Caesar as King? (45 to 44 B.C.E.)


Julius Caesar’s old friend Titus Labienus
had been defeated. The Roman Civil War was officially over, and
Spain had been pacified. After a few weeks of housekeeping, Caesar
headed back to the capitol. On the road to Rome, he met up with Marc Antony,
who at one time had served as Caesar’s political point-man. A couple of years earlier, Antony had conducted
himself like an absolute maniac while Caesar was away on campaign, and in doing so had
found himself in Caesar’s disfavour. Caesar and Antony reunited, and they spent
several days catching up on the road. When it was time for Antony to leave, the
two had mended their fractured relationship. Caesar forgave Antony, and promised to make
room for him in the years to come. But there may have been more to this meeting
than meets the eye. According to some of the ancient sources,
just before Antony headed up the road, a cabal of Senators approached him and asked for his
help in removing Caesar from power. Antony politely turned him down, but the interesting
thing is that when Antony made amends with Caesar, he told him nothing of this conspiracy. What on Earth was Antony was doing? Did he not take the conspiracy seriously? Was he somehow hedging his bets? We have no idea, but it’s interesting. Marcus Brutus, who was serving as the governor
of Cisalpine Gaul, also took this opportunity to come and meet Caesar as he passed through
his province. Caesar was happy with Brutus’s performance,
and promised to fast track his career in the years to come. Governor this year, Praetor next year, Consul
3 years after that. Brutus had a bright future ahead of him. Caesar arrived back in Rome late in the summer
of 45. Instead of heading home, he lingered outside
the pomerium and petitioned the Senate to grant him a fifth Triumph. Naturally, they agreed. Caesar’s fifth Triumph was unlike other Triumph
in Roman history. This Triumph was all about the end of the
Roman Civil War, which meant that it literally celebrated the defeat of a Roman army. This was an illegal and illegitimate Triumph
no matter how you looked at it. But the Senate didn’t care. Caesar’s allies were in control, and if Caesar
wanted a Triumph, Caesar would get a Triumph. The planning of a Triumph was an art, and
Caesar would spend a month or so meticulously going over every little detail. He settled on silver as the theme, since Spain
was famous at the time for its silver mines. The big day arrived, and the whole thing was
unbelievably extravagant. But as you might have already guessed, it
was also in bad taste. Most of Caesar’s propaganda artwork depicted
Romans killing Romans. Many in the crowd would have lost friends
or family to the Civil War, and now here Caesar was rubbing their noses in it. What was meant to be a big public celebration
turned out to be one big downer. As Caesar was approaching the climax of the
Triumph, he rode past that year’s government officials and magistrates. One of the Tribunes of the Plebs, a former
Pompeian, made his feelings known to everybody by refusing stand for the Triumphator as he
passed. Caesar noticed. According to one source, he called from his
chariot, “come on, Tribune Aquila! Take back the Republic if you can!” Caesar tried to play this off as a joke, but
it kinda wasn’t. It really got under his skin. In the days following the Triumph, in what
should have been one of the high points of his career, he bitterly complained about this
one tiny incident non-stop. He would issue some mundane order like “deliver
this letter to so-and-so” and then be like “better check to see if it’s okay with Tribune
Aquila first.” Speaking of taking the Republic back, we need
to talk about the political changes that Rome was experiencing over this period. Just a quick reminder, Caesar had already
been named Dictator for a period of 10 years, and had been granted permission to run for
Consul for 5 years, which gave him unparalleled control over Roman politics. So that’s our starting line. Things were about to get really weird. The sequencing on some of this stuff is kinda
hard to nail down, but let’s just say over the span of 8 months, the following occurred. The Senate heaped all kinds of titles and
honours upon Caesar. They named him Liberator. They named him Father of the Fatherland. They named him Imperator for Life. All sorts of titles, all in the same vein. They allowed him to wear his special clothing
from his Triumph on all future festival days. This would have been a flamboyant purple toga
and a crown of laurel leaves. Very conspicuous. This clothing was deliberately designed to
evoke the idea of monarchy. Sure, it was purely symbolic, but Caesar liked
it, and some found it disturbing how quickly he took to walking around in royal garb like
