Julius Caesar - Ada Russell

Kill the Tyrant!

Caesar returned from Spain to Rome in September 45. The marble bust of him in the British Museum must date from this period, for though his baldness began in early manhood, other features of this famous portrait are those of an ageing man. His face forms a remarkable contrast to the portraits handed down to us of Alexander the Great, and the contrast holds in many points of their characters. The Grecian beauty and grace of the Alexander type make the thin, painfully hollowed face of Caesar more startling, and the latter is a more convincing representation of one who had suffered for long years the 'asceticism of war.' Caesar, moreover, had the strain of facing for years all the great armies of his own country and the reorganization of its political institutions. He was pale, with penetrating black eyes, tall for an Italian, and well-made, but perhaps his chief physical beauty was the dome-like skull, with its exceptionally fine lines, which he was so eager to hide with his laurel wreath. It dominates his whole face, and shows the perfect union of the thinker and the man of action.

The reports of early historians leave us to wonder whether he was merely foppish or eccentric in his dress. Like most educated Romans he collected works of art and had luxurious villas, and even carried to war tessellated pavements to be laid down in his quarters in the camp. He was a skillful horseman, and could do an incredible amount of work. In marching, sometimes on horseback but oftener on foot, he went before the column, with his head bare in the burning sun or drenching rain, and would ride a hundred miles in a day, swimming across streams when there was no other way of getting over. He wrote books in his litter on the march, and would dictate important letters and dispatches as he galloped along on horse-back. He was habitually cautious in war, but sometimes carried out acts of seemingly reckless daring. His soldiers were allowed a good deal of license, and when his enemies reproached him with their luxury, he answered that they could fight well even if they were perfumed. He knew that they had terrible privations as a set-off. He permitted them to wear precious armour, as it encouraged their soldier's pride and they were less likely to throw it down and fly from the field. He won the devotion of his troops, and there was assuredly the feeling in his army for its general that he tried to create in Rome for the head of the State.

Not only was he moderate and clement in the Civil War, but in the end he allowed all the Pompeians to return to Rome, and all the offices of State were open to them. That he was a great statesman is specially shown by his enfranchisement of the Italians north of the Po, by his sending Roman colonists to spread Roman civilization beyond the city limits, by his protection of the provincials, and by the lasting nature of his work as founder of the second monarchy. His personal magnetism was strong, and he inspired liking and awe at the same time. Cicero in this last year of the Dictator's life had the honour of entertaining him, and said that he was most affable and courteous, although you could not venture to say, "Do come again soon!" (Cicero's frequent flippancy helps to give his style its wonderfully modern air.) Without a word of direction from Caesar, the leading men in Rome adopted instinctively the etiquette of courtiers. As an instance of his courageous courtesy, we have the anecdote of the oil.

"When at the table of Valerius Leo, who entertained him at supper at Milan," says Plutarch, "a dish of asparagus was put before him on which his host instead of oil had poured sweet ointment. Caesar partook of it without any disgust, and reprimanded his friends for finding fault with it. 'For it was enough,' said he, 'not to eat what you did not like; but he who reflects on another man's want of breeding shows he wants it as much himself.'" In his unselfishness he once gave a delicate companion the only comfortable accommodation to be found on a stormy night, sleeping himself with the rest under a shed at the door.

When he returned to Rome in the autumn of 45 he was more absolute than any Roman had been since the days of the kings, and all his chief opponents were dead. Rome received him as such a conqueror might expect to be received. Each tribe made sacrifices of thanksgiving, arranged games, and erected his statues in every temple and public place; and all the provinces and allied states of the Roman world did the same. He was given the title of Father of the Fatherland, and the dictatorship for life; his person was declared sacred and inviolable; he was given a throne of gold and ivory, and permission to wear his Triumphal costume when he sacrificed. The anniversaries of his battles were to be celebrated; the priests and vestal virgins were to make public prayer for him every five years; all magistrates were to swear on entering office to do nothing against his laws; the very month of his birth was to change its name to July; and, finally, temples were dedicated to his honour. It was probably his enemies who most wished him to receive the title of king, believing that he would then be assassinated, so much did the Roman people hate the word; and Caesar showed his disapproval when the matter was mentioned. He indicated by dismissing the praetorian guard by which he had been attended from the beginning of the war that he did not mean to rest his rule on force, and he was satisfied with the lictors of an ordinary Roman magistrate. He knew that sovereignty may be seized by soldiers, but that its only lasting foundation is loyalty of subjects. This he never obtained.

From the moment of his return from Spain until the fatal Ides of March on which he was murdered, whispers against the 'King' grew louder and louder. When the magistrates and the whole body of senators went to bring him the decrees by which he received his extraordinary honours, he was guilty of the only act of discourtesy recorded of him, and filled the minds of those magnates with rage. He was seated before the Rostra in the Forum, attended by his lictors, when they approached, and it is believed that he meant to rise, had not Balbus, standing by, murmured in his ear, "Remember that you are Caesar!" He remained seated, and deeply offended the distinguished deputation.

Not able to make him take the title of king, his enemies began to give him the show of wishing for it. Someone put a laurel crown and the white fillet of royalty on one of his statues, and was thereupon thrown into prison by a tribune, thus showing that there was to be determined opposition to any attempt to introduce a monarchy. He was addressed publicly as King, and the people murmured angrily, but he replied quickly, "I am not King, I am Caesar," The tribunes again punished the persons who had thus offended, and this time he allowed his anger to appear. He removed the tribunes and said that they merited death. Even if he did not wish to be king, he wished it to be known that he would be king if he desired. This punishment of the tribunes made it clear to the Romans that they had lost political freedom for ever, and some of the best men among them began to plot his assassination, thinking that tyranny would end with the tyrant.

