One hundred years before the lifetime of Judas of Galilee, Gaius Julius Caesar was born in Italy – perhaps in Bovillae, the “place of the ox” – a man who was destined to be one of the most remarkable characters who ever lived. After twenty centuries, his name is as well known as it was in his own time. Most people would look aghast at the suggestion that Caesar and Jesus have a lot in common, but if we look carefully we will see that the similarities are profound.
It was while reading Stefan Weinstock’s Divus Julius that the conviction began to grow in my mind – unbidden I must add – that Julius Caesar was the ultimate model for the figure of Jesus Christ – the Christ of Paul, the Son of God, not the Jewish itinerant preacher or revolutionary. Like most other people, when I heard the name “Caesar”, I tended to think: “politician, conquering general and dictator”. Like most people, I was not aware of the incredibly broad range of interests and abilities that Caesar manifested, nor the roles he played in Rome, including Pontifex Maximus – the religious head of the Roman Republic. I was unaware that he was famous for his mercy, though I did know he had been “deified” after his death. This was a vague concept that seemed rather ignorant and barbaric to me. I knew he had written reports on his wars, but I didn’t know he had written a book about grammar, love poetry, tragedies, travel reports, and more.
Obviously, the reason for my ignorance is the same as for nearly everyone else except specialists: Roman history is not taught in any detail in schools anymore, and most people learn their distorted history from comic books and docu-dramas. Also, as mentioned by Gelzer, the word “dictator” in our world tends to elicit a knee-jerk image of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. The very word “Caesarism” was coined for this sort of thing, which is a total misnomer and has nothing at all to do with the real Caesar. Now, after five years of intensive study of Caesar and the Roman Republic, I get quite irritated when anyone uses that word.
It’s difficult to talk about the life of Caesar due to the massive misunderstandings about him that have grown up following the rediscovery of ancient Rome during the Renaissance. At first, when the writings of Cicero were brought to light, Caesar was seen through his eyes the same way John of Gischala was seen through the jealous, small-minded eyes of Josephus. Cicero, an authoritarian personality type suffering from serious Dunning-Kruger syndrome, portrayed Caesar as a brutal, power-mad, immoral dictator. It was only when the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch discovered the letters of Cicero in the 14th century that Cicero’s true nature was revealed: he was arrogant, utterly self-serving, paranoid, and a complete hypocrite, none of whose opinions and value judgments could be trusted. But that hasn’t stopped countless scholars and lovers of history from adopting his views. Once Cicero’s letters, speeches and philosophical writings were published, they were able to influence gullible minds for centuries to come.
I think a person’s heroes say something about their own character. There are people who respect and admire figures like John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Princess Diana and John Lennon. But there are also people who championed their deaths, and those who idolize people like J. Edgar Hoover, Allen Dulles, Dick Cheney, or Adolph Hitler. They seem somehow constitutionally unable to differentiate these people’s characters. Not only that, they seem to identify with those who possess the lowest type of character.
Many figures are controversial, and that’s where I think a close reading of the available materials about them, and the context in which they lived, is important. If you grew up in the Hoover household, hating Kennedy, that might color your views. But if after reading as much as you could about the man, what he accomplished, and what he was trying to do you still think it was a great thing he was assassinated, that says something. I think the same goes for Caesar. And Cicero.
French historian Jerome Carcopino referred to Cicero as “the most odious creature who ever lived.” (Jerome Carcopino, Cicero: The Secrets of His Correspondence, 2 vols., (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951).) He was right. Just read his letters. Unfortunately, Carcopino didn’t take that realization the next step and deduce that Cicero’s representations of Caesar were deeply prejudiced. Beginning with Cicero, nearly everything Caesar did has been interpreted and represented by historians according to their own psychological biases, ideological agendas, and inner character. The first historians of Rome were no Howard Zinns writing “people’s histories”; they were rich, upper-class supporters of the status quo. Later historians were little different – what Michael Parenti calls the “gentlemen historians”. These men, like Cicero, were oligarchs, and they shared the same mindset: anti-populist, pro-1%.
Consider those among Caesar’s contemporaries who saw him as a conniving conspirator: the “optimates”, an oligarchy of aristocratic families who dominated the Senate and monopolized state offices in order to profit from the city’s corruption and the ruthless exploitation of foreign conquests. A more rapacious bunch has seldom been seen on planet Earth (though the current crop are certainly running neck and neck with those of the late Roman Republic). They were the 1% of their time, and the fact that they despised Caesar speaks volumes. The most hypocritical of these declaimers of virtue were Cicero and Cato. (Tellingly, these two men continue to be the most idolized by the political and academic establishments.)
In fear that the optimates might lose total control, and thus riches and glory, they blocked the beneficial changes that were proposed by Caesar and previous champions of the people. They stifled anyone who advanced progressive programs or coopted them by violence. Although the state was collapsing under this pathological rulership, the optimates stubbornly resisted any fair resolution of the empire’s problems and claimed that it was they who stood for the Roman tradition – their heritage. These were the views shared by Caesar’s assassins. (See Stevenson’s Transformation of Roman Republic.) They made high-profile claims for their Republican sentiments, but that merely meant preserving the club of oligarchs.
In many cases, I think the same thing applies today. Many who see Caesar’s actions simply as steps in a self-aggrandizing power-grab simply can’t understand such a man as Caesar was. Caesar was consistent from the beginning of his life, when he refused to divorce his wife upon the orders of Sulla, even though he had to go on the run for his life, right to the end, when he covered his face and resigned himself to death in the face of the mortal hatred of those he saved and loved. He showed remarkable intelligence, self-control, prudence, courage, creativity, self-discipline, and faithfulness.