it was nothing. But that was only the beginning. In the heart of Rome, on the Capitoline Hill,
there was a grouping of statues depicting each of the 7 kings of Rome, along with an
8th statue of the man who drove them out and established the Republic. That guy’s name happened to be Brutus, I mention
that for no reason whatsoever, let’s just move on. With the Senate’s permission, Caesar added
a 9th statue to this lineup. Of himself. Yikes. Caesar was also named the Prefect of Morality,
which was a made up thing, and was given the power to kick people out of the Senate if
they exhibited bad public morals, which naturally could be interpreted to mean literally anything. He didn’t really need this power since he
had already packed the Senate with his political allies, but now if anybody ever got out of
line they could be gone in a flash. As you can see, all of these changes were
moving in the same direction. But Caesar wanted to make it even more blatant,
so he got for himself a special golden chair that from now on would sit between the two
Consuls during Senate meetings. Now I don’t know about you but where I’m from
we might call this a throne, but the Romans would have disagreed. Thrones were for kings! This was just a special golden chair reserved
a guy who dressed up like a king and acted like a king. Totally different. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and
there’s even more to come, but you get the idea. Caesar spent these months cobbling together
a collection of powers that essentially transformed him into a monarch in all but name. I’m reminded of how Hemingway said that people
goes bankrupt gradually, and then suddenly. The Roman political system had been in a state
of degradation for years, decades, generations even, but then the whole thing collapsed in
on itself in a matter of months. Sure, this was precipitated by the Roman Civil
War, but it’s not like Caesar walked in there and overthrew the government. He didn’t have to. What happened instead is that he pushed up
against Rome’s political institutions, found nothing pushing back, and then took whatever
he wanted. What did this unchecked power reveal about
Caesar? It revealed that what Caesar wanted, maybe
what he had always wanted, was to destroy Roman politics. He wanted a crown. He wanted monarchy. Healthy political systems are extremely stable. Warts and all, the Roman Republic was a (mostly)
healthy political system. Caesar destroyed it, and he did so deliberately. This decision would result in untold human
misery and death in the years to come, and the horrifying fact is that even if Caesar
could have known this, I’m not sure that he would have cared. That’s egomaniacal, and in a way it can’t
help but eclipse everything else he ever did. Some in Rome’s political class were able to
see what was happening, but they were wholly ineffective at stopping it. Cicero wrote a helpful little guidebook outlining
how he thought the Republic ought to be be restored, but Caesar’s subordinates wouldn’t
even read it. In September of 45, Caesar stepped down as
Rome’s only Consul, and had two loyalists elected to serve out the rest of the year. It’s interesting to note that Caesar had apparently
decided that the office of Consul was no longer needed to dominate Roman politics. That could be done from his special golden
chair that was definitely not a throne. On December 31st, in what would have been
his last day in office, one of these new Consuls unexpectedly dropped dead. Caesar stopped everything and called for an
emergency election so that new Consul could serve out the rest of the term. Some other loyalist name Caninius won, and
he would be in office for a grand total of something like 4 hours. Cicero was livid. All Caninius wanted was the prestige of having
been elected Consul, and Caesar was happy to just give it to him. Never before had the consulship been used
in this way. Cicero was right to be angry. Caesar was showing everybody that it didn’t
really matter who the Consuls were anymore. The whole thing was outrageous. Around this time, Caesar really buckled down
and started preparing for his next military campaign. The Parthian Empire had sided with Pompey
during the Roman Civil War. They were not a significant factor in any
way, but still. Tensions were high, and many prominent Caesarians
wanted revenge. On top of this, Rome’s last major clash with
Parthians had ended in a humiliating defeat, and there was a vague sense among Rome’s general
population that somebody needed to wipe the slate clean. So that was one issue. War with Parthia was on the horizon. A totally separate and unrelated issue was
that the Dacians were openly crossing the Danube and raiding the province of Illyricum. In fact, this had been happening since Caesar’s
time as Illyricum’s governor. Instead of dealing with this problem back
