Americans are not great students of history, especially ancient history. Very likely the assassination of Julius Cæsar, one of the most important events in the history of ancient Rome, would also be among the “things not generally known” among Americans, had not Shakespeare’s great tragedy made them familiar with it.
It is true, the aims of the dramatist and of the historian are wide-apart. The dramatist places the hero in the centre of the plot, and causes every part of it to contribute to the catastrophe which overwhelms him under the decree of fate. He is the victim of his own guilt. The historian makes the great man but one of the principal factors in the evolution of events, and if a Cæsar or a Napoleon succumbs in the struggle, it is by force of external circumstances against which his genius is powerless to contend, although his ambition or his passion may have been the dominant cause of arraying those circumstances against him. By his matchless genius and incomparable art, Shakespeare has, to a certain degree, in his “Julius Cæsar,” solved the difficult problem of combining the task of the dramatic poet with that of the historian, and has placed before the spectator not only Cæsar himself with his world-wide and imperialistic ambition as the central figure of the play, but also Rome with its republican recollections and aspirations in antagonism to Cæsar’s ambition. The delineation of the character of the foremost man of the ancient world by the greatest dramatist of modern times, and his skillful grouping of the great republicans struggling for the maintenance of republican institutions, have been so indelibly engraved upon the minds of modern readers that the assassination of Julius Cæsar, which took place at Rome 44 B.C., is nearly as familiar to them as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. And if we, in this series of Famous Assassinations in History, devote a chapter to it, it is simply for the reason that the series would be incomplete without it. Moreover, it may be both interesting and useful to call to the mind of the reader the circumstances and surroundings which led to the downfall of Cæsar. The conspiracy and assassination removed from the scene of action the master-mind of the age, without saving the republican institutions; and it is only by explaining the causes that we can do justice to the noble intentions of the conspirators, while lamenting the assassination of Cæsar as a public misfortune for Rome, inasmuch as it removed the strong hand that could have prevented the anarchy and civil war which broke out among his successors, immediately after his disappearance from the public stage.
Cæsar was at the height of his power. His achievements had eclipsed the military glory of Pompey, and by his wonderful career he might truly be looked upon as the “man of destiny.” On his return from Gaul, when the Senate had rejected his request for a prolongation of his command, and had ordered him to disband his army and to give up the administration of his province, his popularity was so great that his homeward journey, escorted as he was by his victorious army, was but a continuous triumphal march. Not only Rome, but all Italy welcomed him home as its greatest man, and was ready to heap its greatest, nay even divine honors upon him.
The Senate and its chosen commander-in-chief, Pompey, had fled on the approach of Cæsar. In the decisive battle of Pharsalus Cæsar defeated Pompey, and by this victory became the sole ruler of the Roman Republic. Pompey was assassinated on landing in Egypt, as a fugitive, and Cæsar returned to Rome, where he was received with the tumultuous acclamations of the people, and conducted to the Capitol as the savior of the country. The Senate, which had just made war upon him and outlawed him as an enemy of the fatherland, appointed him dictator for ten years with absolute and supreme power, gave him a body-guard of seventy-two lictors to proclaim his majesty and inviolability, and ordered his statue to be placed beside that of Jupiter on the Capitol. A public thanksgiving festival, continuing for forty days, was proclaimed, and four brilliant triumphs for his victories in Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, and Africa, were accorded to him.
Never before in the history of Rome had such honors, which seemed to pass the human limit, been conferred on any Roman citizen. It was evident that of the Republic nothing but the name remained, and that Cæsar, the dictator, was in fact the absolute monarch of the immense Empire. Once more the friends of liberty made an effort to shake off the yoke which Cæsar had imposed on the Republic. They flocked to the standards of the sons of Pompey, but the bloody and hard-fought battle of Munda sealed their fate; and Cæsar, again victorious, remained the absolute master of the civilized world,—not without an enemy, but certainly without a rival.
On his return to Rome new honors and new ovations awaited him. The dignity and pride of Roman citizenship seemed to have been lost entirely in the crouching servility with which the most distinguished and most highly stationed citizens prostrated themselves at the feet of the all-powerful ruler. Resistance to Cæsar had apparently disappeared. All bowed to his surpassing genius and ability, and to these qualities he added acts of clemency, kindness, and gentleness, which won him the hearts even of those who, from political principle, had opposed him. But while thus openly the more than imperial power of Cæsar was generally recognized, and while the Senate and the tribunes had been degraded to the position of mere tools to his autocratic will, there still remained in the hearts of a number of high-minded patriots the hope and anxious desire to save the republican form of government from the grasping ambition of the conqueror, who was evidently not satisfied with being Imperator in fact, but wanted to be also Imperator in name. At least the repeated attempts of the most intimate friends and most trusted lieutenants of Cæsar to induce him to accept the crown at the hands of a subservient people, and his rather hesitating conduct in refusing these proposals, seemed to confirm this suspicion.
