The Assassination of Julius Caesar: Tyrannicide or Treason?

The French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) depicted not only the incident itself, but its immediate aftermath in this painting. The original painting is currently in the Walters Art Museum | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Twenty three stab wounds was all it took to take down one of the most powerful leaders in Roman history. Despite being hailed as a powerful war hero in history, Julius Caesar was murdered in his own city by his own people on the Ides of March 44 B.C.E.1 Gaius Julius Caesar was born on July 13, 100 B.C.E. in Rome, and became dictator of the Roman Republic in October 49 B.C.E. The powerful image of Caesar even today cannot be compared, and that is why his legacy is still alive today. He was an ambitious figure that conquered modern day France, led the civil war, and influenced the fall of the Roman Republic. The Roman Republic before its fall served the wealthy and the privileged.2 Caesar did not want to do away with the Republic despite what critics say; all he wanted to do was reform it and give more power to the people. Members in the Senate, however, would not allow this. Julius Caesar’s assassination cannot be justified; it was treason and murder, even though those who murdered him defended their actions as tyrannicide.

Exhibition at the Grand Palais. Original statue dated back to 50-40 B.C.E. Courtesy of WikiCommons.
Bust of Julius Caesar | Exhibition at the Grand Palais | Dated to 50-40 B.C.E. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The conspirators were not from outside forces of Rome; instead, they were from Caesar’s inner circle of elite senators. Caesar entrusted Brutus and Cassius to be his eyes and ears in the Senate, but they did just the opposite. Brutus, who was pardoned by Caesar after helping Caesar’s foe Pompey during the recent civil war, was one of the masterminds behind the assassination. In 44, Caesar appointed Brutus as proprietor of Gaul, or modern day France, which was one of the highest offices a nobleman could hold.3 Cassius, another conspirator who had been pardoned by Caesar at the beginning of his dictatorship, was also one of the masterminds behind the assassination. Repeatedly, Caesar seems to have contributed to his own death by pardoning those who did not deserve to be pardoned. Instead of dealing harshly with his enemies, he pardoned them and kept them close. He took the saying keep your enemies close to an extreme, since they ended up close enough to assassinate him.

In some ways, the conspirators who plotted against Caesar’s life had a clear justifiable reason in mind. The conspirators defied Caesar’s authority and perceived him to be a popular leader who threatened their privileged interests. They truly believed they were saving the Republic. They wanted to restore republican liberties that Caesar had robbed from them.4 For example, Caesar completely disregarded their unwritten constitution and the Roman mos maiorum, or ancestral customs, when he appointed commoners to offices that only aristocrats could hold. He was defying their unspoken and unwritten rule that commoners cannot be placed in charge.5 Doing away with Caesar would do good to the people of Rome; therefore, tyrannicide was justifiable in their eyes. And so their treasonous act will forever be remembered as the most infamous assassination in history.

An oil on canvas painting depicting the murder of Julius Caesar by Karl von Piloty in 1865. Courtesy of WikiCommons.
An oil on canvas painting depicting the murder of Julius Caesar by Karl von Piloty in 1865 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Although some of his actions were faulty, Caesar did not deserve to die in the treacherous way that he did. Murder consists of three things and the conspirators held all three of them, which is intent, malice, and premeditation. The conspirators intended to kill Caesar before he left for Parthia on March 18, 44 B.C.E.6 The raid on Parthia would cause Caesar to be away for months on end, so the conspirators had to act quickly. They premeditated their attack before Caesar left by taking into account time, numbers, and politics. They knew Caesar would be unaccompanied and surrounded by Senate members such as themselves. They also knew that only Senate members were allowed inside the Senate chambers, prohibiting any outsiders Caesar usually surrounded himself with.7 Their malice was proven in the gruesome way Caesar was left on the steps of the Senate building. Together, they marched to the Senate, with daggers under their white togas, with intent, malice, and premeditation to kill Julius Caesar. Before Caesar’s assassination, every senator had to sign an oath in which they promised to maintain Caesar’s safety. The penalty for violating the oath was the death penalty.8  The Senators involved almost got away with murder, but Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and successor, and Marc Antony, Caesar’s best friend, hunted the assassins down one by one and avenged his murder.

 

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015, s.v. “Julius Caesar,” by Arnold Joseph Toynbee.
  2. Michael Parenti, The Assassination Of Julius Caesar: A People’s History Of Ancient Rome (New York: The New Press, 2004), 47.
  3.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2015, s.v. “Marcus Junius Brutus,” by E. Badian.
  4. Parenti, The Assassination Of Julius Caesar: A People’s History Of Ancient Rome, 2.
  5. Parenti, The Assassination Of Julius Caesar: A People’s History Of Ancient Rome, 3.
  6. Barry Strauss, The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), 54.
  7. Greg Woolf, “Et Tu Brute? : Caesar’s Murder and Political Assassination” (London: Profile Books, 2006), 45.
  8. Strauss, The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination, 51.

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This Post Has 43 Comments

  1. It is difficult being a leader and a public figure. People always go after the head of the operation. Being a person in power makes a constant target for envious and treacherous individuals. Julius Caesar was in that position and unfortunately, his opponents got the “jump” on him. Caesar’s story demonstrates you need to watch those closest to you.

  2. After reading this article and finding out that Julius Caesar only wanted to reform and give more power to the people, I think that it was cruel and unfair for him to be brutally murdered by people he trusted. Julius Caesar literally pardoned Brutus and Cassius, and in return they murdered him for being a dictator. It doesn’t make any sense to me that they did that, especially when all of the senators signed an oath that stated that they would ensure Caesar’s safety. Unfortunately, I think Caesar put himself in this situation. As stated in the article, Caesar really should have dealt with Brutus and Cassius in a more stern way instead of pardoning them and then keeping them close to him.

  3. Very interesting article, most of what I know is from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” so it was nice to read another perspective of the murder. Although a murder can never fully be morally justified, the senators had some valid reasons to keep a dictator from taking the government. It is very interesting how they turned on him for breaking unwritten rules of government conduct.

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