Et tu, Julius?
March 09, 2003
Compliments of The
London Sunday Times
A new investigation has yielded a startling verdict on history's most
infamous murder. It states that Julius Caesar staged his own death. But
why would he have wanted to die? Richard Girling investigates.
Colonel Luciano Garofano, commander of the carabinieri's forensic investigation
centre in Parma, stands below a seething roundabout in Rome. Even in
uniform, he comes across as an improbable policeman - whippet-thin, bespectacled,
with the soft-spoken, understated manner of an expensive obstetrician
or philosophy don rather than a case-hardened mafia-hunter. The donnishness
at least is not illusory: he lectures in forensic medicine at the University
of Turin. But his curriculum vitae includes a portfolio of cases - Novi
Ligure, Biagi, Cogne - that testify to a core of steel and put him in
the premier league of European criminal investigators. Typical of his
kind, he is persistent, almost manically thorough, and possessed of a
cultivated instinct that always tells him when something is wrong.
Prowling now around the throbbing traffic junction and bus terminus at
Largo Argentina, he knows that something is very wrong indeed. On the
face of it, no crime was ever more open and shut. On the ides of March,
44BC, the demigod Caesar arrives at the Senate in Rome and is hacked
to death by a mob of senators. The conspirators, all prominent members
of noble families, make no attempt to disguise themselves or to hide
their guilt. On the contrary, after the deed is done they spill into
the street, boasting of their achievement and crying freedom. Even without
Shakespeare's help, the names of Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius
Brutus would have been marked down for the history books.
To a modern policeman, however, and particularly to one weaned on mafia
slayings, the catalogue of unanswered questions remains far too long
to justify a "case closed" sticker. Why did Caesar, the greatest
soldier and political genius of his age, offer deliberate provocation
to his most powerful enemies? Why, having done so, did he sack the bodyguards
who might have saved him? Why did he ignore explicit warnings that he
was walking, unprotected, into mortal danger?
More bizarre, but possibly just as important, was the condition of Caesar's
bowels. Could it have been diarrhoea that made him insult the Senate
and so fuel the hatred that drove his killers? Many people seemed to
think it could. All this, and the dozen other questions nagging in his
mind, are what persuades Garofano to accept the invitation of the award-winning
London-based film maker Atlantic Productions to conduct the first police
investigation of history's most famous murder. He begins, as all investigators
must, at the scene of the crime. This is not, as most people still believe,
the Forum, but rather Pompey's Portico, a kind of Roman entertainment
complex of theatre, park and meeting house built in a low-rent, swampy
area north of the Tiber, where the senators congregated after the Senate
itself burnt down. The remains of it under the Via di Torre Argentina
are meagre, unvisited by tourists and in continuous use as a cat sanctuary.
Animal-lovers, oblivious to irony, pour dried cat food next to the place
where the greatest soldier-politician in human history spilt his blood.
Even the neighbours seem not to know what happened here. Seen from above,
the ground swarms and ripples with fur. At street level there is a cafe
in an ancient vault; a motorcycle repair shop under an arch. So hard
is it to make any sense of what he sees that Garofano has to engage the
help of Warwick university to reconstruct it on a computer.
Next, he considers the body. Caesar's bloodied corpse was left where
it fell for two or three hours before being retrieved by servants and
carried to his house. Here, to Garofano's considerable satisfaction,
a physician named Antistius conducted the world's first recorded autopsy.
Despite their military experience, the conspirators are not exactly natural
born killers. They are literal backstabbers, their nerves strung out
by a five-hour wait and far too afraid of their victim to attack him
immediately from the front. In raining blows on Caesar they cause almost
as much damage to each other as they do to him, and - though they try
soldierly tricks such as stabbing at the groin - their success is only
narrowly achieved. Of the 23 stab wounds recorded by Antistius, only
one could have been fatal. To make the most of Antistius's observations,
Garofano plots the wounds on a computer and repeats the autopsy with
a forensic pathologist. What he wants to know is how many senators were
involved, and which of them delivered the blow that made history.
He also needs an accurate profile of Caesar himself, a detailed account
of his mental and physical health, and an introduction to the social
and political mores of ancient Rome. This is where a solid background
in serial killings comes in handy. The comparison between the aristocratic
families of Caesar's Rome and the mafia clans of modern Italy is not
as fanciful as it sounds. In both cases there is an expectation of unquestioning
loyalty to the family heads, or godfathers. There is a ruthless pursuit
of financial and political advantage, little respect for the weakness
of others, and an acceptance of violence as a valid instrument of persuasion.
