Julius Caesar - Jacob Abbott

The Conspiracy

Caesar's greatness and glory came at last to a very sudden and violent end. He was assassinated. All the attendant circumstances of this deed, too, were of the most extraordinary character, and thus the dramatic interest which adorns all parts of the great conqueror's history marks strikingly its end.

His prosperity and power awakened, of course, a secret jealousy and ill will. Those who were disappointed in their expectations of his favor murmured. Others, who had once been his rivals, hated him for having triumphed over them. Then there was a stern spirit of democracy, too, among certain classes of the citizens of Rome which could not brook a master. It is true that the sovereign power in the Roman commonwealth had never been shared by all the inhabitants. It was only in certain privileged classes that the sovereignty was vested; but among these the functions of government were divided and distributed in such a way as to balance one interest against another, and to give all their proper share of influence and authority. Terrible struggles and conflicts often occurred among these various sections of society, as one or another attempted from time to time to encroach upon the rights or privileges of the rest. These struggles, however, ended usually in at last restoring again the equilibrium which had been disturbed. No one power could ever gain the entire ascendency; and thus, as all monarchism  seemed excluded from their system, they called it a republic. Cæsar, however, had now concentrated in himself all the principal elements of power, and there began to be suspicions that he wished to make himself in name and openly, as well as secretly and in fact, a king.

The Romans abhorred the very name of king. They had had kings in the early periods of their history, but they made themselves odious by their pride and their oppressions, and the people had deposed and expelled them. The modern nations of Europe have several times performed the same exploit, but they have generally felt unprotected and ill at ease without a personal sovereign over them and have accordingly, in most cases, after a few years, restored some branch of the expelled dynasty to the throne. The Romans were more persevering and firm. They had managed their empire now for five hundred years as a republic, and though they had had internal dissensions, conflicts, and quarrels without end, had persisted so firmly and unanimously in their detestation of all regal authority, that no one of the long line of ambitious and powerful statesmen, generals, or conquerors by which the history of the empire had been signalized, had ever dared to aspire to the name of king.

There began, however, soon to appear some indications that Cæsar, who certainly now possessed regal power, would like the regal name. Ambitious men, in such cases, do not directly assume themselves the titles and symbols of royalty. Others make the claim for them, while they faintly disavow it, till they have opportunity to see what effect the idea produces on the public mind. The following incidents occurred which it was thought indicated such a design on the part of Cæsar.

There were in some of the public buildings certain statues of kings; for it must be understood that the Roman dislike to kings was only a dislike to having kingly authority exercised over themselves. They respected and sometimes admired the kings of other countries, and honored their exploits, and made statues to commemorate their fame. They were willing that kings should reign elsewhere, so long as there were no king of Rome. The American feeling at the present day is much the same. If the Queen of England were to make a progress through this country, she would receive, perhaps, as many and as striking marks of attention and honor as would be rendered to her in her own realm. We venerate the antiquity of her royal line; we admire the efficiency of her government and the sublime grandeur of her empire, and have as high an idea as any, of the powers and prerogatives of her crown—and these feelings would show themselves most abundantly on any proper occasion. We are willing, nay, wish that she should continue to reign over Englishmen; and yet, after all, it would take some millions of bayonets to place a queen securely upon a throne over this land.

Regal power was accordingly, in the abstract, looked up to at Rome, as it is elsewhere, with great respect; and it was, in fact, all the more tempting as an object of ambition, from the determination felt by the people that it should not be exercised there. There were, accordingly statues of kings at Rome. Cæsar placed his own statue among them. Some approved, others murmured.

There was a public theater in the city, where the officers of the government were accustomed to sit in honorable seats prepared expressly for them, those of the Senate being higher and more distinguished than the rest. Cæsar had a seat prepared for himself there, similar in form to a throne, and adorned it magnificently with gilding and ornaments of gold, which gave it the entire pre-eminence over all the other seats.

He had a similar throne placed in the senate chamber, to be occupied by himself when attending there, like the throne of the King of England in the House of Lords.

