Why was Julius Caesar killed?

Painting of Julius Caesar's assassination
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Julius Caesar was one of the most influential and important figures in Roman history.


As supreme dictator of Rome, he enforced a series of changes that impacted the lives of many Romans.


However, his time as dictator was not without controversy. In 44 BC, a group of angry senators killed Caesar.

The First Triumvirate and Civil War

Julius Caesar had come to power through a political alliance with Pompey the Great, and Crassus, which was called the First Triumvirate.


This alliance, which was formed in 60 BC, allowed them to effectively control Rome. However, it was not without its problems.


Pompey and Crassus were constantly vying for power, which led to tension between the two men.


In 53 BC, Crassus was killed in battle and Pompey became the most powerful leader of Rome.


Caesar, who was military governor of Gaul at the time, decided to take advantage of the situation and marched on Rome at the start of 49 BC.


This led to a civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Even though Pompey was defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC and killed in Egypt soon after, his supporters continued to resist Caesar in both north Africa and Spain.


The civil war lasted for several more years and eventually ended with Caesar's victory over the last Pompeiian troops at the Battle of Munda in March of 45 BC.


With this victory, Julius Caesar was the undisputed ruler of Rome. However, years of civil war had scarred the Roman republic both physically, in the immense loss of life, but also socially, as resentments and suspicions ran deep.

The problems facing Caesar

With the war over, Caesar took stock of the problems facing Rome after years of devastation and war.


People's lives had been overturned for five years. Many people had either fought in the armies on either side or had lost family members who had.


The economy had also been devastated, as farmers were not able to hire enough men to work their fields, or safely transport their goods for sale.


As a result, poverty became a widespread issue, with crowds of war-weary and displaced Romans filling the streets of Rome looking for relief from their situation.


The normal political life of the republic had been severely disrupted since Caesar's invasion of 49 BC.


Regular elections had been absent, and any positions of power were subordinate to Caesar himself, as he retained most powers due to his role as dictator.

Since war was no longer a threat, some Romans considered it inappropriate that Caesar should continue to hold the position.


They encouraged him to move quickly to reinstate annual elections.


However, Caesar was cautious about returning to full political operations, because it could open up opportunities for his enemies to regain power.


Even though he had beaten the Pompeiians on the battlefield, Caesar had offered pardons to many of them in order to achieve peace.


If these disaffected enemies should work together, they could once more undermine Caesar's authority.


Therefore, Caesar made sure he retained the dictatorship as a way of retaining control over the new elections.

Dismissing the soldiers

The significant number of soldiers who had participated on both sides of the civil war needed to be dealt with before they could become a political or military problem for Caesar. 


Many of Caesar’s own men were due to retire and they were promised gifts of farmland for their time in service.


Unfortunately, free land was limited in Italy, so Caesar had to build new colonies in the provinces to fulfil his promises to his men.


Caesar ordered the rebuilding of the cities of Carthage and Corinth, both of which were destroyed back in 146 BC. 


Retired soldiers were sent to settle in these colonies, along with some of the poor citizens from Rome.


These new settlements not only provided new land, but also reduced the population pressure in the city of Rome.


The creation of new cities and farms also allowed the economy to recover from the wartime devastation.


These decisions appear to show that Caesar was an able administrator: being capable of finding multiple solutions to ongoing problems.

Reforms of the Senate

After finding locations for the soldiers, Caesar turned his attention to the Senate. His first course of action was to increase the number of senators from 600 to 900.


Those already in the Senate had been placed there by Caesar himself and they were generally supportive of him.


However, to fill up the extra number of new senators, Caesar offered positions to people he had forgiven during the wars.


In this way, he not only tried to ensure that he had a loyal base of supporters, but also have people who were morally indebted to him.


However, the increase in the number of senators would mean that there would be fiercer competition in annual elections.


To counter-act this, Caesar also increased the number of political positions available each year.


It appears that these changes were generally well received by the political class of Rome.


This was because it meant that more people had the chance of entering a career in republican politics. 

Debt relief

Caesar had to deal with one of the first crises he encountered: widespread debt in Rome, especially after the outbreak of civil war, when creditors called in loans and real estate values dropped.


In order to do this, he passed a law that allowed people to repay their debts using cheaper, government-issued coins.


He also limited the amount of cash an individual could hold. Caesar's innovative response to the problem, while it did not fully remove the debt, helped alleviate the strain in a way that pleased both creditors and debtors.


