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Did Julius Caesar Choose to Die?

From Insights, 1992

 

On that fateful and bloody day, did Julius Caesar know that death was near? Did he know of the conspirators' plan to assassinate him? His soothsayer had said "Beware the Ides of March." Animal omens were bad. Yet, he chose to ignore them all.

On that day as he left for his fatal rendezvous with the Senate, Artimidorus, an old friend, pressed a message revealing the conspirators into Caesar's hand and begged him to read it. The aging dictator for some reason failed to look at it. Did he scornfully ignore the threat of death? The Grim Reaper was no stranger to this tough, valiant, and flamboyant leader.

Many times in desperately uneven battles on which Caesar liked to stake his luck, he saved the day by rushing in where his men were beaten back. During an early campaign in Gaul, his troops were surprised by an overwhelming onslaught of Nervii. Caesar rushed over to the Twelfth Legion which was being massacred. He seized a shield from a soldier in the rear ranks, pushed his way to the front, called upon his centurions by name, then sounded the charge. The gesture revived his men, and the Nervii were hacked to pieces.

His presence also helped win the last battle he ever fought, against Pompey's son, Gnaeus. Seeing confusion and panic in his ranks, he removed his helmet and ran “like a madman” to the front line where he insulted and exhorted his men. As this did not check their panic, he again seized a shield from a soldier and ran forward crying “it is here I am going to die.”

Caesar dashed from the ranks and ran forward until he was no more than ten feet away from the enemy. A shower of more than 200 arrows fell around him; some passed without touching him, his shield protected him from the others. Each of his tribunes came running up with him and fought at his side. Thereupon, the entire army turned to fight with vehemence against the enemy.

In appearance, he was tall for a Roman. He had piercing black eyes and a hovering, ironic facial expression. He was subject to fits of epilepsy, but otherwise was in excellent health and had an abnormal capacity to endure hardships. He worked and fought, day and night, with little rest. Dressed as a dandy, he wore his hair combed forward to disguise his premature baldness and frequently wore a laurel wreath.

As a youthful lawyer, he decided to broaden his education and set out for Rhodes. On the way, he was captured by pirates, whom he promptly treated as servants. When he wanted to sleep he sent orders to his noisy captors to be quiet. They obeyed him meekly. He promised to have them crucified.

Six weeks later, after his ransom arrived and he was freed, he returned with several galleys, surprised the pirates in their lair and crucified them all—as he had promised.

After many battles, political and physical, he rose to the greatest heights of any Roman emperor. At least twice he refused the royal crown, saying loudly, “Jupiter alone is king. I am Caesar, not Rex [king].”

On the day of his death, he walked into the Senate meeting alone, unarmed. He joked with the soothsayer: “You see, the Ides of March have come.” “Yes,” replied Spurinna, “but they are not over yet.” Senators pressed close to him, all pleading their individual cases. Caesar gestured: “Later, later.” Closest was Tillius Cimber, one of the conspirators. He grabbed Caesar by the robe. Caesar cried, “But this is violence!”

At that moment, one of the Casca brothers tried to cut Caesar's throat with his dagger. Caesar caught his arm and ran it through with the only weapon he had, his stylus. If Caesar had wanted to defend himself, why was he carrying only this pointed instrument of writing?

Another dagger practically pierced his breast. He was surrounded by the assassins. Each had sworn to plunge his blade into Caesar's body so all would be held responsible equally. In their confusion, they wounded each other.

After the first blow, Caesar uttered not a word. But when he saw Brutus, the son of his old mistress, about to deliver his blow, Caesar said in Greek (the aristocratic language of the day): "You too, my son?"
He then drew himself up against the statue of Pompey, his old ally and defeated enemy—the statue Caesar had generously ordered—pulled his gown over his face and allowed himself to be butchered in silence.

He know the pot of vicious enmity was boiling. Romans respected bad omens and forecasts. Was he being contemptuous of danger? Or was he simply tired, at long last?
(Reprinted courtesy of Hersey-Sparling Meter Company, El Monte, California.)

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