Cassius Parmensis, Cassius from Parma, was a bit-part player in one of the greatest dramas of history. At the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March 44BC, he was one of the crowd of dagger-wielding senators, probably somewhere towards the back. Like many lowly actors in a chorus line or holding a spear, he saw more of the show, its causes and consequences, than did any of the stars. And then, for two thousand years, he disappeared.
Parmensis’s name was taken from the small town of Parma, then known for its fertile fields just as it is now famed for ham and cheese. He was one of between 20 and 60 lesser assassins who stabbed Rome’s dictator that day; the last day available before their target left town on a mission to conquer Parthia, the kingdom that is modern Iran and Iraq. His unique triumph was that he escaped the revenge of Caesar’s heirs the longest.
Big political decisions – and the assassination has long been seen as one of history’s biggest – can be judged by both intentions and results. Parmensis, if only by survival, saw much more of the results of what he had done than Marcus Brutus, Gaius Cassius and the other grander assassins did. His life has to be put together now from fragments but, from an era where we see everything through the eyes of the grandest and most famous, it gives us not just a survivor’s view but that of a more ordinary man.
This last assassin was never far from the shadows. He fought all his battles at sea, generally the least reported parts of ancient war. He was on every side in the wars that followed Caesar’s death except the winning side whose leader would control the story. He died in exile while waiting for the executioner whom he knew would come.
Parmensis was, however, a playwright and poet himself, not a great writer but, like several others of the assassins, one who saw civilisation in philosophy and art as well as warfare. He understood the vengeance of Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian – and not merely as a frightened fighter. One of his plays was about mythology’s most brutal revenge tragedy; the story of the Greek king, Thyestes, who was forced to eat his own children by his rival brother, Atreus. Another was about the rape of Lucretia, the expulsion of Rome’s kings and the founding of its Republic. He was a somewhat old-fashioned man from a time when Octavian’s literary and political pioneers, Horace, Virgil and Livy, took history’s few top places. But he was more typical of his time than the heroes whom later playwrights, novelists and filmmakers have helped us to know.
The exact number of Caesar’s assassins is unknown. Probably it was unknown even at the time, such was the need for secrecy and plotting in code. For a brief period in March 44BC, it looked as though there might be an amnesty for those named as killers: there were many who wanted to pretend that Caesar had somehow never existed and to go forward with a new normal that was not too unlike the old. But the arrival in Rome of Octavian, Caesar’s teenage heir, fresh from his university studies and untroubled by tradition, put an end to any normal. Those who had aimed their daggers at Julius Caesar began to be themselves slaughtered by Caesar’s avengers; tortured, beheaded, individually and in groups, in a drama that lasted 14 years.
The best way to understand the full play of these events is that in history’s Act One, Julius Caesar is stabbed by his friends and rivals; in Act Two there is a brief forgiveness before there is an official list of the assassins and a reward for every one of their heads. In Act Three, Marcus Brutus and the more famous Cassius, Gaius of Shakespeare’s ‘lean and hungry look’, commit suicide. In Act Four, Cassius Parmensis fights on at sea, a captain in one of the greatest naval battles in antiquity. And in Act Five, the last surviving assassin is living a writer’s life in Athens, able to look back at the past, rightly fearful of the future, run through by the sword of a soldier sent from the man who was soon to be Rome’s first emperor – the very role that the assassins had wanted never to exist.
Parmensis’s story is one of seeing both the intentions and consequences of a dramatic action. He was in Rome when the plotters were first arguing whether it was right to be an assassin, carefully dissecting whether Caesar’s clear ambition to be an autocrat, maybe the founder of a royal dynasty, had to be stopped, or whether civil war would be an outcome even worse. Should Caesar alone die, the purer option, or his colleague, Mark Antony too, maybe others, a more practical choice but making the whole event look like a sordid putsch? There was much difference of view.
Parmensis felt conflicting philosophical pressures himself, as an Epicurean who believed that politics of any kind was a threat to a man’s all-important peace of mind. Yet surely, as it was argued to Epicureans and other waverers, there had to be a certain level of political tyranny which would destroy anyone’s peace of mind. Some agreed. Some did not.
