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Julius Caesar by  Jacob Abbott


 

 

THE ASSASSINATION

[255]

A
CCORDING to the account given by his historians, Cæsar received many warnings of his approaching fate, which, however, he would not heed. Many of these warnings were strange portents and prodigies, which the philosophical writers who recorded them half believed themselves, and which they were always ready to add to their narratives even if they did not believe them, on account of the great influence which such an introduction of the supernatural and the divine had with readers in those days in enhancing the dignity and the dramatic interest of the story. These warnings were as follows:

At Capua, which was a great city at some distance south of Rome, the second, in fact, in Italy, and the one which Hannibal had proposed to make his capital, some workmen were removing certain ancient sepulchers to make room for the foundations of a splendid edifice which, among his other plans for the embellishment of the cities of Italy, Cæsar was intending to have [256] erected there. As the excavations advanced, the workmen came at last to an ancient tomb, which proved to be that of the original founder of Capua; and, in bringing out the sarcophagus, they found an inscription, worked upon a brass plate, and in the Greek character, predicting that if those remains were ever disturbed, a great member of the Julian family would be assassinated by his own friends, and his death would be followed by extended devastations throughout all Italy.

The horses, too, with which Cæsar had passed the Rubicon, and which had been, ever since that time, living in honorable retirement in a splendid park which Cæsar had provided for them, by some mysterious instinct, or from some divine communication, had warning of the approach of their great benefactor's end. They refused their food, and walked about with melancholy and dejected looks, mourning apparently, and in a manner almost human, some impending grief.

There was a class of prophets in those days called by a name which has been translated soothsayers. These soothsayers were able, as was supposed, to look somewhat into futurity—dimly and doubtfully, it is true, but really, by [257] means of certain appearances exhibited by the bodies of the animals offered in sacrifices. These soothsayers were consulted on all important occasions; and if the auspices proved unfavorable when any great enterprise was about to be undertaken, it was often, on that account, abandoned or postponed. One of these soothsayers, named Spurinna, came to Cæsar one day, and informed him that he had found, by means of a public sacrifice which he had just been offering, that there was a great and mysterious danger impending over him, which was connected in some way with the Ides of March, and he counseled him to be particularly cautious and circumspect until that day should have passed.

The Senate were to meet on the Ides of March in a new and splendid edifice, which had been erected for their use by Pompey. There was in the interior of the building, among other decorations, a statue of Pompey. The day before the Ides of March, some birds of prey from a neighboring grove came flying into this hall, pursuing a little wren with a sprig of laurel in its mouth. The birds tore the wren to pieces, the laurel dropping from its bill to the marble pavement of the floor below. Now, as Cæsar [258] had been always accustomed to wear a crown of laurel on great occasions, and had always evinced a particular fondness for that decoration, that plant had come to be considered his own proper badge, and the fall of the laurel, therefore, was naturally thought to portend some great calamity to him.

The night before the Ides of March Cæsar could not sleep. It would not seem, however, to be necessary to suppose any thing supernatural to account for his wakefulness. He lay upon his bed restless and excited, or if he fell into a momentary slumber, his thoughts, instead of finding repose, were only plunged into greater agitations, produced by strange, and, as he thought, supernatural dreams. He imagined that he ascended into the skies, and was received there by Jupiter, the supreme divinity, as an associate and equal. While shaking hands with the great father of gods and men, the sleeper was startled by a frightful sound. He awoke, and found his wife Calpurnia groaning and struggling in her sleep. He saw her by the moonlight which was shining into the room. He spoke to her, and aroused her. After staring wildly for a moment till she had recovered her thoughts, she said that she had had a dreadful [259] dream. She had dreamed that the roof of the house had fallen in, and that, at the same instant, the doors had been burst open, and some robber or assassin had stabbed her husband as he was lying in her arms. The philosophy of those days found in these dreams mysterious and preternatural warnings of impending danger; that of ours, however, sees nothing either in the absurd sacrilegiousness of Cæsar's thoughts, or his wife's incoherent and inconsistent images of terror—nothing more than the natural and proper effects, on the one hand, of the insatiable ambition of man, and, on the other, of the conjugal affection and solicitude of woman. The ancient sculptors carved out images of men, by the forms and lineaments of which we see that the physical characteristics of humanity have not changed. History seems to do the same with the affections and passions of the soul. The dreams of Cæsar and his wife on the night before the Ides of March, as thus recorded, form a sort of spiritual statue, which remains from generation to generation, to show us how precisely all the inward workings of human nature are from age to age the same.

