Cicero and Caesar’s Assassination

As one further ruminates upon Cicero, one has to ask the question, “What was the role of Cicero in Caesar’s assassination and its aftermath?”

 

The sources seem to all agree that Cicero was at the Senate meeting during which Caesar was assassinated. So, he was an eyewitness, when the gang of twenty or so Senators crowded around Caesar, on the pretext of presenting a petition, and assassinated him.   He saw the clumsy first attempts to stab Caesar, some of which missed entirely. Some of the Senators stabbed other Senators by mistake. Caesar, because he evaded being wounded at the beginning, began to strike back at his assailants with a pen. Some sources say that Brutus cried out Cicero’s name as Brutus stabbed Caesar.

 

What Cicero did during this melee is unrecorded. Did he participate? Did he stand in awe of what was happening? Did he flee the scene as some of the Senators did in order the save themselves? We simply do not know.

 

We do know that the assassins did flee the scene. Their escape was not an easy one, for the Theatre of Pompey, which was next door to the site of the Senate Meeting, was just letting out from a gladiatorial show. So the assassins’ timing was quite poor, for thousands of Romans blocked the conspirators’ escape. One of Caesar’s closest colleagues, Marcus Aemilius Lepdius, immediately went to get some soldiers. As he returned, he unknowingly bumped into a group of the conspirators. Caesar’s body was dragged out of the Senate meeting site by slaves on litter, his wounded arm dangling from the side. The slaves moved awkwardly, because there were only three of them.

 

Hours later, Cicero met with Brutus and some of the other conspirators on the Capitoline Hill. The conspirators were by then calling themselves ‘the Liberators’.  At this meeting, the Liberators tried to get Cicero onboard with their actions. It is clear that Cicero had not participated with the conspirators before the act. Obviously, they wanted his endorsement, because he was a respected, elder statesman. Cicero gave his advice: summon the Senate immediately. The Liberators were undecided as to what to do and they delayed acting.

Cicero wrote that he thought that ordinary Romans wanted Caesar to go. He was deeply wrong in this assessment.  The delay by the Liberators to follow Cicero’s advice left the initiative to Caesar’s followers who immediately exploited the popular mood, which was not in favor of the actions of the Liberators. The average Roman supported Caesar’s reforms. To the average Roman it was the choice of overseas settlements, cash to the poor, and occasional cash payouts to every one versus the nebulous word ‘liberty’. Cash won out over ideals.

 

Within a few days, Mark Antony staged a remarkable funeral for Caesar, which included a wax effigy of Caesar, complete with wounds and blood. This caused Brutus and Cassius to leave the city, fearing for their lives. Cicero stepped up at that moment and tried to hold the fragile peace together. He did not want a return to violence in the streets of Rome, so he proposed that the Senate ratify all the decisions made by Caesar.   This worked temporarily, until Octavian returned to Rome.

 

In summary, Cicero was unaware of the conspiracy. In fact, he writes at one point that he does not know how he did not know of the conspiracy. While he was in the Senate meeting, there is no record of him acting in concert with the conspirators to assassinate Caesar. While he met later with the Liberators, they did not follow his advice. Cicero was wrong in his assessment that the average Roman wanted Caesar to go. Cicero did broker a tenuous peace in the aftermath, which held only until Octavian returned to Rome.

Advertisements