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Charles Morris

The Assassination of Cæsar

The republic of Rome was at an end. The army had become the power, and the will of the head of the army was the law, of the state. Cæsar celebrated his victories with grand triumphs; but he celebrated them more notably still by a clemency that signified his innate nobility of character. Instead of dyeing the streets of Rome with blood, as Marius and Sulla had done before him, he proclaimed a general amnesty, and his rise to power was not signalized by the slaughter of one of his foes.

He signalized it, on the contrary, by an activity in civil reform as marked as had been his energy in war. The title and privilege of Roman citizenship had so far been confined to Italians. He extended it to many parts of Gaul and Spain. He formed plans to drain the Pontine marshes, to make a survey and map of the empire, to form a code of laws, and other great works, which he did not live to fulfill. Of all his reforms, the best known is the revision of the Calendar. Before his time the Roman year was three hundred and fifty five days long, an extra month occasionally added, so as to regain the lost days. But this was very irregularly done, and the civil year had got to be far away from the solar year. To correct this Cæsar was obliged to add ninety days to the year 46 b.c. , which was therefore given the unprecedented length of four hundred and forty-five days. He ordered that the year in future should be three hundred and sixty-five and one-fourth days in length, a change which brought it very nearly, but not quite, to the true length. A new reform was made in 1582, by Pope Gregory XIII., which made the civil and solar years almost exactly agree.

Cæsar did not live to see his reforms consummated. He was murdered, perhaps because he had refused to murder. In a few months after he had brought the civil war to an end he fell the victim of assassins. The story of his death is famous in Roman history, and must here be told.

After his triumphs Cæsar, who had been dictator twice before, was named dictator for the term of ten years. He was also made censor for three years. These offices gave him such unlimited power that he was declared absolute master of the lives and fortunes of the citizens and subjects of Rome. Imperator men called him, a term we translate emperor, and after his return from Spain, where he overthrew the last army of his foes, the senate named him dictator and imperator for life.


The Assassination of Caesar.

These high honors were not sufficient for Cæsar's ambition. He wished to be made king. He had no son of his own, but desired to make his power hereditary, and chose his grandnephew Octavius as his heir. But he was to find the people resolutely bent on having no king over Rome.

To try their temper some of his friends placed a crown on his statue in the Forum. Two of the tribunes tore it off, and the crowd loudly applauded. Later, at the festival of the Alban Mount, some voices in the crowd hailed him as king. But the mutterings of the multitude grew so loud, that he quickly cried, "I am no king, but Cæsar"

At the feast of the Lupercalia, on February 15, he was approached by Marc Antony, as he sat in his golden chair, and offered an embroidered band, such as the sovereigns of Asia wore on their heads. The crowd failed to applaud, and Cæsar pushed it aside. Then the multitude broke out in a roar of applause. Again and again he rejected the glittering bauble, and again the people broke into loud cries of approval. It was evident that they would have no king. At a later date it was moved in the senate that Cæsar should be king in the provinces; but he died before this decree could be put in effect.

There was discontent at Rome. Even the clemency of Cæsar had made him enemies, for there were many who hoped to profit by proscription. His justice made foes among those who wished to grow rich through extortion and oppression. He secluded himself while engaged on his reforms, and this lost him popularity. A conspiracy was organized against him by a soldier named Caius Cassius and others of the discontented. For leader they selected Marcus Junius Brutus, who believed himself a descendant of the Brutus of old, and was won to their plot by being told that, while his great ancestor had expelled the last king of Rome, he was resting content under the rule of a new king.

Brutus, at length convinced that Cæsar was seeking to overthrow the Roman republic, and that patriotism required him to emulate the famous Brutus of old, joined the conspiracy, which now included more than sixty persons, most of whom had received benefits and honors from the man they wished to kill. But no considerations of gratitude prevailed; they determined on Cæsar's death; and the meeting of the senate called for the Ides of March (March 15) was fixed for the time and place of the projected murder.

The morning of that day seemed full of omens and warnings. The secret was oozing out. Cæsar received more than one intimation of impending danger. A soothsayer had even bidden him to "beware the Ides of March." During the receding night his wife was so disturbed by dreams that in the morning she begged him not to go that day to the senate, as she was sure some peril was at hand. Her words failed to trouble Cæsar's resolute mind, but to quiet her apprehensions he agreed not to go, and directed Marc Antony to preside over the senate in his stead.

When this word was brought to the assembled senate the conspirators were in despair. Their secret was known to too many to remain a secret long. Even a day's delay might be fatal. An hour might put Cæsar on his guard. What was to be done? Unless their victim could be brought to the senate chamber, all would be lost.

Decimus Brutus, one of the conspirators who had been favored by Cæsar's bounty, went hastily to his house, and, telling him that the senate proposed that day to make him king of the provinces, bade him not to yield to such idle matters as auguries and dreams, but show himself above any such superstitious weakness. These cunning arguments induced Cæsar to change his mind, and he called for his litter and was carried forth.

