The Assassination of Julius Caesar
According to Roman historians, the chief reason for the assassination of Juluis Caesar was a series of conflicts between Caesar and the Roman Senate. The conflicts arose not only our of Caesar’s destruction by military force of the Roman Republic, but out of his perceived disrespect for the Roman Senate on a personal basis. Although Caesar had been accepted both as a populist leader and a reformer in Rome, his political opponents in the Senate, foremost among them: Cassius and Brutus, held grudges regarding the dissolution of the Roman Republic and the ascendency of Caesar as dictator. History records that of the two chief conspirators, it was Cassius, rather than Brutus who was motivated more intensely by a sense of personal vindication and social caste loyalty: “Thus, while Brutus sought to be the man of a principle, Cassius[…] had the idea of avenging Pharsalia by an assassination” (Boissier 337).
While, obviously, a single man’s grudge or even a grudge held by a small group of influential men would not, in itself, be enough to incite the assassination of a popular Conquerer and dictator like Julius Caesar, the Senate, as a whole, had good reason to feel that they had been slighted by Caesar and this feeling, no doubt, made the recruitment of additional conspirators much easier for Cassius and Brutus when they began their plot in earnest. Ironically, it was Caesar’s rejection of honors which the Senate meant to bestow upon him which may have led directly to the perceived disrespect on his behalf which the Roman Senate believed was paid to them by a man who had recently conquered the Republic by military force.
When the Senate approached him to confer new honors upon him such as “Consulship for life, and the creation of a new cult of Jupiter Julius, over which a special priest ( Mark Antony) was to preside and supervise sacrifices in Caesar’s honor[…] a raised couch on which to recline in the orchestra of the theater, a golden wreath adorned with jewels to wear at the games, and a golden throne on which to sit while presiding over the Senate” (Jiménez 230), Caesar replied that he believed his titles and honors should be scaled back rather than increased. This reproach might have been insult enough to anger some members of the Senate, but Caesar’s manner in rejecting the honors the Senate hoped to give him proved to be even more insulting to the Senators. The scene which is described by many Roman historians indicates that “Caesar remained seated as the Senators addressed him, thus conspicuously insulting them in front of their junior colleagues and the watching crowd” (Jiménez 231). Simply by failing to rise in greeting the Senate, Caesar “provoked many of them to fury” (Jiménez 232). The insult coupled with Caesar’s monarchy “gave the aristocracy a powerful symbol of tyranny on which to focus. It was perhaps in the latter half of February that a small group of Senators agreed among themselves that they would kill the dictator” (Jiménez 232).
The insult of remaining seated while rejecting the honors of the Senate, coupled with the dissolution of the Roman Republic had cost Caesar dearly. Adding to his perception as a tyrant was his own statement regarding the now-defunct Roman Republic where “he said frankly that “the republic” was a phrase without meaning” (Boissier 384) and that he meant to reshape Rome in a new image which broke freely with traditions of the past. The combination of these statements and political beliefs on Caesar’s part convinced a significant percentage of the Roman Senate to perceive him as a threat, rather than a guardian, of Rome and therefore the core-conspirators, Cassius and Brutus, who had already determined to kill Caesar, were able to recruit enough senators to their cause that their plot to kill the dictator could be successfully launched.
Another aspect which may have helped to fuel the assassination plot is the fact the Caesar, despite aspiring to absolute power in the Roman government, held very little personal interest in governing and , in fact, wanted to return to war. The fact the Caesar’s chief accomplishments adn his chief talents lay in the area of warfare and not statecraft probably helped to induce many of the eventual conspirators to join in the assassination plot. Another factor which may have played a key role was the perception of history which was held by many members of the Roman Senate. Of those who advocated the hatching of an assassination plot, many cited the example of tyrants from Rome’s past and strongly urged others to consider Caesar a threat not only to the vanquished Republic itself, but to the ideals of Roman society and the accomplishments which had been undertaken throughout the Republic’s history. (Walter)
Because of these factors, the conspirators were careful to plan an assassination which held a theatrical as well as a political impact. The course of action was determined which would best represent the motivation they wanted to have the appearance of following (or truly believed) which was that they were vanquishing a tyrant and not murdering a martyr. The final plan called for killing “Caesar before the assembled Senate” (Walter 525) in order to facilitate the perception that it was “an act of devotion for the salvation of the country,” (Walter 525) and that conspirators were acting together, were “jointly responsible, “as had happened at the time of the murder of Romulus, who, king at first, had become a tyrant” (Walter 525). Such careful planning and preparation for a dramatic political act revealed that Caesar’s aloofness, his preoccupation with military affairs to the exclusion of domestic policy, his monarchal ambitions, and his determination to keep Rome in a state of constant war and territorial expansion, drove many who would have otherwise accepted his dictatorship to participate in his assassination.
While Caesar may have provoked a number of his assassins on purely political and ideological grounds, he also provided personal motivation for his primary conspirators, Cassius and Brutus, and exacerbated this type of personal insult by extending it to the Senate as a whole when he snubbed their honors by reusing to stand while rejecting them. While the mere fact of Caesar’s political and military ambitions may have led to some sort of eventual intervention 9if not assassination) by the Roman Senate even without his perceived disrespect for the members of the Senate themselves, Caesar’s personal conduct toward the Senate played a very important role in lending a sense of personal insult and urgency to the plot which was eventually acted out against him by his former followers.
Boissier, Gaston. Cicero and His Friends: A Study of Roman Society in the Time of Caesar.
Trans. Adnah David Jones. London: A. D. Innes, 1897.
Jiménez, Ramon L. Caesar against Rome: The Great Roman Civil War. Westport, CT: Praeger
Walter, Gérard. Caesar A Biography. Trans. Emma Craufurd. Ed. Therese Pol. New York:
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952.