As history bears witness, nothing creates icons quite like an untimely death. The assassination of Julius Caesar provides evidence of this: Despite an impressive life as a Roman general and political leader, Caesar is perhaps most famous for his death, which has been immortalized time and time again on canvas and the stage. He was stabbed to death on the Ides of March—March 15—in 44 B.C. by a group of conspirators who proclaimed loyalty to the Roman Senate and its republican virtues.
Caesar was born into Rome’s elite patrician class. At the time of his birth, Rome was a republic ruled by a Senate. The Romans had such an aversion to tyranny and monarchy that executive power was shared by two consuls who each served one-year terms.
In his early life, Caesar’s family’s political connections helped him ascend to the office of High Priest of Jupiter. His good fortune did not last long, however, as his family’s chief rival—Lucius Cornelius Sulla—seized power and became dictator. Fearing for his life, Caesar fled Rome and did not return until after Sulla’s death in 78 B.C. and the restoration of consular government.
Upon his return, Caesar sprang into public life, serving as a military commander in addition to posts like Pontifex Maximus, or high priest of Rome, and various political roles. He eventually rose to the highest office in the Roman Republic, consul, and solidified his power through an alliance with two leading figures of the day: Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey.
Following his consulship, Caesar assumed command of legions in what is today Northern Italy and Southern France. He embarked on a successful conquest of Gaul (France) and traveled as far as Britain. Meanwhile, in Rome, Pompey and the Senate turned against Caesar and ordered him to return home or face charges of treason. In response, Caesar led a legion back to Rome, triggering a civil war against Pompey’s forces. Caesar defeated Pompey after several years of war, and Pompey was forced to flee; he made it as far as Egypt, where he was killed by agents of the pharaoh.
Victory left Caesar as the undisputed ruler of Rome. He enacted an ambitious political agenda and reform program—term limits for governors, restructuring debts, adopting a new calendar, and more—that won him the admiration of the people.
As Caesar’s power grew, opposition against him slowly festered among those who felt his rule was tyrannical and in violation of Rome’s republican ideals. The spark that lit the powder keg came in 44 B.C. when he was named dictator for life, and a group of senators came to think that Caesar must die so Rome could live. As such, they called themselves the liberators out of their belief that they would free the Republic from what they saw as Caesar’s despotism.
On March 15, 44 B.C., Caesar was to appear at a meeting of the Senate; as he arrived, Lucius Tillius Cimber, one of the liberators, approached him with a petition for his consideration. This created a diversion that allowed the remaining conspirators—close to 60—to surround Caesar and strike. Casca, another conspirator, struck at Caesar with a dagger, but the old soldier blocked him. With their plot exposed, the liberators rushed at Caesar, stabbing him until he fell and even after he had hit the ground. Caesar suffered 23 stab wounds in total.
Once Caesar had breathed his last, Brutus, one of the leaders of the conspiracy, cried, “People of Rome, we are once again free!”
But they would not be free for long. Caesar’s allies—Marc Antony, his second-in-command, and Octavian, his grand-nephew and heir—rallied an army to restore order and thus sparked a new civil war that would decide the fate of Rome. Antony and Octavian crushed the liberators’ forces at the Battle of Philippi, which prompted many of the remaining conspirators to commit suicide rather than face vengeance.
In the years that followed, Antony and Octavian clashed over control of the Republic. Octavian proved victorious, defeating Antony and his wife, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, at the Battle of Actium. At that point, Octavian consolidated his power and became the first Roman Emperor.
Octavian’s ascendance demonstrates the ultimate failure of the liberators’ conspiracy: In fighting to save a republic, they created an empire.