Why was Julius Caesar assassinated

19th-century painting of the conspirators celebrating the death of Caesar

Julius Caesar was at the pinnacle of his power when he was killed by an organized group of Roman senators who sought to preserve the Roman Republic and end his reign. Caesar had become one of the best-known and prominent figures of the ancient world at this point in his life. He had taken control of Rome not just through his military might but with charisma and political savvy. During his reign, Caesar greatly expanded the Roman Republic, and his conquests changed Europe's future. But he also was quickly dissolving the Roman Republic and creating what would become the Imperial system. However, Caesar's actions to marginalize the Republic and seize sole control of Rome angered many Romans, including men he not only knew but considered friends. On the Ides of March, Caesar was stabbed to death by these men who wanted to preserve the Roman Republic.

Why was Caesar murdered at the hands of his fellow citizens? Caesar was killed for three reasons: First, the conspirators wanted to halt his power growth. Second, they tried to prevent him from becoming king and destroying the Roman Republic. Finally, some were motivated by basic human emotions - personal vengeance. The assassination of Julius Caesar ultimately started a civil war that ended with the destruction of the Roman republic.

Who was Julius Caesar?

Caesar was born to a patrician Roman family who had once been very influential in the Republic. However, by the time of Caesar’s birth, their fortunes had declined, and they were no longer particularly prominent.[1] We know little about Caesar's childhood, but Rome was unstable during his teenage years. Additionally, the death of his father left him somewhat unprotected.

A bloody civil war between Marius and Sulla forced Caesar to pick sides. Caesar sided with Marius, but when the war shifted in favor of Sulla, Caesar was forced to flee Rome and join the army to avoid execution. Caesar quickly rose through the ranks of the military and distinguished himself. Upon the death of Sulla, he returned to Rome and became one of the leaders of the popular party in Rome.

He was a charismatic leader and became one of the best-known figures on the Roman political scene. Caesar entered into an informal political arrangement with Crassus and Pompey, known as the First Triumvirate. This agreement allowed the three men to secure their political goals and become, in essence, the de-facto government of the Republic.[2] Under this arrangement, Caesar was able to secure election as consul and to become the commander of several Roman legions. Caesar lead these legions into Gaul to pacify this region. At the time, Gaul covered most of France and Belgium. Caesar then embarked on a ten-year campaign to gradually conquered this region. He then used his legions to raid the people in Germany and Britain.

After the death of Crassus, the First Triumvirate broke down. The Senate and Pompey saw an opportunity to oust Caesar from power and threatened him with criminal prosecution.[3] In response, Caesar advanced on Rome to secure his political position and started a civil war between himself and the Roman senate. Pompey the Great defended Rome alongside the Senate. Caesar defeated his enemies at Pharsalus (Greece), but this did not end the war. Mark Anthony ruled in Caesar’s name in Rome and Italy. The conflict continued to rage over the Mediterranean for several years.

Caesar emerged victoriously and by 44 BC after his decisive victory at the Battle of Mutina. By this time, Caesar was the most powerful man in Rome. He had been elected by the Senate as dictator initially for five years, but later for life. This meant that, along with the army under his control, he was granted extraordinary powers. It seemed that his position was beyond challenge, but this situation changed on the Ides of March 44 BCE.

Where was Caesar killed?

A bust of Brutus

By March 44 BCE, members of the Roman elite conspired to remove Caesar from power. The members of the conspiracy were all prominent Romans who knew Caesar.[4] The sources on the assassination and the conspiracy could be best described as imperfect. None of the sources are contemporary, and they often contradict each other.

However, many of the facts of the assassination have been established with a great deal of certainty. The guiding spirit behind the conspiracy was Cassius, a leading Roman senator. The members of the plot called themselves the liberators. They sought to liberate Rome from Caesar's rule. The plot involved luring Caesar to Pompey’s theatre, where gladiatorial games were held in his honor. Caesar was notoriously reckless when it came to his security. He refused bodyguards, and he declared that to live surrounded by guards was not a life he wanted. Caesar had only a few personal attendants who escorted him everywhere.

On the Ides of March (the 15th of March), the gladiatorial games were staged. Caesar was expected to come, and he was the guest of honor. On the day, he was late, which alarmed the conspirators. The nominal leader of the conspirators, Brutus, agreed to bring Caesar to the theatre. Brutus and Caesar were well acquainted. Caesar and Brutus's mother were alleged to have been lovers. Brutus had also fought against Caesar at Pharsalus, but Caesar had pardoned him. Despite this long history, Brutus agreed to lure Caesar to the theatre to help their plan to place. Brutus ultimately convinced Caesar to attend the games.

How did Caesar Die?

As soon as Caesar entered the theatre, one of the conspirators approached him. The conspirator pretended to hand a petition to Caesar. At this time, not only did Caesar not have any guards, but his servants had also fallen behind him. The group had also successfully delayed Mark Anthony, one of Caesar's staunchest allies. This delay prevented Anthony from being by Caesar's side. Caesar was left alone and virtually defenseless.

According to the Greek historian Plutarch, one of the conspirators, possibly Casca, seized the toga of Caesar. Caesar was surprised and shocked by his action. The group of conspirators then drew knives from their togas and proceeded to stab Caesar repeatedly. It is estimated that up to fifty men, all Roman senate members, attacked him. Not all of them could get near the man they hated and who they believed was a threat to Rome.

It was later revealed that Caesar had been stabbed over thirty times and died from blood loss. While historical sources somewhat dispute it, some sources claimed that Caesar's last words were ‘Et Tu Bruti,’ meaning you too Brutus. Brutus's betrayal would have been especially shocking because Caesar viewed Brutus almost as a son.[5] Several of the sources also state that Caesar died at the foot of a statue of his hated rival and enemy - Pompey.