Then came the celebrated Feast of the Lupercalia in the February of 44. Caesar was seated on his golden throne in the Forum to watch the games, when his faithful friend Mark Antony, whom he had made his colleague in the consulship for this year, mounted the Rostra behind him and placed a diadem upon his head. A few who stood near applauded, but most of the people showed anger, and Caesar threw the diadem on to the ground. Antony persisted again and again, to the wrath of the silent, menacing people, until the dictator forced him to desist.

Weary of the gloomy capital, Caesar determined to leave for the frontiers of the Empire, where he might win new laurels and throw off a tendency to epilepsy, which grew on him when he led an inactive life. Before his preparations for departure were made he filled the cup of republican wrath by assigning the magistracies for five years ahead; and they determined that the man who thus acted as king should not live to leave the city. Marcus Brutus, spared by Caesar after Pharsalus and deeply loved by him, but far from being the noble, disinterested patriot who appears in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Decimus Brutus and Trebonius, old lieutenants highly honoured and richly rewarded by the conqueror, Caius Cassius, Casca, Cimber, and Cinna, were the chief conspirators. Cicero, who welcomed their deed with rapture after it was done, was not taken into the secret.

[Illustration] from Julius Caesar by Ada Russell


We may learn the story of the murder from Shakespeare and from Plutarch, from whom Shakespeare took the tale. The Senate was to meet on the Ides of March in a building raised by Pompey and containing his statue. "When Caesar entered," says Plutarch, "the Senate stood up to show their respect to him, and of Brutus's confederates, some came about his chair and stood behind it, others met him, pretending to add their petitions to those of Tillius Cimber, in behalf of his brother, who was in exile; and they followed him with their joint applications till he came to his seat. When he was sat down, he refused to comply with their requests, and upon their urging him further began to reproach them severely for their importunities, when Tillius, laying hold of his robe with both his hands, pulled it down from his neck, which was the signal for the assault. Casca gave him the first cut, in the neck, which was not mortal nor dangerous, as coming from one who at the beginning of such a bold action was probably very much disturbed; Caesar immediately turned about, and laid his hand upon the dagger and kept hold of it. And both of them at the same time cried out, he that received the blow, in Latin, 'Vile Casca, what does this mean?' and he that gave it, in Greek, to his brother, 'Brother, help!' Upon this first onset those who were not privy to the design were astonished, and their horror and amazement at what they saw were so great that they durst not fly nor assist Caesar, nor so much as speak a word. But those who came prepared for the business enclosed him on every side, with their naked daggers in their hands. Which way so ever he turned he met their blows, and saw their swords leveled at his face and eyes, and was encompassed, like a wild beast in the toils, on every side. For it had been agreed they should each of them make a thrust at him, and flesh themselves with his blood; for which reason Brutus also gave him one stab in the groin. Some say that he fought and resisted all the rest, shifting his body to avoid the blows and calling out for help, but that when he saw Brutus's sword drawn, he covered his face with his robe and submitted, letting himself fall, whether it were by chance, or that he was pushed in that direction by his murderers, at the foot of the pedestal on which Pompey's statue stood." His life was over. Then the tyrannicides, as they called themselves, appealed to the gratitude of their country, only to find that they were but a small party.

Brutus and Cassius, who were both praetors, ought to have summoned the Senate at once and obtained approval of their actions and the restoration of the republic. Perhaps, even, they ought to have slain Mark Antony with Caesar, for as consul he could override the acts of the praetors. Brutus, however, refused to throw him into the Tiber, as he had not yet done any wrong to the republic, and at the same time refused to override his authority as it was that of a higher magistrate than himself; and thus it came about that Antony got his chance to sway the mob with his orations against the murderers, waken extraordinary sorrow for the loss of Caesar, and so lead up to a new civil war in which the tyrannicides one and all met death, some ending their own lives as they had ended his.

Antony frightened the Senate with the idea that the soldiery would take a terrible revenge if Caesar were not honourably buried, and that all the provinces would rise if his acts were cancelled; and he won permission to take the body to the Rostra and make a public funeral oration. The effect of this famous oration was extraordinary. Antony knew that the terms of Caesar's will would move the populace even more than his eloquence, and he read it to them. By it Caesar had appointed his sister's grandson Octavian (afterwards known to the world as Augustus) as his heir; his gardens he gave to the people for ever, and to each citizen he left seventy-five attic drachmas. Decimus Brutus, one of the assassins, was one of the chief legatees, and this circumstance thrilled the people with horror. They called for the murderers' blood, but still Antony went on, uncovering the hero's body and holding up his robe, rent with daggers and red with blood. Overwhelmed with sorrow and anger, the people chanted pagan hymns for the dead, and then ran to set fire to the Senate House where he had been murdered, and to look for the murderers and kill them. They burned his body in the Forum, watching the magnificent funeral throughout the night, and on this spot Augustus caused a temple to be built to him and divine honours were paid to his memory.

Very shortly afterward Antony and Octavian punished the murderers and divided the rule of the world with Lepidus, in the Second Triumvirate. After defeating Antony in the battle of Actium in 31, Augustus ruled alone over the inheritance of his great-uncle, 'the mightiest Julius,' and though even he never dared to take the title 'King,' he made the rank of ' imperator,' which he held mean something higher than a king—an emperor. Thus Julius started the work which Augustus finished, the creation of that form of rule on which most medieval and modern Western states have modeled their polities and courts, and they were the joint organizers of that system of provincial government which, has made us all the children of Roman civilization; but it is chiefly to Julius, the first Roman to touch English shores, that we must look back when we trace the source of our intellectual life.