What was the Impact of Julius Caesar’s Murder?
Julius Caesar was killed on 15 March 44 BC. We’ve heard about the ‘Ides of March’ – but what happened next?
‘Caesar’s is the only death that still reverberates’
Emma Southon, Author of A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Oneworld, 2021) and A History of the Roman Empire in 21 Women (published in September 2023)
The Ides of March was a bottleneck in Roman history. Before it was the Republic and after it came the Principate, under the rule of a single emperor. Julius Caesar was neither the first nor the last leader to be assassinated in Roman history, but his is the only death that still reverberates. The Ides of March left an immediate impact on the Roman historical landscape not just because of Caesar’s unique position as Perpetual Dictator, but because it opened the door for his astonishing grand-nephew Octavian (who later renamed himself Augustus) to reshape the entire political world and to look reasonable while doing it.
Caesar adopted Octavian as his son in his will, written just six months before he died. No assassin considered the 18-year-old to be a political or military threat, and indeed he was treated as a nuisance and a joke by both Mark Antony and Cicero when he appeared in Rome two months after 15 March 44 BC to take up his place as Caesar’s heir. Over the months that followed, however, Octavian used the manner of Caesar’s death as an unimpeachable foundation on which he could build power, influence and an army. While the adults in the city were attempting to come to a very uneasy truce with Antony as consul and the assassins in safe positions abroad, Octavian refused to play along. He claimed to want vengeance against his ‘father’s’ murderers and he upended every due process to pursue this claim. Octavian’s early career raising private armies, turning Caesar into a divinity and creating his own political career outside of official structures was guided entirely by the manner of Caesar’s death.
The Ides of March is still remembered because of Octavian, because the violence allowed him to start two civil wars on the pretext of avenging his father, to ‘restore liberty to the Republic’ through better planned violence. He was able to learn from his father’s mistakes and carve out the Principate over the course of decades instead of years. Without Octavian, Caesar’s death may have been just one in an ongoing series of tyrannicides and wars, a comma in Roman history. Octavian made it a full stop.
‘The assassination was a public act by Roman grandees against one of their own class’
Peter Stothard Author of The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020) and Crassus: The First Tycoon (Yale University Press, 2022)
First, there was fear of the new. The assassination was a public act by Roman grandees against one of their own class who had become a populist dictator. Few in Rome knew how many killers there were, or who their next target might be. Maybe the plotters were merely aristocrat reactionaries who wanted back what Caesar had taken away? But lesser reactionaries in recent history had murdered thousands of their enemies. For as long as history might repeat itself, it was safer to take cover.
Secondly, there was pretence. In the days after the wielding of the daggers it suited both Caesar’s killers and his loyal lieutenants to pretend that the dictatorship had been a blip, an aberration, and that, with Caesar gone, normal life could resume. The assassins were not revolutionaries. They preferred to take command of the top jobs in the provinces that Caesar had already promised them.
The third impact was the realisation of a new reality. Caesar’s teenage adopted son took over where his father had left off. The power of a popular name to motivate soldiers and the poor left his killers amazed. Their attempt to fight under the banner of ‘Liberty’ and ‘Death to Tyrants’ ended in defeat. Caesar’s people had much less interest in these concepts than the intellectual aristocrats did.
The fourth impact combined the first three. There was a terror, but not of the kind feared on the afternoon of the Ides of March. Caesar’s son initiated a revolutionary terror of populists against those alleged to be reactionaries. There was pretence by the newly named Augustus that his rise to be more powerful than any mere dictator was a peaceful continuation of the best old ways – a ploy followed by Party General Secretaries far into the future. Rome’s first emperor, who preferred to style himself Rome’s First Citizen, took all Caesar’s centralised power that the assassins had feared, and more. The man who felt the clearest impact of the assassination did not give up power till AD 14, and then only at his peaceful death and a handover to his own adopted son. The law of unintended consequences would never be better proved.
‘The murder of Caesar marked the beginning of a long and protracted civil war’
Valentina Arena, Professor of Ancient History, University College London
Along with 9/11 and 14 July, the Ides of March is arguably one of the most famous dates in history. When the conspirators murdered Julius Caesar under the battle-cry of liberty for the Republic, they did not realise that their action would produce an outcome diametrically opposed to their aim.
Far from ending civil unrest and restoring the res publica, the murder of Caesar marked the beginning of a long and protracted civil war and social turmoil, with the formal establishment of the second triumvirate (Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus) by the lex Titia in November 43 BC, which gave legal legitimacy to its members’ powers and inflicted a powerful blow to an already fractured community.
When this period came to an end and the self-proclaimed liberators were defeated, the two heirs of Caesar, Octavian and Mark Antony, fought one another, with the ultimate victory of Octavian and the establishment of peace (pax).
This concept, very different from the harmony sought after previous internecine conflicts, gained a new saliency. The civil war between Mark Antony and Octavian could no longer be masked as an attempt to remove an hostis (an external enemy of the Roman Republic) from the state and to recompose the state’s harmony. Rather, it created a split in Republican society that, thereafter, could no longer be recomposed: the two sides strove for the annihilation of the other. The resulting peace, born out of victory of one group of citizens over the other, was a state of non-violence, in effect a blank canvas, open to the design of the victor.
At the end of all previous internecine conflicts, the Romans seemed to search for the recomposition of the harmony among Roman social groups as well as their institutional representations. Octavian, instead, created peace under a new political order where the old institutions, although formally preserved, were now under the authority of a new role, the princeps (Octavian/Augustus).
The assassination of Caesar thus marked the definitive end of the Republican dream and any plan to reform the Republican system was halted: the people no longer had an institutional voice of any kind and the senate’s liberty, for which the killers of Caesar fought, was never restored again.
‘The death of Caesar did not provoke the end of the Republic’
Anthony Smart, Lecturer in Ancient and Medieval History at York St John University
When Julius Caesar died it appeared for a brief moment that the old oligarchy had at last triumphed. His death was meant to free the Republic from one-man rule; to unfetter the ancient structures of governance from unnatural and unprecedented control, and return the Republic to what it had once been.
But the death of Caesar did not provoke the end of the Republic. Caesar’s power came not only from the legions, but from the urban populace of Rome itself. When campaigning in Gaul, he took care to speak to people across the city, to provide his version of events, but also to create in their minds an image of himself that was for the people. His Commentaries were never just dispatches from the front, but a point of political communication with the city and with the people who championed him.
When the conspirators headed to the Capitoline Hill to proclaim the death of the dictator the reaction was muted. The city strangely silent. When the voice of the people did at last emerge, it was not what the oligarchic elite had anticipated. The speech against Caesar delivered by one of the conspirators in the Forum resulted in anger and violence. The conspirators were forced to flee for their own safety.
This is the crucial moment that tells us about Caesar’s death and its importance. Some believed his body should be cast into the Tiber, the resting place of those criminals and malcontents who had turned against the Republic. Instead, his corpse was abandoned so it could be returned to his home later in the day, to be used by Antony to build his own political support among the Roman people, and then in turn to create the image of Octavian/Augustus.
This was no year zero. It did not mark the end of the Republic. Caesar’s death reminds us not just of the danger of narratives, but that the political and social realities of Rome were never going to disappear. It was the Roman people, with their voice and in their silence, who dictated the realities of power. It is the senate and the people who brought about the fall of the Republic, not Caesar.