From Republic to Empire: The Assassins of Julius Caesar Hoped to Restore the Roman Republic, but They Instead Set in Motion Events That Encouraged the Rise and Triumph of Despots Worse Than Caesar

By Bonta, Steve | The New American, January 24, 2005 | Go to article overview

From Republic to Empire: The Assassins of Julius Caesar Hoped to Restore the Roman Republic, but They Instead Set in Motion Events That Encouraged the Rise and Triumph of Despots Worse Than Caesar


Bonta, Steve, The New American


This is the eighth installment in a series of articles on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic.

It is said that Marcus Brutus, one of Julius Caesar's assassins and, along with Cassius, the leader of Rome's last republican army, had an extraordinary vision one night while encamped with his army in Asia Minor. He and Cassius had raised a vast military force to challenge the Second Triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus, a sort of military junta assembled after the death of Julius Caesar. Brutus, sometimes called "the last Roman," knew that the time was fast approaching for a climactic battle with the forces of the Second Triumvirate, and was making preparations to cross back into Greece for the final confrontation.

Brutus was alone in his tent reading by lamplight, long after the rest of his men had gone to sleep. Suddenly he became aware that he was not alone and, looking toward the entrance of the tent, saw a personage of, in Plutarch's words, "a terrible and strange appearance" standing beside his bed. Brutus, undismayed, asked the apparition what it was and why it had come. "I am your evil genius, Brutus," the figure replied. "You shall see me at Philippi." Brutus stared at the dark figure with all the courage he could muster and replied evenly, "Then I shall see you."

The next day he told his friend and associate Cassius of the vision. Cassius reassured him, saying that the mind had limitless capacities for inventing such things and that there were no such things as supernatural beings. He added with more than a little irony, "I confess I wish that there were such beings, that we might not rely upon our arms only, and our horses and our navy, all of which are so numerous and powerful, but might be confident of the assistance of the gods also, in this our most sacred and honorable attempt."

Brutus' reply is not recorded. But with the Roman government now in the grip of tyrants, the old republic in tatters, and Rome embroiled in yet another titanic civil war, Brutus and many other trembling citizens must have wondered whether, indeed, the powers of heaven had abandoned them.

From Bad to Worse

The assassination of Julius Caesar, instead of solving Rome's problems, made them worse. Brutus, Cassius, and the other assassins ran through the streets of Rome with blood on their hands and togas, proclaiming liberty and the death of the tyrant. They were greeted for the most part by sullen stares, while the remainder of the Roman government fled the Forum in confusion, expecting perhaps that this latest blow to Rome could only lead to more pogroms. Before long, Brutus and Cassius realized that, rather than ridding Rome of a detested tyrant, they had made a martyr out of a popular despot.

Two men who watched events unfold with opportunistic glee were Mark Antony, Caesar's junior consular partner, and Octavian, Caesar's adopted son (and the son of Caesar's niece), who was barely 20 years of age. Mark Antony feigned solidarity with the assassins until the day of Caesar's funeral. When he eulogized Caesar, he took advantage of the solemn occasion to heap imprecations on Caesar's assassins and displayed Caesar's bloody, slashed toga to the onlookers. The crowd, enraged at the sight, surged into the streets to hunt down and kill Caesar's murderers. They tore to pieces an innocent bystander who happened to have the same name as one of the assassins, prompting Brutus, Cassius, and the rest to flee Rome.

While Cassius and Brutus escaped to Greece to try to raise armies of their own, Antony set about consolidating power for himself. He soon found his popularity on the wane, thanks in large measure to Cicero. The tireless statesman delivered to the Senate and the Assemblies a total of 14 passionate speeches denouncing Antony and his tyrannical ambitions, calling them--only half in jest--his Philippics, after the Greek orator Demosthenes' celebrated denunciations of Philip of Macedon. …

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