These were serious debates which long echoed into European political thought. Caesar’s assassins were not madmen or dupes. Some of them had additional personal reasons for wanting Caesar dead; jealousy about power, money or sex, anger that rivals had been preferred to themselves, even self-disgust that they had allowed Caesar to spare their own lives on his path to dictatorship. But politics was the primary motive. Parmensis was not alone among the assassins in identifying as one of Caesar’s supporters in politics and life. His task, and that of all the more thoughtful, was to reconcile old loyalties with what was the right thing to do.
From as much as can be taken from the ancient sources, the last assassin was something of a traditionalist, a provincial from Parma, a little town then not even in Italy. Parma was in a frontier zone, a place for loyalists against enemies of Rome. It had long been Caesar’s country, a place where he had settled thousands of veteran troops from his past campaigns in Gaul. But this poet, sailor and playwright, never before grand enough to be noticed outside his family home, somehow fell into the plot for Caesar’s assassination.
The killing itself has been described and painted countless times. The French artist, Jean-Leon Gerome, showed it best; the dead dictator a powerless pile of clothing while the senators – killers and opponents, the indifferent and the opportunist – headed for the exit.
The assassins, by killing together in a joint enterprise, not commissioning a soldier or slave, hoped to be seen as brave heroes of the common good. But they were gradually disappointed. The rapid amnesty for their deed fell far short of senatorial approval. Mark Antony sensed the hostility of the common people whose political power had been much less constrained by Caesar than that of the senators.
The arrival of Octavian began a race between him and Antony over who was the more vengeful. This little-known grandson of one of Caesar’s sisters, soon discovered the power among soldiers and voters of the dead dictator’s name. The names of the assassins – and soon their sympathisers too – began to appear on white boards around the city, a license for anyone to decapitate them for cash.
To save their lives and advance their cause, the assassins had to leave and fight their battles elsewhere. The theatre of war stretched from Parma itself, reduced to ashes by Mark Antony’s brother, to the north east Mediterranean where any idealism of the assassins’ leaders came up against the need to loot and terrorise to pay their armies. Parmensis long remained confident that this ruthlessness would prevail, writing a letter to the orator, Cicero, a sympathiser though not an assassin himself, looking forward to the good times in Rome after their victory. This was not an unreasonable hope when Octavian had to struggle in Italy against both Antony’s rival ambition and the acute practicalities of satisfying voters and soldiers alike.
Because Parmensis did all his own fighting at sea, he was not present at the war scenes made famous by Shakespeare. After the land battles of Philippi in northern Greece, where the vast armies of Brutus and Gaius Cassius lost to those of Octavian and Antony, Parmensis was able to sail away to fight in massive, but mostly forgotten, naval battles around Sicily.
His ally then was Sextus Pompeius, a popular politician, naval commander and son of Caesar’s last military rival, Pompey the Great. Sextus had various victories over Octavian and several good chances of stopping his path to total power. But he missed his best moments and, through flourishing in an in-between period of the past, when the Roman republic had died and imperial rule had not yet begun, he became that most easily forgotten figure from history, the man who almost came out top but failed. The best hopes of Parmensis subsided with him.
The war’s last battle was at Actium in western Greece, with Parmensis on the side of Antony, his long-time enemy who, in circumstances immediately dramatic and still mysterious, followed Cleopatra, his lover and ally, to Egypt and gave up with barely a fight. Actium, in comparison to Naulochus and the naval battles around Sicily, though much praised by poets, was hardly a battle at all.
After that, at the concluding of a Roman-Egyptian drama that became Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Parmensis had nowhere to go but to the safest exile he could find. He could have escaped to countries still not ruled by Rome, but chose instead Athens, the university of the Mediterranean where he could read, write, talk and look back.
When Octavian’s soldier arrived, there was not only Parmensis himself inside the house, suffering nightmares of a dishevelled giant, but the manuscript of his play, Thyestes. Some said that the executioner stole it to be used to celebrate the first anniversary of Octavian’s unchallenged rule.
Peter Stothard is a journalist, former editor of The Times, and the author of The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar.