Tuesday, December 18, 2012

March 15, 44 BC – Conspirators Assassinate Caesar and Antony

The rise of Julius Caesar had been meteoric.  He was born to a comfortable, but hardly powerful, patrician family in 100 BC and spent much of his youth away from Rome as the dictator Sulla committed his purges.  Young Caesar surrendered his title in the priesthood and instead joined the army to further his career in politics.  In potentially corrupt elections, Caesar began to win titles such as quaestor, Pontifex Maximus, and governor of Spain.  His victories over barbarians there earned him a triumph, which catapulted his fame and earned him spots in the circles of General Pompey the Great and Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome.  Caesar managed to bring the two, who had long been opponents, into an informal political alliance known as the Triumvirate.  He was made consul for a year and then dispatched to Gaul where his conquests would make him legendary.

Caesar returned to Rome in 49 BC on order of the Senate.  Rather than disband his army, Caesar brought with him his most loyal legion, crossing the Rubicon, which was an illegal movement of troops.  Civil war erupted as the Senate fled and built up forces to defeat the wildly popular Caesar on the field of battle.  Caesar, meanwhile, established himself as dictator and made Mark Antony his second-in-command.  Antony came from a famous and powerful family and had served on Caesar’s staff in Gaul.  He proved an effective administrator of Italy while Caesar traveled abroad, destroying the Senate’s armies and conquering Egypt.  At the celebration of Lupercalia in 44 BC, Antony won a footrace and offered his diadem to Caesar, who refused it.  The political show excited the people, who were overwhelmed by Caesar’s humility, but the thinly veiled hubris also infuriated Caesar’s enemies.  They determined to kill him.

This group of senators dubbed themselves the “Liberators” who would free Rome of Caesar, the would-be tyrant.  Conspirators Brutus, Cassius, and Casca met the night before their planned assassination on the Ides of March to discuss the political fallout.  Other conspirators suggested wiping out Caesar’s whole faction, especially the fiery Mark Antony.  Brutus and his cohorts, however, determined that only Caesar should die, which would make clear their just action as protection of the Republic.  Casca, nervous about the ordeal, let slip to Antony that Caesar would meet his end the next day at the games at Pompey’s theater.  Antony immediately hurried to warn Caesar, who accepted his company but refused to appear fearful.  Antony suggested carrying weapons and bringing bodyguards, but Caesar again refused.  On the way to the games, the Liberators ambushed Caesar and stabbed him repeatedly.  Antony attempted to defend him and in fact killed Casca’s brother Publius, but the Liberators struck him down as well, practically in self-defense against the raging onslaught of the young veteran soldier.

Chaos came over Rome, and the bodies of Antony and Caesar lay in the Forum for hours before being collected.  Days later when Caesar’s will was read, the senators were surprised to learn that Caesar had named his eighteen-year-old grandnephew Octavian as his heir.  If it had been Antony, Caesar’s legacy would have been wiped out.  Instead, Caesar’s power continued through the new, ambitious boy.  Unlike Antony, who seemed the embodiment of Mars, Octavian had little military experience but great cunning and potential.  The senators determined that the best way to be rid of him was to proceed with Caesar’s plans of a campaign against Parthia to retrieve aquilae standards lost in 53 BC.

Some were fearful that a stunning victory in Parthia would make Octavian even more famous than his predecessor, but the war turned into a stalemate.  The Romans made initial gains, but Parthian counterattack pushed them back in 40 BC.  Octavian and generals such as Ventidius managed to take back their losses, but nearly a decade of fighting put them back where they had begun.  While Octavian was away, the Senate under Cicero allowed Octavian’s titles to expire, reducing his political might.  When the war finally ended in 20 BC, Octavian returned to Rome with the lost legions’ standards, but his triumph did not last long.  Octavian served as a reformer in the Senate until his death in AD 14 with a huge expansion of public works projects but would only be known to Roman history enthusiasts.

The Roman Republic continued until 70, when generals fresh from fighting in the First Roman-Jewish War returned and settled unrest in Gaul by establishing a strong central imperator.  Military control continued as more and more rebellions occurred in Caledonia, Germania, and Dacia, as well as further issues with the Jews and Parthians in the East.  Eventually Rome’s resources became stretched too thinly, and it broke apart into a series of kingdoms, smaller empires, and vacuums of power invaders quickly seized.


In reality, Mark Antony was too late to defend of Caesar.  He fled from the Forum and slipped out of Rome until he was certain the assassins did not mean to eliminate him as well.  Returning to Rome, he gave an explosive eulogy at Caesar’s funeral and exposed the assassins’ crime.  The senators fled the mob, and a new wave of civil war came upon Rome.  Mark Antony joined with Octavian to become victorious, though they soon had their own civil war.  Octavian prevailed at the Battle of Actium and became the sole ruler of an imperial Rome that would last for centuries.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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