Theodor Mommsen, Arthur Kahn, and Michael Parenti are among the historians who seem to really “get” Caesar, and see through the slander penned by that odious creature Cicero. (Mommsen, History; Arthur D. Kahn, The Education of Julius Caesar: A Biography, A Reconstruction (iUniverse, 2000). Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome (New Press People’s History, 2004).) Mattias Gelzer wrote what is still the gold standard account of Caesar’s life. (Mattias Gelzer, Caesar: Politician and Statesman (Harvard University Press, 1921, 1968).) In Gelzer’s view, Caesar was a heroic character who was determined from an early age to overthrow a corrupt aristocracy that fed on the lifeblood of the masses of ordinary people. He notes:
Much has been written about Caesar. The appearance of despotic rulers of quite a different stamp has not always been favourable to the judgment passed on him. A fresh study of the sources has, on the whole, convinced me of the correctness of my interpretation. (Gelzer (1968), p. viii.)
Along this line, Mommsen wrote that Caesar’s “aim was the highest which a man is allowed to propose himself – the political, military, intellectual, and moral regeneration of his own deeply decayed nation”:
… The hard school of thirty years’ experience changed his views as to the means by which this aim was to be reached; his aim itself remained the same in the times of his hopeless humiliation and of his unlimited plenitude of power, in the times when as demagogue and conspirator he stole towards it by paths of darkness, and in those when, as joint possessor of the supreme power and then as monarch, he worked at his task in the full light of day before the eyes of the world. … According to his original plan he had purposed to reach his object … without force of arms, and throughout eighteen years he had as leader of the people’s party moved exclusively amid political plans and intrigues – until, reluctantly convinced of the necessity for a military support, he, when already forty years of age, put himself at the head of an army. ( Quoted in Jona Lendering, “Gaius Julius Caesar”, available online at: http://www.livius.org/caa-can/caesar/caesar10.html)
Later historians dispute Mommsen’s views, but what they cannot deny is that Caesar’s measures protected the ordinary people against the selfish policies of the nobles.
Caesar’s way of feeling and acting toward his contemporaries – his being – was so remarkably different that his contemporaries could not comprehend it. His character was unique, not just because of his genius – he was certainly that – but also because, in a historical period that was driven by endless wars, vengeance, vendettas, maneuvers for power, glory and dominance, Julius Caesar was preeminently a man of forgiveness; he was famed for his clemency, his mercy. These qualities are what stand out again and again in Caesar’s own writings, the Gallic Wars and the Civil Wars. He pardoned his enemies with the hope that they would make peace with him and each other. His books are a record of his experiments with mercy.
And what was the essence of Paul’s Christ? Mercy and forgiveness.
Can we really say that this was something new and unheard of? Indeed, there were traces of such behavior through ancient times, but it was rare. The Romans did tend to pardon their enemies if they abased themselves sufficiently and promised to provide troops and tribute, but in general, when an enemy was defeated, it was usual to make an example of them by gratuitous death and cruelty. Instincts ruled, and they demanded immediate elimination of an enemy. The thinking was: if you pardon an enemy because he promises not to attack you again, to be your friend, he will secretly plot your undoing and you will have to fight him again. That’s how people were brought up to think then; it was pretty much part of the cultural landscape, and it was the mindset of Cicero and his “friends”.
Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus in December of 50 BC – one month before Caesar crossed the Rubicon and began the civil war – that Caesar “will not be more merciful than Cinna in the massacre of the nobility, nor less rapacious than Sulla in confiscating the property of the rich.” (Att. 7.7, trans. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, The Letters of Cicero, 4 vols. (George Bell and Sons, 1908–1909).) Two months later, the Italian city of Corfinium surrendered to Caesar, after a week under siege. Caesar let all the citizens and magistrates go free, and incorporated their troops into his own. One week later, in March 49 AD, Caesar wrote to his colleagues in Rome, Oppius and Balbus:
I am very glad that your letter expresses such strong approval of what happened at Corfinium. I shall be glad to follow your advice, and all the more so, that I had spontaneously resolved to display the greatest clemency and to do my best to reconcile Pompey. Let us try in this way if we can recover the affections of all parties, and enjoy a lasting victory; for others, owing to their cruelty, have been unable to avoid rousing hatred, or to maintain their victory for any length of time, with the one exception of Lucius Sulla, whom I have no intention of imitating. Let this be our new method of conquering – to fortify ourselves by mercy and generosity. As to how that may be secured, certain ideas suggest themselves to my mind, and many more may be hit upon. I beg you to take these matters into consideration. (Att. 9.7, Shuckburgh.)
Cicero’s prediction about Caesar’s behavior was wrong; he was repeatedly wrong about him, both in predicting his actions and inferring his motivations. But Cicero had been conditioned by growing up amidst the horrors of the 90s and 80s, witnessing Sulla’s proscriptions: endless extra-judicial killings and seizure of property. Such experiences only served to make Cicero like those he feared: inconstant, duplicitous and cruel. And that is why it is so extraordinary that Caesar – who grew up under the same conditions and worse, since he had to flee for his life when he was not yet 20 and live in hiding until his name was removed from the list of the proscribed – desired to make mercy a standard operating procedure. Historian Velleius Paterculus expressed what was probably a common Roman reaction at the time: “Caesar, victorious over all his enemies, returned to the city, and pardoned all who had borne arms against him, an act of generosity almost passing belief.” (Vell. 2.56.)
Cicero reveals himself in a remark he once made on Caesar’s mercy:
… grants made by Caesar himself as absolute master are again within his power to revoke. He has pardoned even Sallustius: he is said to refuse absolutely no one. This in itself suggests the suspicion that judicial investigation is held over for another time. (Att. 11.20, Shuckburgh.)
