After a meteoric rise, a bit of bribery and a lot of wars and a run-in with some pirates, Julius Caesar was declared dictator of Rome and its Empire in 46 BC. Caesar was approaching the peak of his power. And some peak it was; his name is still familiar today, and it is from his name that the words for king in German, Kaiser and many Slavonic languages, Tsar come.
Literally having his name evolve to mean king in half the Western world is not even Caesar’s most impressive name based feat: his power was so absolute over Roman society that he reorganised the calendar from a lunar based to a solar based one. As in the Egyptian calendar, he set the length of a year as 365.25 days, and invented the leap year to account for the extra quarter day. The month of Quintilis was renamed July to honour Caesar.
In fact, it was around the time he started having months named after him that some figures in the Senate begun to resent Caesar as a dictator. By this time, he’d also made a number of reforms, both to strengthen the Empire and to cement his own power and prevent future challengers to him. For instance, he instigated a large programme of public works like temples and rewarded families for having lots of children, to grow the population faster.
Increasingly Caesar began to take personal power over the state and ascend to the level of a divine ruler, being granted further honours such as coins having his face on, having a golden chair in the senate and a literal cult, with Mark Antony as high priest. The last straw, as if all this wasn’t enough of a red flag, came in February 44 BC when Caesar was proclaimed dictator in perpetuity.
The plot to assassinate Caesar was hatched (a word applied only to plots, plans and eggs), by a number of Caesar’s old associates, many of whom he had magnanimously pardoned for siding against him in the civil war. Prominent amongst the conspirators were the Senators and brothers-in-law Cassius and Brutus, the latter of whom had a close relationship to Caesar.
The conspirators decided to kill Caesar in the Senate chamber on the 15th of March, known in the Roman calendar as the Ides of March. Caesar had received several warnings, including from a soothsayer and his wife, that ill would befall him on that very. Caesar was almost swayed by their arguments, until Cassius arrived and persuaded Caesar to come to the Senate. On the way to the Senate chamber Caesar is said to have joked with the soothsayer that “the Ides of March are come”, but he was still fine, to which they replied “Aye Caesar, but not gone”.
On the night before the assassination Mark Antony had been made aware of the plot by one of the conspirators and set out to save Caesar on the morning of the Ides of March. However, the plotters had anticipated this and sent men to delay outside the Senate chamber.
Once Caesar was inside the Senate chamber Lucius Tillius Cimber presented him with a petition to recall his exiled brother and the other conspirators crowded around Caesar, ostensibly to support the petition. Caesar was having none of it though, and waved the crowd away. Then Cimber pulled Caesar’s toga down, and Caesar cried out “why, this is violence!”. Things quickly became more violent as Casca pulled out a knife and thrust it at Caesar’s throat, but he was able to catch his arm before the blow struck. Then the full group of 60 or more men fell upon Caesar, all stabbing at him until he fell to the Senate floor. They continued to stab at his body as he lay defenceless.
Caesar’s last words, if he said anything at all, are a matter of some dispute, but the commonly accepted version is “Et tu, Brute?” (“even you, Brutus”), as Caesar saw the man he regarded as a close friend stab him to death. For his betrayal of Caesar, history has taken a dim view of Brutus. Most notably, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which sets out the modern vision of Hell, Brutus can be found right at the centre of Hell, being eternally chewed by Satan himself. Satan’s other two mouths are chewing on Brutus’ fellow conspirator Cassius and Judas, which gives a sense of the gravity of Brutus’ betrayal.
The autopsy report (the first known such report in history) concluded that Caesar had been stabbed 23 times, but only the second blow, to his chest, had been enough to kill him.
Mark Antony, upon hearing the commotion in the Senate chamber, fled in fear. Indeed most ordinary Romans locked themselves in their homes, fearful of the implications of Caesar’s death, despite the conspirators taking to the streets to proclaim “People of Rome, we are once again free!”. Despite their intentions to save the Roman Republic, they had all but killed it as the people still loved Caesar. Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, and Mark Antony allied as a new civil war sprang up, and were soon successful in defeating the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius killed themselves upon losing this war. Antony fled to Egypt, where he married Cleopatra, hoping to dominate Rome using Egypt’s wealth. Relations between Antony and Octavian soon broke down and yet another civil war erupted. Octavian won this war, and Antony and Cleopatra also killed themselves (people don’t seem to take well to losing wars). Octavian became the first Roman Emperor, taking the name Augustus and later copying Caesar’s trick in having a month named for him.
As for Julius Caesar, his body remained on the Senate floor for some time, until three common slaves put him on a stretcher and carried him to his home, an arm hanging from the side of the stretcher. He was also later deified to provide further legitimacy for the sole reign of an Emperor descended from his bloodline, which probably doesn’t quite make up for being stabbed by a mob, orchestrated by one of his closest friends. In truth the fact Caesar’s name is still known today is largely down to his brutal murder, which sealed the fate of the Roman Republic.