The precision killing of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. was a military operation, planned and carried out by battlefield veterans.
The assassins resolved to do the deed in the Senate House, as only senators were allowed inside and where Caesar likely would not be surrounded by his retinue of followers and guards.
Also, the killers used military-issue daggers. The knives, sometimes referred to as “mercy” tools, were handy on the battlefield for making sure enemy soldiers indeed were dead. Roman warriors also preferred using them to save wear and tear on their swords, “which were more expensive and so harder to replace,” writes Barry Strauss, the author of “The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination.”
Strauss, a Cornell University classics and history professor, and author of books on ancient combat like the Trojan War, brings a sometimes stomach-churning level of detail often missing from the version of events presented by William Shakespeare in his early 17th century play. Caesar likely suffered 23 stabbing wounds, Strauss writes.
“I bring a real sense of how the conspirators were soldiers and generals,” Strauss said recently.
Strauss also investigates the motives of Decimus, a Roman army officer largely ignored by Shakespeare.
“Decimus wanted to become Caesar’s successor, but I think he felt thwarted in his career and felt that Caesar was going to limit his opportunities,” Strauss said.
The murder, committed more than 2,000 years ago, remains contemporary, Strauss added.
“It is an irresistible story of the arrogance and also the vulnerability of power,” he said. “If a man as powerful as Caesar is vulnerable, then there is not one of us who is not.”
The assassination, he said, also represents a cautionary tale regarding how difficult it can prove for any society to cope with change.
Caesar, whom Strauss called a “man of vision,” knew that the Roman republic included tens of millions of people within its influence. The dictators had been pondering ways to “extend citizenship to the provincials,” Strauss said. To not do so, he added, “was a waste of human potential and also a recipe for disaster. That was why the old guard found Caesar threatening.
“They realized that he was going to interfere with their power.”
Strauss speaks at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For more information, go to KCLibrary.org.