It’s late September 46 BC in Rome.
Thousands of people line the streets of the city where a victory parade is underway. To the rousing fanfare of trumpets, a column of legionnaires march down the Via Sacra, the main street of Ancient Rome, towards the Temple of Jupiter. Behind the legionnaires, two centurion guards usher a shackled prisoner along the parade route.
His name is Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls. Vercingetorix united the Gauls and led a revolt against Rome. But he was forced to surrender. And today, he will meet his end.
The guards lead Vercingetorix to the top of the Capitoline Hill.
The crowd roars with delight as the guards force their prisoner to his knees. But then…
Vercingetorix hears horses approaching. He cranes his head to see the gold-plated chariot of Julius Caesar – the Roman statesman and general who put down his uprising and forced him to surrender.
The crowd roars again as Caesar jumps down from his chariot. He strides past Vercingetorix, the hem of his purple toga billowing around his ankles. He takes his seat at a marble throne. Behind Caesar, calmly watching over the proceedings, are Rome’s senators, men like Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius.
With a barely perceptible nod, Caesar gives the signal.
An executioner steps forward and places a rope around Vercingetorix’s neck. Soon the executioner holds the rope tight...
After the years-long Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar finally conquered Gaul, a vast area of Europe encompassing what is today Belgium, France, and Germany. Caesar’s dominion over Gaul made him the most powerful man in Rome. And no one doubts his military accomplishments; best summarized by the words inscribed on the placard above his chariot: veni, vidi, vici. “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
Caesar is beloved by the people and adored by his loyal legions. But many of Rome’s senators, men like Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, have grown wary of his growing power. With his marbled throne and laurel wreath crown, these senators can’t help but think Caesar doesn’t look like a politician or even a general; he looks like a king. And soon, Caesar will launch a bid to seize power and install himself as dictator. Caesar’s actions will compel these senators, and many more, to take up arms and strike Caesar down on March 15th, 44 BC.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 15th, 44 BC: The Assassination of Julius Caesar.
Act One: Dictator Perpetuo
It’s August 45 BC in the city of Mediolanum, Italy, or modern-day Milan, just under a year after the execution of Vercingetorix.
At the front of a long procession of Roman soldiers, Gaius Julius Caesar is again in his chariot. And immediately behind him is his friend and protégé, Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus.
Decimus is a brilliant young general who comes from a once-great family. His grandfather was also a famous general and statesman. But his mother and father sullied the family name; his father did not achieve much to speak of; and his mother was a disloyal revolutionary and an adulterer. Decimus wants nothing more than to restore the former glory of his once-respected family name. Caesar offered Decimus that chance. For the last decade, Decimus has served as Caesar’s admiral. And Decimus’ military skill has helped Caesar conquer Gaul and more recently, a Civil conflict here in Rome.
Years ago, in 49 BC, Caesar went to war with his rival, a fellow Roman General, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Pompey, as he’s known, raised an army and set out to defend Roman democracy from a power-hungry Caesar.
And when Caesar marched his army to take on Pompey, he left Decimus in charge of ruling Gaul. Caesar vanquished Pompey and then later, his two sons who rose up to avenge their fallen father.
Not long after winning the Civil War abroad, Decimus met Caesar on his journey back to Rome. And today, the two men ride into Mediolanum for a brief stop on their way back home.
Soon, Caesar will return to Rome triumphant, secure in the knowledge that the Civil War is over, the last of his opponents are destroyed and the path to uncontested power is clear.
Decimus will return to Rome too; a rich, powerful war hero with a bright future ahead. Caesar has plans to appoint the young general to public office. Decimus’ goal of restoring the family name is nearly within reach. But something doesn’t sit right with Decimus. His elders rose to public office through a vote by the people. Decimus will be hand-picked by a dictator, a far cry from the Republic that his ancestors fought to achieve. So soon, Decimus will have to decide what matters more: his career, or the future of Rome.
While he’s in Mediolanum, Caesar meets with a statesman named Marcus Junius Brutus, the man he hand selected to be governor of Italian Gaul, an area in Northern Italy. Caesar plans to inspect the region, and Brutus’ work, before heading back to Rome.
As the two men exchange pleasantries, Brutus notices that time is taking its toll on the self-appointed dictator. His once-thick hair is thinning. His piercing dark eyes are muted by sunken cheeks and creased skin.