Cicero could not imagine that Caesar was authentically merciful – he must have had an ulterior motive, planning retaliation for later on – probably because Cicero was guilty of the very things of which he accused Caesar. Cicero was a two-faced fraud, saying one thing in public, and another in private.
Even those who insulted Caesar viciously were treated with gentleness. Suetonius writes:
On the other hand he never formed such bitter enmities that he was not glad to lay them aside when opportunity offered. Although Gaius Memmius had made highly caustic speeches against him, to which he had replied with equal bitterness, he went so far as to support Memmius afterwards in his suit for the consulship.
When Gaius Calvus, after some scurrilous epigrams, took steps through his friends towards a reconciliation, Caesar wrote to him first and of his own free will.
Valerius Catullus, as Caesar himself did not hesitate to say, inflicted a lasting stain on his name by the verses about Mamurra; yet when he apologised, Caesar invited the poet to dinner that very same day. (Suetonius, Iul. 73.)
Caesar describes in his writings how his soldiers sometimes resisted or criticized him for his mercy; they thought he was foolish. Yes, he did have to fight many of those he pardoned a second time. Some he even had to fight a third time. And in the end, some of his pardoned enemies plotted his undoing and assassinated him, including Brutus and Cassius, whom Caesar had saved from death and showered with benefits.
Was he was wrong to be merciful? His successors did not practice his clemency. Anthony and Octavian proscribed and eliminated their enemies – and a few more besides, including Cicero, whom Caesar had forgiven again and again. Cicero wrote to Atticus after Caesar’s death that clemency was his undoing: “if he had not shown it, nothing of the sort would have befallen him.” (Att. 14.22, Shuckburgh.) Caesar’s mercy made its way into Paul’s thought and thus into Christianity and changed the world though it certainly did not do away with evil types of varying pathologies. Still, I think our world is a better place for Caesar’s sacrifice: “Greater love hath no man than that he should give up his life for his friends.”
Cicero mentions that Caesar “even pardoned Sallustius”. This must refer to Gaius Sallustius Crispus AKA Sallust, charged with oppression and extortion while governor of Africa. He retired from public life (perhaps on the advice of Caesar) and devoted himself to his gardens and historical research. According to one source, he later married Cicero’s ex-wife, who divorced the latter probably because she – and the rest of his family – supported Caesar. Cicero, in contrast, stubbornly lusted after his oligarchic model, which he had put into practice during his consulship, when he rose to ultimate power and his 15 minutes of fame and bloodshed, claiming to “save the country” from what amounted to a false-flag set-up: the Catilinarian conspiracy. In any event, in a book about this tempest in a teapot turned into a hurricane by Cicero, Sallust wrote a famous comparison of Caesar and Cato:
In birth then, in years and in eloquence, they were about equal; in greatness of soul they were evenly matched, and likewise in renown, although the renown of each was different. Caesar was held great because of his benefactions and lavish generosity, Cato for the uprightness of his life. The former became famous for his gentleness and compassion, the austerity of the latter had brought him prestige. Caesar gained glory by giving, helping, and forgiving; Cato by never stooping to bribery. One was a refuge for the unfortunate, the other a scourge for the wicked. The good nature of the one was applauded, the steadfastness of the other. Finally, Caesar had schooled himself to work hard and sleep little, to devote himself to the welfare of his friends and neglect his own, to refuse nothing which was worth the giving. He longed for great power, an army, a new war to give scope for his brilliant merit. Cato, on the contrary, cultivated self-control, propriety, but above all austerity. He did not vie with the rich in riches nor in intrigue with the intriguer, but with the active in good works, with the self-restrained in moderation, with the blameless in integrity. He preferred to be, rather than to seem, virtuous; hence the less he sought fame, the more it pursued him. (Sallust, Cat. 54 (translated by John C. Rolfe, Loeb, 1931).)
I don’t agree with Sallust’s take on Cato. Cato’s behavior better fits a personality disorder of some sort; the way he killed himself suggests serious mental issues – disemboweling himself, twice! The difference between the two Romans mirrors the difference between the old view of the harsh and inexorable Jewish god and Paul’s new view epitomized by his merciful Christ Crucified who gave his life to redeem humanity.
Caesar was kind toward those who were downtrodden. He was known to advance people of humble origins based on merit and he had a soft spot for the Jews at a time when all other writers had nothing but scorn for them. Thus, the Jews of the Roman Empire had good reason to mourn his death. Not only was Caesar tolerant of the Diaspora, he was in every other way undoubtedly the most remarkable man who ever lived. He spent years trying to solve Rome’s problems via a political solution, and even when it came down to a choice of civil war, he extended the option of compromise right to the very end. Once he was master of Rome, he made many reforms that speak eloquently of his true character: he redistributed land, taking from the rich and giving to the poor; he increased food rations to the poor; he fixed the Roman calendar; he extended Roman citizenship; he began beneficial engineering projects, planned libraries, theaters; provided support for artists and scholars, and more. Caesar was famous for qualities that can only be described as righteous and just and merciful.
I haven’t spent much time on Caesar’s other attributes, his absolute genius in so many areas, but I hope I have conveyed to some small extent the extraordinary nature of Caesar’s character, his mercy, and how strange, how incomprehensible, how divine, it must have seemed to the people of the time. Caesar’s brief rule between the proscriptions of Cinna, Sulla and Sulla’s successors in the Senate, and the 20 years of civil war and proscriptions that followed with Octavian, must have seemed like a period in which a god had actually come to Earth. Caesar had as little time to do his work as his mythical counterpart, Jesus of Nazareth – about three years.
