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 million prisoner.

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 times."

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 himself. "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 Tu, Brute?