Beware the Ides of March: The Petty Criminal Charges That Killed Julius Caesar

Okay, obviously “stabbing a dude 23 times” is the blaring klaxon in this issue spotter, but there are a few other legal scrapes that led up to Caesar’s assassination. It wasn’t all coups and Senatorial intrigue; the Roman legal regime itself placed Caesar on a crash course with murder.

And a wild legal regime it was. Pretty much everything that led up to Caesar’s assassination involved Roman lawyers pulling shady technicalities on each other. The whole thing reads like an episode of Dallas with surprise agreements and quirky legal interpretations foiling the plots of influential people scheming against each other.

Cross the Rubicon after the jump….

Caesar’s legal troubles begin with his election to the role of consul for the year 59 BC. The consulship was the highest executive office in Rome and the consuls functioned as the head of government. I employ the plural there because the consulship was held by two men simultaneously, alternating control on a monthly basis. This sounds completely screwy, but makes total sense as long as the Romans never elected two consuls with wildly divergent philosophies.

So the Romans elected two consuls with wildly divergent philosophies: Caesar, the radical “man of the people,” who grew up for what passed as middle class and embraced the lefty politics of the Gracchi Brothers and his uncle Gaius Marius, and the conservative Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus. Imagine Elizabeth Warren and Paul Ryan serving as co-President and swapping power every month.

Caesar used one of his “months-o-power” to push for a land reform bill. After Romans went about doing their customary “whipping ass in some far off land” schtick, all the former soldiers returned to Rome without jobs and created an economic crisis. The slums expanded and the city sank into near lawlessness. Caesar responded to this like the lefty he was and proposed legislation to take state-owned farm land outside the city and just give it to the veterans to farm. He also called for state funds to buy more land for this project. To keep the Senate happy, he left Campagna out of the bill, specifically because the one percenters in the Senate used that land for themselves. Got to keep the gated community properly gated.

What happened next was one of the earliest recorded filibusters. Knowing that the bill would die at the end of the month when the arch-conservative Biblius took over, Cato, the Roman Senator best known for lending his name to a think tank convinced that Rand Paul should be president, decided to foreshadow Senator Paul by launching a non-stop speech for the sole purpose of keeping the bill stalled. Caesar responded by invoking his technical legal authority to “maintain order” in the Senate and arrested Cato for obstructing Senate business. In response, the Senate, knowing they could not “adjourn” but still desperate to kill the legislation, walked out en masse to force an end to Senatorial business.

Biblius took over the next month determined to kill the bill. To prevent Caesar from passing the bill the following month, or taking the legislation through the alternative “peoples’ assemblies” — a sort of back door route, not unlike focusing on state houses instead of Washington — Biblius did some primitive Lexis research and discovered that his consular powers allowed him to establish “holy days,” where public business was banned. And wouldn’t you know it, Biblius declared every remaining day of Caesar’s consulship a “holy day.”

This doesn’t look good…

Caesar went ahead and bribed enough folks to ignore the faux holidays and schedule a vote by the people. Biblius declared it illegal and the assembly dumped feces on his head. That’s not snark, they actually dumped feces on him and went ahead with the vote. And just because the Senate dicked him over, Caesar gave the region of Campagna to the land reform program. You do not want to f**k with Caesar, he holds grudges. This, by the way, would become the event that formed the basis of his future legal troubles. But we’re not there yet.

To guarantee that his reforms would not be undone by the next pair of consuls, Caesar legislated a reform to the oath of office, inserting a clause that the gods would curse anyone who overturned his laws.

But trouble loomed for Caesar, because while consuls were immune from prosecution, the butt-hurt Senators were already gathering evidence to nail Caesar (possibly literally to a cross) once he left office. Caesar sought out a proconsulship, basically a regional governorship, that maintained legal immunity. The Senate was willing to give him one year while they sharpened their knives. Caesar went to the people again and secured a five-year appointment keeping him safe.

After Caesar’s massive military successes while serving as proconsul in Gaul, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome to face prosecution for everything that happened during 59 BC. Caesar noted that his term as proconsul wouldn’t end for a couple more years. The Senate ignored this and announced they would prosecute him for numerous crimes.

Remember that vote Caesar set up on those specious “holy days?” Well, the Senate did, throwing down bribery and “sacrilegious conduct” charges. Caesar said he’d disband his army and return to Rome once he was granted permanent immunity. Failing that, it was go time.

After wiping up the opposition and securing the title of dictator, a defined role in the Roman Republic granting emergency powers to one person for up to one year, Caesar maneuvered to get 10 consecutive one-year terms before saying, “Aw, screw it. Make me ‘dictator in perpetuity.'” This put a stop to any legal prosecution, not that anyone was eager to publicly challenge the guy with the triumphal army occupying the city.

And with that, a group of plotting Senators invited Caesar to the Senate floor for a phony petition and stabbed the dictator on March 15, 44 BC.

The moral of this story for 21st Century audiences is that an advanced legal regime too easily married to political witch hunts sows the seeds of its own demise. But thankfully no one is doing that today.

Huge thanks to History of Rome, the informative podcast that walked me through this analysis.

The History of Rome [Blog]

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