Brutus, on the other hand, is in the prime of his life. At 40 years of age, he looks strong, with a thick neck and a full head of dark curly hair. But Brutus is no soldier. He is a philosopher and a citizen statesman, and he is deeply devoted to the democratic norms of the Roman Republic.
The differences between the two men don’t stop there. Brutus was born into a noble family. Caesar is considered a novus homo, a “new man”, meaning he’s the first person in his family to ever serve in the Roman Senate.
And though there are no official political parties in Rome at this time, there are two powerful factions in the Senate. Brutus is member of the Optimates, meaning “Best Men”. For centuries, Rome has been ruled and governed by wealthy nobles, like Brutus. The Optimates see no reason for that to change.
But the Populares, or the Populists, claim to fight for the common people; the poor and the landless; the men who are not nobles. Caesar is widely seen as a member of this faction, though he’s never officially declared it.
Still, in spite of their many differences, Brutus hopes to advance within Caesar’s government. He feels slighted by Caesar’s decision to name him governor of Italian Gaul, a minor position that Brutus feels is beneath him. He hopes to convince Caesar to give him a post more befitting his talent and ambition.
Not long after his arrival in Mediolanum, Caesar, and Brutus leave the city to take their brief tour of the region. On the journey, Brutus convinces Caesar that he has more to offer than what he can achieve as a mere governor. Impressed by Brutus’ leadership in Italian Gaul, Caesar promises to appoint Brutus to a more powerful post: urban praetor, Rome’s chief judge.
But Brutus’ concerns go beyond his own advancement. Brutus is also deeply worried about Caesar’s ambition.
In the Roman Republic, the title dictator is reserved for times of crisis. Last year, in the midst of the Civil War, Caesar declared himself dictator. It was, supposedly, a temporary, wartime measure. After all, the idea of having one ruler contradicts the principles upon which the Roman Republic was founded. And for a time, many hoped that Caesar would restore the Republic. But now Brutus, and many of the Optimates, fear that when Caesar returns to Rome with his army, he will try to install himself as dictator perpetuo – ruler for life.
Soon, Brutus will learn that his fears are not unfounded. In the end, just like Decimus, Brutus will have to decide whether to suffer tyranny or strike down a tyrant in the name of liberty.
Act Two: The Ides of March
It’s February 15th, 44 BC, one month before Caesar’s assassination.
A festival is taking place in the Roman Forum. Performers clad in goatskin loincloths prance around a stage before a delighted audience. The Lupercalia, as this festival is known, is held every year to purify the city, and to help bring health and fertility to its citizens.
On a gilded chair overlooking the festivities sits the most powerful man in the Roman Republic: Julius Caesar. Shortly after returning to Rome, Caesar cemented his authority by declaring himself dictator perpetuo – ruler for life.
Caesar ensured support for this move by rewarding each citizen 300 silver coins, or sesterce. He adjusted unpopular tax laws and changed the calendar, adding sixty-seven days to the year, and bringing it in line with the solar cycle. He even named a month after himself: Julius – today's July. Many citizens don't mind the name of the new month. They adore their new dictator. Some have even started referring to Caesar as “Rex”, Latin for king.
But many in the Senate don’t share this enthusiasm. So today, at the Lupercalia celebration, Caesar has planned a piece of political theater that he hopes will quell the flames of discontent growing in the Senate.
As Caesar sits overlooking at festivities, one of his closest allies, a senator named Mark Anthony, leaps onto the stage and kneels before the dictator. He presents a golden crown and says to Caesar: “The people offer you the title of king.”
A shocked silence descends over the Forum. Caesar glances at the crowd to gauge their reaction. When they start booing and hissing, Caesar rises from his chair, pushes the crown away from his head, and loudly declares: “Jupiter alone is King of the Romans.”
The crowd roars their approval. But many of the Senators aren’t convinced of Caesar’s sincerity. And soon, they start to consider drastic measures.
Caesar might know trouble is on the horizon. On February 15th, the day of the Lupercalia festival, Caesar meets with a soothsayer. And there in the bloody entrails of a sacrificed bull, the fortune teller makes a foreboding discovery as he divines Caesar's fate: the bull has no heart.
When Caesar asks what this means, he's told his life is in danger; that it will be in danger until the fifteenth day of the following month: the Ides of March. But Caesar is not afraid. He doesn’t believe in such things as omens. So he brushes off the fortune teller's words and goes about his business.