On his way to the senate new intimations of danger came to him. A slave had in some way discovered the conspiracy, and tried to force himself through the crowd to the dictator's litter, but was driven back by the throng. Another informant was more fortunate. A Greek philosopher, Artemidorus by name, had also discovered the conspiracy, and succeeded in reaching Cæsar's side. He thrust into his hand a roll of paper containing a full account of the impending peril. But the star of Cæsar that day was against him. Thinking the roll to contain a petition of some sort, he laid it in the litter by his side, to examine at a more convenient time. And thus he went on to his death, despite all the warnings sent him by the fates.

The conspirators meanwhile were far from easy in mind. There were signs among them that their plot had leaked out. Casca, one of their number, was accosted by a friend, "Ali, Casca, Brutus has told me your secret." The conspirator started in alarm, but was relieved by the next words, "Where will you find money for the expenses of the ædileship?" The man evidently referred to an expected office.

Another senator, Popillius Lænas, hit the mark closer. "You have my good wishes; but what you do, do quickly" he said to Brutus and Cassius.

The alarm caused by his words was doubled when he stepped up to Cæsar, on his entrance to the chamber, and began to whisper in his ear. Cassius was so terrified that he grasped his dagger with the thought of killing himself. He was stopped by Brutus, who quietly said that Popillius seemed rather to be asking a favor than telling a secret. Whatever his purpose, Cæsar was not checked, but moved quietly on and took his seat.

Immediately Cimber, one of the conspirators, approached with a petition, in which he begged for the recall of his brother from banishment. The others pressed round, praying Cæsar to grant his request. Displeased by their importunity, Cæsar attempted to rise, but was pulled down into his seat by Cimber, while Casca stabbed him in the side, but inflicted only a slight wound. Then they all assailed him with drawn daggers.

Cæsar kept them off for a brief time by winding his gown as a shield round his left arm, and using his sharp writing style for a weapon. But when he saw Brutus approach prepared to strike he exclaimed in deep sorrow and reproach, "Et tu, Brute!"  (Thou too, Brutus!) and covering his face with his gown, he ceased to resist. Their daggers pierced his body till he had received twenty-three wounds, when he fell dead at the base of the statue of Pompey, which looked silently down on the slaughter of his great and successful rival.

What followed this base and fruitless deed may be briefly told. The senators not in the plot rose in alarm and fled from the house. When Brutus turned to seek to justify his deed only empty benches remained. Then the assassins hurried to the Forum, to tell the people that they had freed Rome from a despot. But the people were hostile, and the words of Brutus fell on unfriendly ears.

Marc Antony followed, and delivered a telling oration, which Shakespeare has magnificently paraphrased. He showed the mob a waxen image of Cæsar's body, pierced with wounds, and the garment rent by murderous blades. His words wrought his hearers to fury. They tore up benches, tables, and everything on which they could lay their hands, for a funeral pile, placed on it the corpse, and set it on fire. Then, seizing blazing embers from the pile, they rushed in quest of vengeance to the houses of the conspirators. They were too late; all had fled. The will of the dictator, in which he had made a large donation to every citizen of Rome, added to the popular fury, and a frenzy of vengeance took possession of the people of Rome.

We must give the sequel of this murderous deed in a few words. Marc Antony was now master of Rome. He increased his power by pretending moderation, and having a law passed to abolish the dictatorship forever. But there were other actors on the scene. Octavius, whom Cæsar's will had named as his heir, took quick steps to gain his heritage. Antony had taken possession of Cæsar's wealth, but Octavius managed to raise money enough to pay his uncle's legacy to the citizens of Rome. A third man of power was Lepidus, who commanded an army near Rome, and was prepared to take part in the course of events.

Octavius was still only a boy, not yet twenty years of age. But he was shrewd and ambitious, and soon succeeded in having himself elected consul and put at the head of a large army. Cicero aided him with a series of orations directed against Antony, which were so keen and bitter, and had such an effect upon the people, that Antony was declared a public enemy. Octavius marched to meet him and Lepidus, who were marching southward with another large army.

Instead of fighting, however, the three leaders met in secret conclave, and agreed to divide the power in Rome between them. This compact is known as the Second Triumvirate. Its members followed the example of Marius and Sulla, not that of Cæsar, and resolved to extirpate their enemies. Each of them gave up personal friends to the vengeance of the others. Of their victims the most famous was Cicero, who had delivered his orations against Antony in aid of Octavius. The ambitious boy was base enough to yield his friend to the vengeance of the incensed Antony. No less than three hundred senators and two thousand knights fell victims to this new proscription, which while it lasted made a reign of terror in Rome.


Antony's Oration Over Caesar.

Brutus and Cassius had meanwhile made themselves masters of Greece and the eastern provinces of Rome, and were ready to meet the forces of the Triumvirate in the field. The decisive battle was fought on the field of Philippi in Northern Greece. The division of Cassius was defeated, and he killed himself in despair. Twenty days afterwards another battle was fought on the same field, in which Brutus was defeated, and likewise put an end to his life. The triumvirs were undisputed lords of Rome. The Imperial rule of Cæsar had lasted but a few months, and ended with his life. But with Octavius began an imperial era which lasted till the end of the dominion of Rome.