Why was Julius Caesar assassinated

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19th century painting of the conspirators celebrating the death of Caesar

Julius Caesar was one of the greatest figures of the ancient world. He was not only an extraordinary military commander but a cunning political leader. Caesar greatly expanded the Roman Empire and his conquests changed the future of Europe. Caesar played a pivotal role in the collapse of the Roman Republic and the emergence of the Imperial system. Caesar upended the Roman world. However, Caesar's actions angered many Romans that included men he not only knew but considered friends. On the Ides of March, Caesar was assassinated by many of these men.

Why was Caesar murdered by the hands of his fellow citizens? Caesar was murdered for three reasons: First, the conspirators wanted to halt the growth in his personal power. Second, they wanted to prevent him from becoming king and destroying the Roman Republic. Finally, some were motivated by personal vengeance.


Caesar was born into a noble family and his early career path was typical of a man of his class. After narrowly escaping execution under Sulla he fled Rome and served in the army. Upon the death of Sulla, he returned to Rome and became one of the leader of the popular party in Rome. A charismatic figure he became one of the best-known figures on the political scene. Caesar was able to enter into an informal political arrangement with Crassus and Pompey, known as the First Triumvirate. This was an agreement that allowed the three men to secure their political goals and to become the de-facto government of the Republic[1]. Under this arrangement Caesar was able to secure election as consul and to become the commander of several legions. An inveterate gambler Caesar used a Germanic incursion into Gaul to intervene in that region. At the time Gaul covered most France and Belgium. Caesar in a ten-year campaign conquered this region and raided Germany and Britain. After the death of Crassus, the First Triumvirate broke down, at the same time the Senate threatened Caesar with prosecution[2]. Caesar advanced on Rome, to secure his position and this led to a civil war between him and the Roman senate, whose army was commanded by Pompey the Great. Caesar defeated his enemies at Pharsalus (Greece), but this did not end the war. Mark Anthony ruled in Caesar’s name in Rome and Italy. The conflict continued to rage over the Mediterranean for several years. Caesar emerged victorious and by 44 BC after his decisive victory at the Battle of Mutina. By this time Caesar was the most powerful man in Rome. He had been elected by the Senate as dictator initially for five years, but later for life. This meant that along with the army under his control, he was granted extraordinary powers. His position it seemed was beyond challenge, but this was all to change on the Ides of March 44 BCE.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

By March 44 BCE, it appears that there was an extensive conspiracy aimed at the removal of Caesar from power. The members of the conspiracy were all prominent Romans who were known to the great general[3]. The sources on the assassination and the conspiracy are not contemporary and there are some contradictions in them. However, many of the facts of the assassination can be established with a great deal of certainty. The guiding spirit behind the conspiracy is believed to be Cassius, a leading Roman senator. The members of the plot called themselves the liberators, meaning the liberators. The plot involved luring Caesar to Pompey’s theatre where gladiatorial games were to be held in his honour. The Roman leader was notoriously reckless when it came to his personal security. He refused bodyguards and he declared that to live surrounded by guards was not a life he wanted. Caesar had only a few personal attendants who escorted him everywhere. On the Ides of March (the 15th of March) the gladiatorial games were staged. Caesar was expected to come, and he was the guest of honour. Typically, he was late, and this alarmed the conspirators. Then nominal leader of the conspirators was Brutus, who was well known to Caesar. It is alleged that the great Roman had been the lover of Brutus’ mother. Brutus had fought against Caesar at Pharsalus but had been pardoned. Despite this Brutus, agreed to lure Caesar to the theatre to ensure that the plan could be put in motion. He was successful, and he managed to persuade the, de-facto ruler of Rome to attend. As Caesar was entering the theatre where the games were to be held, one of the conspirators approached the leader. He pretended to hand a petition to Caesar. It appears that he was alone as he had left some servants behind in a rush to get to the theatre. More significantly the group had delayed Mark Anthony and he was not accompanying Caesar. This meant that Caesar was alone and virtually defenceless. One of the conspirators possible Casca according to the Greek historian Plutarch seized the toga of Caesar. This shocked him, because as he was dictator his person was sacrosanct. The group of conspirators then drew knives from their toga and proceeded to stab Caesar. It is estimated that up to fifty men, all members of the Roman senatorial order attacked him. Not all of them were able to get near the man they hated and who they believed was a threat to Rome. It was later revealed that Caesar had been stabbed over thirty times and that he died from blood loss. It is reported that his last words were ‘Et Tus Bruti’, meaning you too Brutus. It appears that he regarded Brutus as a kind of son[4]. This is not stated in all of the sources. Several of the sources state that the great general died at the foot of a statue of his great enemy Pompey.

A bust of Brutus

Caesar wanted to be king

One of the most often cited reasons for the assassination of Caesar was the fact that it was widely believed that he wanted to be king. Many ordinary Romans did not have any problem with a monarchy and Caesar was popular with this class. However, the idea of a monarch was one that was unacceptable to Roman aristocrats. They had been educated in the Republican version of history. They were taught that monarchs were a threat to what they prized most of all ‘liberty’ and that they were tyrants. This was the freedom to take part in public life and protect their property[5] For members of the Roman elite, dignitas, or personal dignity and status and this was not possible without liberty. The actions of Caesar would have indicated to them that he was aspiring to be made monarch of Rome. Their suspicions that he would make himself king and end the Republic was apparently confirmed by the public demonstrations outside of the Senate house that seemed to demand that Caesar declare himself king[6]. This unnerved many and persuaded many Roman nobles to join the conspiracy. Many of those who took part in the slaying of the dictator for life were ardent supporters of Pompey and had fought at Pharsalus[7]. However, the dread of monarchy was so ingrained in the minds of the Roman elite that it was more powerful than gratitude and even personal feelings. Cassius the prime mover of the conspiracy was able to present the assassination of the victor of Pharsalus as tyrannicide, the killing of a tyrant. This persuaded many including Brutus to join the plot as they saw it as their duty as Romans. However, the evidence that Caesar actually wanted a return to monarchy is scanty and not conclusive. Whatever his intentions it is clear that the conspirators believed that he was determined to rule as king[8].

coins celebrating Brutus and Casca, two of the leading asssassins

Breakdown in relations with the Senate

While many of the conspirators were angered by the apparent pretensions of Caesar to royalty. There were many who were angered over his apparent lack of respect that he was showing the senators. Several of the conspirators were linked to senators and the plotters believed that they were acting in the name of the senate. These were technically the law givers and the ultimate source of authority in the Republic[9]. However, Caesar treated that body in high-handed manner and often with contempt. He did not act in a respectful manner towards the senate and this alienated many and they say this as an effort to marginalize the body and to subvert the traditional form of government. Moreover, during the civil wars when Mark Anthony had governed Italy the senate had been cowed into submission and many yearned for a return to the days when it was the main decision-making body in the Republic. Moreover, many senators who had conferred honorific titles and powers on the general were shocked when he used this largely symbolic powers to cement his position in Rome[10]. The senators believed that the conqueror of Gaul was engaged in illegally gathering more personal power at the expense of the traditional elite and was subverting the constitution. The strained relationship between Caesar and the senate was one of the factors that persuaded many that the most powerful man in the Republic had to be assassinated. For example, it led many such as Cassius to see him as a tyrant who wanted to overturn the old order and end the traditional liberties[11].


Caesar was a divisive figure and he was loved by the common people and hated by the elite. The senatorial class and their adherents were very suspicious of him and hated Caesar. He was a member of the popular part and related by marriage to Marius, the darling of the common people. Moreover, many hated Caesar for personal reasons and vengeance was almost certainly a factor in the assassination on the Ides of March [12]. He had killed many of the senatorial order and the Roman elite died during the civil wars. Friends and family members of the elite had died on many battlefields during the civil war. Many prominent and revered Romans such as Cato had committed suicide to escape having to live in a Rome dominated by one man. Moreover, Caesars policy of clemency did not reconcile the elite to him and his regime. Those whom he had pardoned after his victories continued to resent him and were instrumental in his assassination. Mercy was a characteristic of a king or a tyrant and those who accepted it were thought to be dishonoured[13]. Furthermore, in the social system of the time they had become the dependents. Individuals such as Cassius and Brutus, all pardoned by the general may have been eager to wipe away the stain on their honour, because of being granted mercy by the hated tyrant.


The assassination of Caesar was carried out by a small group of members of the elite. They believed that they were acting in the best interests of the Republic and acting to preserve it. The group who killed the conqueror of the Gaul’s and Pompey were motivated by a desire to prevent Caesar from becoming a monarch. They genuinely believed that he wanted to have himself crowned king, something that would have threatened all they respected and valued in life. Caesar’s poor relations with the Senate was also a crucial factor in the unfolding of the conspiracy. His actions appeared that he was bent on destroying the old constitution and that fed into the view that he was a tyrant who wanted to ultimately re-establish royal rule in Rome. Moreover, Caesar was a divisive figure and was hated by many and his policy of clemency did not win him adherents and was to have unintended consequences.

Additional Readings

Syme, Ronald, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, Oxford University, 2002).

Holland, Tom, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (London, Anchor Books, 2003).

Canfora, Luciano Julius Caesar: The People's Dictator (Edinburg, Edinburgh University Press, 2006).

Jiménez, Ramon L. Caesar Against Rome: The Great Roman Civil War (New York, Praeger, 2006).

Goldsworthy, Anthony. Caesar: Life of a Colossus (Yale, Yale University Press, 2006),


  1. Goldsworthy, Anthony. Caesar: Life of a Colossus (Yale, Yale University Press, 2006), p. 61
  2. Goldsworthy, p. 141
  3. Syme, Ronald, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, Oxford University, 2002), p 218
  4. Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar, xxv
  5. .Goldworthy,, p 134
  6. Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar xxxi
  7. Jiménez, Ramon L. Caesar Against Rome: The Great Roman Civil War (New York, Praeger, 2006), p. 117
  8. Holland, Tom, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (London, Anchor Books, 2003), p 189
  9. Holland, p. 197
  10. Holland, p. 199
  11. Plutarch xxi
  12. Holland, p 201
  13. Holland, p 210