The Passion of Caesar
The most striking parallels between Jesus and Caesar relate to Caesar’s death. Nicolaus of Damascus gives an account of the conspiracy that led to his assassination:
The conspirators never met exactly openly, but they assembled a few at a time in each other’s homes. There were many discussions and proposals, as might be expected, while they investigated how and where to execute their design. Some suggested that they should make the attempt along the Sacred Way, which was one of his favorite walks. Another idea was to do it at the elections, during which he had to cross a bridge to appoint the magistrates in the Campus Martius. Someone proposed that they draw lots for some to push him from the bridge and others to run up and kill him. A third plan was to wait for a coming gladiatorial show. The advantage of that was, because of the show, no suspicion would be aroused if arms were seen. The majority opinion, however, favored killing him while he sat in the Senate. He would be there by himself, since only Senators were admitted, and the conspirators could hide their daggers beneath their togas. This plan won the day. …
For his friends were alarmed at certain rumors and tried to stop him going to the Senate-house, as did his doctors, for he was suffering from one of his occasional dizzy spells. His wife, Calpurnia, especially, who was frightened by some visions in her dreams, clung to him and said that she would not let him go out that day. But [Decimus] Brutus, one of the conspirators who was then thought of as a firm friend, came up and said, ‘What is this, Caesar? Are you a man to pay attention to a woman’s dreams and the idle gossip of stupid men, and to insult the Senate by not going out, although it has honoured you and has been specially summoned by you? But listen to me, cast aside the forebodings of all these people, and come. The Senate has been in session waiting for you since early this morning.’ This swayed Caesar and he left. ( Included in B. K. Workman, They Saw it Happen in Classical Times (Blackwell, 1964), p. 112.)
Plutarch’s account of the assassination and the events leading up to it adds more detail:
But destiny, it would seem, is not so much unexpected as it is unavoidable, since they say that amazing signs and apparitions were seen. Now, as for lights in the heavens, crashing sounds borne all about by night, and birds of omen coming down into the forum, it is perhaps not worth while to mention these precursors of so great an event; but Strabo the philosopher says that multitudes of men all on fire were seen rushing up, and a soldier’s slave threw from his hand a copious flame and seemed to the spectators to be burning, but when the flame ceased the man was uninjured; he says, moreover, that when Caesar himself was sacrificing, the heart of the victim was not to be found, and the prodigy caused fear, since in the course of nature, certainly, an animal without a heart could not exist. …
Moreover, on the day before, when Marcus Lepidus was entertaining him at supper, Caesar chanced to be signing letters, as his custom was, while reclining at table, and the discourse turned suddenly upon the question what sort of death was the best; before anyone could answer Caesar cried out: “That which is unexpected.” After this, while he was sleeping as usual by the side of his wife, all the windows and doors of the chamber flew open at once, and Caesar, confounded by the noise and the light of the moon shining down upon him, noticed that Calpurnia was in a deep slumber, but was uttering indistinct words and inarticulate groans in her sleep; for she dreamed, as it proved, that she was holding her murdered husband in her arms and bewailing him.
… At all events, when day came, she begged Caesar, if it was possible, not to go out, but to postpone the meeting of the senate; if, however, he had no concern at all for her dreams, she besought him to inquire by other modes of divination and by sacrifices concerning the future. And Caesar also, as it would appear, was in some suspicion and fear. For never before had he perceived in Calpurnia any womanish superstition, but now he saw that she was in great distress. And when the seers also, after many sacrifices, told him that the omens were unfavourable, he resolved to send Antony and dismiss the senate.
But at this juncture Decimus Brutus, surnamed Albinus, who was so trusted by Caesar that he was entered in his will as his second heir, but was partner in the conspiracy of the other Brutus and Cassius, fearing that if Caesar should elude that day, their undertaking would become known, ridiculed the seers and chided Caesar for laying himself open to malicious charges on the part of the senators, who would think themselves mocked at; for they had met at his bidding, and were ready and willing to vote as one man that he should be declared king of the provinces outside of Italy, and might wear a diadem when he went anywhere else by land or sea; but if someone should tell them at their session to be gone now, but to come back again when Calpurnia should have better dreams, what speeches would be made by his enemies, or who would listen to his friends when they tried to show that this was not slavery and tyranny? But if he was fully resolved (Albinus said) to regard the day as inauspicious, it was better that he should go in person and address the senate, and then postpone its business. While saying these things Brutus took Caesar by the hand and began to lead him along. And he had gone but a little way from his door when a slave belonging to someone else, eager to get at Caesar, but unable to do so for the press of numbers about him, forced his way into the house, gave himself into the hands of Calpurnia, and bade her keep him secure until Caesar came back, since he had important matters to report to him.
Furthermore, Artemidorus, a Cnidian by birth, a teacher of Greek philosophy, and on this account brought into intimacy with some of the followers of Brutus, so that he also knew most of what they were doing, came bringing to Caesar in a small roll the disclosures which he was going to make; but seeing that Caesar took all such rolls and handed them to his attendants, he came quite near, and said: “Read this, Caesar, by thyself, and speedily; for it contains matters of importance and of concern to thee.” Accordingly, Caesar took the roll and would have read it, but was prevented by the multitude of people who engaged his attention, although he set out to do so many times, and holding in his hand and retaining that roll alone, he passed on into the senate. Some, however, say that another person gave him this roll, and that Artemidorus did not get to him at all, but was crowded away all along the route.
So far, perhaps, these things may have happened of their own accord; the place, however, which was the scene of that struggle and murder, and in which the senate was then assembled, since it contained a statue of Pompey and had been dedicated by Pompey as an additional ornament to his theatre, made it wholly clear that it was the work of some heavenly power which was calling and guiding the action thither. Indeed, it is also said that Cassius, turning his eyes toward the statue of Pompey before the attack began, invoked it silently, although he was much addicted to the doctrines of Epicurus; but the crisis, as it would seem, when the dreadful attempt was now close at hand, replaced his former cool calculations with divinely inspired emotion.