He held, moreover, a great many public celebrations and triumphs in the city in commemoration of his exploits and honors; and, on one of these occasions, it was arranged that the Senate were to come to him at a temple in a body, and announce to him certain decrees which they had passed to his honor. Vast crowds had assembled to witness the ceremony Cæsar was seated in a magnificent chair, which might have been called either a chair or a throne, and was surrounded by officers and attendants. When the Senate approached, Cæsar did not rise to receive them, but remained seated, like a monarch receiving a deputation of his subjects. The incident would not seem to be in itself of any great importance, but, considered as an indication of Cæsar's designs, it attracted great attention, and produced a very general excitement. The act was adroitly managed so as to be somewhat equivocal in its character, in order that it might be represented one way or the other on the following day, according as the indications of public sentiment might incline. Some said that Cæsar was intending to rise, but was prevented, and held down by those who stood around him. Others said that an officer motioned to him to rise, but he rebuked his interference by a frown, and continued his seat. Thus while, in fact, he received the Roman Senate as their monarch and sovereign, his own intentions and designs in so doing were left somewhat in doubt, in order to avoid awakening a sudden and violent opposition.

Not long after this, as he was returning in public from some great festival, the streets being full of crowds, and the populace following him in great throngs with loud acclamations, a man went up to his statue as he passed it, and placed upon the head of it a laurel crown, fastened with a white ribbon, which was a badge of royalty. Some officers ordered the ribbon to be taken down, and sent the man to prison. Cæsar was very much displeased with the officers, and dismissed them from their office. He wished, he said, to have the opportunity to disavow, himself, such claims, and not to have others disavow them for him.

Cæsar's disavowals were, however, so faint, and people had so little confidence in their sincerity, that the cases became more and more frequent in which the titles and symbols of royalty were connected with his name. The people who wished to gain his favor saluted him in public with the name of Rex, the Latin word for king. He replied that his name was Cæsar, not Rex, showing, however, no other signs of displeasure. On one great occasion, a high public officer, a near relative of his, repeatedly placed a diadem upon his head, Cæsar himself, as often as he did it, gently putting it off. At last he sent the diadem away to a temple that was near, saying that there was no king in Rome but Jupiter. In a word, all his conduct indicated that he wished to have it appear that the people were pressing the crown upon him, when he himself was steadily refusing it.

This state of things produced a very strong and universal, though suppressed excitement in the city. Parties were formed. Some began to be willing to make Cæsar king; others were determined to hazard their lives to prevent it. None dared, however, openly to utter their sentiments on either side. They expressed them by mysterious looks and dark intimations. At the time when Cæsar refused to rise to receive the Senate, many of the members withdrew in silence, and with looks of offended dignity When the crown was placed upon his statue or upon his own brow, a portion of the populace would applaud with loud acclamations; and whenever he disavowed these acts, either by words or counter-actions of his own, an equally loud acclamation would arise from the other side. On the whole, however, the idea that Cæsar was gradually advancing toward the kingdom steadily gained ground.

And yet Cæsar himself spoke frequently with great humility in respect to his pretensions and claims; and when he found public sentiment turning against the ambitious schemes he seems secretly to have cherished, he would present some excuse or explanation for his conduct plausible enough to answer the purpose of a disavowal. When he received the Senate, sitting like a king, on the occasion before referred to, when they read to him the decrees which they had passed in his favor, he replied to them that there was more need of diminishing the public honors which he received than of increasing them. When he found, too, how much excitement his conduct on that occasion had produced, he explained it by saying that he had retained his sitting posture on account of the infirmity of his health, as it made him dizzy to stand. He thought, probably, that these pretexts would tend to quiet the strong and turbulent spirits around him, from whose envy or rivalry he had most to fear, without at all interfering with the effect which the act itself would have produced upon the masses of the population. He wished, in a word, to accustom them to see him assume the position and the bearing of a sovereign, while, by his apparent humility in his intercourse with those immediately around him, he avoided as much as possible irritating and arousing the jealous and watchful rivals who were next to him in power.

If this were his plan, it seemed to be advancing prosperously toward its accomplishment. The population of the city seemed to become more and more familiar with the idea that Cæsar was about to become a king. The opposition which the idea had at first awakened appeared to subside, or, at least, the public expression of it, which daily became more and more determined and dangerous, was restrained. At length the time arrived when it appeared safe to introduce the subject to the Roman Senate. This, of course, was a hazardous experiment. It was managed, however, in a very adroit and ingenious manner.