When the morning came Cæsar and Calpurnia arose, both restless and ill at ease. Cæsar [260] ordered the auspices to be consulted with reference to the intended proceedings of the day. The soothsayers came in in due time, and reported that the result was unfavorable. Calpurnia, too, earnestly entreated her husband not to go to the senate-house that day. She had a very strong presentiment that, if he did go, some great calamity would ensue. Cæsar himself hesitated. He was half inclined to yield, and postpone his coronation to another occasion.

In the course of the day, while Cæsar was in this state of doubt and uncertainty, one of the conspirators, named Decimus Brutus, came in. This Brutus was not a man of any extraordinary courage or energy, but he had been invited by the other conspirators to join them, on account of his having under his charge a large number of gladiators, who, being desperate and reckless men, would constitute a very suitable armed force for them to call in to their aid in case of any emergency arising which should require it.

The conspirators having thus all their plans arranged, Decimus Brutus was commissioned to call at Cæsar's house when the time approached for the assembling of the Senate, both to avert suspicion from Cæsar's mind, and to [261] assure himself that nothing had been discovered. It was in the afternoon, the time for the meeting of the senators having been fixed at five o'clock. Decimus Brutus found Cæsar troubled and perplexed, and uncertain what to do. After hearing what he had to say, he replied by urging him to go by all means to the senate-house, as he had intended. "You have formally called the Senate together," said he, "and they are now assembling. They are all prepared to confer upon you the rank and title of king, not only in Parthia, while you are conducting this war but every where, by sea and land, except in Italy. And now, while they are all in their places, waiting to consummate the great act, how absurd will it be for you to send them word to go home again, and come back some other day, when Calpurnia shall have had better dreams!"

He urged, too, that, even if Cæsar was determined to put off the action of the Senate to another day, he was imperiously bound to go himself and adjourn the session in person. So saying, he took the hesitating potentate by the arm, and adding to his arguments a little gentle force, conducted him along.

The conspirators supposed that all was safe. [262] The fact was, however, that all had been discovered. There was a certain Greek, a teacher of oratory, named Artemidorus. He had contrived to learn something of the plot from some of the conspirators who were his pupils. He wrote a brief statement of the leading particulars, and, having no other mode of access to Cæsar, he determined to hand it to him on the way as he went to the senate-house. Of course, the occasion was one of great public interest, and crowds had assembled in the streets to see the great conqueror as he went along. As usual at such times, when powerful officers of state appear in public, many people came up to present petitions to him as he passed. These he received, and handed them, without reading, to his secretary who attended him, as if to have them preserved for future examination. Artemidorus, who was waiting for his opportunity, when he perceived what disposition Cæsar made of the papers which were given to him, began to be afraid that his own communication would not be attended to until it was too late. He accordingly pressed up near to Cæsar, refusing to allow any one else to pass the paper in; and when, at last, he obtained an opportunity, he gave it directly into Cæsar's hands saying to [263] him, "Read this immediately: it concerns yourself, and is of the utmost importance."

Cæsar took the paper and attempted to read it, but new petitions and other interruptions constantly prevented him; finally he gave up the attempt, and went on his way, receiving and passing to his secretary all other papers, but retaining this paper of Artemidorus in his hand.

Cæsar passed Spurinna on his way to the senate-house—the soothsayer who had predicted some great danger connected with the Ides of March. As soon as he recognized him, he accosted him with the words, "Well, Spurinna, the Ides of March have come, and I am safe." "Yes," replied Spurinna, "they have come, but they are not yet over."