Well, then, Antony, who was a friend of Caesar’s and a robust man, was detained outside by Brutus Albinus, who purposely engaged him in a lengthy conversation; but Caesar went in, and the senate rose in his honour. Some of the partisans of Brutus took their places round the back of Caesar’s chair, while others went to meet him, as though they would support the petition which Tullius Cimber presented to Caesar in behalf of his exiled brother, and they joined their entreaties to his and accompanied Caesar up to his chair. But when, after taking his seat, Caesar continued to repulse their petitions, and, as they pressed upon him with greater importunity, began to show anger towards one and another of them, Tullius seized his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his neck. This was the signal for the assault. It was Casca who gave him the first blow with his dagger, in the neck, not a mortal wound, nor even a deep one, for which he was too much confused, as was natural at the beginning of a deed of great daring; so that Caesar turned about, grasped the knife, and held it fast. At almost the same instant both cried out, the smitten man in Latin: “Accursed Casca, what does thou?” and the smiter, in Greek, to his brother: “Brother, help!”
So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar’s help, nay, nor even utter a word. But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin. And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood. And the pedestal was drenched with his blood, so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this vengeance upon his enemy, who now lay prostrate at his feet, quivering from a multitude of wounds. For it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body.
Caesar thus done to death, the senators, although Brutus came forward as if to say something about what had been done, would not wait to hear him, but burst out of doors and fled, thus filling the people with confusion and helpless fear, so that some of them closed their houses, while others left their counters and places of business and ran, first to the place to see what had happened, then away from the place when they had seen. Antony and Lepidus, the chief friends of Caesar, stole away and took refuge in the houses of others. But Brutus and his partisans, just as they were, still warm from the slaughter, displaying their daggers bare, went all in a body out of the senate-house and marched to the Capitol, not like fugitives, but with glad faces and full of confidence, summoning the multitude to freedom, and welcoming into their ranks the most distinguished of those who met them. Some also joined their number and went up with them as though they had shared in the deed, and laid claim to the glory of it, of whom were Caius Octavius and Lentulus Spinther. These men, then, paid the penalty for their imposture later, when they were put to death by Antony and the young Caesar [Octavian], without even enjoying the fame for the sake of which they died, owing to the disbelief of their fellow men. For even those who punished them did not exact a penalty for what they did, but for what they wished they had done.
On the next day Brutus came down and held a discourse, and the people listened to what was said without either expressing resentment at what had been done or appearing to approve of it; they showed, however, by their deep silence, that while they pitied Caesar, they respected Brutus. The senate, too, trying to make a general amnesty and reconciliation, voted to give Caesar divine honours and not to disturb even the most insignificant measure which he had adopted when in power; while to Brutus and his partisans it distributed provinces and gave suitable honours, so that everybody thought that matters were decided and settled in the best possible manner. (Plutarch, Caesar 63–7.)
And so it was, possibly the greatest man this world has ever known was heinously betrayed by those he had forgiven and whom he loved. They attacked him like frenzied vultures, and when it was over, everyone fled away and Caesar was left alone, his blood spreading in a pool around his body. It wasn’t until much later in the day that some servants had the nerve to enter the place of death to collect his body and return him home to his wife. On the events immediately following his death, Appian, the second-century Greek historian of Rome, wrote:
Caesar’s will was now produced and the people ordered that it be read at once. In it, Octavian, his sister’s grandson, was adopted by Caesar. His gardens were given to the people as a place of recreation, and to every Roman living in the city, he gave 75 Attic drachmas [Arkenberg: about $186 in 1998 dollars]. The people too were stirred to anger when they saw the will of this lover of his country, whom they had before heard accused of tyranny. Most of all did it seem pitiful to them that Decimus Brutus, one of the murderers, should have been named by him for adoption in the second degree; for it was usual for the Romans to name alternate heirs in case of the failure of the first.
When Piso [Caesar’s father-in-law] brought Caesar’s body into the Forum a countless multitude ran together with arms to guard it, and with acclamations and magnificent display placed it on the rostra. Wailing and lamentation were renewed for a long time; the armed men clashed their shields. Antony, seeing how things were going, did not abandon his purpose, but having been chosen to deliver the funeral oration, as a consul for a consul, as a friend for a friend, a relative for a relative (he was kin to Caesar on the mother’s side), resumed his artful design, and spoke thus: “It is not fitting, fellow citizens, that the funeral oration of so great a man should be pronounced by me alone, but rather by his whole country. The decrees which all of us, in equal admiration for his merit, voted to him while he was alive – Senate and People acting together – I will read, so that I may voice your sentiments rather than merely mine.”
Then he began to read with a severe and gloomy countenance; pronouncing each sentence distinctly, and dwelling especially on those decrees which declared Caesar to be “superhuman, sacred and inviolable,” and which named him “The Father of his Country,” or “The Benefactor,” or “The Chief without a Peer.” With each decree, Antony turned his face and his hand towards Caesar’s corpse, illustrating his discourse by his action, and at each appellation he added some brief remark full of grief and indignation; as, for example, where the decree spoke of Caesar as “The Father of his Country,” he added that this was a testimonial of his clemency; and again, where he was made “Sacred and Inviolable,” and that “everybody was to be held sacred and inviolate who should find refuge in him.”
“Nobody,” said Antony, “who found refuge in him was harmed, but he, whom you declared sacred and inviolate was killed, although he did not extort these honors from you as a tyrant, and did not even ask them. Most servile are we if we give such honors to the unworthy who do not ask for them. But you, faithful citizens, vindicate us from this charge of servility by paying such honors as you now pay to the dead.”
Antony resumed his reading, and recited the oaths by which all were pledged to guard Caesar and Caesar’s body with all their strength, and all were devoted to perdition who should not avenge him in any conspiracy. Here lifting up his voice, and extending his hand toward the Capitol, he exclaimed, “Jupiter, Guardian of this City, and you other gods, I stand here ready to avenge him as I have sworn and vowed, but since those that are of equal rank with me have considered the decree of amnesty beneficial, I pray that it may prove so.”
A commotion arose among the Senators in consequence of this exclamation which seemed to have special reference to them. So Antony quieted them again and recanted, saying, “To me, fellow citizens, this deed seems to be not the work of human beings, but of some evil spirit. It becomes us to consider the present rather than the past. Let us then conduct this sacred one to the abode of the blest, chanting our wonted hymn of lamentation for him.”
Having thus spoken, he gathered up his garments like a man inspired, girded himself so that he might have free use of his hands, took his position in front of the bier, as in a play, bending down to it, and rising again, and sang first as to a celestial deity exclaiming, “You alone have come forth unvanquished from all the battles you have fought! You alone have avenged your country of the outrages put upon it three hundred years ago [i.e. the invasion of the Gauls], bringing to their knees the savage tribes, the only ones that ever broke into and burned Rome.”
Carried away by extreme passion, he uncovered the body of Caesar, lifted his robe on the top of a spear, and shook it aloft, pierced with the dagger thrusts, and red with the Dictator’s blood. Whereupon the people, like a chorus, mourned with him in a most doleful manner, and from sorrow became again filled with anger. After more lamentations the people could stand it no longer. It seemed to them monstrous that all the murderers, who, save Decimus Brutus, had been made prisoners while siding with Pompey, and who, instead of being punished, had been advanced by Caesar to the magistracies of Rome, and to the command of provinces and armies, should have conspired against him, and that Decimus should have been deemed by him worthy of adoption as a son.
While they were in this temper, and were already nigh to violence, someone raised above the bier an image of Caesar himself, wrought of wax. As for the actual body, since it lay on its back upon the couch, it could not be seen. The image was turned around and around by a mechanical device, showing the twenty-three wounds on all parts of the body and the face – which gave him a shocking appearance. The people could no longer bear the pitiful sight presented to them. They groaned, and girding themselves, they burned the Senate chamber, where Caesar had been slain, and ran hither and thither searching for the murderers, who had fled some time previously. …
The people returned to Caesar’s bier, and bore it as something consecrated to the Capitol in order to bury it in the temple and place it among the gods. Being prevented from so doing by the priests, they placed it again in the Forum, where of old had stood the palace of the kings of Rome. There they collected together sticks of wood and benches, of which there were many in the Forum, and anything else that they could find of this sort, for a funeral pile, throwing on it the adornments of the procession, some of which were very costly. Some of them cast their own crowns upon it and many military gifts. Then they set fire to it, and the entire people remained by the funeral pile throughout the night.
There an altar was at first erected, but now stands on the spot the Temple of Caesar himself, for he was deemed worthy of divine honors … (Appian: The Funeral of Julius Caesar”, from: William Stearns Davis, ed., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, Vol. II: Rome and the West (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912–13), pp. 154–8.)
Here it should be mentioned that the wax effigy of Caesar’s body had probably been made from a cast, so it was completely lifelike. It was probably erected on a tropaeum, the cross-shaped symbol of the Roman Triumph. Several of the coins minted by Caesar include Caesar’s tropaea, representing his military triumphs. One is reminded of Paul, writing in Col. 2.15: “Having put off from himself the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it”. The NEB says he “made a spectacle of the cosmic powers and authorities, and led them as captives in his triumphal procession”.
The account of Suetonius includes some additional details:
When the funeral was announced, a pyre was erected in the Field of Mars near the tomb of Julia. In front of the rostra was placed a gilded shrine, made after the model of the temple of Venus Genetrix. Within was a bier of ivory with coverlets of purple and gold, and at its head a pillar hung with the robe in which he was slain. Since it was clear that the day would not be long enough for those who offered gifts, they were directed to bring them to the Campus by whatsoever streets of the city they wished, regardless of any order of precedence. At the funeral games, to rouse pity and indignation at his death, these words from the Contest for the arms of Pacuvius were sung: “Saved I these men that they might murder me?” and words of a like purport from the Electra of Atilius.
Instead of a eulogy the consul Marc Antony caused a herald to recite the decree of the Senate in which it had voted Caesar all divine and human honors at once, and likewise the oath with which they had all pledged themselves to watch over his personal safety; to which he added a very few words of his own. The bier on the rostra was carried to the Forum by magistrates and ex-magistrates. While some were urging that it be burned in the temple of Jupiter of the Capitol, and others in the Hall of Pompey on a sudden two beings with swords by their sides and brandishing a pair of darts set fire to it with blazing torches, and at once the throng of bystanders heaped upon it dry branches, the judgment seats with the benches, and whatever else could serve as an offering. Then the musicians and actors tore off their robes, which they had taken from the equipment of his triumphs and put on for the occasion, rent them to bits and threw them into the flames, and the veterans of the legions the arms with which they had adorned themselves for the funeral. Many of the women, too, offered up the jewels which they wore and the amulets and robes of their children. At the height of the public grief a throng of foreigners went about lamenting each after the fashion of his country, above all the Jews, who even flocked to the place for several successive nights.
… Afterwards they set up in the Forum a solid column of Numidian marble almost twenty feet high, and inscribed upon it, To the Father of his Country. At the foot of this they continued for a long time to sacrifice, make vows, and settle some of their disputes by an oath in the name of Caesar.
