What might distinguish assassination from an ordinary offing is that its victim has a bodyguard. If so, the violent incident on March 15, 44 B.C. was merely bloody murder. Despite portents of misfortune, Caius Julius Caesar was not shielded by the Praetorian Guard when he strode into the senate house and seated himself among men he trusted with his life. The Roman dictator was stabbed once by each of 23 conspirators, including his protégé, the urban praetor Marcus Junius Brutus. Caesar’s dying words, almost certainly uttered in Greek, voiced dismay that Brutus, whom he called “my son,” was a party to the lethal treachery. It was William Shakespeare, however, who devised the snappy Latin line by which Caesar’s death lives on: “Et tu, Brute?”
In Et Tu Brute?, Greg Woolf, a professor of ancient history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, examines the ways in which “Caesar’s murder has been lovingly treasured, reinterpreted, and, yes, staged and performed as the archetype of political murder.” An exercise in historiography, in how one piece of the past has been remembered and interpreted, the book offers a detailed examination of the circumstances by which the victorious general and gifted author, who had recently been anointed “dictator for life,” departed that life. Woolf analyzes evolving attitudes toward monarchy and regicide that have been responsible for ambivalence over the slaughter of the famous tyrant. He traces the extraordinary afterlife in literature and popular culture of a noble Roman who still bestrides the narrow world like a colossus. Thousands of political figures have been assassinated over the past 21 centuries. “But among so many murdered and perished leaders of men,” Woolf asks, “why do the Ides of March still matter?” Caesar’s death occurred about halfway through the 1,500-year history of ancient Rome, and its consequences for the empire were profound and extensive. But more than the killing of Philip II of Macedon (336 B.C.), William I of Orange (1584), Henri IV of France (1610), Czar Alexander II (1881), William McKinley (1901), Francisco Madero (1913), Rafael Trujillo (1961), Park Chung-hee (1979), Indira Gandhi (1984), or Yitzhak Rabin (1995), the stabbing of Caesar continues to draw blood throughout the world. “How many ages hence,” asks Shakespeare’s Cassius after the fatal deed, “Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown?” Elizabethan English was only one of many unknown accents in which, like the crucifixion of Jesus, the killing of Caesar would be performed and pondered.
Despite allusions to several other political murders or attempted murders, including the attack on Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister ever assassinated (in 1812), and the abortive attempt on Pope John Paul II (in 1984), the book’s subtitle, A Short History of Political Murder, is misleading. Instead of tracing the dismal lineage of political murder, from antiquity to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Woolf’s concise book studies the history of one political murder, from conception to execution to mythologization. According to Woolf, the killing of Caesar provides space in which to weigh the tactics and ethics of assassination. He discusses how and why Roman emperors rarely died in bed, but leaves it mostly to the reader to extrapolate to other times and other places.
No Zapruder footage captured the slaying of Caesar, and, despite dozens of witnesses, the documentary record is spotty and contradictory. Confusion was the immediate aftermath of the violence in the Roman senate house, and a mixture of interests and motives colored what those who were present would make of the murder. A few contemporary letters and speeches, including those of Cicero, who had opposed Caesar but did not join the conspiracy, have survived, but the most detailed accounts of what happened were written many years later. The most influential, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, appeared more than a century later, a few years before Suetonius wrote Life of the Deified Julius in 121 A.D. Following Suetonius, Appian and Cassius Dio each told the story as well. Woolf sifts through conflicting versions and weighs the plausibilities. The murder of Caesar was a shock to the Roman social system, but Woolf is struck by how rapidly the factionalized ruling class was able to suppress its enmities and revert to routine. “How could the Roman aristocracy—the senate really—move so swiftly from business as normal to political murder, and back to even a show of normality?” he asks. His answer is that deferring revenge was the Roman way, at least for the small, inbred elite; it was only after pressure from the populace that the conspirators against Caesar, including Brutus and Cassius, were hunted down or persuaded to commit suicide. Roman, too, was the use of daggers and poisons to dispose of leaders. Within three centuries of Caesar’s death, 16 emperors (Caligula, Claudius, Vitellius, Galba, Domitian, Commodus, Pertinax, Didius Juliannus, Publius Septimius Geta, Caracalla, Elagabalus, Maximinus Thrax, Pupienus, Balbinus, Volusianus, and Trebonianus Gallus) encountered the most effective method of term limits: assassination.
