fatal. The other stab wounds were superficial, but they resulted in quite a lot of blood loss, so they weren't totally unhelpful.

Whoever ultimately killed Caesar, it wasn't Brutus. How do we know that? Because he chose to hit Caesar below the belt, stabbing him in his manhood. Here's hoping he aimed carefully: In the melee, several of the senators were also wounded.

In reality, Caesar probably didn't address Brutus as he was dying. (blogweekendinitaly.com)

"Et tu, Brute?"

In Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar’s last words are "Et tu, Brute?" (In English, "You, too, Brutus?") In reality, we don’t know what Caesar's final words were. In fact, several witnesses claimed that Caesar was silent during the whole ordeal. Others insisted that Caesar said "You, too, child?" but there's no evidence that it was directed at Brutus. 

Brutus and the senators marched through the streets of Rome, announcing Caesar's death. (history.com)

The Assassins Thought They Would Be Heroes

The Liberatores thought the people of Rome would rejoice at the news of Caesar’s death, but oh, boy, were they wrong. When Brutus led the senators through the streets of Rome, loudly proclaiming "People of Rome, we are free at last," he was surprised to find that they were not greeted as heroes. Among the lower social classes of Rome, Caesar was a popular leader, and these people weren't exactly pleased that a group of wealthy elitists had murdered their guy. Nearly all the conspirators were forced to flee Rome for their own safety. Mark Antony, who was a loyal supporter of Caesar and hoped to be named the next emperor, attempted to use this backlash to his advantage, but there was nothing for it. Caesar had stipulated that his adopted great-nephew, Octavian, would be his successor.

The appearance of a comet a few months after Caesar's death was viewed as an omen. (ngccoin.com)

A Sign From Above

Just a few months after Caesar's death, in July 44 BC, a bright comet was seen in the skies above Rome for seven days. This celestial event has become known as Caesar's Comet, and the people of Rome took it as a sign that the gods wanted their recently fallen leader to be deified. Caesar's Comet is probably the most famous comet of ancient times. 

Feral cats have taken over the site when Caesar was assassinated. (pri.org)

The Site Of Caesar's Death Has Gone To The Cats

The steps of the Roman Senate where Caesar died are now in ruins, but that doesn't mean the ancient structure is uninhabited. At any given time, about 130 feral cats make their home there. Volunteers care for the cats if they become ill and sterilize as many as they can, while gattare ("cat ladies") bring them food. Depending on how you feel about cats and/or Caesar, it's either a fitting or undignified tribute to the place where Caesar took his last breath. 

Tags: ancient myths | ancient rome | assassination attempt | death | dictator | julius caesar

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.