Full Version: Was the assasination of Caesar justified?
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My investigation of a paraphrase of a Cicero quote made me consider the assassination of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare makes the conspirators, Brutus, Cassius and the rest out to be the villains of the piece, but was this really so? Was Caesar playing coy until the Senate begged him to take the crown? Was he a budding tyrant and were the conspirators patriots defending the Republic? How do people feel about the question?
I think everyone is going to have a different opinion on this. While I think some of the conspirators had better intentions, such as Brutus who we are sometimes led to believe was pressured into doing this for the Republic rather than personal motivation. No doubt many senators were irritated (to say the least) with things Caesar was doing which were either non-traditional or against the senator's interests.

From my understanding, and this will vary source to source, Caesar initially denied taking the crown after seeing the public's reaction. Remember Roman's were very proud of being a Republic, and it was a crime to try to be king, Tiberius Gracchus was killed decades earlier when irate senators convinced the mobs that he was trying to be king.

But did Caesar want ultimate power? YES! This guy was an ego maniac, he kept records of his slave purchases secret, since he would only have the most attractive slaves and was embarrassed by how much he spent on them. He made up an excuse to go to war with an allied Gaulish tribe to conquer all of Gaul. He went to war against the legitimate government and put himself on top (although he did give clemency to Romans who surrendered to him). He convinced his men they would win any battle because they were "Caesar's men" and therefore better than any other troops, including fellow Romans. Albeit I will say that his contributions positively reformed Rome for the greater good
One of the interesting things about reading Shakespeare is I think to remember he was writing as a man who was born, lived, and died under a monarchy. The notion of living in a republic - even one as corrupt and bloody as the last days of the Roman Republic - must have been as unreal a prospect to him as living under a universal Emperor would be to us.

.... so of course the conspirators were the bad guys. Smile

I think that while some of the conspirators had mixed motives, Caesar was certainly guilty of trying to establish himself as a king. To that extent, I think some of them (Brutus, certainly) would indeed have had just cause to call themselves Roman patriots.

Was it worth the later bloodshed though? Tougher question.
That's areal GOOD question.
On one hand J.C. was comitting high treason as soon as he crossed the Rubicon WITH his troops, which he rightfully commanded in Gallia(s) only.
IIRC the military situation rather quick rendered formal condemnation by the full senate
impossible. J.C.s military "overweight" in the italian mainland, the conscriptions that followed ... in no time there were not many senators left to effectively run a treasonry trial against him. No legal action possible -- "illegal"/"out-of-institutional" action to do away with this unlawful state of the republic may have been called "self-defence".
On the other hand: a republic that has corrupted their own "mos majorum" during its recent history , the course of the confrontation of optimates vs. populares, especially its dealing with the Gracchus family, Marianus vs. Sulla incl. the "age of conscriptions" beginning with Sulla and running well into the first triumvirate and J.C.s "domination", was not having the stronger arguments on it's side.
The republic had long lost it's innocence and we may see that it may well have lost
it's right of existence, as it's institutions had failed to work properly a long time before.
Just my 2c. Open to discussion. Like I said: an iteresting thread. :mrgreen:


Both yes and no, it depends on who you ask.
Caesar was indeed guilty of several crimes against several laws, but then again he was also defending himself against political opponents who (mis)used these laws to persecute caesar. Self-defense, then?

On the other hand it's difficult to see the republic as anything like a state with coherent laws that were to be observed, when in fact it was an oligarchy of he super-rich, who supported a few 'able' men from their ranks that actuallt dared fighting it out between them. With a banker (Crassus) supporting a successful general (Pompey) it's not even fair to see Caesar as the first one using his army to bolster an illegal bid for power - he just used his men better than Pompey did. That was (of course) the reason for his opponents (the rich men in the Senate) to demand the disbanding of his troops, which would have left him helples.

