11 April 2011

Cowards: The Assassins of Julius Caesar

Michelle Styles

Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March has echoed down through history. His last gasp of Et tu Brute, as the man reputed to be son and who became his chief assassin put the knife in has come to mean the ultimate act of betrayal. He died in the assembly hall near Pompey’s theatre (rather than in the forum) where the senate had gathered for the day's proceedings. 60 senators drew knifes from their togas and attacked him.

It remains remarkable given the sheer number of men involved that Caesar continued to laugh off the concerns of a soothsayer and his wife. Did he know about the plot and consider that the men were too cowardly pull it off? He certainly heard rumours of it beyond the mutters of a soothsayer. His supporters actively encouraged him to hunt the men down. Caesar’s response was to dismiss his bodyguard and basically dare them to do it. He appears to have thought that if they were going to act, it would on the streets of Rome rather than in the senate. After all the Senate had rubber stamped his grab of power. He supposedly felt that a man who lived in fear died a thousand cowardly deaths. I suspect that he thought they would not have the stomach for it.

Yet the 60 conspirators did not think of themselves as cowards or dishonourable men. They were acting of out the highest ideals. They wanted to remove a man whom they considered a danger to the republic. Caesar had just declared himself dictator for life and was about to embark on a programme that would have radically reshaped the Roman Republic. He bet the Roman people would rather have an illegal tyrant who brought peace than suffer more unrest. The Republic had just gone through a series of civil wars and unrest and Caesar looked poised to be another Sulla. The assassination on the senate floor was supposed to demonstrate that the Senate would not tolerate such behaviour. It was out in the open, rather than happening on the back streets of Rome. The members of the Senate who did it stood up for what they believed were the scared principles of Rome. This was an execution, rather than a squalid death in a political fight. Marcus Brutus who was the proud descendant of the man who killed the last Roman king expected the Roman public to greet his blood stained dagger with cheers, there were riots. People panicked. Rome as they had known it had ended.

So were they cowards or liberators?

Unfortunately the conspirators did not go far enough in many respects. They were willing to remove an increasingly isolated and dictatorial figurehead but not the people directly beneath him. They lacked the stomach to do the job completely. They did not go after his supporters, maintaining a myth that it was just Julius Caesar until they realised far too late that public opinion had turned against them and the noble act had become an infamous one. Thus in many ways, they made it easy for Gaius Octavius to step into his great-uncle’s sandals and gain control. They had hastened the emergence of the Roman Empire, rather saving the Republic. And the writing of history belongs to the victors, rather than the losers. Thus the assassins of Julius Caesar were cowards and committed the ultimate act of betrayal.

Michelle Styles has written a number of Roman  Republic set historical romances. The most recent The Perfect Concubine was released as Harlequin Historical Undone in February. Her latest full length novel Breaking the Governess's Rules which is set in the North East of England was published in March. You can learn more about Michelle's books by visiting her website http://www.michellestyles.co.uk/