March 15th is our modern name for the Ides of March, and by this evening, if we were in Rome in 44BC, our world would be a very different place. There was nothing special about the date before the assassins of Julius Caesar selected it. Its advantage for assassination was only that a senate meeting on this day was the last time that some thirty-or-so killers could be sure (well, almost sure) to get close to their target before he set off for his latest war.
Caesar was not obsessed by personal security, hardly at all by the standards of the Kaisers, Czars and Qayzars who carried his name into the future. But in the senate, even on the throne he had recently installed as dictator, Julius Caesar would be in the close company not of his soldiers but of his colleagues and friends. Those who saw Caesar as a tyrannical threat to Roman traditions, plus others whose wives he had borrowed, whose lands he had given to his mistress or who felt insufficiently rewarded for loyal service to him, could get in early and take the closest spots.
It was important for the assassins of the Ides of March that the killing be a clear political act, the murder of a man in public by his equals, not a back-alley stabbing by someone hired for the job. They chose daggers not just because daggers were easier to hide than swords but because they were more likely to contribute to what later law would call a ‘joint enterprise’. Everybody would be a hero, as they hoped, or a hunted outcast as would gradually become their fate.
The assassins were certainly successful in making their murder political, more successful than any of those who followed their example in centuries to come. In fact, they were much too successful. If Caesar had been stabbed in an ally or killed in his next war the waters might well have closed quietly over his memory. His death in Parthia, an empire of modern Iraq, Iran and Turkey where he was aiming to emulate Alexander the Great, was a possibility at least: the Parthians had less than a decade before crushed an army led by Caesar’s personal banker, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and used his head, it was said, as a stage prop in a Greek tragedy.
Instead, the chief assassins, Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, chose the Ides of March. So many conspirators knew of the plot that it was extraordinary that it remained a secret. There were not just those prepared to wield their daggers but those who had been sounded out and refused. Whatever the grubbiness of some of the assassins’ motives, the political symbolism seemed perfect. A band of political brothers, loyal to each other and to ancient Roman freedoms, had rid the world of a tyrant. What was not to like?
Caesar’s soldiers, and many among the city poor, found an easy answer to that question. The assassination had been a political act among a very small group of senators, the S in Rome’s SPQR. The other political powers in Rome did not see that their betters had acted on their behalf. The people, the P, had not felt threatened by Caesar and because his murder was so public and dramatic so was the reaction to it.
On the evening of the Ides of March it seemed still just a possibility that the assassins might escape. A compromise, brokered by Cicero and Mark Antony, was beginning to take shape: the assassins would not be thanked or hailed as heroes but there would be an amnesty and everyone would keep the lucrative opportunities for provincial extortion that Caesar had promised them.
This deal did not survive the rapid return to Italy of Caesar’s teenage heir, Octavius, who used Caesar’s name, now his own name, to mobilise Caesar’s soldiers against those who had killed him. The assassins were hunted one by one until only a poet and sailor called Cassius Parmensis was left alive. He, for longer than any of his co-conspirators, had the opportunity to see how the plot had led to unchecked one-man rule, by Octavius who became Caesar Augustus, rather than stopping it as they had planned.
Was the Ides of March the wrong date to shift the landscape of politics? A few weeks ago an eminent historian wrote to me about my book, The Last Assassin, suggesting that Caesar’s killers should have waited and allowed him to invade Parthia: even if his head hadn’t ended up as a stage prop, he would have been unlikely to have enhanced his reputation there; his momentum to absolute power would have stalled.
I disagreed. Crassus was defeated in 53 by an unusually gifted young Parthian commander whose king, sensing a rival, had soon afterwards quietly murdered. Caesar knew how Crassus had fallen and would have been unlikely to fall the same way. Both by fighting, and almost as important by writing about his war, he would very likely have returned to Rome with the kind of regal authority that the assassins most feared. There was nothing wrong with the date of the Ides of March.
Peter Stothard is a journalist and writer and the author of The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar.