How Julius Caesar’s assassination sparked the fall of the Roman Republic
By the time Julius Caesar appeared before the Roman Senate in the Ides of March in 44 BC, the nearly 500-year-old Roman Republic had been ill for years. Inequality of wealth, political stalemate, and civil wars had all weakened the republic in the century before Caesar came to power.
The increasingly autocratic reign of Caesar threatened the republic even more. According to Edward Watts, author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny. He emblazoned his image on coins and reserved the right to accept or reject election results for lower office. While Caesar handled public affairs from a throne of gold and ivory, rumors circulated that he would declare himself king.
In the first weeks of 44 BC. AD, Caesar was proclaimed “dictator for life”. His life, however, will not last much longer.
Fearing that the concentration of absolute power in one man threatens the democratic institutions of the republic, dozens of senators who call themselves the “Liberators” are plotting to kill the dictator. On March 15, 44 BC, Caesar was stabbed 23 times by conspirators who believed themselves to be saviors of freedom and democracy. Instead, the daggers they rammed into Caesar dealt a fatal blow to the already wounded Roman Republic.
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Caesar’s assassination sparks brutal power struggle
One of the main planners of the assassination, Marcus Junius Brutus, had prepared to deliver a speech celebrating the restoration of the Roman Republic immediately after the murder of Caesar. He was shocked to find that outrage, rather than praise, greeted the news of the dictator’s assassination. If Caesar had been an autocrat, the popular and middle classes did not seem to care since they benefited from his sweeping reforms such as the cancellation of debts and the adjustment of the tax code.
Instead of stabilizing the Roman Republic, the assassination plunged it into yet another civil war as Caesar’s supporters clashed with the assassins and then against each other. Although former MP Mark Antony positioned himself as Caesar’s legitimate successor by delivering a powerful funeral oration, the slain ruler had anticipated this outcome. In his will, Caesar had named Octavian, his sick 18-year-old grandnephew, as his main heir and planned for his adoption.
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Octavian quickly amassed a private army and outbid Antoine for the support of several legions. The forces of the two competing rulers clashed until Octavian and Antony called for a truce and agreed to share power with another former Caesar deputy, Lepidus, in the Second Triumvirate. “He was a cunning and ruthless politician who knew how to play both sides”, Barry Strauss, author of Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine, Octavian said.
Mary Beard, author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, writes that the triumvirate’s main achievement has been a “new round of mass murders”. Octavian and Antony brutally purged the leadership of the republic by killing their enemies and potential rivals. After speaking ill of Antony, Cicero was killed by soldiers loyal to Caesar’s deputy, and his head and right hand were exhibited in the Roman Forum. Avenging the murder of Caesar, Octavian and Antony collaborated to defeat the forces of the leaders of the assassination plot Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus in 42 BC at Philippi in northern Greece. Tens of thousands of people died in the bloody battle, and the vanquished Brutus and Cassius each committed suicide.
The triumvirate eventually turned on each other. Octavian forced Lepidus into exile and took up arms against Antony, whose affair with the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra VII damaged his reputation in Rome and humiliated his wife, who was Octavian’s sister. Octavian positioned himself as the sole defender of Rome against the eastern influence of Egypt, and his navy defeated the combined fleet of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in northern Greece in 31 BC.
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Augustus establishes the Roman Empire
After eliminating his rivals and seeing the support given to Caesar by the masses, Octavian established absolute reign over the old republic and surpassed the power of his great uncle. He approved all the candidates for the elections, while the impotent Senate ratified his decisions. By providing for the retreat of the soldiers, he was ensuring their personal loyalty to him. Citizens of cities in Italy and the western Mediterranean were forced to swear personal loyalty to Octavian. Everywhere in the Roman territories, coins, statues and even silverware bore his image.
The Senate in 27 BC. Augustus reigned as the first emperor of Rome, although he never took that title for himself. “He was a very astute politician,” says Strauss. “He had a lot of stuff, and one of them was pretending that what was going on wasn’t really going on. He said he restored the republic and never used the terms dictator or king , instead calling himself the “first citizen of Rome”.
When a crisis of floods, famine and pestilence besieged Rome in 22 BC. They believed that Augustus alone could save them. The freedom they sought was that of war, hunger and chaos.
Reigning for nearly half a century, Augustus became the oldest ruler in Roman history and ushered in two centuries of peace and prosperity known as Pax Romana. By establishing the Roman Empire, Augustus completed the task his adoptive father had begun. “It’s a great irony,” Strauss says of those who plotted the murder of Caesar. “They thought they would liberate Rome, but instead they put the nail in the coffin of the free republic.