There is little regard for the abstract "state", and personal
relationships are paramount. In this context, Caesar himself is the very
capo di capo - a hero among heroes, if only by the peculiar values of
the society that created him. Nowadays such a man would be bound for
the Hague as a war criminal. His lauded victories involved not just consummate
generalship in the field but also the purposeful massacre of women and
children. Plutarch reckons that in less than 10 years in Gaul his armies
fought a total of 3m men, of whom they killed a million and took another
The multiple stabbings, too, are another parallel with the modern mafia
- a ritualistic, all-for-one pooling of guilt. And another: once Caesar
has fallen, someone slashes his face. "That's a favourite Sicilian
trick," Garofano says, "disfiguring a man's looks." Twenty-three
wounds are nothing special, though; Garofano is used to seeing anything
up to 60 from a single assailant. "Psychologically," he says,
"it's important for all the conspirators to bloody their hands." This
does not mean that the number of wounds will match the number of assailants
- mafiosi don't queue up to take turns, and neither did the families
of ancient Rome. Exactly how many pierced Caesar's skin is a question
that Garofano can settle only by experiment. Back in Parma, in what looks
oddly like a Shakespearian theatre workshop, he instructs police laboratory
technicians to re-enact the killing. They do it three times - once with
23 attackers, once with 11 and once with only five. With 23 it is a shambles.
Given a skilled fight-arranger and the willing co-operation of the victim,
it might be possible for that number of people to simultaneously attack
the same person. In an uncoordinated melee, however, it is impossible.
With 11 attackers the task is still difficult but, just, possible. With
five it is easy. Garofano's conclusion is that the assassins numbered
between five and 10 and that the fatal blow, a stab in the back, was
the second in the sequence of 23, possibly delivered by Brutus himself.
Shakespeare alone attributes to Caesar the famous protestation in Latin,
Et tu, Brute? The words recorded by Roman historians, in Greek rather
than Latin, are even more poignant: Kai su, technon?
"You too, my child?" Poignant because the promiscuous, oversexed
Caesar's many mistresses have included Brutus's mother, Servilia, and
- rightly or not - it has been commonly put about that Brutus was Caesar's
bastard. The poignancy is not obvious to all, however. In the mind of
one of the world's leading experts on the period, Professor Barry Strauss
of Cornell University, Kai su, technon is less the lament of a cruelly
disappointed father than the parting insult of a calculating brute. "First
of all, he's saying, 'How can you betray me after all I've done for you?'
And secondly, he's saying, 'By the way, you're my illegitimate son. I'm
your father, and you have just committed parricide. Have a nice day.'" There
is even a suspicion that the bon mot, being delivered rather pretentiously
in Greek, may have been rehearsed. Having uttered it, Caesar pulls his
toga over his head and waits for the mob to do its worst.
Brutus himself foreshadows the mafia in yet another way, for this pillar
of old Roman rectitude is a shameless loan shark. In the days before
banking, borrowers had to throw themselves on the mercy of the godfathers.
Among these, Brutus was both famous for his readiness to lend, and notorious
for his pound-of-flesh interest rate of nearly 50%.
Violence, too, was in the bloodline. Five hundred years earlier, his
ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus had driven out the tyrannical king Tarquin
and so launched the Roman republic.
The senators' grievance against Caesar is well understood. His genocidal
military campaigns, his bribery and vast sexual incontinence they could
accept (for what was wrong with any of that?). Kingship, however, was
the enemy of the republic and, by extension, a threat to the families'
power. Caesar's genius and restless energy were both strengths and weaknesses:
in making himself the most powerful man in the world, he had grown too
big for his sandals. He had accepted for himself the unprecedented title
of "dictator", had renamed after himself the month formerly
known as Quintilis, had taken to wearing imperial purple and had brazenly
set up the queen of Egypt as his mistress. To cap it all, when members
of the Senate come to offer him the ultimate accolade of deification
he responds with an insult. Instead of rising to receive the gift, as
the senators expect, he stays obstinately in his throne as if their good
opinion is of no account to him. Like Garofano, Professor Strauss is
much exercised by this shocking breach of etiquette. "It's like
not kissing the mafia don's ring," he says, "and it's taken
extremely poorly by the Senate."
Caesar's contempt is manifest even in the way he dies. His spies cannot
have failed to warn him of the impending plot - there have been persistent
rumours of it throughout the city. And yet he dismisses his bodyguard
and walks alone. Weeks ago the soothsayer Spurinna warned him unequivocally
to beware the ides of March. The portents of doom are powerful enough
for his wife, Calpurnia, only the night before, to dream that he will
be killed at the Senate meeting and to beg him not to go. For five hours
in the morning he hesitates, but then sets out unprotected on the last
walk of his life. Even as he goes, someone in the crowd pushes a written
warning into his hand: he is going to be murdered. The paper is still
there, clamped in his stiffening fingers, as the physician Antistius
begins to examine the cold, bloodstained body many hours later.
Is Caesar mad? Or so blinded by his own godliness that he believes himself
inviolable? What can have got into him? When Garofano crosses the Atlantic
to consult Dr Harold Bursztajn of Harvard Medical School, one of the
world's leading forensic psychiatrists and criminal profilers, he finds
him wrestling with a puzzle. "Here's Julius Caesar, who by all accounts
is the best-informed, the shrewdest politician with the highest intelligence
and the greatest power of anyone in the world. As a general he was always
prepared for every battle. He left very little to chance, always used
intelligence and always took the trouble to know his enemies. The same
was true politically in Rome. He always got what he wanted because he
had good intelligence about his enemies.
"And yet when it comes to his murder, he seems to be entirely helpless,
defenceless and vulnerable. How could he not know that there would be
some attempt on his life? And why wouldn't he take steps to protect himself?"
Bursztajn's conclusion is startling. The godfather who directs and controls
the events of March 15, 44BC, is not hot-headed Cassius or scheming Brutus.
They are, as they always have been, far out of their depth, minnows in
a political ocean patrolled by sharks. No: the man pulling the strings,
the orchestrator of his own death, is none other than Julius Caesar himself.
The outcome is exactly as he had planned it. In every particular, he
gets what he wants. The naive and foolish conspirators, on the other
hand, go away empty-handed, beaten by superior tradecraft and the poverty
of their own imagination. In defending the republic they ensured its
demise. In fighting dictatorship they have guaranteed its victory. By
killing Caesar they have made him immortal.
For a criminal investigator every suspicious death calls for an understanding
of what, in police jargon, is known as MOM - motive, opportunity and
means. From the conspirators' perspective this all looks clear enough.
Their motives are straightforward (to protect the republic from dictatorship).
The opportunity (ambush at the Senate) and method (stabbing by committee)
are equally obvious. But how does it look from Caesar's point of view?
He is known to desire three things: for his death, when it comes, to
be swift; for a good and lasting reputation; and for the continuance
of his bloodline.
On March 15 he achieves all three, so Garofano doesn't have to look far
for a motive. Opportunity is no problem either - a demigod can choose
his own time and place. And the means are an early version of what American
policemen like to call "suicide by cop" - ie, by behaving in
such a way that he provokes someone else to kill him, the "victim" brings
about his own violent death. By this reckoning, Brutus, Cassius and the
others are merely a cleverly chosen, and much more profitable, alternative
to the upturned sword.
Yet why would Caesar want to kill himself? He is the most glorious personage
on Earth, able freely to help himself to anything he fancies, from a
peeled grape to an entire country. Who in his right mind would put an
end to such a life? In searching for the answer we need to consider both
Caesar's age (at 56 he is, by contemporary standards, an old man) and
his state of health. Ancient texts make it clear that Caesar is by now
suffering grievously from epilepsy - a discovery that, to Garofano and
Bursztajn, supplies a crucial link in the evidential chain. "There
is a particular form of epilepsy," says Bursztajn, "called
temporal-lobe epilepsy, which can involve people spacing out, losing
consciousness for moments at a time, especially under stress. It can
also cause them to lose control of their sphincters, of their urinary
sphincter or their bowels, to have diarrhoea. At the same time it can
make them become more rash, and more extreme in their reactions."
This might explain a lot. It might tell us, for example, why Caesar fails
to rise when the Senate comes to deify him. His purpose in remaining
seated is not so much to humiliate the senators as to avoid humiliating
himself. Cornell University's Professor Strauss chooses his words with
care: "Well, Caesar said - or his handler said - that he couldn't
do it [stand up] because part of his illness was that he suffered
from terrible diarrhoea. Had he gotten up there would have been a scene
whose ugliness can only be imagined."
Caesar's vanity, which Bursztajn compares to that of John F Kennedy,
is best described by the Roman biographer and historian Suetonius, who
writes in the 1st century AD: "He is said to have been tall of stature,
with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen
black eyes. He was somewhat over-nice in the care of his person, being
not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair
plucked out, as some have charged; while his baldness was a disfigurement
which troubled him greatly, since he found that it was often the subject
of the gibes of his detractors. Because of it he used to comb forward
his scanty locks from the crown of his head, and of all the honours voted
him by the senate and people there was none which he received or made
use of more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all
Caesar is comparable to Kennedy also in his insatiable appetite for women,
and - as his obsession with baldness shows - he is far from sanguine
about anything likely to render him loathsome. "Towards the end," says
Suetonius, "he was subject to sudden fainting fits and to nightmares
as well." Twice he was stricken by bouts of "falling sickness",
which, for as long as they lasted, would have made it impossible for
him to participate in government business. This alone might have been
enough to put ideas of suicide into a proud man's mind. Add to it the
psychological effects of the illness - rashness and a tendency to grandiosity
- and you have a lethal combination of depression and emotional instability
to add to the existing burden of genius. It was death that provides Caesar
with the last, triumphant opportunity to outwit, defeat and humiliate
the idiots who stand against him.
