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Julius Caesar’s Forgotten Assassin

March 15, 2018 in History

By Barry Strauss

Brutus and other conspirators after killing Julius Caesar. (Credit: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

On March 15, 44 B.C. a group of Roman senators murdered Julius Caesar as he sat on the podium at a senate meeting. The dictator fell bleeding to his death from 23 stab wounds before the horrified eyes of the rest of the house. It was a little after noon on the Ides of March, as the Romans called the mid-day of the month. The spectators didn’t know it yet but they were witnessing the last hours of the Roman Republic. But who was to blame?

As readers of Shakespeare know, a dying Caesar turned to one of the assassins and condemned him with his last breath. It was Caesar’s friend, Marcus Junius Brutus.

“Et tu, Brute?” – “You too, Brutus?” is what Shakespeare has Caesar say in the Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Except, Caesar never said these words. And Brutus was neither his closest friend nor his biggest betrayer, not by a long shot.

The worst traitor was another man: Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. Decimus was a distant cousin of Marcus Brutus. Because Shakespeare all but leaves him out of the story, Decimus is the forgotten assassin. In fact, he was essential.

Shakespeare puts two men in charge of the plot to kill Caesar, Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus (he of the famous “lean and hungry look”). Shakespeare mentions Decimus but misspells his name as Decius and downplays his role. But often-overlooked ancient sources make clear that Decimus was a leader of the conspiracy.

Brutus and other conspirators after killing Julius Caesar. (Credit: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

Decimus was closer to Caesar than either Brutus or Cassius was. In fact, they opposed Caesar during his bloody rise to power in a civil war. Only when he started winning the war did they defect to his cause. Caesar pardoned Brutus and Cassius and rewarded them with political office but he didn’t trust them. Decimus was different. He always fought for Caesar, never against him, and so he held a place in Caesar’s inner circle.

Decimus belonged to the Roman nobility, the narrow elite that ruled both Rome and an empire of tens of millions of people. His grandfather extended Rome’s rule to the Atlantic, in Spain. But Decimus’s father had a mediocre career and his mother dabbled in revolution. Then Caesar came along and offered Decimus the chance to restore his house’s name.

Decimus was a …read more


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