The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination
By Barry Strauss
Simon & Schuster, 323 pages
Julius Caesar was warned several times not to go to the Senate House that morning 2,059 years ago. The omens and his soothsayers were against it; his wife, Calpurnia, had dreamt the night before that she was holding his gored corpse in her arms; and on his way to the Senate, a man named Artemidorus of Cnidus actually handed him a small roll of paper with details of the murder conspiracy. He failed to open it. Instead Caesar listened to his comrade-in-arms, Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus, who said that not going to the meeting would make him seem either weak for heeding a woman’s dreams or a tyrant for not bothering to attend a Senate occasion that he himself had called.
Decimus wasn’t just a brilliant young general from a noble family who had been made governor of Gaul by Caesar. He was also secretly the third leader of the murder conspiracy, even more important than his two comrades, Brutus and Cassius, who today are far more famous largely because of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which puts them center-stage. Shakespeare used only one ancient source—Plutarch. Barry Strauss of Cornell University has read them all, and in The Death of Caesar, his gripping yet scholarly account of the assassination, he weighs up the evidence judiciously as a sleuth might evaluate the contradictory accounts of eyewitnesses at a murder scene.
The questions that are often asked about Caesar’s murder are each answered by Strauss with a combination of historical evidence, highly informed guesswork, and a good deal of common sense. How was a conspiracy of 60 people kept so secret (Artemidorus notwithstanding) in a city as gossipy as Rome? Why did no one notice that up to a hundred gladiators had been hired to protect the assassins that morning? How did the conspirators hide their daggers inside their togas? Did Caesar really fall at the foot of his mortal enemy Pompey’s statue, or was that just poetic license? Were the daggers held upwards or downwards in the conspirators’ hands? Why did such a well-organized conspiracy have such a chaotic aftermath and ultimately fail to reestablish a Senate-dominated republic? Strauss goes into all these questions, and many more, with answers that entirely convince. (Needless to say, “Et tu, Brute?” was one of many Shakespearian inventions.)
“Dark-eyed and silver-tongued, sensual and violent, Caesar possessed supreme tactical ability. He used it to change the world, driven by his love of Rome and lust for domination,” writes Strauss as he opens the book with Caesar’s return to Italy in August 45 b.c.e., seven months before the Ides of March. “Caesar’s armies killed or enslaved millions, many of them women and children,” he continues. “Yet after these bloodbaths he pardoned his enemies at home and abroad. These overtures of goodwill raised suspicions—could the conqueror be a conciliator?—but most had no choice but to acquiesce.” Strauss then assiduously sets the scene for what was essentially an upper-class generals’ plot against the man the aristocratic soldiers of the Senate feared would subvert forever the supposed republican virtues of Rome.
Strauss also excels at examining the central part women played in Roman politics of the day and shows that several of them were deeply torn over the plot. Servilia, for example, was Caesar’s mistress, Brutus’s mother, and Cassius’s mother-in-law. Some sources state that Junia Tertia, daughter of Servilia and wife of Cassius, was also a mistress of Caesar’s. When one adds Decimus’s mother, Sempronia—who, Strauss says, “had a reputation for brains, beauty, adultery, and revolutionary politics”—and Brutus’s equally strong-willed wife, Porcia, the daughter of the great Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, into the mix, there is the recipe for a fabulous TV series, not just a deeply researched and pacily written history book.
Strauss is particularly adept at picking and choosing between the sources, all of which he knows intimately from a long and distinguished career teaching ancient history at Cornell, but many of which are incomplete and contradict one another. Strauss uses archeological and numismatic evidence as well in his narrative, but the contemporaneous written evidence is the most compelling. The best historian writing at the time, Asinius Pollio, was a (not uncritical) friend of Caesar’s but wasn’t in Rome then. Livy might well have been, but he was only 15. Strabo too was young, but although we know that all three wrote about the assassination in books, only a capsule summary of Livy’s chapters on Caesar has survived to the present day.
Although the account of orator and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero survives, it’s only a paragraph long and isn’t trustworthy. So Strauss instead concentrates on the later, abridged, and possibly politically biased accounts written by a Greek, Nicolaus of Damascus, as well as the pro-Brutus Plutarch, who wrote a century later, and Suetonius, who wrote later but had read earlier sources. Appian, who probably consulted Asinius Pollo’s lost account, and Cassius Dio also made important later contributions. “By the standards of ancient history it’s not a bad lineup,” notes Strauss. “But by modern measures it’s thin gruel. Supporters of the Roman emperors had little use for the conspirators, while the emperors’ opponents looked back to the conspirators as role models if not secular saints.”
Nicolaus of Damascus promoted the idea that private grudges rather than public duty motivated almost all the conspirators except Brutus. Certainly, Decimus himself seems to have betrayed his principal benefactor because he felt overlooked and underappreciated rather than out of a sense of republican virtue. Left with his five sources, which are based on secondhand accounts and none of which is impartial, Strauss emphasizes that “the historian has to exercise imagination, ingenuity, and caution.” He himself achieves all three, while at the same time writing a serious work of history that reads like a thriller.