These enthusiastic Republicans cautiously disguised their hostility to the Imperator under the mask of devoted friendship. Their hope was, perhaps, that Cæsar’s imperial régime would be but temporary and that, like Sulla, he would sooner or later get tired of his dictatorship, and resign his imperial honors. But Cæsar did not think of abdicating the honors he had won; on the contrary, every act and every public utterance of his indicated that he wished to prolong and augment them rather than to abandon them. In public he was anxious to show his preëminence. He appeared dressed in the costume of the kings of Alba, and with royal insignia. One day, when the entire Senate waited upon him in front of the temple of Venus, he remained seated while he was addressed, during the entire ceremony. His statue at the Capitol was placed beside those of the ancient kings of Rome, as though he were to continue their line. New titles of honor, not to say worship, were added to those which had been conferred upon him at the first moment of his brilliant victories, and his lieutenants and followers welcomed and adopted them as something that was due to his superhuman wisdom and greatness. He was called not only “Father of the Country,” but “Demi-God,” the “Invincible God,” “Jupiter Julius,”—as though Jupiter himself had taken mortal form and shape in him.
This public adoration irritated the Republicans we have mentioned, to the highest degree. They secretly charged Cæsar with encouraging or instigating this worship of himself, because they knew that his friends would not have proposed it unless confident that he would be pleased by it. Brutus and Cassius were at the head of these Republicans. Brutus, a stern Republican, a Roman in the noblest acceptation of the word, was reputed to be Cæsar’s son, the offspring of an adulterous love-affair, and was openly favored and distinguished by him. Cassius, a distinguished general, was much more prompted by jealousy and envy than by civic virtue and republican principle. When these two men and their friends became thoroughly convinced that Cæsar’s ambition would stop at nothing, and that the new imperialistic régime was to be permanent, they came to the conclusion that nothing but Cæsar’s death could prevent these calamities. They therefore resolved to assassinate him.
The ides of March (the fifteenth day of the month) in the year 44 B.C., was selected as the day of the assassination. The conspiracy had been formed with the greatest secrecy, but it came near failing at the eleventh hour. Cæsar’s wife had had dreams and presentiments of bad omen, and she persuaded him not to go to the Senate on that day. Very reluctantly he consented to remain at home. But Decimus Brutus, one of the conspirators, who was afraid that the postponement of the assassination might lead to its discovery, went to Cæsar’s residence, ridiculed the dreams of a timid woman, and said he could not believe that they would influence the mind of the great Cæsar. Then Cæsar, half ashamed at having yielded to his wife’s entreaties, accompanied him. On his way to the Senate a paper was handed to Cæsar, which gave all the particulars of the conspiracy, and warned him not to go to the Senate session on the fifteenth of March, because it was the day set for his assassination. But Cæsar kept the paper in his hand without reading it. Under various pretexts, all the particular friends of Cæsar had been kept from attending the session of the Senate, so that when he arrived, he was surrounded only by enemies or by those who were not considered his friends. The conspirators acted promptly. Cæsar was defenceless, and in a few minutes he lay prostrate,—a lifeless corpse, showing thirty-five wounds, many of which were absolutely fatal. The most celebrated of all political assassinations had been successful; and by a peculiar irony of fate, the dying Cæsar fell at the feet of the statue of Pompey, his great rival, whom he had vanquished at Pharsalus. His death did not, as the conspirators had hoped, prevent the establishment of the Empire; it but delayed it for a few years.
Cæsar has had many worshippers and admirers, and comparatively few calumniators and belittlers. Unquestionably he was one of the most extraordinary geniuses that ever lived, equally great as a general and as a statesman, as an orator and as a historian. In the whole range of history there is but one man—Napoleon—who, in the vastness of his conceptions and the masterly perfection of their execution, can be justly compared with him. All other men whom national vanity has occasionally placed by Cæsar’s side only suffer from the comparison; their immense inferiority appears on even superficial investigation. He was in fact the foremost man the world had seen to his day, and, but for his equally great rival in modern times, would still occupy the pinnacle of human greatness alone. Very likely, if he had lived, Rome would have been the happier.