The following civil war was not new, nor was his dictatorship and sole rule. From his opponents' point of view, it was legal to end that, but these same men had brought about the circumstances for that very situation. Any claims of Caesar wanting to become a king smell of a very weak case of his murder though - they fully well knew that Caesar was not guilty of extraordinary crimes.
Hi Robert, of the more astounding facts in J.C.s biography is that he could rather be attributed to the populares, being a more or less avid follower of T.S. Gracchus.
(IIRC he was distantly related to that family :roll: )
Astonishingly he got "spared" by Sulla, however, and I'd say that he learned by his example which things to do and of course which things to avoid when "levering down" the roman republic. (Weren't there "distant family" ties involved, too ?! :?: )
O.K., this man J.C. should have deserved a few more lines from me on top of the ones above.
Firmly rooted on both sides,he was, then. Ambivalent.
As was, literally speaking, the case of his murder. :mrgreen:


Is conspiratorial vigilantism ever justified by anyone except the conspirators?
Aside from the ethics of murder in general (and I don't know about you, but mine don't permit murder) one has to ask what good the assasination would do. Brutus, Cassius, and the others don't seem to have had a solution to the problems which created a succession of Sullae, Marii, and Caesares. Killing one man would just put off the problem for a few decades.
I think the conspirators did have a plan, which was to restore the “republic,” but it didn’t quite work. The rule of law is only as strong as the people who chose to follow it. Throughout Roman history, sometimes it was strong and sometimes it wasn’t, and this was a point in time where the rule of law was weak. Even Cato had advocated breaking laws for what he considered as the public good. The conspirators were unable to bring order back to the society and ended up simply jockeying with other strongmen.

If they had been able to reinstitute a functioning, peaceful and thriving republic, would our view on the assassination be different?
It probably would be different. Instead of seeing the assassination as the causus belli for a long period of strife and civil war, we might see it as what "they" told us it was, a way to restore order. Of course, the actual result was that instead of one "tyrant" (and I don't think he really was that--just wasn't willing to bend to the will of his opponents) we got four or five, all wanting the top spot.

When Augustus restored peace (by winning the war) the result was an Empire--the very thing the assassination was said to prevent. Augustus was clever enough to appease the Senate, and placate the people, but he was a king in all the normal senses of the word.
Hi ,
....mmmhhh, you inspired me thinking that the Roman Empire was for most of its history run as a "family business" -- first with a rather small number of families "at the helm" , then with more or less one family keeping the rest "under" as long as possible.
@M. Demetrius:
Quote:Augustus was clever enough to appease the Senate, and placate the people ...
....and he surely was rich enough to do so, too. 8)
That makes me think that he may have meant "Quinctili Vare, legiones redde"/"Varus give back the Legions" more in a "fiscal" way, --so to speak. :mrgreen:


,,,,sorry I'm afraid I've got a bit O.T. here.
My excuses.
Back to the topic.
Quote:Is conspiratorial vigilantism ever justified by anyone except the conspirators?
Nevertheless I'd like to thank you for this short, but thought provoking question , -- with
a "rhetorical" faucet.
I've been brooding over a similar answer to that, but failed miserably.
(A tip on the hat. :wink: )


Like Robert said, it depends on who you ask. Several people nowadays would argue that murder is never justified. There have been a number of murders (attempted or achieved) of tyrants (or people considered by one party to be a tyrant).

Caesar was not a particularly bloodthirsty or tyrannical ruler, as far as treating his enemies was concerned: there were no proscriptions, which were known under Cinna, Marius and Sulla, and which would again be known under the Second Triumvirate. He replied to the idealization of Cato by a pamphlet of his own, not by executing the writer. He was known for his clemency. So, as long as you were not one of the one million Gauls he may have killed (and few of the Senators on either side would have cared about those), you were probably safe. It's difficult to say what the result would have been if Pompey had won, considering he never got the chance, but Pompey was less subtle.

Still, Caesar clearly strove towards a monarchical rule. He may not have accepted a crown and refused the title "rex", but that's sophistry. The title "dictator perpetuus" alone would have justified, by Roman standards, his murder: it worked for Spurius Maelius, M. Manlius Capitolinus, Ti. and C. Gracchus, and it was possible for Cicero, decades before the day Caesar was killed, to defend C, Rabirius, one of the murderers of L. Apuleius Saturninus. C. Rabirius was condemned but then the matter was dropped: it was anyway as much political as properly legalistic. Cicero himself could execute the Catilinarians, and though he was exiled for this, he was also recalled. Caesar had gone much further in his quest for sole rule than any of of these previous cases (most of which could not be proven in a modern court of law). So there is plenty of precedent for killing people who could be thought to seek regnum, never mind declaring themselves "dictator for life".

Suetonius interestingly quotes, at Div. Iul. 76, "praegravant tamen cetera facta dictaque eius, ut et abusus dominatione et iure caesus existimetur", "his other actions and sayings turned the scale, so that it may be thought that he abused his power and was murdered justly." Note the subjunctive, so Suetonius does not come out clear; note also that much of what Suetonius reports could be invented or distorted by Caesar's enemies, but given the other sources of the time, it's hardly difficult to see how Caesar abused his power, and, unlike Sulla, he did not seem inclined to retire after putting things in order (however naive that would have been).

