The Ides of March XLIV B.C.
In February of 44 B.C. the Senate of Rome declared military leader and politician Julius Caesar dictator for life. This declaration made many senators fear that Caesar wanted to overthrow the Senate in favor of tyranny ― a military dictator who wanted to be king. A group of about sixty senators led by Gaius Longinus, Marcus Brutus, and Decimus Albinus planned an elaborate conspiracy to assassinate Caesar in the Senate Chamber adjacent to the Theater of Pompey.
This painting depicts the assassination on the 15th of March 44 B.C. The conspirators hold an assortment of Roman daggers, primarily the pugio, standard weapon of the Roman legionaries. Cinna, who was not actually there, is included because of the memorable words he declares in Shakespeare’s drama. He stands above the others on Caesar’s throne, shouting, “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!” Because he is a symbolic figure, his dagger is not bloodstained. On the wall behind him is a crimson senatorial banner declaring, “SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and the People of Rome).” An eagle, with its talons emphasized, rests above this declaration, symbol of Rome’s military might, a force that will ultimately bring about the conspirator’s demise and the end of the republic as they know it. Directly below Cinna stand Casca and his brother, Gaius. Casca struck the first blow and Gaius delivered the second, perhaps the deathblow. Casca’s arm bleeds from a wound inflicted by Caesar as he attempted to defend himself with his stylus. Bucolianus, who had stabbed Caesar between the shoulder blades, stands in the rear, his head thrown back in grief, his eyes anxiously looking toward Cinna. Above him fly two Death’s Head Hawk Moths, familiar symbols of death.
Caesar lies on the floor, mortally wounded. Above him, to the left, kneels Brutus, his military dagger raised to strike. He later had this knife stamped on the back of a silver denarius he had minted to celebrate the liberation attempted on the Ides of March. The left hand of Brutus bleeds from an accidental cut he received from Cassius, whose dagger was also stamped on the coin. Caesar has uttered his final words, to Brutus, in Greek, “kai su, teknon,” most likely a question meaning, “You too, my child?” and has turned away from him in resignation, pulling over his head the gold trimmed toga sanctioned for him by the Senate. At Caesar’s feet lies an overturned capsa, a beech wood container for holding scrolls, but this day also used to conceal some of the conspirator’s daggers. Under Caesar’s right arm is a small scroll that was handed to him on his way to the Senate by Artemidorus of Cnidus, who knew about the conspiracy. It warned him not to go to the meeting, but Caesar failed to read it.
Standing above Caesar, to his right, is Decimus, his friend and military compatriot, who betrayed him to save the republic. His dagger shines brighter than the others to highlight the tragic significance of betrayal by a close friend. Behind Decimus, staring intently at the fallen Caesar is Cassius, who had inflicted a slanting blow across Caesar’s face. Cimber, a fellow soldier who had signaled the assassination by pulling the toga from Caesar’s shoulder, stands behind Cassius, nervously surveying the crowded chamber. Behind him is a raised hand holding an olive branch, an ironic symbol of peace to the dying Caesar and the Roman republic. In front of him is a hand with the thumb pointed downward. This gesture meant “death,” and ancient Roman crowds used it to pass judgment on a defeated gladiator.
The assassination took place in the Senate of Pompey. Caesar was in the process of building a new Senate building named after him, the Curia Julia, the lower portion of which has survived intact. The floor of that building is of opus sectile, similar to mosaic. Although probably unlike the plain floor of Pompey’s Senate, the artist modified some of the color and included it for the aesthetic and symbolic value. On the floor lies the stylus of Caesar, with which he had stabbed Casca, and a symbol of his noted written works, the Gallic Wars and Civil Wars. Scurrying on the floor next to it is a poisonous female Hobo spider, symbol of the deadly action taking place.
Above the senators, on the left, stands a statue of Pompey the Great, beneath which Caesar is said to have died. Pompey is garbed in the clothing of a military commander. Five years earlier Caesar had defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus. Pompey escaped to Egypt, but was murdered in Alexandria. His hand gestures ironically toward the dying Caesar, who is now also a victim of assassin’s blades. The veins in the marble of the wall behind him resemble flashes of lightning striking downward toward the fallen dictator. Standing in front of the statue is Basilus, a disgruntled Gallic commander whose blow had missed Caesar and accidentally stabbed fellow conspirator Rubrius, in the thigh. Behind the statue, weeping in anguish, is Calvisius who, with another senator, had endeavored to aid Caesar, but was prevented by the conspirators. Crucial to the intention of the work is the figure in the center, between Casca and his brother. He looks at the viewer and asks the question: “Are the men carrying out this deed murderers or patriots?”
For complete information on the assassination of Julius Caesar see:
The Death of Caesar
The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination
by Barry Strauss