At length he arrived at the senate-house, with the paper of Artemidorus still unread in his hand. The senators were all convened, the leading conspirators among them. They all rose to receive Cæsar as he entered. Cæsar advanced to the seat provided for him, and, when he was seated, the senators themselves sat down. The moment had now arrived, and the conspirators, with pale looks and beating hearts, felt that now or never the deed was to be done.

It requires a very considerable degree of phys- [264] ical courage and hardihood for men to come to a calm and deliberate decision that they will kill one whom they hate, and, still more, actually to strike the blow, even when under the immediate impulse of passion. But men who are perfectly capable of either of these often find their resolution fail them as the time comes for striking a dagger into the living flesh of their victim, when he sits at ease and unconcerned before them, unarmed and defenseless, and doing nothing to excite those feelings of irritation and anger which are generally found so necessary to nerve the human arm to such deeds. Utter defenselessness is accordingly, sometimes, a greater protection than an armor of steel.

Even Cassius himself, the originator and the soul of the whole enterprise, found his courage hardly adequate to the work now that the moment had arrived; and, in order to arouse the necessary excitement in his soul, he looked up to the statue of Pompey, Cæsar's ancient and most formidable enemy, and invoked its aid. It gave him its aid. It inspired him with some portion of the enmity with which the soul of its great original had burned; and thus the soul of the living assassin was nerved to its work by a sort of sympathy with a block of stone.

[265] Foreseeing the necessity of something like a stimulus to action when the immediate moment for action should arrive, the conspirators had agreed that, as soon as Cæsar was seated, they would approach him with a petition, which he would probably refuse, and then, gathering around him, they would urge him with their importunities, so as to produce, in the confusion, a sort of excitement that would make it easier for them to strike the blow.

There was one person, a relative and friend of Cæsar's, named Marcus Antonius, called commonly, however, in English narratives, Marc Antony, the same who has been already mentioned as having been subsequently connected with Cleopatra. He was a very energetic and determined man, who, they thought, might possibly attempt to defend him. To prevent this, one of the conspirators had been designated to take him aside, and occupy his attention with some pretended subject of discourse, ready, at the same time, to resist and prevent his interference if he should show himself inclined to offer any.

Things being thus arranged, the petitioner, as had been agreed, advanced to Cæsar with his petition, others coming up at the same time as [266] if to second the request. The object of the petition was to ask for the pardon of the brother of one of the conspirators. Cæsar declined granting it. The others then crowded around him, urging him to grant the request with pressing importunities, all apparently reluctant to strike the first blow. Cæsar began to be alarmed, and attempted to repel them. One of them then pulled down his robe from his neck to lay it bare. Cæsar arose, exclaiming, "But this is violence." At the same instant, one of the conspirators struck at him with his sword, and wounded him slightly in the neck.

All was now terror, outcry, and confusion. Cæsar had no time to draw his sword, but fought a moment with his style, a sharp instrument of iron with which they wrote, in those days, on waxen tablets, and which he happened then to have in his hand. With this instrument he ran one of his enemies through the arm.


[Illustration]

POMPEY'S STATUE

This resistance was just what was necessary to excite the conspirators, and give them the requisite resolution to finish their work. Cæsar soon saw the swords, accordingly, gleaming all around him, and thrusting themselves at him on every side. The senators rose in confusion [267] and dismay, perfectly thunderstruck at the scene, and not knowing what to do. Antony perceived that all resistance on his part would be unavailing, and accordingly did not attempt any. Cæsar defended himself alone for a few minutes as well as he could, looking all around him in vain for help, and retreating at the same time toward the pedestal of Pompey's statue. At length, when he saw Brutus among his murderers, he exclaimed, "And you too, Brutus?" and seemed from that moment to give up in despair. He drew his robe over his face, and [268] soon fell under the wounds which he received. His blood ran out upon the pavement at the foot of Pompey's statue, as if his death were a sacrifice offered to appease his ancient enemy's revenge.