Caesar left in the minds of some of his friends the suspicion that he did not wish to live any longer and had taken no precautions, because of his failing health; and that therefore he neglected the warnings which came to him from portents and from the reports of his friends. (Suetonius, Caesar 84–5, translated by Joseph Gavorse. Available online at: http://www.livius.org/caa-can/caesar/caesar_t10.html)
Virgil wrote in the Georgics that several unusual events took place following Caesar’s assassination:
Who dare say the Sun is false? He and no other warns us when dark uprisings threaten, when treachery and hidden wars are gathering strength. He and no other was moved to pity Rome on the day that Caesar died, when he veiled his radiance in gloom and darkness, and a godless age feared everlasting night. Yet in this hour Earth also and the plains of Ocean, ill-boding dogs and birds that spell mischief, sent signs which heralded disaster. How oft before our eyes did Etna deluge the fields of the Cyclopes with a torrent from her burst furnaces, hurling thereon balls of fire and molten rocks. Germany heard the noise of battle sweep across the sky and, even without precedent, the Alps rocked with earthquakes. A voice boomed through the silent groves for all to hear, a deafening voice, and phantoms of unearthly pallor were seen in the falling darkness. Horror beyond words, beasts uttered human speech; rivers stood still, the earth gaped upon; in the temples ivory images wept for grief, and beads of sweat covered bronze statues. King of waterways, the Po swept forests along in the swirl of his frenzied current, carrying with him over the plain cattle and stalls alike. Nor in that same hour did sinister filaments cease to appear in ominous entrails or blood to flow from wells or our hillside towns to echo all night with the howl of wolves. Never fell more lightning from a cloudless sky; never was comet’s alarming glare so often seen. (Georg. 1.)
Plutarch’s account of the aftermath gives evidence of the myths that rose up around Caesar after his death:
At the time of his death Caesar was fully fifty-six years old, but he had survived Pompey not much more than four years, while of the power and dominion which he had sought all his life at so great risks, and barely achieved at last, of this he had reaped no fruit but the name of it only, and a glory which had awakened envy on the part of his fellow citizens. However, the great guardian-genius of the man, whose help he had enjoyed through life, followed upon him even after death as an avenger of his murder, driving and tracking down his slayers over every land and sea until not one of them was left, but even those who in any way soever either put hand to the deed or took part in the plot were punished.
Among events of man’s ordering, the most amazing was that which befell Cassius; for after his defeat at Philippi he slew himself with that very dagger which he had used against Caesar; and among events of divine ordering, there was the great comet, which showed itself in great splendour for seven nights after Caesar’s murder, and then disappeared; also, the obscuration of the sun’s rays. For during all that year its orb rose pale and without radiance, while the heat that came down from it was slight and ineffectual, so that the air in its circulation was dark and heavy owing to the feebleness of the warmth that penetrated it, and the fruits, imperfect and half ripe, withered away and shrivelled up on account of the coldness of the atmosphere. But more than anything else the phantom that appeared to Brutus showed that the murder of Caesar was not pleasing to the gods; and it was on this wise. As he was about to take his army across from Abydos to the other continent, he was lying down at night, as his custom was, in his tent, not sleeping, but thinking of the future; for it is said that of all generals Brutus was least given to sleep, and that he naturally remained awake a longer time than anybody else. And now he thought he heard a noise at the door, and looking towards the light of the lamp, which was slowly going out, he saw a fearful vision of a man of unnatural size and harsh aspect. At first he was terrified, but when he saw that the visitor neither did nor said anything, but stood in silence by his couch, he asked him who he was. Then the phantom answered him: “I am thy evil genius, Brutus, and thou shalt see me at Philippi.” At the time, then, Brutus said courageously: “I shall see thee;” and the heavenly visitor at once went away. Subsequently, however, when arrayed against Antony and Caesar at Philippi, in the first battle he conquered the enemy in his front, routed and scattered them, and sacked the camp of Caesar; but as he was about to fight the second battle, the same phantom visited him again at night, and though it said nothing to him, Brutus understood his fate, and plunged headlong into danger. He did not fall in battle, however, but after the rout retired to a crest of ground, put his naked sword to his breast (while a certain friend, as they say, helped to drive the blow home), and so died. (Plutarch, Caes. 69.)
When Caesar died, so did the Republic. Matthias Gelzer wrote:
The deed was so frightful that it is not surprising if events did not develop as its authors had expected. Instead of the Senate’s immediately taking over the government, a numbing terror gripped the whole city and temporarily there was a political vacuum. But from it there later developed, with an inner necessity, the new civil war of thirteen years’ duration which Caesar had foretold. On April 7 Gaius Matius made a telling comment on the situation. The problems, he said, were insoluble: ‘for if Caesar with all his genius could not find a way out, who will find one now? …
… he had only just started on his task as ruler when the hands of murderers snatched him away. Horrified we see his brilliant figure sink into the darkness of this catastrophe. What a tragedy lies over the life of the greatest genius produced by Rome – to be snuffed out by Romans who imagined that they were acting on behalf of their res publica! His demonic genius raised him in every respect above all his contemporaries – through his spiritual and physical vigour, through the faster tempo of his life, through his free-ranging gaze which unfettered by traditional concepts, everywhere discovered new possibilities, and through the masterful way in which he overcame difficulties and realized the most daring plans. Thus, although he was a Roman through and through and intended only to use his rule in order to raise the imperium populi Romani to the level of perfection required by the circumstances, nevertheless the flights of his genius lifted him to a lonely eminence where others were unable to follow him. (Gelzer (1968), pp. 329–31.)
Some of the parallels between the gospel narratives of “Jesus of Nazareth” and the final years of Julius Caesar are remarkable. First, there is the overall form of Caesar’s passion. A great man is accused of wanting to be king, betrayed by one of his closest companions, murdered, displayed on a cross, and raised to the heavens as a god. (His adopted son, Augustus, would later adopt the name “son of god” for himself.)
