Did Caesar Orchestrate His Own Death?

Today marks the Ides of March, and Twitter is having a great time with the pseudo-holiday.

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I learned about the Ides of March back in high school while studying William Shakespeare. Our English teacher talked about Julius Caesar’s rise to power and the covert plot led by Brutus and Cassius to assassinate him. I remember thinking how clever I was when I caught a reference to the famous murder in Aladdin:

Aladdin giphy

You might think an event that occurred more than 2,000 years ago would have no more secrets to offer, but you’d be wrong. First, a quick history lesson.

Conquering Hero

Gaius Julius Caesar was a skilled military commander who rose to power in the Roman Republic. The general population loved Caesar because he was smart enough to endear himself to them by cleaning up the streets, providing jobs as well as entertainment, and building a library, among other things.

Not everyone loved Caesar, though. The dominate Senate group known as the Optimates wanted to uphold the oligarchy and became increasingly fearful that Caesar would dissolve the Senate and become Rome’s dictator (even though the Senate itself was simply a pretext of custom, not a matter of law).

Brutus and Cassius orchestrated the plot to kill the would-be king. They chose March 15 because  Caesar was planning to leave March 18 for a three-year campaign against the Parthians. The assassins opted for daggers (rather than swords) because they could be more easily concealed beneath the folds of fabric in their togas.

The Ides of March

If Caesar had believed in omens, he likely would have elected to stay home that day rather than attend the meeting. But Caesar didn’t. Even when his horses were seen weeping. Even when a bird flew into the theater where the Senate meeting took place but was devoured by a larger bird. Even STILL when his wife shared a troubling dream about him bleeding to death in her arms. A soothsayer even warned him to beware of danger no later than the Ides of March. As Caesar entered the theater, a man tried to warn him by thrusting a piece of paper into his hand. Caesar ignored all of the warning signs. And paid the ultimate price.


Unexpected Plot Twist

Back in 2003, a team of researchers and scholars participated in a forensic investigation regarding the assassination of Caesar for a documentary called “Who Killed Julius Caesar?” Forensic psychiatrist Harold Bursztajn participated, shedding light on the complexities of Caesar’s mind at the end of his life. Caesar’s erratic behavior in the weeks leading up to his assassination were likely due to the temporal lobe epilepsy he suffered from, a disease that was quickly deteriorating his mind and body, Bursztajn said in a Harvard Magazine article.

Six months prior, Caesar secretly changed his will, adopting his grandnephew Octavian as his heir and providing Roman citizens with enough money to live on for three months (thereby guaranteeing a public outpouring of grief over his death). Five months before the attack, Caesar dismissed his Spanish bodyguards. He announced his departure date for the Persian campaign, thus providing a deadline (literally) for an assassination.

And on that fateful day in March more than 2,000 years ago, Caesar dragged his aching, sick body out of bed and headed toward the Senate, likely knowing exactly what he was walking into. He wasn’t just ignoring warnings of impending death; he was achieving immortality.

Caesar may not have had to actually guide the hands that drove those daggers into his body 23 times, but his yet-shrewd mind saw all the pieces falling together. He even got to one-up his betrayers by selecting the Senate as the scene of the murder.

“If the conspirators are going to kill him, what would be the worst place? Where they would lose their legitimacy?” Bursztajn said. The Senate was a traditionally weapon-free location the conspirators violated by attacking him.

Bursztajn’s conclusion is startling, The (London) Sunday Times asserted.

The godfather who directs and controls the events of March 15, 44BC, is not hot-headed Cassius or scheming Brutus. They are, as they always have been, far out of their depth, minnows in a political ocean patrolled by sharks. No: the man pulling the strings, the orchestrator of his own death, is none other than Julius Caesar himself.

The outcome is exactly as he had planned it. In every particular, he gets what he wants. The naive and foolish conspirators, on the other hand, go away empty-handed, beaten by superior tradecraft and the poverty of their own imagination. In defending the republic they ensured its demise. In fighting dictatorship they have guaranteed its victory. By killing Caesar they have made him immortal.

Et tu, Julius?

Featured photo courtesy Flickr user Auensen.

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