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On the Shores of the Great Sea by  M. B. Synge


 

 

THE DEATH OF CĘSAR

"The last of all the Romans, fare thee well."

—SHAKSPERE.

[189] AFTER a three months' stay in Egypt, during which time, he made friends with Cleopatra, Cęsar returned to Rome. He had been made Dictator a second time, and was to hold the post for ten years. A thanksgiving of forty days was decreed, temples and statues were raised in his honour, a golden chair was placed in the Senate for him to sit in. He was called the "Father of his country," a name that Cicero had already borne, and four triumphs were celebrated in his honour.

In return Cęsar feasted the Roman people at twenty-two thousand tables, and entertained them at combats of wild animals and gladiators, beneath awnings of the richest silks. For Pompey had built a splendid theatre in Rome, in which lions and elephants, and men known as gladiators, who fought with swords, for the amusement of the people, engaged in combat before crowds of delighted spectators; for the Romans thought the shedding of blood was pleasing to their gods.

But Cęsar did more than this. He made new Roman laws, he tried to bridge over the terrible inequality, between the very rich and the very poor, he added hugely to the number of senators, he [190] arranged the foreign provinces, and he rearranged the calendar. This was a very important piece of work. Up to this time the year had been made to consist of three hundred and fifty-five days; but as that did not exactly fit in, with the revolution of the earth round the sun, an extra month, had to be added at intervals. This made great confusion, and festivals for the harvest and vintage came three months before there was any corn or grapes.

The Julian calendar, as it was called, made the year to consist of three hundred and sixty-five days and six hours; which arrangement lasted for one thousand six hundred years after the death of Cęsar.

So Cęsar became undisputed master of this mighty empire of Rome. He had shown himself to be, not only one of the greatest conquerors, the world had ever seen, but one of the greatest statesmen. He governed Rome, as a king, in all but name. It was reported in the city, that he wished to be called king. Did he not dress in royal purple robes, had he not given himself all the airs of kingship?

One morning some one placed a crown of laurels, upon the head of his statue, which stood in the Forum. It was done publicly, in the midst of a vast crowd, in Cęsar's presence. The wreath was torn down. A few days later, as he was riding through the streets of Rome, he was saluted by [191] the mob as "king." A stifled murmur of disapproval ran through the crowd.

"I am no king, but Cęsar," cried the Roman Dictator hastily.

Yet again the prize of kingship seemed within reach. Cęsar was in his golden chair, dressed in purple, and wearing a wreath of bay wrought in gold, presented by the senators. He was presiding over a popular festival, when suddenly the chief performer approached Cęsar, and drawing a small crown from his girdle he placed it on Cęsar's head, saying, "The people give you this, by my hand."

As Cęsar took off the crown, a loud burst of applause broke from the people.

"I am not king," he said in a loud voice; "the only king of the Romans is Jupiter." Saying which, he ordered the crown to be carried, to the temple of Jupiter, in the Capitol.

The question of kingship was over, but there was a spirit of unrest and distrust abroad in Rome. Men hated this supreme power; they thought Cęsar was a tyrant, and they wished to see Rome free. Cęsar knew there was danger, but he went daily to the Senate, unarmed, and without a guard.

"It is better to suffer death once, than always to live in fear of it," he had replied loftily to those who urged care.

Cicero—the foremost orator of his day—did not [192] agree with such rashness, on the part of one, whose life was yet so precious to Rome.

"Be you watchful," he urged in a brilliant speech in the Senate, where Cęsar was sitting, but a few weeks before his murder. "All our lives are bound up in yours. With sorrow I have heard you say that you have lived long enough. For your country, you have not. Put away, I beseech you, this contempt of death. Be not wise at our expense. Your work is unfinished. It remains for you to rebuild the constitution. Live till this is done. Live till you see your country at peace. Your life shall continue fresh in the memory of ages to come: men will read with wonder of empire and provinces, of the Rhine, the ocean, and the Nile, of battles without number, of amazing victories, of countless monuments and triumphs; but unless this State be wisely established, your name will not live. Therefore, we beseech you, to watch over your own safety."

But Cęsar heeded not, and a secret plot, to kill him, went forward. An important meeting of the Senate had been called for the 15th of March. The day was known in ancient Rome, as the Ides—i.e., the middle day of the month. This was the day fixed for the murder of Cęsar. He had been warned by a soothsayer, that this should happen, and it is said he was restless and nervous, when the morning came. Unarmed, however, he shook off his uneasiness; he crossed the hall of [193] his palace on the way to the senate-house. As he did so, his own statue fell and broke in pieces on the stones. Outside the senate-house, he met the soothsayer, who had warned him.

"The Ides of March are come," said Cęsar, laughing.

"Yes," answered the soothsayer in a low voice, "but they are not gone."

Cęsar entered the senate-house of Rome for the last time. The senators rose to do him honour, as he took his seat, in the golden chair. Men gathered round him. He knew them all. There was not one, who did not owe him gratitude. He had no suspicions.

Suddenly some one stabbed him in the throat. He started from his chair with a cry. He was surrounded by swords and gleaming steel. For a moment he tried to defend himself. Then seeing Brutus, his friend, with raised sword, he drew his cloak over his face, "And thou too, Brutus?" He uttered the words with his last breath as he fell dead at the foot of Pompey's statue, beside his golden chair.

The Senate rose in confusion and rushed out to proclaim to the Romans, that the tyrant was dead, and Rome was free, while the body of the great Cęsar lay alone in the senate-house, where but a few weeks ago, Cicero had told him, that every senator would die, before harm should reach him.

[194] "We have killed the king," cried Cicero in bitterness of heart, "but the kingdom is with us still. We have taken away the tyrant, but the tyranny still lives."

The great Roman Republic was ended. It had narrowly escaped being a kingdom. It was now to be an empire under an emperor—an empire so vast and so important that the history of the world henceforth became the history of Rome.


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