then, Caesar had sent Illyricum’s legions to fight in the Gallic Wars. Since that time, the whole situation had spun
out of control. Caesar’s plan was to cross the Danube and
spend a year campaigning in Dacia, after which he would march directly to Parthia and spend
two years campaigning there. The plans for after the Parthian campaign
are a little more vague, but from what we can piece together the idea was to was to
swing north of the Black Sea and then march all the way back to Rome. All told, this would be a massive expedition. Caesar began the long process of recruiting
and transporting as many as 80,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry up to Illyricum. In December of 45, he sent his great-nephew
Octavian to oversee the training of the legions. Once everything was ready, the plan was for
Caesar, Lepidus, and Antony to depart with the legions, and for Octavian to return to
Rome and take Lepidus’s place as Caesar’s official #2. At some point during this process, people
started to speak of an ancient prophecy that said that only a king could defeat the Parthians. Cicero makes it very clear that no such prophecy
existed, and that this was just a wild rumour that sprang out of nowhere. Who started this rumour? We can’t say for sure, but I have my suspicions. Early in the year 44 B.C.E., the Senate decided
to bestow another title upon Caesar. This one’s a biggy. They extended Caesar’s 10 year Dictatorship
indefinitely, naming him “Dictator Perpetuo.” Dictator for Life. This was a turning point. Up until now, Caesar’s critics could always
comfort themselves with the fact that many of Caesar’s powers would expire after 10 years. This was no longer the case. Caesar’s critics had some real soul searching
to do. Immediately after naming Caesar Dictator for
Life, the ancient sources say that the Senate took an loyalty oath to Caesar. The exact wording was “I pledge to preserve
Caesar’s life, or may Caesar outlive me.” But in the last few decades, scholars have
been rethinking this. We now know that “or may so-and-so outlive
me” was a popular turn of phrase during this period. By the time the ancient sources were writing,
the phrase had fallen into disuse, and so when they say that the Senate took a loyalty
oath, they may be mistaken. Just be aware that this still being hotly
debated behind the scenes. As I’ve mentioned, many in the Roman political
class were alarmed at Caesar’s growing authoritarianism. But at this time, three incidents occurred
in rapid succession that turned that alarm into a full blown panic. Here’s the first incident. One day, after voting to invest Caesar with
even more titles and powers, a bunch of Senators decided to go and present the legislation
to Caesar in person. One of the Consuls at the time lead the procession,
Senators followed behind, lictors escorted them, it was a whole thing. Caesar was off overseeing a construction project,
and was in the weeds talking with one of his colleagues. As the Senatorial procession approached, Caesar
didn’t acknowledge them. He just kept on talking. After a long moment, somebody got Caesar’s
attention and was like “it appears that the Roman Senate would like a word with you.” In response, Caesar lazily looked over, looked
back, and returned to his conversation. Not only was this behaviour extremely rude,
but the Romans placed a lot of cultural importance on standing for certain occasions. Being approached by a Roman Consul was absolutely
one of those times when a person was expected to stand. And this wasn’t just a Roman Consul, this
was a Roman Consul with a Senatorial delegation at his back. By making such a big show of not rising to
his feet, Caesar was broadcasting to the world that in his opinion he outranked a Roman Consul. Caesar’s critics were justifiably outraged
at this behaviour. Here’s the second incident. As the sun rose on a winter morning, one of
the statues of Caesar appeared with a diadem on its head. A diadem is a special kind of headband worn
by monarchs, particularly eastern monarchs. Clearly this was some kind of subversive act,
so two Tribunes of the Plebs ordered it taken down. A few days later, Caesar appeared before a
crowd for some kind of public event, and was greeted with cries of “King! King! King!” Caesar turned to the crowd and replied, “Not
King, but Caesar!” This was a pun that doesn’t work in English. King, or Rex, was a common last name in Caesar’s
time, so on one level the joke was like… “you’ve got the wrong guy, I’m not Rex, I’m
Caesar!” But the pun also worked on a second level,
as if to say “I can see how you would be confused, because the word Caesar and the word King
are synonymous.” The crowd immediately got the joke, and according
to the ancient sources, they didn’t like it. They went dead quiet. Some believe that the people calling out “King!”
