Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Melodramatic Funeral of Julius Caesar

Almost everyone knows the story of the death of Julius Caesar, as Shakespeare has reminded us. He was assassinated on the Ides of March 44 BC by a group of disgruntled Senators who believed him to be on a path to become dictator and destroy the Republic.

The truth is Caesar was merely one of many who pushed the Republic to extinction. The collapse began in 133 BC with the murder of Tiberius Gracchus, continued through the dictatorships of Marius and Sulla, and ended with the formation of the Principate under Augustus in 30 BC. That didn’t matter to the Senate of 44 BC that was struggling to hold on to power.

Caesar’s image had been carefully cultivated by his followers prior to and after his ascension to power. His military accomplishments were advertised and his efforts on behalf of the people were socialized. Caesar was a patrician, latest member of the ancient family of the Julii, which dated to the founding of Rome. That historical link helped lend a sense of honor and stability to the name Caesar.

Caesar’s greatest offence was to put his image on Roman coins, a place previously reserved for the gods. This was calculated symbolism designed to reinforce the notion that Caesar himself was a god, and this was proven by his image on the coins.

But this was a marketing campaign aimed directly at the people and never bought into by the Senate, so they assassinated him as a threat to their power.

Appian describes Caesar’s funeral and its melodrama.

Caesar’s father-in-law, Piso brought his body to the forum and it was placed on the rostra surrounded by an armed guard. The large crowd was of one emotion and Antony saw it as his role to whip them into a fever pitch.

It is not right, my fellow-citizens, for the funeral oration in praise of so great a man to be delivered by me, a single individual, instead of by his whole country.

Antony went on to read out all the honors bestowed on Caesar, one at a time, using words like "sacrosanct", "inviolate", "father of his country", "benefactor", or "leader", a combination never used to describe another Roman.

And he read out the oaths, by which they all undertook to protect Caesar and Caesar's person with all their might… those who failed to defend him were to be accursed.

Antony turned to the body and chanted heavenly praise for the dead man,

And you", he said, "were also the only man to avenge the violence offered to your country 300 years ago, by bringing to their knees the savage peoples who were the only ones ever to break in to Rome and set fire to it." This is a reference to Caesar’s victory over the Gauls who had attacked Rome in 390 BC.

Antony took the cape that covered Caesar’s body, stuck it on a spear, and waved it about so the crowd could observe the blood stains on it. By now the crowd had worked itself into a frenzy and was demanding the death of the assassins who had struck down their leader. Suddenly a wax body of Caesar rose above the rostra for all to see. It was sitting on a platform and attached to a mechanical device which utilized a crank to make the body rotate. On it were painted 23 marks of blood showing the locations of the stab wounds on Caesar’s body. Round and round it went for all to see.

When Antony was finished, people rushed to the rostra with the intent to take Caesar’s body up Capitoline Hill and burn it at the most sacred site in the city. But the priests intervened saying that the risk of an uncontrolled fire was too great and they would not allow the body to be burned there. So the people carried Caesar’s body to the east end of Forum square intending to create a funeral pyre there. They grabbed wooden benches and broke them up to provide fuel for the fire.

After the fire was lit, it burned for twenty-four hours in the midst of a crowd of thousands. Years later, the Temple of the Divine Caesar was constructed on that site. Today, the temple is gone, and only a part of the altar remains. Still, there are Romans who place flowers there every day in honor of the great man.