Caesar erred in alienating members of the senate. He was indeed a dictator, when that term was not in itself pejorative. But the conspirators believed that by stabbing Caesar, they were striking a blow for liberty, by which they meant the prerogatives of the aristocracy. In his treatise On Duties, Cicero justifies tyrannicide and contends that Caesar was a tyrant. Nevertheless, whether ethically defensible or not, his slaying was a tactical blunder. Caesar’s death led to the consolidation of power by his adopted son, Octavian, who, as the Emperor Augustus, wielded power more despotically than his murdered predecessor ever did. So the unintended consequence of tyrannicide was the installation of a more powerful tyrant.
In Pharsalia, the Latin epic that Lucan left incomplete at his suicide in 65 A.D., Caesar is an awesome, monstrous figure, but in the 14th century Dante placed him among the virtuous pagans and consigned his perfidious killers, Brutus and Cassius, to the lowest circle of the Inferno, beside Judas Iscariot. Woolf considers two French plays, both called The Death of Caesar, by Georges de Scudéry in 1635 and Voltaire in 1793, as well as how the Astérix comic-book series has treated the subject. And he looks at recent representations of Caesar’s death within Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy, and Arundhati Roy’s 1997 novel, The God of Small Things. Beyond the literary heirs to the Ides of March are other murders that seem modeled on the passion of Caesar—for example, the fatal stabbing of Hendrik Verwoerd on the floor of the South African parliament in 1966, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, who had played Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and who, after shooting the president, proclaimed in Latin from the stage of Ford’s Theatre: “Sic semper tyrannis!”
Woolf’s own ambivalence toward the murder of Caesar is most fully embodied in the famous play that Shakespeare wrote during the most fertile stretch of his career, when he was also creating Henry IV, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet. (It is, incidentally, Macbeth that is credited with the first use in English of the word assassination—derived from Arabic hassasin, a sect of Islamic militants thought to use hashish while committing murders). Drawn directly from Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, Julius Caesar was first produced in 1599, when an anxious England was ruled by an aged virgin queen and regicide, only 50 years away in the beheading of Charles I, was not unthinkable. In its admiration and pity for both Caesar and Brutus, Woolf writes, “Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar offered consolation and doubt to kings and tyrannicides alike.”
Genuine tyrannicide presupposes that the target is in fact a tyrant, not merely infuriating or incompetent. The scoundrel must be demonstrably guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors, and murder must be the only feasible method of removal. (In constitutional democracies where impeachment is an option, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz, and Lee Harvey Oswald are the veritable despots wielding arbitrary power). Even so, by what moral authority can a clique of conspirators assume the power of life and death? For the most part, Woolf ignores the ethics of assassination, as well as its roots in primal ritual; the high mortality rate for Roman emperors recalls James Frazier’s account of how tribes periodically purge themselves by expunging their chiefs. Instead, Woolf focuses on the peril of the practice, noting that the plot against Caesar backfired in the deaths of the conspirators and the triumph of Augustus. Woolf opposes assassination because it cannot be relied on to achieve desired ends. “It is a seductive fantasy that the world would come right if only the chess piece called Mao, Castro, Reagan, al-Qaddafi, Saddam, Thatcher or whoever might be removed from the board,” he concludes. “History, however, teaches the lesson that killing Caesar mostly fails.”
What about killing Hitler, the modern archetype of atrocity? Might not a timely bullet to his venomous brain have saved millions from miserable, unmerited death? The attempt on Hitler’s life that Col. Claus von Stauffenberg bungled on July 20, 1944 (and that Tom Cruise re-enacts in the forthcoming film Valkyrie) might have ended World War II, but later it might have encouraged the CIA to take out more foreign leaders. It is reasonable, following Matthew, to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. It is much more difficult to determine just what those things are.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth and The Translingual Imagination.