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(The ROMAN REPUBLIC – continued)

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The ROMAN REPUBLIC'S CIVIL WARS and FALL (5 of 8)

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Caesar's Reforms and Assassination

Caesar outlined a program for the reorganization of the courts, and for the sake of order he increased the penalties for crimes committed by the rich and the poor. He renewed old laws long ignored against extravagance. He upheld property rights and took steps toward the restoration of Rome's system of finances and the creation of economic stability. To prevent the kind of profiteering that had taken place under Sulla and to ease the burden of debt, he put restrictions on lending and borrowing. He gave Romans temporary relief from rents and began a program of improving housing for the poor. He began welfare reform, reducing the number of those on the dole in Rome from 320,000 to 150,000 (the latter roughly fifteen percent of Rome's population). He ruled that to go onto welfare in Rome one had to wait for someone else to leave the program – a move designed to discourage people from coming to Rome to take advantage of welfare there. And the roughly 80,000 he disqualified from welfare he sent to new, overseas colonies.

Caesar laid plans for economic improvements across the empire. Marshes south of Rome were drained, business districts of various cities were improved, and new theaters and temples were built. He proposed construction projects for improving trade by sea and for improving harbors. He laid plans for a new canal for the city of Corinth. Caesar began enlisting men of talent into public service, and he saw the need for improvement in the organization of municipal governments throughout Italy. He started standardizing and streamlining cumbersome local governmental operations. He sought to bind citizens in the provinces closer to Rome by doing away with laws that made distinctions between them and the citizens of Rome. He gave Roman citizenship to Gauls who had fought alongside him when he was governor there. He created better government in territories governed by Rome, including Judea. He gave Jews there a greater autonomy, reduced their taxes, exempted them from having to serve in Rome's armies, and he allowed them freedom again to worship their god Yahweh.

Caesar placed a learned man in charge of Rome's library, and he laid plans for an increase in government involvement in Rome's public education. He gave Roman citizenship to Greek teachers in hope of encouraging them to come to Rome. Caesar also had the calendar revised. The old calendar was a hodgepodge of contributions by various priests. Caesar was an Epicurean and closer to its materialism than he was to traditional religion. He wanted a calendar that was organized around considerations not colored by religion. He drew from the expertise of astronomers and mathematicians, the result being the basic calendar of today.

Some among Rome's privileged saw Caesar as responsible for an end to the republic, and rather than exhibiting patience or attempting argument and compromise, they opted for a return to the politics of violence: assassination. Like most assassins they had little grasp of what would follow their deed.

Some of the conspirators were former supporters of Caesar who hoped to advance their careers. Some were from families as distinguished as Caesar's who resented his condescending air of superiority. Toward them and others, Caesar had been acting like a parent: chiding, urging them to get along, caring about them all and seldom asking for their opinions.

Marcus Junius Brutus

Marcus Junius Brutus, of "Et tu Brutus?" fame. Another naive assassin. His method failed to achieve his purposes.

The conspiracy to assassinate Caesar was led by a former first commander under Pompey, Gaius Cassius, whom Caesar had pardoned and made a legate. Another conspirator, Marcus Brutus, was a senator and a former follower of Pompey whom Caesar had pardoned. He was also a Stoic – a monotheistic philosophy about endurance, patience and god's will – and he had a reputation as an idealist. When he joined the conspiracy his prestige inspired twelve other senators to join. Another Stoic and senator, the great, voluble Cicero, was aware of the plot to murder Caesar. He continued to pretend friendship with Caesar while seeing the conspiracy as patriotism that would rid Rome of despotism.

Caesar was preparing to go east to do battle against the Parthians, who were creating trouble for Rome on the border if its empire, and those plotting Caesar's assassination wanted to strike before he left. Caesar had heard rumors of a plot, but he had not surrounded himself with spies, and he knew nothing of whom the plotters were or when they might strike.

On the morning of March 15, 44 BCE, five years after having crossed the Rubicon, Caesar went to a meeting at the Forum to ratify his using the title of king when outside Italy – a title for dealing with foreign peoples who understood authority mainly by that name. As he often did, he went without his bodyguards, but he was accompanied by a rugged companion: one of his former generals and Rome's other consul, Marcus Antonius, a name to be anglicized to Mark Antony.

Brutus believed that killing Antony would be an injustice; so another conspirator detained Antony in conversation as Caesar made his way to his seat. It appeared that people were approaching Caesar, as usual, to exchange words and ask for favors. Alongside a statue of Pompey, someone pulled at Caesar's cloak. Someone else stabbed him from behind in the neck. Caesar turned and wrestled with the assailant. As many as sixty others joined in the attack, wounding one another in the fray. Nearby senators looked on, some of them stunned. Caesar saw Brutus with his knife raised and asked him: "You too my son?" Brutus plunged his knife into Caesar and shouted congratulations to the Senate's leader, Cicero. Stabbed twenty-three times, Caesar fell to the floor and died.

News of Caesar's assassination spread fast in Rome and struck terror into Caesar's close associates, who believed that they too might be targeted for death. With some others, the commander of Caesar's military guard, Lepidus, had a failure of nerve and did not mobilize his troops against the assassins. Two days after the assassination, Mark Antony, seeing no reign of terror, emerged in public with a personal guard that he had organized. Still afraid, he was ready and willing to compromise with the Senate, and he made his now famous speech about burying rather than praising Caesar – his ability as a speaker to be exaggerated by Shakespeare. As the surviving consul he accepted power and spoke favorably of the powers of the Senate.

The Senate was glad to be rid of Caesar but wished to avoid civil war, and in a show of conciliation it voted for a public funeral for Caesar. The funeral was spectacular, with frenzied people packing surrounding streets. Into the funeral pyre women threw their jewelry, some threw their robes, and soldiers their weapons. Foreigners in the crowd, including Jews, joined the mourning. Some believed that Caesar's death was the signal of the end of the world. And some believed that Caesar's assassins should be punished. From the crowd of mourners came the retaliation that had failed to come from Caesar's top lieutenants. Packs of outraged people rushed to the vacated homes of those rumored to be the assassins.

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