Why was Caesar Killed by Roman Senators?

coins celebrating Brutus and Casca, two of the leading assassins

Why did the conspirators want to kill Caesar? One of the most commonly cited reasons for the assassination was the fact they believed that Caesar wanted to be the king of Rome. Many ordinary Romans did not have a monarchy, and Caesar was popular with this class. However, the idea of a monarch was one that was unacceptable to the Roman aristocracy. They believed monarchs were a threat to ‘liberty’ and were ultimately tyrants. They believed that if Caesar became king, they would lose their freedom to participate in public life and protect their property.[6]

For members of the Roman elite, they felt that Dignitas (personal dignity and status) was impossible without liberty. Caesar's actions made it clear to them that he wanted to retain his power, unlike Rome's previous dictators permanently. Their suspicions were of Caesar's motives were compounded by the public demonstrations outside of the Senate house by Roman citizens that demanded Caesar declare himself king.[7] This unnerved and persuaded many Roman nobles to join the conspiracy.

Who killed Caesar?

Many of those who took part in Caesar's assassination was formerly ardent supporters of Pompey and had fought with him at Pharsalus.[8] However, the fear of the emperor was so powerful that overwhelmed than gratitude or even personal affection for Caesar. Cassius, the prime mover of the conspiracy, presented the assassination of the victor of Pharsalus as tyrannicide, the killing of a tyrant. This persuaded many, including Brutus, to join the plot as they saw it as their duty as Romans. However, the evidence that Caesar wanted a return to the monarchy is scanty and inconclusive. Whatever his intentions, it is clear that the conspirators believed that he was determined to rule as king.[9]

Why were Roman Senators angry with Caesar?

While Caesar's apparent pretensions angered many of the conspirators, others were angered over his apparent lack of respect for Roman senators. Several conspirators were linked to senators, and the plotters believed that they were acting in the Senate's name. Senators were technically the lawmakers and the ultimate source of authority in the Republic.[10] However, Caesar treated that body in a high-handed manner and often with contempt. He did not act respectfully towards the Senate, and this alienated many of them.

Many senators saw his dismissive behavior as an affront and believed this was a thinly veiled attempt to marginalize the Senate. They saw his actions as an overt attempt to subvert the traditional form of government. Moreover, during the civil wars when Mark Anthony had governed Italy, the Senate was cowed into submission. Many senators yearned to return to the days when it was the main decision-making body in the Republic.

Moreover, many senators who had conferred honorific titles and powers on the general were shocked when he used these largely symbolic powers to cement his position in Rome.[11] The senators believed that the conqueror of Gaul was engaged in illegally gathering more personal power at the expense of the traditional elite and was subverting the constitution. The strained relationship between Caesar and the Senate was one factor that persuaded many that Caesar had to be assassinated.[12].

Were Roman Senators motivated by vengeance against Caesar?

Caesar was an incredibly divisive figure in Rome. Still, most Romans genuinely loved him but despised he was by the City's elite. The senatorial class and their adherents were very suspicious and hated Caesar. He was a member of the popular party and related by marriage to Marius, the common people's darling. Moreover, many hated Caesar for personal reasons, and vengeance was almost certainly a factor in the Ides of March's assassination. [13]

He had killed many of the senatorial order and the Roman elite during the civil wars. Friends and family members of the elite had died on many battlefields against Caesar during the civil war. Many prominent and revered Romans, such as Cato, had committed suicide to escape having to live in a Rome dominated by one man. Moreover, Caesar's policy of clemency did not reconcile the elite to him and his regime. Those whom he had pardoned after his victories continued to resent him and were instrumental in his assassination. Mercy was a characteristic of a king or a tyrant. Those who accepted it were thought to have been dishonored.[14] Furthermore, in the social system of the time, Senators had become dependent on Caesar. Ultimately Cassius and Brutus, while pardoned by Caesar, were eager to wipe away the stain on their honor that they only lived due to the mercy of a despised autocratic ruler.


The assassination of Caesar was carried out by a small group of members of the elite. They believed that they were acting in the best interests of the Republic and sought to preserve it. The group who killed Caesar was motivated to prevent Caesar from becoming a permanent dictator. They genuinely believed that he wanted to crown himself king of Rome. Caesar’s poor relations with the Senate was also a crucial factor in the unfolding of the conspiracy. His actions appeared that he was bent on destroying the old constitution and fed into the narrative that he was a tyrant who wanted to ultimately re-establish royal rule in Rome. Moreover, Caesar was a divisive figure and was hated by many of Pompey's supporters. Instead of healing Rome, his clemency policy failed to win him adherents and became an embarrassment for the pardoned.

Additional Readings


  1. Freeman, Philip. Julius Caesar. (Simon and Schuster, 2008), p. 16
  2. Goldsworthy, Anthony. Caesar: Life of a Colossus (Yale, Yale University Press, 2006), p. 61
  3. Goldsworthy, p. 141
  4. Syme, Ronald, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, Oxford University, 2002), p 218
  5. Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar, xxv
  6. Goldworthy, p 134
  7. Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar xxxi
  8. Jiménez, Ramon L. Caesar Against Rome: The Great Roman Civil War (New York, Praeger, 2006), p. 117
  9. Holland, Tom, Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic (London, Anchor Books, 2003), p 189
  10. Holland, p. 197
  11. Holland, p. 199
  12. Plutarch xxi
  13. Holland, p 201
  14. Holland, p 210