Suetonius himself sees wilfulness in the great man's failure to protect
"Caesar left in the minds of some of his friends the suspicion that
he did not wish to live longer and had taken no precautions because of
his failing health." Bursztajn goes much further. For him, death
was only part of what Caesar has in mind.
"Is this a man who on his last walk is fulfilling an unconscious
death wish? Or is it all too conscious, and part of his plan to defeat
death and defeat the conspirators all in one fell swoop?"
Having considered all other possibilities, "What we are left with
is that the conspirators terribly underestimated Julius Caesar and that
they terribly underestimated the idea that he might know what they were
up to. The reason why they were getting as far as they had gotten was
because it served Caesar's own political and personal agenda to allow
them to proceed."
The first thing they lost was their reputation for probity. If failure
to stand up for deification was a social and political faux pas, then
carrying knives into a Senate meeting is even worse. "It was akin
to mafiosi bringing guns to a family meeting," says Bursztajn. In
this way, as Caesar well knew, they fatally undermine their own legitimacy. "It's
one thing for a mafia don to kill another outside of a peaceful meeting.
It's another thing to kill him at that meeting place. It's a good way
to make sure that all the other families turn against you. In essence
they signed their own death warrant by choosing the Senate meeting as
the place for killing Caesar. They did the very thing they accused Caesar
of doing: they broke Roman law."
They lose on a second front, too. Only six months ago Caesar changed
his will, naming as his heir and successor not the aristocratic Mark
Antony but his own nephew, the puny, 19-year-old Octavian - a move that
Strauss describes as "shrewd and even vicious".
"Antony represents the old elite, the old aristocracy of Rome. He's
someone who would be acceptable to the other oligarchs. But Octavian
comes from an Italian municipal aristocracy, not from a great house of
Rome. Caesar's looking towards his base, as we'd say in American politics." This
is the point at which, you might say, new money finally takes over from
the old. By giving the nod to a patrician, says Strauss, Caesar is telling
the rich provincials who have supported him: "Hey, I know how much
I owe to you, and I'm saying to the old aristocrats of Rome, here's another
nail in your coffin."
The political agenda in Caesar's assisted suicide therefore is to ensure
that his will is honoured, and that Octavian will succeed him. By tricking
the conspirators onto the wrong side of the law, Caesar ensures that
they cannot themselves seize power and that his dynasty will survive.
The pact, between the people and their late, beloved leader, is cemented
days later when Antony (who may have reasons of his own for courting
popularity) reads aloud the will: to every Roman family, Caesar has bequeathed
enough money for them to live for up to three months at his expense.
The crowd at the funeral breaks into a frenzy of posthumous adulation.
A torch is thrown onto the pyre. Then people start to throw chairs, benches,
clothing, anything that will burn. Women even fling their jewels. "The
enormous adulation was way out of proportion with what anyone expected,"
says Strauss. "If I may make a British comparison, it is a bit like
what happened after the death of Princess Di."
Whatever faith Brutus and Cassius held in the future of the republic
goes up in smoke with their enemy's corpse. Days later they are forced
to flee Rome, pursued by Antony's army, and two years later they both
commit suicide after being beaten in battle by Octavian and Antony at
Philippi. In a moment of pure Shakespearian tragedy, Cassius is said
to have killed himself with the same dagger that he had used against
Caesar. Antony himself then makes the mistake of throwing in his lot
with Cleopatra and falls on his sword after defeat by Octavian at the
battle of Actium. For Caesar's ghost it is game, set and match. The republic
is dead. The once-weedy Octavian, every bit as shrewd as his late uncle,
metamorphoses into Emperor Caesar Augustus (who does for the month of
Sextilis what his predecessor did for Quintilis), and the title of Caesar
is retained by every Roman emperor until Hadrian. The potency of the
title will survive even later attempts by lesser monarchs, the kaisers
and the tsars, to translate it for their own greater glory.
The flashing blades on the ides of March delivered to Julius Caesar exactly
what he had planned that they should: immortality. For Colonel Garofano,
whose investigation began among the stray cats of the Via Torre Argentina
and ended inside a dead man's head, the verdict is unconventional but
unavoidable. Suicide by conspirator.
Sunday London Times preview of "Who
Killed Julius Caesar?" premiering on the Discovery Channel,
Sunday evening April 27th @ 8:00 and 11:00 P.M. EST.
The Daily Telegraph Preview of "Who Killed Julius Caesar?" Et