Ecce Homo - The Julius Caesar Murder Mystery
Julius Caesar’s assassination is the best-documented account of any murder committed in the ancient world, and the Ides of March, the day of his murder, is the only day in Roman antiquity that can be re-constructed on an almost hour-by-hour basis. There are seven surviving narrative accounts of varying length, all demonstrating a strong family resemblance. Most are peppered with details that are intended to heighten the sense of drama, including reports of multiple omens. Some, too, manifest a high degree of literary artifice. How much of the reports are actually true?
As far as is known, there was no mechanism for any public inquiry into the crime. Witnesses were not deposed to provide evidence and the senate did not bring any charges against the perpetrators. In the absence of any official account of Caesar’s assassination, the first question to ask therefore, is: Who supplied the evidence upon which the surviving narratives are based?
News Reports on Caesar’s Death
It goes without saying that everyone who attended the senate on the morning of the Ides of March 44 BC must have reported some version of the murder, if only to their immediate family and friends. However, only those within sight of the victim, principally the assassins, would have been able to supply a reliable and detailed report. Within hours, accounts based on these oral reports began to circulate, disseminated both by those who were horrified by the crime and by those who condoned it. The murder may also have made it into a special edition of the acta diurna, the Roman equivalent of a daily newspaper, which was displayed on a message board in public places throughout the city.
The testimonies hostile to the victim would have justified Caesar’s assassination by claiming that he had initiated a bloody civil war, was bent on destroying the Republic and replacing it with a regnum or monarchy under his rule, and, further, that he had coveted despotism from the beginning of his career. By contrast, those favorable to the victim would have denounced his murder by arguing that Caesar had no designs on the kingship, by characterizing his death as an unmitigated tragedy, and by enumerating all his brilliant achievements, both military and administrative.
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Dr Robert Garland obtained his M.A. in Classics from McMaster University and his Ph.D. in Ancient History from University College London. His research focuses on the social, religious, political, and cultural history of both Greece and Rome. He has written 17 books including Julius Caesar.
Top Image: The Assassination of Julius Caesar by William Holmes Sullivan (1888) (Public Domain)