The primary aim was to prevent the exploitation of the poor by wealthy moneylenders.

Economic reforms

One of the largest monetary pressures on the city of Rome was the free grain dole. This had been an initiative introduced by Gaius Gracchus almost 100 years earlier which sought to guarantee food to the citizens of Rome.


Every day, each citizen was given enough grain for bread to support themselves.


However, the number of people who had flooded into the city during the turbulent war years, and the decreasing money being made at the same time, meant that a significant amount of money was being spent every day just feeding poor people.


This expense was not sustainable. So, Caesar slashed the grain rations in half, by limiting the number of people who were receiving it to 150,000.


The relocation of many of the people to overseas colonies contributed to this reduction, as well as better record-keeping to truly identify who the legitimate citizens were. 


For those who still depended on the grain dole, Caesar tried to improve the importation and distribution of the grain by building a new harbour at Ostia and digging a new canal from Tarracina.

New building projects

Caesar also oversaw a number of new building projects in Rome. He built a new forum, which was the center of Roman public life.


He also built a number of temples and other public buildings. Since the Senate house had been destroyed when it was used as Clodius's funeral pyre in 52 BC, Caesar had a new one erected.


The suburbs of Rome had become overcrowded and large areas of the city had fallen into disrepair and even slums.


Caesar ordered that entire sections of the city be torn down and rebuilt with new housing.


This provided new accommodation for the poor citizens who were living on the streets.


Combined with the relocation of many of them to the new colonies overseas, the pressure on Rome was significantly reduced.


Also, Caesar rebuilt the streets and roadways in Rome to allow easier access to public places.


He invested money on building new meeting places which could provide a space where the people of Rome could meet to trade their goods.


The most famous of these was called the Forum Julium, which was named after Caesar himself.


The construction of these new public buildings had the additional benefit of requiring a lot of manual labour.


As a result, many of the poor Romans were hired as builders, which helped alleviate unemployment


There was another purpose for constructing major projects throughout Rome: Caesar wanted to improve the city's appearance after comparing Rome to Alexandria, which he considered the finest city of the Mediterranean.

Changes to the calendar

In 46 BC, Julius Caesar revamped the calendar system. By the 1st century BC, the traditional Roman calendar had many problems.


The main cause of these problems was that it was a lunar calendar, rather than a solar one.


This meant that a year was around 360 days long, rather than 365 days. The five-day difference would accumulate over time.


This meant that after ten years, the calendar was 50 days out of sync with the seasons.


This was almost two-months difference. For the people of Rome, this meant that they were celebrated winter festivals before winter had begun.


As time went on, the problem only became greater. By the 40s BC, the traditional Roman calendar was about three months, or an entire season, out of sync.


To resolve the problem, Caesar created a new calendar, called the Julian calendar, based on ideas supplied by astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria.


It was a solar calendar which also required an extra day (a 'leap day') every four years to compensate for the fact that an Earth year is just a little over 365 days long. 


This new innovation allowed the civil life of the Republic to run in a much more regulated manner than it had done before.


In his new calendar, the fifth month of the year, known as Quinctilis, was given a new name: Iulius. In English, we pronounce it as July.

Caesar's growing powers

Following the departure of the Senate following Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon River in January of 49 BC, Caesar's newly appointed replacement Senate had given him the power of dictator for a brief period in order to oversee the election of the consuls for 47 BC.


Caesar had used these powers to elect himself as one of these consuls.


Then, after his victory at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, Caesar had been declared dictator by the Senate for a year. In the years 47 and 46 BC, Caesar was elected to his second third consulships while the war raged on.


Then, in 46 BC, the Senate made him dictator for a period of ten years: something that was unprecedented in Roman history.


Then, finally, in 44 BC, the Senate declared that Caesar was now 'dictator forever' (dictator in perpetuum).

In addition to the supreme authority the dictatorship gave Caesar, he was also given additional powers by the Senate.


For example, he was declared sacrosanct, just like the Plebeian Tribunes, which made his body a holy object.


Also, on special religious occasions, was permitted to wear a band of laurel leaves on his head, which resembled a victory crown.


The Senate also announced that they were setting up a temple dedicated to the personification of his mercy (clementia), and recruited priests to staff it, which were called the Julian Luperci.


Finally, Caesar was allowed to make his own coins bearing his face. In the Roman mind, having a face on a coin was the equivalent of declaring Caesar to be either a king or a god.