In the midst of the scene Brutus made an attempt to address the senators, and to vindicate what they had done, but the confusion and excitement were so great that it was impossible that any thing could be heard. The senators were, in fact, rapidly leaving the place, going off in every direction, and spreading the tidings over the city. The event, of course, produced universal commotion. The citizens began to close their shops, and some to barricade their houses, while others hurried to and fro about the streets, anxiously inquiring for intelligence, and wondering what dreadful event was next to be expected. Antony and Lepidus, who were Cæsar's two most faithful and influential friends, not knowing how extensive the conspiracy might be, nor how far the hostility to Cæsar and his party might extend, fled, and, not daring to go to their own houses, lest the assassins or their confederates might pursue them there, sought concealment in the houses of friends on whom they supposed they could rely and who were willing to receive them.

[269] In the mean time, the conspirators, glorying in the deed which they had perpetrated, and congratulating each other on the successful issue of their enterprise, sallied forth together from the senate-house, leaving the body of their victim weltering in its blood, and marched, with drawn swords in their hands, along the streets from the senate-house to the Capitol. Brutus went at the head of them, preceded by a liberty cap borne upon the point of a spear, and with his bloody dagger in his hand. The Capitol was the citadel, built magnificently upon the Capitoline Hill, and surrounded by temples, and other sacred and civil edifices, which made the spot the architectural wonder of the world. As Brutus and his company proceeded thither, they announced to the citizens, as they went along, the great deed of deliverance which they had wrought out for the country. Instead of seeking concealment, they gloried in the work which they had done, and they so far succeeded in inspiring others with a portion of their enthusiasm, that some men who had really taken no part in the deed joined Brutus and his company in their march, to obtain by stealth a share in the glory.

The body of Cæsar lay for some time un- [270] heeded where it had fallen, the attention of every one being turned to the excitement, which was extending through the city, and to the expectation of other great events which might suddenly develop themselves in other quarters of Rome. There were left only three of Cæsar's slaves, who gathered around the body to look at the wounds. They counted them, and found the number twenty-three. It shows, however, how strikingly, and with what reluctance, the actors in this tragedy came up to their work at last, that of all these twenty-three wounds only one was a mortal one. In fact, it is probable that, while all of the conspirators struck the victim in their turn, to fulfill the pledge which they had given to one another that they would every one inflict a wound, each one hoped that the fatal blow would be given, after all, by some other hand than his own.

At last the slaves decided to convey the body home. They obtained a sort of chair, which was made to be borne by poles, and placed the body upon it. Then, lifting at the three handles, and allowing the fourth to hang unsupported for want of a man, they bore the ghastly remains home to the distracted Calpurnia.

[271] The next day Brutus and his associates called an assembly of the people in the Forum, and made an address to them, explaining the motives which had led them to the commission of the deed, and vindicating the necessity and the justice of it. The people received these explanations in silence. They expressed neither approbation nor displeasure. It was not, in fact, to be expected that they would feel or evince any satisfaction at the loss of their master. He had been their champion, and, as they believed, their friend. The removal of Cæsar brought no accession of power nor increase of liberty to them. It might have been a gain to ambitious senators, or powerful generals, or high officers of state, by removing a successful rival out of their way, but it seemed to promise little advantage to the community at large, other than the changing of one despotism for another. Besides, a populace who know that they must be governed, prefer generally, if they must submit to some control, to yield their submission to some one master spirit whom they can look up to as a great and acknowledged superior. They had rather have a Cæsar than a Senate to command them.

The higher authorities, however, were, as [272] might have been expected, disposed to acquiesce in the removal of Cæsar from his intended throne. The Senate met, and passed an act of indemnity, to shield the conspirators from all legal liability for the deed they had done. In order, however, to satisfy the people too, as far as possible, they decreed divine honors to Cæsar, confirmed and ratified all that he had done while in the exercise of supreme power, and appointed a time for the funeral, ordering arrangements to be made for a very pompous celebration of it.

