When Caesar had defeated Pompey, he had attempted to build consensus. many of those who had opposed him were forgiven and allowed back to the city. This was not what Sulla and Marius had done in a previous generation. They had attempted to kill their enemies. Caesar was evidently seeking a new way. Forgiving his enemies also minimised the division in Roman political life: it was an offer to all that they could get along and resume politics in a normal fashion. It is evident that the policy failed, both because Caesar sought ways of elevating his status (presumably under political pressure) and because the assassins killed him.
The assassination was paradoxical. Caesar was killed because he was a tyrant. One of the marks of tyranny was the killing of a citizen without due process of law. The supposed restoration of liberty could be seen as an act of tyranny by a small number of men in the senate. The conspirators did not see it this way. They marched away from the assassination to the Capitol. They went to celebrate.
We do not know precisely how many were involved in the assassination, perhaps forty. But there was clearly a much larger group of sympathisers. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, the assassins made their bid for public sympathy and to excuse their behaviour. It seems that they were listened to quietly (Plutarch, Life of Caesar 67).
It seems clear that the assassins were of the view that the removal of Caesar would mean the restoration of Republican governance under the control of the magistrates and senate. There was no expectation that Caesarian domination would have a ‘legacy’. Those who had been within Caesar’s inner circle were expected to return to politics as normal. Caesar’s group would not survive Caesar’s death. Indeed, that Caesar was the sole target of the assassination shows that the assassins did not think that there was a significant number of Caesarians who would make life difficult after the murder. Indeed, at least some of the assassins had been friends of Caesar and were beneficiaries of his support: they themselves might have been classed as Caesarians.
What had held together the Caesarians had been an attachment to Caesar himself. Further, the resources that Caesar controlled enabled him to reward those who were his friends. With Caesar gone, there could be no reward and there was nothing to hold any group together.
The core issue would seem to have been how politics could be normalised after the murder of Caesar, which was clearly a crime. The assassins were liable for prosecution for murder. That would have been a political trial and there was no one with the power to make such a charge. Once they had killed to save the Republic, might they kill again to save themselves as well as the Republic?
Quickly a way forward was agreed. The assassins were assigned to provinces. Not prosecutions would follow. Antony would remain consul.
The situation was probably not easy. The murder of Caesar had brought violence once into Roman politics, but it did not bring cataclysm. In particular, neither the plebs nor Caesar’s veterans reacted initially. There may have been expectations of peace.
It turned out to be much more complicated.
The Road to War
The political situation in Rome worsened slowly through 44. Open conflict was, however, delayed until the end of the year. It was only in early 43 that large-scale civil war began.
The sources of instability:
- The Plebs of Rome: although initially quiet, the plebs took an increasingly militant line. Rioting against the assassins was first suppressed by Antony but perhaps later encouraged by him. It was this level of civil violence which encouraged Brutus and Cassius to leave Rome. The gifts in Caesar’s will reminded the plebs that he had been their friend and ally. The plebs appear to have been annoyed by a yet another senatorial killing of someone whom they thought had their interests at heart.
- The Veterans: Caesar’s veterans were in the process of building settled on lands in Italy. Initially, they did nothing. But it seems that the death of Caesar put into question the security of their tenure of the land. They had an interest in ensuring that the the government in Rome was well-disposed towards them, and the traditional aristocracy seemed hostile. They potentially provided a Caesarian with military support.
- Antony: Antony seems to have tried to quieten Rome in the immediate aftermath of the assassination. But it seems he did not trust the assassins and the assassins did not trust him. He was consul and therefore protected from any legal threat, but there was a question as to what would happen when he laid down the consulship.
- Army: Caesar had gathered a large army in Macedonia on the promise of a lucrative campaign in the East. These troops were ready for war, but there was now no war to fight. Would they go home quietly? They were certainly a resource if the political situation brought Rome to civil war once more. The troops serving in the legions elsewhere, particularly in the West, may also have had loyalties to Caesar. But it was not until 43 that those loyalties were tested.
In the summer of 44, the political situation remained volatile. The lack of trust between Antony and the conspirators and their allies meant that each side prepared for the worst. Antony secured Caesar’s treasury: money might be crucial if conflict were to follow. More importantly, the Macedonian legions were ordered back to Italy and placed under his command.
The situation was yet further complicated by the arrival of young Octavian in Italy. He had been named as Caesar’s heir. He took this as an opportunity to lay claim to Caesar’s legacy, to support the plebs, ingratiate himself with Caesar’s veterans and, much to Cicero’s great joy, oppose Antony.
Cicero, in his own eyes at least, an informal leader of the senatorial group, became increasingly open in his hostility towards Antony and his support of the assassins, but it was not until 43, when Antony was no longer consul, that Cicero was able to have declared an enemy of the state.
By then, the Roman world was armed and ready for war. The assassins had armies in Gaul and the East. Antony had the majority of the Macedonian legions and had been raising troops from Caesar’s veterans. Octavian had his own army and was opposed to Antony. The consuls were raising armies in Italy. There were further armies which were undeclared in Spain and Gaul.
The events after the assassination in some ways mirrored those of Caesar on the Rubicon. The political system had broken down. There was no trust between the major parties. Violence seemed the only way forward.
The violence of 44-43 laid the ground for the eventual formation of the Triumvirate.