There were in Rome, and, in fact, in many other cities and countries of the world in those days, a variety of prophetic books, called the Sibylline Oracles, in which it was generally believed that future events were foretold. Some of these volumes or rolls, which were very ancient and of great authority, were preserved in the temples at Rome, under the charge of a board of guardians, who were to keep them with the utmost care, and to consult them on great occasions, in order to discover beforehand what would be the result of public measures or great enterprises which were in contemplation. It happened that at this time the Romans were engaged in a war with the Parthians, a very wealthy and powerful nation of Asia. Cæsar was making preparations for an expedition to the East to attempt to subdue this people. He gave orders that the Sibylline Oracles should be consulted. The proper officers, after consulting them with the usual solemn ceremonies, reported to the Senate that they found it recorded in these sacred prophecies that the Parthians could not be conquered except by a king.  A senator proposed, therefore, that, to meet the emergency, Cæsar should be made king during the war. There was at first no decisive action on this proposal. It was dangerous to express any opinion. People were thoughtful, serious, and silent, as on the eve of some great convulsion. No one knew what others were meditating, and thus did not dare to express his own wishes or designs. There soon, however, was a prevailing understanding that Cæsar's friends were determined on executing the design of crowning him, and that the fifteenth of March, called, in their phraseology, the Ides of March, was fixed upon as the coronation day.

In the mean time, Cæsar's enemies, though to all outward appearance quiet and calm, had not been inactive. Finding that his plans were now ripe for execution, and that they had no, open means of resisting them, they formed a conspiracy to assassinate Cæsar himself, and thus bring his ambitious schemes to an effectual and final end. The name of the original leader of this conspiracy was Cassius.

Cassius had been for a long time Cæsar's personal rival and enemy. He was a man of a very violent and ardent temperament, impetuous and fearless, very fond of exercising power himself, but very restless and uneasy in having it exercised over him. He had all the Roman repugnance to being under the authority of a master, with an additional personal determination of his own not to submit to Cæsar. He determined to slay Cæsar rather than to allow him to be made a king, and he went to work, with great caution, to bring other leading and influential men to join him in this determination. Some of those to whom he applied said that they would unite with him in his plot provided he would get Marcus Brutus to join them.

Brutus was the prætor of the city. The prætorship of the city was a very high municipal office. The conspirators wished to have Brutus join them partly on account of his station as a magistrate, as if they supposed that by having the highest public magistrate of the city for their leader in the deed, the destruction of their victim would appear less like a murder, and would be invested, instead, in some respects, with the sanctions and with the dignity of an official execution.

Then, again, they wished for the moral support which would be afforded them in their desperate enterprise by Brutus's extraordinary personal character. He was younger than Cassius, but he was grave, thoughtful, taciturn, calm—a man of inflexible integrity, of the coolest determination, and, at the same time, of the most undaunted courage. The conspirators distrusted one another, for the resolution of impetuous men is very apt to fail when the emergency arrives which puts it to the test; but as for Brutus, they knew very well that whatever he undertook he would most certainly do.

There was a great deal even in his name. It was a Brutus that five centuries before had been the main instrument of the expulsion of the Roman kings. He had secretly meditated the design, and, the better to conceal it, had feigned idiocy, as the story was, that he might not be watched or suspected until the favorable hour for executing his design should arrive. He therefore ceased to speak, and seemed to lose his reason; he wandered about the city silent and gloomy, like a brute. His name had been Lucius Junius before. They added Brutus now, to designate his condition. When at last, however, the crisis arrived which he judged favorable for the expulsion of the kings, he suddenly reassumed his speech and his reason, called the astonished Romans to arms, and triumphantly accomplished his design. His name and memory had been cherished ever since that day as of a great deliverer.

They, therefore, who looked upon Cæsar as another king, naturally turned their thoughts to the Brutus of their day, hoping to find in him another deliverer. Brutus found, from time to time, inscriptions on his ancient namesake's statue expressing the wish that he were now alive. He also found each morning, as he came to the tribunal where he was accustomed to sit in the discharge of the duties of his office, brief writings, which had been left there during the night, in which few words expressed deep meaning, such as "Awake, Brutus, to thy duty;" and "Art thou indeed a Brutus?"

Still it seemed hardly probable that Brutus could be led to take a decided stand against Cæsar, for they had been warm personal friends ever since the conclusion of the civil wars. Brutus had, indeed, been on Pompey's side while that general lived; he fought with him at the battle of Pharsalia, but he had been taken prisoner there, and Cæsar, instead of executing him as a traitor, as most victorious generals in a civil war would have done, spared his life, forgave him for his hostility, received him into his own service, and afterward raised him to very high and honorable stations. He gave him the government of the richest province, and, after his return from it, loaded with wealth and honors, he made him prætor of the city. In a word, it would seem that he had done everything which it was possible to do to make him one of his most trustworthy and devoted friends. The men, therefore, to whom Cassius first applied, perhaps thought that they were very safe in saying that they would unite in the intended conspiracy if he would get Brutus to join them.