It’s early in the morning on March 15th, 44 BC. The Ides of March.
The sun is not yet up, but several Senators gather at the home of Gaius Cassius; among them is Marcus Brutus. Ostensibly, Brutus and the rest are here to attend a coming-of-age ceremony for Cassius’s son, which is set to take place at sunrise. But the dagger on Brutus’ belt reveals his true purpose.
Soon, the Senators leave Cassius’ house and head to the Roman Forum where they attend the ceremony for Cassius’ son. There, the Senators watch as the boy puts on the toga of manhood for the first time. But their thoughts are fixed on the deed they are about to perform.
After the ceremony, Brutus, Cassius, and the rest of the Senators part ways with the boy and head to a Senate meeting at the Portico of Pompey. Here, they will join with the rest of their conspirators in the Senate and put their violent plan into action. The irony of assassinating Caesar in a public building named after his longtime rival is not lost on these Senators, nor is the dramatic impact of killing Caesar in front of the entire Senate.
But as Brutus steps into the meeting room, he’s cautious. Brutus knows that not everyone in the Senate will support this action, especially the Populares who might be inclined to defend Caesar. To safeguard against this possibility, one conspirator took extra precaution. Early this morning, Caesar’s protégé, Decimus Albinus, dispatched his private security force of Gladiators to the Portico of Pompey to protect his fellow conspirators.
And by 9:00 AM, the entire Senate is gathered in the meeting room. Brutus, Cassius, and Decimus know Caesar will arrive at any moment. After all, Caesar’s the one who called the meeting. So for now, there’s nothing left to do but wait.
Ultimately, their nefarious plan will succeed. But much like Caesar’s feigned refusal to put on a crown, the scheme will have unintended consequences. In the end, the conspirators’ violent attempt to preserve the Republic will bring about its downfall.
Act Three: Civil War
It’s the early hours of the morning of March 15th, 44 BC.
Julius Caesar lies in bed, his thoughts racing. Beside him, his wife Calpurnia jolts awake. In a panic, she tells Caesar of a nightmare she’s just had where she held his murdered body in her arms. Caesar tells his wife not to worry. But the dream bothers him enough that he decides not to attend the Senate meeting.
Before long, a servant announces the arrival of a surprise guest: Caesar’s friend and protégé: Decimus. After entering his chambers, Decimus tells Caesar that his presence is required in the Senate. When Caesar confides about the bad omens, Decimus goads Caesar, saying: “Will someone of Caesar’s stature pay attention to the dreams of a woman, the omens of foolish men?”
Caesar knows his friend is right. He has no business indulging in superstition. So despite Calpurnia’s protestations, Caesar agrees to go with Decimus.
When he strides into the meeting room, Caesar finds the other Senators gathered around in hushed circles. As Caesar takes his seat, the conspirators move in close, kissing his hands and his forehead. When one of them grabs his toga to prevent him from running away, Caesar cries out, “Why, this is violence!”
But it’s too late. The first blow comes from a Senator named Casca who strikes Caesar in the chest. Caesar tries to defend himself but there is little he can do. The rest of the conspirators descend quickly, plunging their daggers deep into his flesh. Defeated and bleeding, Caesar falls to the ground and covers his head with his toga. And when Brutus sticks in his blade, Caesar allegedly cries out, “you too, child?”
Caesar is stabbed some twenty-three times, and the blood from his wounds drenches his clothes and pools on the cold stone below him.
With Caesar dead, many in the Senate hope things will go back to the way they were before Caesar became dictator. But in the end, they will be disappointed. Not long after the assassination, Caesar’s friend and ally Mark Anthony will speak to the people of Rome at Caesar’s funeral. After praising his fallen friend, Anthony promises to seek revenge on those who struck him down.
Anthony’s words help ignite another civil war in Rome. Soon, the majority of Caesar's assassins will be dead, including Cassius, Brutus, and his good friend, Decimus. In the midst of this violence, Rome’s republican institutions will crumble. Their ruins will give rise to the Roman Empire, a system ruled by hereditary emperors and not elected officials, a system of corruption and avarice that will crumble hundreds of years later; a fate that was all but guaranteed when Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15th, 44 BC.
Next on History Daily. March 16th, 1968. After witnessing American troops massacre hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, a US Army helicopter pilot fights to expose a cover-up of the murders, and reveal the truth of what happened in the village of My Lai.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Music and sound design by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.