English author Peter Stothard’s latest book is called The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar. I’ve only seen reviews but it looks like a good read.
Growing up in 1950s Ireland, Caesar was one of those ancient figures who loomed large. Part of this was no more than the schoolboy’s normal fascination with historical warriors. Alexander the Great was another such compelling personality.
But by virtue of being on the school curriculum, Caesar intruded into everyday life in a way that Alexander never did.
Taking Latin as a subject meant studying Caesar’s famous commentaries on his military campaigns in Gaul (think France and Belgium) and Britain. If you had to do Latin – which we did – it was probably as good a way as any.
And courtesy of William Shakespeare, Caesar also showed up in English Literature. The educational system rotated Shakespeare plays from one year to the next and Julius Caesar was assigned to my cohort.
Caesar was an interesting guy. Modern standards would naturally condemn him as a bloody tyrant but he lived in an entirely different age.
Born into a noble Roman family whose status had faded, Caesar manoeuvred adroitly and ascended the greasy pole on his own merits. He was renowned as an orator, author, politician and military leader. As a general, he’s been compared with the likes of Alexander and Napoleon.
Caesar lived his adult life swimming with sharks. You had to seize your moment and take your chances. And he had both the ambition and the talent to play that game.
By 49 BCE, Caesar had established Roman dominance over France, Belgium and parts of Switzerland and Germany. And he became the most powerful man in Rome, eventually appointed dictator for life. He was in his 50s.
However, he accumulated enemies, which gave rise to a conspiracy to do away with him.
Ostensibly, the concern was about his gathering power into his own hands. This was regarded as betraying the ideals of the Roman Republic.
No doubt, much of the concern was sincere. But let’s not forget the human propensity to conflate ideals with self-interest. Some of the conspirators had personal grievances against Caesar.
It all came to a head with one of history’s most famous assassinations. On March 15, 44 BCE, Caesar was lured under false pretences and swarmed by a group of Roman senators armed with daggers. Reputedly, there were 23 stab wounds.
Perhaps expecting to be hailed as heroes, the conspirators didn’t have much of a followup plan. So a situation that was initially volatile soon turned, helped by Mark Antony’s eulogy for Caesar.
Antony, a Caesar ally with ambitions of his own, didn’t deliver the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen …” oration. That was Shakespeare’s 16th-century invention.
But Antony was still effective, as was Caesar’s designated heir – the young Octavian.
Then the assassins mostly fled and the hunt commenced.
Some died in battle, some by suicide, and at least one after being tortured and beheaded. It did, however, take some time.
In Stodhard’s telling, the last survivor was the relatively unknown Cassius Parmensis.
Not to be confused with the more famous Cassius of Shakespeare’s “lean and hungry look,” Parmensis was finally tracked down in Athens, where he was writing poetry. He was dispatched in 30 BCE, 14 years after the assassination. Vengeance has a long memory.
Something similar happened in Restoration England. After the monarchy was restored in 1660, Charles II set about punishing those responsible for his father’s 1649 execution.
Of the 59 signatories on the death warrant, 20 were already dead. That, however, wasn’t enough.
Three of them – including the Great Satan himself, Oliver Cromwell – were exhumed and symbolically executed. First, the corpses were hanged and beheaded. Then the heads were mounted on spikes and the bodies dumped in a pit.
Two others got off more lightly, being merely disinterred and reburied communally.
As for the living, nine were executed. Eight of these experienced the supreme penalty for high treason – to be hanged, drawn and quartered – with four of the sentences being carried out on a particularly gruesome October 1660 day.
The 19th-century American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that “When you strike at the king, you must kill him.”
Sometimes, though, killing the king isn’t enough.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.