Even in the details there are curious correspondences. Caesar traces his descent from kings (the Marcii reges) and divinity (Venus). In the gospels Jesus descends from King David and God himself. After years in Gaul/Gallia (Galilee/Galilaia?), Caesar crosses the Rubicon river (the Jordan?) on his way to Rome. One of his first stops is Corfinium, which he liberates (Capernaum/Kapharnaum, where Jesus first performs miracles?). After his triumphal entry into Rome following the civil war, he is increasingly slandered as wanting to be king. Despite his popularity among all classes of society, and his unheard-of policy of clemency, or perhaps because of these things, a relatively small group of reactionary oligarchs conspire to assassinate him. One of his close associates, Decimus Brutus, conspires with Cassius Longinus and Marcus Brutus (among others) to assassinate him. Decimus had served with Caesar in Gaul and during the civil war, and Caesar loved him as a son, including him as an alternate heir in his will.
Caesar eats a last supper with Decimus and others, where they talk of death. There are omens of Caesar’s death. At the senate meeting, the assassins strike. One of the stabs come from Cassius Longinus. The name of the soldier who pierces Jesus’ side on the cross is given in the Gospel of Nicodemus as Longinus (his feast day in the Roman Catholic Church is March 15, the day of Caesar’s assassination). Decimus delivers the final blow. Mark Antony displays Caesar’s bloody toga to the crowds, and a wax effigy is created, displayed on a cross-shaped tropaeum for all to see the wounds inflicted on Caesar’s body. A comet is seen, interpreted as being Caesar’s soul raised to the heavens. While he had already received divine honors before his death, the senate makes it official. Julius Caesar is now Divus Iulius, the divine Julius.
It’s unlikely that worship of Caesar disappeared. It probably carried on among Jews, citizens, slaves, soldiers (with whom he had an exceptional bond), and close associates in the aristocracy, perhaps beginning with Fulvia, who most likely orchestrated Caesar’s funeral, and her husband Antony. (Fulvia had arranged a similar funeral for her second husband, Clodius, in 52 BC, displaying his dead body and its wounds.) (Like Carotta, Barry Strauss connects Fulvia with Caesar’s funeral: The Death of Caesar (Simon & Schuster, 2015), pp. 170, 173.)
One of Antony’s daughters, Antonia (mother of Germanicus), would later be at the center of the Imperial court at Rome, where Herod Agrippa was brought up. Agrippa would later give his support to Claudius and probably had some influence on Claudius’ fair treatment of the Jews ca. 41 AD. Antonia married Nero Claudius Drusus, and was mother to Germanicus and Claudius, and grandmother to Caligula. Curiously, there is an inscription from Rome that includes the names “Drusus”, “Antonia”, “Faustus” (probably a slave), and the words “Iucundi” (meaning “pleasant”, possibly a slave name) and “Chrestiani”. While the translation and interpretation of the inscription are difficult, some scholars believe this is a reference to the same Antonia and Drusus just mentioned. No one really knows how to interpret the reference to “Chrestians”. (Erik Zara, “Chrestians before Christians? An Old Inscription Revisited” (2009): https://sites.google.com/site/originsofchristianity/romanisation/antonia-minor/Chrestians before Christians - An Old Inscription Revisited.pdf) In his biography of Caesar, Plutarch calls Caesar “chrestos”. The two other men Plutarch describes with this word are Alexander and Caecilius Metellus – all three were deified after their deaths. Chrestos was also a common mystery religion appellation, used to refer to oracles, gods, priests, philosophers and heroes. (See J. B. Mitchell, Chrestos: A Religious Epithet (Williams and Norgate, 1880) and D. M. Murdock, “Is Suetonius’s Chresto a Reference to Jesus?”: http://www.truthbeknown.com/suetoniuschresto.html)
Were these individuals – Fulvia, Drusus, Antonia – “Chrestians”? In his letter to the Philippians, Paul sends his greetings from “all the saints … especially those of Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22). Perhaps this wasn’t just a reference to slaves of the Imperial court spread around the empire. To the Romans he sends greetings from Erastus, the “city treasurer” of Corinth (Rom. 16:23). Were Flavius Clemens and Domitilla, accused of godlessness for their “Jewish” practices, merely followers of a cult that had been popular in one form or another since Caesar’s death, but which aristocrats felt the need to keep secret?
Some of the earliest known Christians were Roman women of high rank (Flavia Domitilla under Domitian, and two wives of governors under Septimius Severus); perhaps 20% were freed slaves. (Lampe, p. 352.) Paul mentions several prominent women in his churches, including an apostle, Junia (Rom. 16:7), as well as several slaves: Onesimus (Phlm., Col. 4:9), Epaphras and Tychicus, whom he calls “fellow-slaves” (Col. 1:7, 4:7), and Fortunatus and Achaicus, who have typical slave names (1 Cor. 16:17–8), among others. He also calls Epaphroditus and Archippus “fellow-soldiers” (Phil. 2:25, Phlm. 2), suggesting the presence of veterans among his churches. Caesar established many colonies for his veterans, including Corinth (Plut. Caes. 57.8). Paul spent time in Cilicia (in modern Turkey) during his first mission. After Caesar visited Cilicia’s capital, Tarsus, in 47 BC, they took the name Iuliopolis (City of Julius), in Caesar’s honor, having sided with him during the civil war (Dio 47.26).
It is possible that many Jews identified Caesar with the Messiah. After all, he had defeated Pompey, the destroyer of Jerusalem, and had done much for the Jews. When the famous comet of Caesar appeared, it could be said that the prophecies about the Messiah were being fulfilled, since a star was to be the sign of the Messiah. The Persian king Cyrus the Great had been recognized as Messiah by Isaiah and Paul was profoundly influenced by the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah.