Julius Caesar’s passion for royal powers generated open and deadly hatred. As the situation in Rome deterioriated, one seer advised Caesar to be particularly wary of the Ides of March, when he would be in great peril.
Decimus Brutus, who was so close to Caesar that he was designated second heir in his will, joined a conspiracy with Marcus Brutus and Cassius to assassinate him on the Ides of March – 15 March 44 BCE – when they led a group of more than thirty.
Several of Caesar’s closest aides had warned him not to attend the Senate on the Ides of March, and he had to be fetched by one of the conspirators. As he arrived at the Senate, Caesar was presented with a petition, and the conspirators crowded around him.
Karl von Piloty’s The Murder of Caesar from 1865 shows this moment, with Caesar sat on a throne in the portico of the Senate. Immediately behind him, one of the conspirators has raised his dagger above his head, ready to strike the first blow.
It was Casca who produced his dagger first and struck the dictator a glancing wound in his neck. The whole group then closed in and stabbed Caesar repeatedly.
This is the stage shown by Vincenzo Camuccini in The Assassination of Julius Caesar from 1804-05, although this isn’t taking place on the steps in the portico, and Caesar has already moved forward from his seat.
Blinded by his own blood, Caesar then tripped over and fell, and was stabbed further when he was on the lower steps of the portico of the Senate. The conspirators made off, abandoning Caesar’s body with its 23 stab wounds.
Sadly, one of the greatest paintings of this momentous event, Jean-Léon Gérôme’s huge Caesar of 1859, has been lost.
In the image above, I have tried to give an impression of how Gérôme’s painting might have looked, by editing a detail from his surviving Death of Caesar, from the same year. There were, of course, details of the empty section of the curia in the upper right, and its projection was slightly different. The graphite drawing below should bear some similarities, as it was produced as part of the preparatory work which the artist made for both these paintings.
Gérôme’s surviving painting, The Death of Caesar (1859), is smaller in size and much wider in its view, including Caesar’s dead body, his departing murderers, even a senator sat far back at the right.
Both of Gérôme’s paintings of the dead Caesar are unusual because they show not the moments before his murder, nor the murder itself, but some moments afterwards. This defies conventional wisdom and Aristotle’s teaching of the importance of peripeteia. It’s a treatment which has worked well in subsequent paintings, including Gérôme’s own Death of Marshal Ney (1868).
Gérôme gives the obvious clue of Caesar’s body, almost concealed in his toga, with a bloodstain prominent on the upper chest. The chair on which he had been sat is overturned amid the chaos and violence of the attack. As the conspirators depart, their backs to the viewer, they are brandishing their blades in triumph above their heads.
Caesar’s bloody footprints lead down from the chair over towards the petition with which he had been presented by Lucius Tillius Cimber immediately before he was killed. It rests by a floor mosaic depicting the head of Medusa, the Gorgon who was beheaded by Perseus.
Far off at the right edge is a lone senator, still sitting in his place. Although it has been suggested that he was asleep, that doesn’t appear supported by his posture. A white cloak has been abandoned in haste on a seat close to the front, scrolls are scattered, and some who were not part of the conspiracy are hurriedly making away in the distance.
Gérôme provides all the evidence from which we can construct the story, much as might be done in a detective novel – a literary genre which started to become popular in Europe and North America in the first half of the nineteenth century, and became well-known with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841.
None of those paintings shows the goddess Venus or Caesar’s apotheosis, though.
It’s Virgil Solis’s engraving of The Deification of Julius Caesar (before 1562) which shows simultaneously the assassination of the dictator at the left, and Venus taking him up to the gods, above, where Jupiter is addressing the other gods (upper right).
William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar develops subsequent events in more detail, and contains the two most memorable lines: Et tu Brutus? (“you too, Brutus?”), said when Brutus stabs Caesar, and Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears as the opening words of Mark Antony’s oration over Caesar’s corpse.
Later, as Brutus and Cassius prepared to wage war against a triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavius and Lepidus, Caesar’s ghost appeared to Brutus to warn of his imminent defeat. This scene from the play has also inspired visual artists, including the great William Blake.
This engraving of Richard Westall’s painting Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar, from about 1802, shows Brutus in his role of general, sat at a writing desk, as Caesar’s ghost fills the upper left of the painting, warning Brutus of his imminent death with the words Thou shalt see me at Philippi.
William Blake painted a very similar scene in his Brutus and Caesar’s Ghost from 1806, for an extra-illustrated folio edition of Shakespeare from 1632. This series of illustrations for this play are not well-known among Blake’s work, and were made quite early in his career.
With Caesar dead, Rome had moved from one crisis to the next.