Book Review: The Death of Caesar, by Barry Strauss

The assassination of Julius Caesar was a critical event in western history. It led to the end of the oligarchic Roman Republic and to the establishment of a monarchy as Rome continued to expand and dominate much of Europe and the Middle East.
Barry Strauss has examined all of the near-contemporary literature about the assassination and its aftermath-his sources include Nicolaus of Damascus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Appian of Alexandria, Sallust, and Cassius Dio.
Strauss closely examines the personalities and motivations of the most prominent conspirators, Marcus Junius Brutus, Gaius Cassius Longinus and Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. Of these, Decimus Brutus plays a far more prominent role than is commonly acknowledged. It is Decimus who goes to fetch Caesar when he fails to show up at the Senate House of Pompey, having heeded his wife’s pleas not to go out. Decimus and Caesar had had a long and close association and Caesar trusted him completely. It was most likely Decimus’ dagger that made the one fatal wound of the twenty-three that Caesar sustained.
According to Strauss, the plot to assassinate Caesar probably originated in February of 44 B.C. Up to 60 or so prominent Romans were involved, but only 24 actually took part-23 who assaulted Caesar plus Gaius Trebonius who stayed outside and occupied Marc Antony in conversation. Caesar had made some political blunders during that season which alienated quite a number of prominent Romans. The conspirators included those like Decimus Brutus, Gaius Trebonius and Lucius Tillius Cimber, who were publicly allied with Caesar and whom he trusted, those like Marcus Brutus and Cassius who had allied themselves with Pompey but had been granted clemency and raised to high status by Caesar after the battle of Pharsalus, and those like Pontus Aquila who publicly opposed Caesar. Cicero was not in on the plot but he strongly applauded the result and supported the republican faction thereafter.
Students of history have long wondered whether assassinating Caesar was the right thing to do. It is difficult to find any heroes in this story. Marcus Junius Brutus probably comes closest. He is acknowledged to have been acting from the pure motive of protecting the Roman Republic from someone he believed would have established monarchical rule, but Strauss criticizes Brutus for imposing harsh taxes on provincials and betraying men he had followed, like Pompey and Cato. Brutus desired that the deed be done with as little bloodshed as possible-where other conspirators favored assassinating Marc Antony and perhaps others, he insisted on limiting the killing to Caesar himself. Was this a mistake? Strauss maintains that in the short run sparing Antony benefited the conspirators because he was willing to compromise with them, but in the long run it was Antony who destroyed the forces of Marcus Brutus and Cassius at Philippi.
One thing the conspirators did not reckon on was the political talent of Caesar’s great nephew and heir, Octavian. Only eighteen years old at the time of his great uncle’ assassination he raised his own legions from among Caesar’s loyalists, allied himself at first with the Republicans against Antony, and helped the Consuls Hirtius and Pansa defeat Antony at the battle of Forum Gallorum. The Consuls both died in the battle and Octavian got himself appointed Consul. It was the start of an astonishing political career.
It is clear that, in the final analysis, the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar failed in its purpose, which was to preserve the republican form of government. Within fourteen years all of the assassins were dead, either having died in battle or executed at the hands of Antony or Octavian. The rise of Augustus, (Octavian) brought an end to the long series of civil wars that had plagued Rome during the first century B.C. and a period of peace, prosperity and cultural flowering, but the Republic would never return. As a monarchy Rome would chug along for another five hundred years in the west and over 1400 year in the east.

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