A will was soon found, which Cæsar, it seems, had made some time before. Calpurnia's father proposed that this will should be opened and read in public at Antony's house; and this was accordingly done. The provisions of the will were, many of them, of such a character as renewed the feelings of interest and sympathy which the people of Rome had begun to cherish for Cæsar's memory. His vast estate was divided chiefly among the children of his sister, as he had no children of his own, while the very men who had been most prominent in his assassination were named as trustees and guardians of the property; and one of them, Decimus Brutus, the one who had been so urgent to conduct him to the senate-house, was a [273] second heir. He had some splendid gardens near the Tiber, which he bequeathed to the citizens of Rome, and a large amount of money also, to be divided among them, sufficient to give every man a considerable sum.

The time for the celebration of the funeral ceremonies was made known by proclamation, and, as the concourse of strangers and citizens of Rome was likely to be so great as to forbid the forming of all into one procession without consuming more than one day, the various classes of the community were invited to come, each in their own way, to the Field of Mars, bringing with them such insignia, offerings, and oblations as they pleased. The Field of Mars was an immense parade ground, reserved for military reviews, spectacles, and shows. A funeral pile was erected here for the burning of the body. There was to be a funeral discourse pronounced, and Marc Antony had been designated to perform this duty. The body had been placed in a gilded bed, under a magnificent canopy in the form of a temple, before the rostra where the funeral discourse was to be pronounced. The bed was covered with scarlet and cloth of gold and at the head of it was laid the robe in which Cæsar had been slain. It was stained with [274] blood, and pierced with the holes that the swords and daggers of the conspirators had made.

Marc Antony, instead of pronouncing a formal panegyric upon his deceased friend, ordered a crier to read the decrees of the Senate, in which all honors, human and divine, had been ascribed to Cæsar. He then added a few words of his own. The bed was then taken up, with the body upon it, and borne out into the Forum, preparatory to conveying it to the pile which had been prepared for it upon the Field of Mars, A question, however, here arose among the multitude assembled in respect to the proper place for burning the body. The people seemed inclined to select the most honorable place which could be found within the limits of the city. Some proposed a beautiful temple on the Capitoline Hill. Others wished to take it to the senate-house, where he had been slain. The Senate, and those who were less inclined to pay extravagant honors to the departed hero, were in favor of some more retired spot, under pretense that the buildings of the city would be endangered by the fire. This discussion was fast becoming a dispute, when it was suddenly ended by two men, with swords at their sides and lances in their hands, forcing their way through [277] the crowd with lighted torches, and setting the bed and its canopy on fire where it lay.


[Illustration]

BURNING OF CAESAR'S BODY

This settled the question, and the whole company were soon in the wildest excitement with the work of building up a funeral pile upon the spot. At first they brought fagots and threw upon the fire, then benches from the neighboring courts and porticoes, and then any thing combustible which came to hand. The honor done to the memory of a deceased hero was, in some sense, in proportion to the greatness of his funeral pile, and all the populace on this occasion began soon to seize every thing they could find, appropriate and unappropriate, provided that it would increase the flame. The soldiers threw on their lances and spears, the musicians their instruments, and others stripped off the cloths and trappings from the furniture of the procession, and heaped them upon the burning pile.

So fierce and extensive was the fire, that it spread to some of the neighboring houses, and required great efforts to prevent a general conflagration. The people, too, became greatly excited by the scene. They lighted torches by the fire, and went to the houses of Brutus and Cassius, threatening vengeance upon them for the [278] murder of Cæsar. The authorities succeeded, though with infinite difficulty, in protecting Brutus and Cassius from the violence of the mob, but they seized one unfortunate citizen of the name of Cinna, thinking it a certain Cinna who had been known as an enemy of Cæsar. They cut off his head, notwithstanding his shrieks and cries, and carried it about the city on the tip of a pike, a dreadful symbol of their hostility to the enemies of Cæsar. As frequently happens, however, in such deeds of sudden violence, these hasty and lawless avengers found afterward that they had made a mistake, and beheaded the wrong man.

The Roman people erected a column to the memory of Cæsar, on which they placed the inscription, "TO THE FATHER OF HIS COUNTRY." They fixed the figure of a star upon the summit of it, and some time afterward, while the people were celebrating some games in honor of his memory, a great comet blazed for seven nights in the sky, which they recognized as the mighty hero's soul reposing in heaven.


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