The stabbing of Julius Caesar, on the Ides of March 44 BC, is perhaps the most famous assassination in history, with permission from the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Few crimes have been written about so much and speculated so intensely. And few carry a symbolic value so powerful and, at the same time, contradictory. It can be read as the story of a betrayal or as an attempt to end tyranny. And surely both versions are correct. Ronald Syme, one of the great historians of ancient Rome, wrote in his reference book The roman revolution (Criticism): “The tragedies of history do not arise from the conflict between conventional good and evil. They are more complex. Caesar and Brutus, both, were right on their part ”.
The most surprising thing is that, two thousand years later, it can still offer novelties and unexplored points of view. This is what the British writer and journalist Peter Stothard has achieved in his work The last assassin. The hunt for the men who killed Julius Caesar (Ático de los Libros, translation by Luis Noriega). Author of other books in which he mixes travel literature with a deep knowledge of the ancient world, such as On the Spartacus Road (Harper Press) o Alexandria. The Last Nights of Cleopatra (Granta), and former director of the Times and from Times Literary Supplement, Stothard narrates in his new essay the relentless persecution to which the conspirators were subjected and, through it, the end of the Roman Republic in the midst of ruthless civil wars.
The plot to assassinate Caesar was successful, but its consequences were exactly the opposite of what the assassins wanted. Rome never regained its freedom and the adopted son of the dictator, Octavio, established an imperial monarchy under the name of Augustus. He came to power after murdering his competitors and dragging the Roman world into a series of ruthless warfare.
Caesar’s death, writes Stothard, plunged Rome “into a world in which the old certainties had vanished.” Historian Mary Beard explains in her book SPQR (Criticism) that those Ides of March – on the 15th – were the culmination of a period during which Rome experienced “a progressive degeneration of the political process and a succession of atrocities that for centuries populated the imagination of the Romans.” All that brutality is concentrated in the hunt for the murderers of the dictator.
“The Julius Caesar assassination was a drama long before anyone made a play, book or movie about it,” explains Stothard, 70, in an email interview. “The assassination of the Ides of March was a political assassination. The dictator died in public. The assassins stained their white robes and sandals with blood. However, Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the heroes of the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare and most of the movies, they did not live to see much of the consequences of what they had done. My book, for the first time, tells the whole story through the eyes of the almost unknown last survivor of the murderers ”, continues Stothard in reference to the main character of his essay: Cassius of Parma (75-30 BC).
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The last assassin to be hit by imperial revenge was one of those minor characters in the story. He was present at many crucial moments, but always in the second row. He was also a writer and follower of Epicurus, a Hellenistic philosopher who has come down to us mainly as an apostle of all pleasures, although in reality his thinking was quite close to Stoicism. Its objectives were to teach to assimilate the setbacks of existence as part of nature and also to live in retirement seeking happiness. Interestingly, several of Caesar’s assassins shared that philosophy, but they stuck to the first, and deadly, line of politics.
“Cassius of Parma was a secondary in one of the greatest dramas in history,” says Stothard. “It was one of the senators who wielded the daggers, probably somewhere in the background. He wasn’t the star of the show, not even the best supporting star. But, like many actors in a theatrical choir, he saw more of the assassination of Julius Caesar, its causes and consequences, than any of the bigger names. “
With a peculiarity: in all the Roman civil wars that were fought in the Mediterranean in the years following the crime, he always chose the wrong side. “In 13 dramatic years of persecution and war, normally ignored by historians, Cassius fought on all sides except the victor,” says Stothard, referring to the conflicts that erupted after Caesar’s death, which first pitted the conspirators with Octavio and Marco Antonio, who in turn ended up fighting each other for control of a Republic that only existed in name.
“Octavio defeated Marco Antonio in the last round, and was free to become the first emperor, Augustus Caesar,” adds the British writer. “Although his new government was the exact opposite of what Cassius and his fellow conspirators had fought for, Augustus was always careful to make people believe, as far as possible, that nothing had changed. The old institutions of the Senate and the People remained ”. When the last assassin sent by the new emperor located Cassius of Parma in Athens, where he had sought refuge, he cut off his head and took it to Rome to show that the persecution was over. Perhaps that was the moment when the old Republic faded forever.
The rage and tenacity with which the murderers were persecuted, the brutality with which some of the conspirators were executed amid gruesome torture – and if the Romans knew how to do something well, apart from public works, it was torture – they become the symbol of a dark age and, at the same time, bright because it was also one of the moments of splendor of Rome. As with the same murder of Caesar, it is a story that has two versions and, again, both are true.
“The hunt for the assassins of Julius Caesar was the most organized, the most systematic terror ever directed by the Romans against their fellow citizens,” says Stothard. “On the night of the Ides in March, the killers were nervous but optimistic. By acting together in a joint venture, without entrusting it to a soldier or a slave, they still expected to be seen as brave heroes for the common good. It quickly became clear that the people on the streets of Rome, who continued to see César as a populist on their side, did not see them that way ”.
In the end, behind the assassination of Caesar, one of the great political questions arises: what to do? “This is a debate that for a long time had an echo in European political thought,” explains the author. “The murderers were not crazy or delusional. They were thinkers, many of them friends of Caesar, although they saw him as a threat to the state. The task of Cassius of Parma, and of the most thoughtful participants in the plot, was to reconcile ancient loyalties with what was right to do. In the end, seeing what happened in the years and even centuries following that crime that wanted to save the Republic and brought the dictatorship for the rest of Roman history, the best definition of everything that happened was given by the always lucid interpreter of antiquity. Mary Beard when she wrote that “the murder of Julius Caesar is a shit.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.