Julius Caesar : killing the Roman leader
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By José Carlos Palma /Smartencyclopedia

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A group of as many as 60 conspirators decided to assassinate Caesar at the meeting of the Senate on March 15, the ides of March. Collectively, the group stabbed Caesar a reported 23 times, killing the Roman leader. The death of Julius Caesar ultimately had the opposite impact of what his assassins hoped. 

This news dropped like a bomb in the Smartencyclopedia newsroom. Despite the possibility of this happening in the air, no one imagined it would happen with this brutality. The spectators didn’t know it yet but they were witnessing the last hours of the Roman Republic. But who was to blame?

I happened to be in Rome to cover the games. I was tired of the journey he brought from Iberia to the capital of the Empire. The roads of the empire weren’t exactly sweet to travel. One had to stop at many inns, which were often poorly attended, and there were reports of robberies. The Empire did not live easy days!

But let’s get to the point because that’s what they pay us for.

I took the assistant and there we went to the Senate to cover this historic fact. It wasn’t every day that a Caesar was assassinated.

One thing was known and ran among the people. There was a name that appeared to be one of the assassins, “Marcus Junius Brutus”.

As readers of William Shakespeare know, a dying Caesar turned to one of the assassins and condemned him with his last breath. It was Caesar’s friend, Marcus Junius Brutus.

“Et tu, Brute?” – “You too, Brutus?” is what Shakespeare has Caesar say in the Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Except, Caesar never said these words. And Brutus was neither his closest friend nor his biggest betrayer, not by a long shot.

The worst traitor was another man: Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. Decimus was a distant cousin of Marcus Brutus. Because Shakespeare all but leaves him out of the story, Decimus is the forgotten assassin. In fact, he was essential.

Shakespeare puts two men in charge of the plot to kill Caesar, Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus (he of the famous “lean and hungry look”). Shakespeare mentions Decimus but misspells his name as Decius and downplays his role. But often-overlooked ancient sources make clear that Decimus was a leader of the conspiracy.

Decimus was closer to Caesar than either Brutus or Cassius was. In fact, they opposed Caesar during his bloody rise to power in a civil war. Only when he started winning the war did they defect to his cause. Caesar pardoned Brutus and Cassius and rewarded them with political office but he didn’t trust them. Decimus was different. He always fought for Caesar, never against him, and so he held a place in Caesar’s inner circle.

Decimus belonged to the Roman nobility, the narrow elite that ruled both Rome and an empire of tens of millions of people. His grandfather extended Rome’s rule to the Atlantic, in Spain. But Decimus’s father had a mediocre career and his mother dabbled in revolution. Then Caesar came along and offered Decimus the chance to restore his house’s name.

Decimus was a soldier at heart, educated but rough and ambitious, as his surviving correspondence shows. “My soldiers have experienced my generosity and my courage,” Decimus wrote. “I waged war against the most warlike peoples, captured many strongholds and destroyed many places.” He did all that, he wrote, to impress his men, to serve the public, and to advance his reputation.

Decimus warmed to Caesar, a great commander and a war hero to boot. In his mid-twenties Decimus joined Caesar’s forces that were fighting to add Gaul (roughly, France and Belgium) to Rome’s empire. Decimus won an important naval battle off Brittany and served with Caesar in the siege at Alesia (in today’s Burgundy) that sealed Rome’s victory in Gaul.

Later, his enemies in the Roman senate tried to strip Caesar of power but he fought back. It was civil war and Decimus chose Caesar. Once again, Decimus won a victory at sea, this time on Gaul’s Mediterranean coast. A grateful Caesar named Decimus acting governor of Gaul while Caesar went off to challenge his enemies elsewhere. After more than four years of hard fighting, Caesar returned to Rome triumphant in 45 B.C., with Decimus at his side. Why, then, did Decimus raise a dagger against Caesar only nine months later?

Many Romans feared the power that Caesar amassed. In theory Rome was a constitutional republic. In practice, Rome teetered for decades on the brink of military dictatorship. Now, Caesar was Rome’s first dictator for life—a king in all but name. He even took a queen as his mistress, Cleopatra of Egypt. In March 44 B.C. she lived in Caesar’s villa on the outskirts of Rome. Her young son was, she claimed, Caesar’s illegitimate child. All of this was too much for Roman traditionalists.

But ambition rather than political principle turned Decimus against Caesar. Decimus’s letters suggest a man who cared more about honor than about liberty. He wanted the distinction of a triumph or formal victory parade in Rome, but Caesar denied it, although he granted the privilege to lesser generals. No doubt the dictator liked to dole out his favors slowly to keep his men on their toes. He rewarded Decimus in other ways, but the slight still smarted.

José Carlos Palma , the Smartencyclopedia in Rome!


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