As to why the "liberators" did not plan further ahead, first, I don't think we can judge the motives of the conspirators with the benefit of hindsight: the question was whether the assassination was justified, not whether it was wise.

Still, it may simply have been a naive hope that with Caesar removed, matters would work out. People would recognise them as a new L. Brutus, (a new Harmodion if they were Greek-inclined). This was not so optimistic as it may seem. According to Suetonius, there were 60 conspirators, usually, about 40 are assumed, some go as low as 30 - in a Senate which Caesar had raised from 300 to 600, so that's 10-20% of the "Old Senate". The liberators could hope that the newcomers would soon be struck from the list (their legitimacy relied entirely on Caesar), that others, such as Cicero, would follow their lead. And, by Roman ideas, where the Senate lead, the people would follow: after all, the clientela system would see to that. In fact, they did get considerable parts of the Roman army on their side, too - and let's not forget that Augustan propaganda had over half a century to discredit the conspirators and those who followed after them (such as Sextus Pompeius).

Besides, it would appear to the conspirators that the entire problem rested on Caesar anyway. Pompey was conveniently out of the picture already. No other single man should have had this kind of support: nobody had a career, or wealth, or support enough to match Caesar or Pompey. Anthony had not exactly shone up until now. A few years before, he had messed up so much that Caesar had to put him aside for a while. Who could have expected Octavian? A nobody just out of his toga praetexta. Lepidus? His did not even have the support of his family. Besides, they had competent people on their side: Cassius had held the eastern provinces against the Parthians; Cicero could be expected to use his talent to return peace.

The conspirators were ready to the compromise offered by Anthony, to grant immunity to Caesar's murderers but not to declare his edicts void, which may show that they really believed it all just hinged on Caesar. Granted, many of them owed important positions to Caesar, and it would have caused considerable chaos and a few major personal sacrifices to declare Caesar's acts illegal. Unfortunately, accepting that compromise allowed Anthony and later Octavian to built up their case.

And besides: they did not really get a chance to show how they would have tackled the problems of the Republic, considering they were driven out rather rapidly by the unlikely alliance between Octavian and Anthony. I agree that it is most probable they would have returned to "normal", which meant that the upheavals of the previous century, with its civil wars, gang warfare, political plotting, ignorance of social problems, corruption and backstabbing would have continued, but these were people trying to defend the world they knew and defending Liberty (not the livelihood of the veterans, urban plebs or small-scale farmers), which they set above all else. Their entire upbringing had revolved around the idea of Liberty, and even if the rule of the upper classes of ancient Rome seem rather unjust in out terms, I don't think we should judge them in our terms.
Hi M. Caecilius,
...thanks for giving us a more 360° view on the problem.
Some aspects are of particular interest.
It crossed my mind that because J.C. learned about "proscriptions" under Sulla "first-hand" (some of the "hits" then were quite close -- in his family)he may have experienced the limited "positive impact" they had "in the long run". I think it was in that time when he learned about the virtues of "making friends" -- and the right ones.
Furthermore I'd presume that during his military career he quickly learned to separate
"relevant theatres" from "irrelevant" ones: No new fight if you still not finished with
another one,-- if you can avoid it.
I think what J.C. really sets apart from other romans was his ability to judge and decide
"sine ira et studio" -- at least for most parts of his life.
It remains IMHO still to be discussed, nevertheless, whether he had profound knowledge of this conspiracy -- and whether he underestimated it or not.
And as to the Augustean propaganda against his enemies: put into perspective that he managed to sell Actium to the public as a clear and deceisive victory -- and a lot of people do still believe him today ! ("In the same curb" is his propaganda against
Cleopatra und his maneuvres to conceal his real part in her death.)
The years between 49BC and ca. 30BC still remain amongst the most interesting times in roman history ( and the most "formative" times as well).

Greez & Thanks

Which leads back to the simple facts, that while caesar may have commited
a few crimes, they were more than outweighed in view that he was doing more for the greater good, than those who were merely trying to keep the status quo. Which was, the few
keeping the mass of benefits, at the expense of the mass with the leftovers.

It was too big a shake up for them, and as can be seen today, when you try to take away the powers of the few, there is inevitably bloodshed.
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