Alternate history: what if Julius Caesar had not been assassinated?
Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Barry Strauss about how Caesar could have survived the Ides of March and why it may not have affected the move from republic to empire anyway
Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes talks to Professor Barry Strauss about how Caesar could have survived the Ides of March and why it may not have affected the move from republic to empire anyway…
The line “Beware the Ides of March”, in William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, has immortalised the date as one of the most famous in history. For while the titular statesmen and most powerful man in the Roman republic did not heed the soothsayer’s prophetic warning, or the pleas of his wife not to go to the Senate, we know the reason why Caesar had to beware 15 March 44 BC.
A group of senators, including former allies of Julius Caesar, conspired against him as they had grown fearful that his dictatorial rule threatened the republic. No one, many believed, should wield too much power. Led by Brutus, Cassius and Decimus, no fewer than 60 assassins approached Caesar during a Senate meeting on the Ides of March, and attacked with daggers that had been concealed in their togas. Caesar was powerless to withstand the frenzied thrusts and died with 23 wounds.
By 44 BC, Julius Caesar ruled as dictator of the Roman republic. The previous decade had seen the powerful statesman command his own army with indomitable success – conquering Gaul, repelling Germanic tribes, and launching invasions of Britain – which made him popular among the people and inspired loyalty from his troops. Caesar then defied the authority of the Senate, crossing the Rubicon with his army and sending the republic into civil war.
While he emerged the victor, his time as dictator perpetuo, dictator for life, was brief. A conspiracy formed to overthrow Caesar and restore the power of the republic. In 44 BC, on 15 March – the Ides of March – a group of 60 senators, armed with daggers and led by Brutus, Cassius and Decimus, assassinated Caesar. Years of civil war followed his death until Octavian, Caesar’s adopted heir, rose from the ashes of the republic as Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
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But if Caesar acted on the warnings or had not insisted on being seen without bodyguards, he may have discovered the conspiracy before it took place. “If he had read the note by Artemidorus of Cnidus [warning him of the danger] and believed it, then he would have known about the plot,” says Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University and author of The Death of Caesar (Simon & Schuster, 2015). In that case, Caesar’s retaliation would have been swift, with suspected assassins arrested, tried and executed.
Another scenario was that, had the attack still occurred, Caesar’s co-consul Mark Antony could have intervened, instead of being distracted by one of the conspirators, Trebonius. “As consul, Antony would have been on the podium next to Caesar. He was strong, fit and a military man, so knew how to react to violent danger,” says Strauss. “He could have given aid to senators who tried to help Caesar. We know of two such men, Lucius Marcius Censorinus and Gaius Calvisius Sabinus, and there may have been others.”
Had the attempt on his life been averted, whatever the means, Caesar would have meted out punitive punishments on the rebellious senators and continued his rule as dictator perpetuo or ‘dictator for life’. He had already implemented a number of populist reforms – including land redistribution from the elite to the poor and soldiers, and increased citizen enfranchisement – and was likely to have continued a reorganisation of the republic.
Caesar’s attention would quickly have turned to his planned three-year military campaign against Dacia (in the Balkans) and Parthia (roughly, modern-day Iraq and Iran). He had arranged to depart just a few days after the Ides of March, first for Greece to meet the huge force already in training. With an estimated 16 legions and cavalry, Caesar had reason to be confident of pacifying Dacia, led by King Burebista, and annexing the land like he did in Gaul, but Strauss stresses it would have been far from an easy victory. “In the second century, Emperor Trajan had to fight two campaigns to conquer Dacia,” Strauss notes.
Caesar’s attention would quickly have turned to his planned three-year military campaign against Dacia and Parthia
The next target was Parthia. The Romans sought revenge for the defeated invasion commanded by Marcus Licinius Crassus – one of Caesar’s partners in the First Triumvirate – and Caesar sought his own reprisals as the Parthians had sided with his enemy, Pompey, in the civil war that brought him to power. “It’s hard to imagine any circumstances in which Rome could have conquered Parthia. They were never a pushover,” says Strauss. “Caesar may have won a battle and perhaps driven them out of a border region, at least temporarily. That might have been enough for the sake of honour.”
The Dacia and Parthia campaigns could have helped secure Caesar’s rule, but only if the news coming back to Rome was of victories. “If they went well, it was unlikely that opponents could have achieved much,” says Strauss, despite the fact Caesar would still have had enemies even after squashing the assassination attempt. “If the campaigns had gone badly, then they might have been able to seize control of the political system, while hoping for Caesar’s failure.”
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“Cicero thought Caesar never would have returned to Rome,” says Strauss. “He doesn’t explain this opinion, but Caesar certainly had health problems. Had he not returned, the upshot was a renewal of civil war.” There were still ambitious rivals, who had three years to gather strength, so a returning Caesar needed to assert his position, according to Strauss, by grappling with the conversion of the “government of a city into government of an empire”. He adds: “That sort of work bored Caesar, so it’s not clear whether he would have been up to the task.”
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In the long run, the move from republic to empire may not have been all that different had Caesar lived, seeing that he would have still been succeeded by his adopted heir Octavian, whom we now know as the first emperor, Augustus. Mark Antony was always going to be a prominent politician, just unlikely to be at the “acme of power, since Caesar had only limited respect for him”. Although, this could have changed had Antony saved his life on the Ides of March.
Caesarion – who was probably Caesar’s son – would likely have grown up to be king of Egypt, according to Strauss, “eventually replacing his mother, Cleopatra”. If Caesar had continued his relationship with the famed beauty, she may not have begun her affair with Antony at all and her self-inflicted death – immortalised by Shakespeare, much like the Ides of March – may never have happened.
This article was first published in the February 2021 edition of History Revealed