Murder on the Senate Floor
Like a band playing its biggest hit first, we start with the reason you probably picked this book up. We start with that colossus bestriding the narrow world, the big hitter of Roman murders, a big hitter in all-time murders, burnt into our consciousness by two millennia of thinking about him: Gaius Julius Caesar. The problem with Caesar's murder is that everyone thinks they already know it. They have seen Shakespeare's tragedy in some community theatre or BBC adaptation or that film version with Marlon Brando as Antony, or they've watched a box set of HBO's Rome or read a Robert Harris or Conn Iggulden novel about it. There's no shortage of fiction about Caesar bleeding out on the Senate floor. Everyone in the West knows the meaning of the Ides of March even if they don't actually know when the Ides are. Everyone has an image of what they think forty men stabbing Caesar looks like and all of them come with Shakespeare's 'et tu, Brute?'
There are a few reasons why we know so much about Julius Caesar's murder. The first is that the Romans themselves wrote about it a lot, and left us pleasingly detailed descriptions of the Ides of March and its aftermath. The second is that, in hindsight, as Caesar died, he took the Republic with him, which they made quite a big deal about. And, of course, the story is fabulously dramatic. The arrogant general, who has announced himself dictator for life, ignores the soothsayers and his wife's dreams and weeping and walks to his own death; he dies on the Senate floor at the feet of a statue of his greatest rival; his final conscious realisation is the dawning horror and humiliation that his own closest friend has killed him and that no one will come to help; his final act is to cover himself, and his dignity, with his toga, always the showman to the last. All this means that Julius Caesar is more myth than man; he is a story that is told. His murder is not remembered as a bloody human act conducted by forty frightened dudes in ungainly dress who were so confused that they only got twenty-three stab wounds in (an almost fifty percent fail rate if you think about it). But Julius really was a man who lived and breathed and blinked and then one day felt a punch in his side that was suddenly cold and wet and very painful. And his murder was not a standalone incident. It was one of a series of astonishing political murders in the late Roman Republic that, together, show us how very odd political murder was in the Roman world at this time, and how it changed. So I'm going to confess that I teased you a little. I've played the opening chords of a familiar song. But now I am going to take you back almost a century before JC breathed his last and introduce you to Tiberius Gracchus, whose murder was even more of a horror show than this one.
Tiberius Gracchus was a genuinely extraordinary man, mostly because of his death. His death marked the demise of the Roman Republic as much as Caesar's, because it was his death which started almost a hundred years of open warfare in Rome. And I don't mean that metaphorically. I mean that senators took to stabbing the hell out of each other with disturbing frequency for almost a century—very frequently in the centre of the city. It was a knife crime epidemic among the very richest and most powerful in the Roman Empire. It theoretically ended when Caesar fell, or perhaps when Octavian got the better of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. But really, senators never stopped trying to kill each other; they just got sneakier. Before we get there, though, we need to see how murder became so central to Roman politics, and I'm sorry but it involves a lot of politics and chat about land reform policies and it's awful. We can get through this together; I believe in us.
From the day the Romans drove their king out of Italy (notably not killing him) and constructed their beautiful Republic of shared power, they were at war with one another. It began with patricians versus plebeians, but it swiftly became the landed versus the unlanded, and eventually the populares versus the optimates. The populares were populist politicians who courted the people's vote with handouts, while the optimates were high-born patricians and wannabes who literally called themselves the 'best men' and believed that the people should be kept as far away from government as possible. Italian land was desired by everyone because ancient wealth was based entirely on the ownership of land. Land equalled money in the same way that property in London and Dublin and New York equals money. So, the poor wanted half an acre to call their own, rather than having to rent a single room with a shower in the kitchen, while the rich wanted places to grow massive vineyards and frolic without having to look at the poor. As Rome expanded its power and influence into Italy throughout the fifth century BCE, the poor saw each victory as an opportunity for them to claim some land of their own—after all, they were fighting in the armies that were conquering these Italian neighbours. Unfortunately for them, they had no power and the patricians just gave themselves all the land. Or, even more cruelly, pretended to set aside land for 'public use', and then rented it to themselves for ludicrously low rents, leaving the landless Romans still landless and adding to their ranks those poor Italians who had suddenly been conquered by these fighty bastards from Rome. They kept that land and cultivated it and passed it around the family and bought and sold it.
As generations passed, this 'public' land became the patricians' inheritance given to them by their grandparents and the patrimony they'd leave their children. It was their dowry and their daughters' dowries, and the fruits of their hard labours, and they were absolutely not giving it up.