Thursday, March 15, 2007

March 15

The middle of March, 44 BCE was not looking so good for Gaius Julius Caesar. Though he had recently been appointed dictator for life over Rome and was positively drowning in formal honors bestowed on him by the Senate, Caesar had reason for concern. Rumors abounded of plots against him, and a series of bizarre events foretold great unpleasantness to come. A bronze tablet, for instance, had recently been excavated from the tomb of Capys, founder of Capua, warning that its discovery would be followed by a terrible murder of great significance to the Roman people. More strangely, the herd of horses Caesar had brought with him across the Rubicon had suddenly refused to graze and were observed actually weeping in the fields. A soothsayer named Spurrina had also given warning to the dictator that peril was afoot, and on March 14 a king bird flew into the Hall of Pompey (named for Caesar’s vanquished foe) and was torn to pieces by various other birds in pursuit from a nearby grove. Finally, on the night before his death, both Caesar and his wife Calpurnia each experienced strange dreams -- Casear saw himself flying through the air, while Calpurnia dreamed of clutching her husband’s murdered body. During Calpurnia’s dream, the door of their bedroom suddenly flew open.

The following day, Caesar -- undeterred by the mountain of evidence that he was about to perish -- took to the forum on the invitation of numerous senators, who claimed to have a petition for him to examine. The first century Roman historian Seutonius explains what transpired:
As he took his seat, the conspirators gathered about him as if to pay their respects, and straightway Tillius Cimber, who had assumed the lead, came nearer as though to ask something; and when Caesar with a gesture put him off to another time, Cimber caught his toga by both shoulders; then as Caesar cried, “Why, this is violence!” one of the Cascas stabbed him from one side just below the throat. Caesar caught Casca’s arm and ran it through with his stylus, but as he tried to leap to his feet, he was stopped by another wound. When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, “You too, my child?” All the conspirators made off, and he lay there lifeless for some time, and finally three common slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down. And of so many wounds none turned out to be mortal, in the opinion of the physician Antistius, except the second one in the breast.
The common people of Rome rampaged through the streets after Caesar’s death, setting fires and seeking out the conspirators, whom they intended to destroy. The conspirators were spared, though few of them came to good ends. During the civil war that followed Caesar’s death, Brutus committed suicide and Cassius ordered his own freed slave to kill him.

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