may have been Caesarian plants, and judging by the crowd’s reaction that sounds right
to me. The same two Tribunes of the Plebs ordered
those who had started the chant arrested. Caesar intervened, and was like “it’s fine,
no need to stir up trouble.” The Tribunes did not like this, and later
issued a written statement saying that Caesar was trying to interfere with their lawful
duties. At the next Senate meeting, Caesar denounced
the two Tribunes, and then went one step further and accused THEM of planting that diadem from
days earlier just to make him look bad. Caesar had packed the Senate with his political
allies, so of course they went along for the ride. One Senator went so far as to demand the death
penalty for the two Tribunes. For making Caesar look bad, I guess? Instead, Caesar decided to appear “merciful,”
and the two Tribunes were stripped of office and banished from the city of Rome. This was a shocking show of force, and the
worst part is that nobody even tried to stop it. Caesar’s critics were beginning to see the
writing on the wall. The Roman Republic was on the verge of plunging
off of a cliff, and the vast majority of the political class did not care. Something needed to be done. Here’s the third incident. A little less than a month later, on February
15th of the year 44, everybody came out to celebrate Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a fertility festival where
a bunch of male priests would strip down to loincloths or nothing at all and run around
the Palatine hill, tracing the path of the original pomerium. These priests carried fake whips, and any
woman touched by a whip was said to become extremely fertile for the coming year. Women would spill into the street to try to
block the runners, the runners would use their fake whips to clear a path, the whole was
stupid fun. Caesar had made good on his commitment to
Antony, and the two men were now serving side by side as Rome’s two Consuls for that year. Antony made the strange choice of volunteering
to lead the Lupercalian runners. It’s not every day that you get to see a head
of state running naked through the streets. To each their own, I guess. Caesar wisely chose to keep his clothes on,
and watched the day’s celebrations from a raised platform alongside other high ranking
officials. Since this was a festival day, he wore his
flamboyant purple toga and his laurel leaves. When Antony was finished running, he approached
the raised platform and presented Caesar with – most English translations say a crown, but
it was actually another diadem. The crowd went silent. Was this it? Was Caesar going to crown himself right here? Was this the moment where Rome becomes a monarchy
once more? After milking it for a moment, Caesar pushed
the diadem away, much to the relief of the crowd. Antony then ascended the platform and presented
it to Caesar for a second time, according to one source actually putting it in Caesar’s
lap. The crowd fell into another stunned silence. All Caesar had to do was put it on his head,
and the world would be forever changed. Instead, Caesar rejected it for a second time. The crowd burst into wild applause. He told the crowd that there was only one
true King of the Romans, and that person was Jupiter Optimus Maximus. He ordered the diadem taken Jupiter’s main
temple and put on display. So what should we take away from this incident? It’s highly dramatic, and it seems to have
played out a little too perfectly. In my opinion it’s pretty clear that Antony
and Caesar coordinated the whole thing ahead of time. Cicero reached the same conclusion. He later asked Antony, “would you have us
believe that you found a diadem on the street, or did you instead bring it from home?” Some say that this Lupercalia incident was
Caesar testing the water. If the crowd had been into it, he would have
accepted the diadem. Others say that this was a performative rejection
of the crown, staged so that he could continue to wield his other king-like powers as he
wished. I’m kinda in the first camp. Caesar was vain. He liked being flagrant and wearing his Triumphator
outfit during festivals. He liked his special little golden chair that
was definitely not a throne. He liked all of the pomp and circumstance. My feeling is that in his heart, he wanted
a crown. Around this time, perhaps literally on the
same day, a priest named Spurinna who specialized in divination approached Caesar and told him
that his life would be in danger until the Ides of March, or March 15th. Divination is not a thing, so where did Spurinna
get this idea? Remember last year, when a cabal of Senators
tried and failed to recruit Antony to their cause? That particular group fell apart, but it was
not the first or the last conspiracy of its kind. Since that time, Caesar’s authoritarian behaviour
had become extremely alarming, and Senators were talking about it behind the scenes. Spurinna was enmeshed with this group, he
may have been a Senator himself, and if not he certainly fraternized with them. The most likely scenario is that Spurinna
overheard something, but when he told Caesar about it he wanted to keep it nice and vague
so that he didn’t implicate any of his friends. But where did that specific date come from? The Ides of March? It was widely known that Caesar was planning
to leave on campaign shortly after the Ides. By giving that date, what Spurinna was really
saying was that Caesar’s life would be in danger so long as he remained in the city
of Rome. Spurinna was exactly right. There was a conspiracy, and Caesar’s life
was in danger. The conspirators had not yet decided when
or how to strike, but they were in perfect agreement that Caesar could not be allowed
to leave the city alive.

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