By Sam Pak
There have been many famous dictators in this world, but few have managed to leave their mark in history as memorably as Julius Caesar did. Perhaps the best-known icon of Roman antiquity, he was controversial for being loved by the people but begrudgingly tolerated by the senate.
This was a man who managed to sway an entire nation, newly reformed as a republic, to revert back to its old ways of following a dictatorship.
A concerned and frustrated group of senators would inevitably plot to eliminate Caesar, in fear of opening the door to a normalized pattern of near-limitless and unchecked power through Rome’s consuls.
As such, it leads us to March 15th, 44 B.C. – the day Julius Caesar was gruesomely assassinated by “The Liberators.” Oddly foretold by an in-passing soothsayer, Caesar would even be warned of his inevitable demise. This warning would become known as the famous phrase, “Beware the Ides of March.”
Julius Caesar’s rise to power as consul of the Roman republic was unprecedentedly rapid. It led him to become the wealthiest man, a cunning general, a persuasive politician, and the most beloved leader in Rome.
Caesar was renowned for expanding Rome’s dominance over northern Europe during the Gallic Wars. It labeled him as a competent general and tactician, earning favor with the Roman people and aristocracy. As his military exploits increased and the love from the Roman people grew, so did his ambition for greater power.
Only two short years after the Gallic Wars ended in 50 B.C. did Caesar muster his army as he geared up to face Pompey in a new civil war. After disobeying an order to return to Rome without his army, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in an act of open defiance, leading to a new conflict with Pompey the Great. After the Battle of Pharsalus, Julius Caesar assumed sole leadership, removing Pompey and Crassus from their seats in the First Triumvirate.
This was received as a flagrant act of aggression to the Roman senate, which is what sparked thoughts to eliminate Julius Caesar. However, no amount of political action could stir the people of Rome against Julius Caesar, for his grip was already too tight, and the people loved him too much.
Caesar had laid the right roots to endear the Roman people to him. He was witty and charming, he redistributed property and land to the poor, he was generous to his troops, and was ultimately idolized by his citizens.
Brutus: Caesar’s “Friend”
Marcus Brutus is a fascinating case on account of how brief yet important his presence in Julius Caesar’s life was. Originally, Brutus sided with Pompey amid the civil war, but after losing to Julius Caesar in 48 B.C., Brutus was spared in a gesture of clemency and was installed as Caesar’s confidant and advisor.
Brutus’ motives as to why he felt compelled to betray Caesar are mixed. Some accounts record him as being very conflicted about turning against the new friend he found in Julius. Other accounts allude that Brutus was suppressing his desire for revenge for Caesar’s actions against Pompey.
No matter the true intent, it doesn’t change the fact that Brutus was a critical player in Caesar’s assassination.
The Plot to Kill
By the time the dust settled in the aftermath of the civil war with Pompey, Julius Caesar had started to ease into a sole leadership role. By 44 B.C., he was named “Dictator Perpetuo,” meaning he would serve as dictator in perpetuity.
Contrary to his reluctance to accept kingship as he was pressured to do so by Roman citizens, he eagerly took on an indefinite dictatorship title, possibly believing that by doing it in this way, he wouldn’t subvert republican law.
This was the last straw for the senate, and it prompted the formation of a group called “The Liberators.” Their goal was simple – to remove Caesar from power so that Rome wouldn’t fall back into the old ways of tyrannical monarchies. About forty senators, including Marcus Brutus, came together in the senate chambers, where they trapped and stabbed Julius Caesar to death.
Caesar’s Reaction and Last Words
It’s fairly common for people to misattribute Caesar’s last words. Many will remember the famous line, “et tu, Brute?” which translates to “ You too, Brutus?” but this despairing phrase was actually imposed by William Shakespeare in his drama, Julius Caesar. That’s right. It was simply an embellishment by the great playwright, but interestingly, not too far-fetched.
Although it wasn’t entirely clear what Julius Caesar’s last words actually were, some have surmised that the phrase he cried out to Brutus as they descended on him was “You too, child?” which gave loose credence to some historians to think Brutus might have been an illegitimate son of Caesar. Some retellings of his assassination say he was silent, only grunting deeply as he fought off his assailants. Plutarch’s account of the assassination of Julius Caesar suggests that, out of shock at what was happening, Julius exclaimed to Servilius Casca, upon his delivering the first cut to Caesar’s neck, “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?”
While Caesar’s exact words are tougher to pinpoint, his physical response was notably quite poetic. Again, from Plutarch’s description, Caesar was determined to fight back against them until his gaze met Brutus and, subsequently, his drawn blade. A realization of betrayal and hopelessness beset Caesar, leading him to submit to his inevitable demise as he covered his face with his tunic. His killers would go on to stab him twenty-three times.
Ironically, the assassination of Julius Caesar accomplished the opposite of what the senate hoped for. The power vacuum left over by Caesar opened the door for Mark Antony to claim the chair of the dictatorship, paving a path toward a new Roman Imperium.
Although Julius Caesar perhaps wasn’t as objectively horrible as other dictators throughout history, his rise to power painted a picture of how terrifying one man can become, no matter their intent.
Notice how quickly the critical events of Caesar’s political career happened. There was his victory in the Gallic Wars in 50 B.C., his civil war and pursuit of Pompey to Egypt, his marriage to Cleopatra, and his ascent to sole dictatorship by 44 B.C. All of these events took place in a narrow space of six years! The takeaway is that the speed of how much he could achieve so quickly was very disturbing to Roman senators. They did not want an abrupt monarchy, which for generations they had been working so hard to abolish.
Julius Caesar’s charisma, determination, and leadership are well deserving of the spotlight in history. In fact, we still keep a month of the year named after him!
You can learn more about Julius Caesar, his accolades, and the effect of his reign in our Creation to Christ Timeline Figures set as well our Project Passports: Ancient Rome unit study and our Great Empires activity study!
“Experience is the teacher of all things.” - Gaius Julius Caesar