By 44 BC, Julius Caesar possessed more power, influence, and honours than any other Roman had held since the time of the seven mythical kings of Rome almost four hundred years before.


But since the expulsion of the last king of Rome, the republic had prided itself on never again allowing one person to hold monarchical power.


Caesar's unlimited power became a problem to many of his fellow Romans. There really was no clear difference between the absolute and unprecedented powers that Caesar possessed and a king.


The only difference remained was that Caesar didn't use the term king (rex). In fact, when someone asked Caesar if he intended to become king, he was meant to have replied with, "I am not king, but Caesar".

Claims of kingship

The list of honours and powers that Caesar held in the last year of his life were technically offered to him by the Senate.


However, it is not clear how many of them were given freely by the Senate or how many were subtly demanded by Caesar himself.


If they were given freely, it might have been a way to thank Caesar for his mercy and generosity.


However, if Caesar had manipulated the Senate to give upon request, it may be evidence that he was genuinely seeking the powers and authority of a king.


We may never know which of the two options really happened, as the surviving sources offer conflicting information about how the events occurred.


Regardless, by 44 BC, many senators were becoming critical of Caesar's extended time as dictator, and they feared that he intended to be made king.


This would have put an end to the Roman Republic and made Caesar an autocrat. These worries were realized when Caesar was named 'dictator for life' in February 44 BC.


This caused a great uproar among the senators, who felt that their power was being usurped.

The plot against Caesar

As the year of 44 BC began, many members of the Senate were secretly critical of Caesar's actions as dictator.


They feared that Caesar was on the way to genuinely becoming a king. They met together and convinced each other that if they allowed this to occur, it would bring an end to the Roman republic.


Their concerns seemed to be confirmed when, in early 44 BC, Caesar was named "dictator for life". There appeared to be little difference between this announcement and the title of 'king'.


This was followed by Caesar's preparations for his next military campaign: this time to the far east, against the Parthian Empire. 


The senators saw that if they let Caesar out of their sight, at the head of another army, that he would return from the East one day and officially become king. 


So, 60 senators decided that it was the time to act and attempt to kill Caesar. Among these men were former Pompeiians who had accepted Caesar’s pardon after the Battle of Pharsalus.


The leader of the assassins was Gaius Cassius Longinus, and a young Marcus Junius Brutus.


Brutus was the descendent of the ancient Lucius Brutus who had helped expel the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, in 509 BC. 

Assassination of Julius Caesar

The conspirators decided to act at one of the final meetings that Caesar had called before he departed for his Parthian campaign.


The meeting, to be held on the Ides of March (15th March) 44 BC, was believed to be their best chance of successfully ambushing him.


The meeting was to be held at the theatre of Pompey. When Caesar arrived, the senators approached him, pretending to greet him.


However, they revealed hidden daggers and stabbed Caesar over twenty times. Julius Caesar died at age 56, finally collapsing to the floor at the base of a statue of Pompey.


The killing of Caesar was a chaotic and messy affair. In the confusion, Gaius Cassius Longinus accidentally stabbed Brutus.


Other members of the conspiracy suffered similar wounds from each other. As the killers ran into the streets, they thought they would be greeted with cheers from the citizens of Rome.


However, they were met with confusion and concern.


Many of the people in the city appeared to have genuinely liked what Caesar had achieved and were nervous about the implications of the killing.


Many of the people in the crowded streets rushed to the safety of their homes, afraid of potential reprisal killings.


The conspirators themselves seemed to have been at a loss about what they should do now, and also returned to their homes.

Forum of Pompey
© History Skills


Julius Caesar's time as dictator of Rome was a period of great reform for the city of Rome. Caesar lowered taxes, improved public services, and created jobs for the unemployed.


He also oversaw a number of new building projects in Rome, including a new forum and a number of temples and other public buildings. 


However, his time as dictator was also marked by controversy, as many senators felt that Caesar was becoming too powerful, and they sought to limit his power.


This ultimately led to his assassination in 44 BC. After Julius Caesar's death, Rome descended into another civil war.


Caesar's legacy in Rome continued even after his death, with the stipulation in his will that his home, surrounding gardens, and art gallery be opened to the public.


He also gave money to Romans, gifting 300,000 sesterces to each and every Roman citizen.


The assassination of Julius Caesar had far-reaching consequences for Rome and its empire.


It ushered in a period of instability and turmoil that would last for years. It also put an end to the Roman Republic and paved the way for the Roman Empire.

Further reading