Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Why did Caesar have to die—and why did his death solve nothing? The plot was confused, the execution bungled, and within hours different versions of the event were circulating. It was the end of republican Rome and the beginning of the Roman Empire, and yet everything about it remains somewhat mysterious. The ripples and aftershocks which the assassination of C. Julius Caesar sent through Western history is engaging and thought-provoking and will appeal to both the general and the undergraduate reader.
On Tuesday, March 9th at 5PM, UCI presented the annual UC Shakespeare Trial: Et Tu Brute?, where Brutus was on trial for treason and murder. The defense was mounted by Bernadette Meyler ’06 (Stanford Law). Erwin Chemerinsky (Berkeley Law) was the prosecuter, and The Honorable Andrew Guilford presided. We, the virtual audience, served as the jury in this interactive theater event.
The hosts of this proceeding was Eli Simon and Julia Lupton, co-directors of the New Swan Shakespeare Center. The evening began with scenes from the play, performed by actors from New Swan Shakespeare Festival, directed by Beth Lopes. This event was co-sponsored by UC Irvine’s New Swan Shakespeare Center, Illuminations: The Chancellor’s Arts and Culture Initiative, UCI Law, Berkeley Law, and Stanford Law, and the event was free for viewing for the public.
Caesar’s death on the Ides of March 44 BC was from multiple stab wounds inflicted by a band of men that included Brutus and Cassius. The act precipitated further bloodshed, and ultimately the rise of Augustus. The question at the heart of the trial was whether Caesar’s death was necessary. Was it murder, or was it justifiable homicide? Should Brutus be acquitted, or should he be found guilty for his deed? Could those associated with the conspiracy be granted an amnesty? Was Caesar’s murder a betrayal of friendship, or a liberation?
The prosecution began by arguing that Caesar was fearless, erudite, a priest, a soldier, a man of the people – but never a tyrant. Although he seized power unconstitutionally when he crossed the Rubicon, once in power he displayed clemency to many, including Brutus. After the senate named Caesar Dictator in Perpetuity in 44 BC—an event the defense likened to Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933—there was little anyone could do to defy him. He did have his weaknesses —“he generously slept with Brutus’ mother for years to comfort her”—but had he been a tyrant, surely all his acts would have been repealed immediately after his death. In fact, early negotiations focused more on what the so-called liberators would get out of the event.
Brutus was given Crete; Cassius was given Africa. Was theirs not, then, simply an embittered act of self-interest? Perhaps, suggested the prosecution, they wanted little more than to replace one dictator with another, one who would better represent the interests of the aristocracy. In the event, the political situation in Rome took a turn for the worse. Brutus and Cassius escaped only to confront the forces of Octavian and Mark Antony at Philippi, where they were defeated. And, they both committed suicide.
In the matter of Marcus Brutus, herein charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Julius Caesar: The defense clearly established the necessity of "diminished capacity" as a mitigating circumstance in establishing the guilt or innocence of a suspect. Two particular statements made by Brutus seemed to offer a clear perspective on this issue. The first: And so it is. For this time I will leave you: To-morrow, if you please to speak with me, I will come home to you; or, if you will, Come home to me, and I will wait for you. This statement by Brutus appears to show a deliberate desire to reflect on the proposal made by Cassius and the other conspirators.
The second: Our course will seem too bloody, Caius Cassius, to cut the head off and then hack the limbs Like wrath in death and envy afterwards; For Antony is but a limb of Caesar: While planning the killing, Brutus advises restraint and measured response in terms of the breadth of the killings about to take place. Again, this statement discussed over the course of the trial, shows Brutus to be in a clear, deliberate, and sensible state of mind, even in light of the heinous acts under discussion. Based on these statements, and their subsequent discussion in the trial, the jury found the defendant, Marcus Brutus, GUILTY of murder in the first degree.
So Brutus was not justified in killing Caesar because there was no proof that he was acting as a tyrant. Brutus admits himself that Caesar did not do anything wrong—yet. He and his confederates kill Caesar because of what they fear he would do. If Caesar had been a tyrant mistreating his people, then they might have been justified in killing him. As it was, all Brutus had was predictions of future misdeeds based on political disagreements.
Antony offers him the crown three times, for reasons we are not sure of, and each time he refuses it. To Romans there is nothing wrong with being a dictator, which was a temporary rank appointed by the senate, but to be a king was terrible. Caesar specifically said that he did not want to be king.
Again, Brutus himself points out that Caesar has done nothing wrong in the soliloquy he gives before the conspirators meet. In it, he explains why he feels that Caesar should die. It is a preemptive move. Caesar is not powerful now, but will be in the future. Brutus makes all of these justifications, but even he points out that as well as he knows Caesar, he has no reason to kill him yet.
Brutus explains to the people in his speech preceding Antony, after Caesar was killed, that he and his people were liberators. He explains that Caesar was ambitious, and it was for this reason and this reason alone that they killed him.
Unfortunately for Brutus, the people do not see it that way. Swayed by Antony’s moving speech, in which he calls Brutus and his followers hypocrites, the people decide that Brutus and the conspirators were wrong in killing Caesar and condemn them as murderers. For this reason, Brutus and the others must flee before the crowd tears them limb from limb.
So, with no clear-cut villains and heroes, this epic tale of political savagery has an engaging narrative. Gaius Julius Caesar, life dictator of Rome, not quite a king and not yet a god, was murdered on the 15th of March in 44 BC. The killers were a conspiracy of senators that included the richest and most educated Roman politicians of his day. But soon the leaders of the conspiracy were fleeing for their lives, and Rome plunged back into a decade and a half of bloody civil war.
Caesar's death is very much like a fulcrum in the history of political murder. Assassination and autocracy remain indissolubly linked, whether it be Tsar Alexander II or JFK, as they will until monarchs and presidents themselves lose power and significance...and western democracies, like Noble Brutus, plot the murder of Third World dictators as a remedy for terrorism. Beware the Ides of March!
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