They expected Cassius himself to make the attempt to secure the co-operation of Brutus, as Cassius was on terms of intimacy with him on account of a family connection. Cassius's wife was the sister of Brutus. This had made the two men intimate associates and warm friends in former years, though they had been recently somewhat estranged from each other on account of having been competitors for the same offices and honors. In these contests Cæsar had decided in favor of Brutus. "Cassius," said he, on one such occasion, "gives the best reasons; but I can not refuse Brutus any thing he asks for." In fact, Cæsar had conceived a strong personal friendship for Brutus, and believed him to be entirely devoted to his cause.

Cassius, however, sought an interview with Brutus, with a view of engaging him in his design. He easily effected his own reconciliation with him, as he had himself been the offended party in their estrangement from each other. He asked Brutus whether he intended to be present in the Senate on the Ides of March, when the friends of Cæsar, as was understood, were intending to present him with the crown. Brutus said he should not be there. "But suppose," said Cassius, "we are specially summoned." "Then," said Brutus, "I shall go, and shall be ready to die if necessary to defend the liberty of my country."

Cassius then assured Brutus that there were many other Roman citizens, of the highest rank, who were animated by the same determination, and that they all looked up to him to lead and direct them in the work which it was now very evident must be done. "Men look," said Cassius, "to other prætors to entertain them with games, spectacles, and shows, but they have very different ideas in respect to you. Your character, your name, your position, your ancestry, and the course of conduct which you have already always pursued, inspire the whole city with the hope that you are to be their deliverer. The citizens are all ready to aid you, and to sustain you at the hazard of their lives; but they look to you to go forward, and to act in their name and in their behalf, in the crisis which is now approaching."

Men of a very calm exterior are often susceptible of the profoundest agitations within, the emotions seeming to be sometimes all the more permanent and uncontrollable from the absence of outward display. Brutus said little, but his soul was excited and fired by Cassius's words. There was a struggle in his soul between his grateful sense of his political obligations to Cæsar and his personal attachment to him on the one hand, and, on the other, a certain stern Roman conviction that every thing should be sacrificed, even friendship and gratitude, as well as fortune and life, to the welfare of his country. He acceded to the plan, and began forthwith to enter upon the necessary measures for putting it into execution.

There was a certain general, named Ligurius, who had been in Pompey's army, and whose hostility to Cæsar had never been really subdued. He was now sick. Brutus went to see him. He found him in his bed. The excitement in Rome was so intense, though the expressions of it were suppressed and restrained, that every one was expecting continually some great event, and every motion and look was interpreted to have some deep meaning. Ligurius read in the countenance of Brutus, as he approached his bedside, that he had not come on any trifling errand. "Ligurius," said Brutus, "this is not a time for you  to be sick." "Brutus," replied Ligurius, rising at once from his couch, "if you have any enterprise in mind that is worthy of you, I am well." Brutus explained to the sick man their design, and he entered into it with ardor.

The plan was divulged to one after another of such men as the conspirators supposed most worthy of confidence in such a desperate undertaking, and meetings for consultation were held to determine what plan to adopt for finally accomplishing their end. It was agreed that Cæsar must be slain; but the time, the place, and the manner in which the deed should be performed were all yet undecided. Various plans were proposed in the consultations which the conspirators held; but there was one thing peculiar to them all, which was, that they did not any of them contemplate or provide for any thing like secrecy in the commission of the deed. It was to be performed in the most open and public manner. With a stern and undaunted boldness, which has always been considered by mankind as truly sublime, they determined that, in respect to the actual execution itself of the solemn judgment which they had pronounced, there should be nothing private or concealed. They thought over the various public situations in which they might find Cæsar, and where they might strike him down, only to select the one which would be most public of all. They kept, of course, their preliminary counsels private, to prevent the adoption of measures for counteracting them; but they were to perform the deed in such a manner as that, so soon as it was performed, they should stand out to view, exposed fully to the gaze of all mankind as the authors, of it. They planned no retreat, no concealment, no protection whatever for themselves, seeming to feel that the deed which they were about to perform, of destroying the master and monarch of the world, was a deed in its own nature so grand and sublime as to raise the perpetrators of it entirely above all considerations relating to their own personal safety. Their plan, therefore, was to keep their consultations and arrangements secret until they were prepared to strike the blow, then to strike it in the most public and imposing manner possible, and calmly afterward to await the consequences.

In this view of the subject, they decided that the chamber of the Roman Senate was the proper place, and the Ides of March, the day on which he was appointed to be crowned, was the propel time for Cæsar to be slain.