You are here

Interpreting the Omens for Caesar's Assassination

Richard Westall

There survives more abundant and detailed documentation for the assassination of Julius Caesar than for any other event in the history of the Graeco-Roman world.  This particular moment in history resonated for contemporaries in a manner akin to that of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Typically scholars are interested in a political reading and in reconstructing the course of action that resulted in the fatal moment.  In this paper, by contrast, I wish to explore the anthropological implications of the little recognised fact that nearly twenty omens are reported in connection with the assassination.  Close and sustained examination of the evidence reveals not only that most of the omens reported in this instance were fabrications ex eventu, but also that they constitute evidence for a fundamental aspect of the Roman mindset, whereby politicians’ actions were normally modified in accordance with religious sensibilities.  Whatever the private belief of an individual, it was the public expectation of the aggregate as regards religion that determined the overall course of Roman politics.

To date no one has compiled a list, much less written an analysis, of all the signs supposedly linked to Caesar’s assassination, because ancient and modern religious sensibilities are quite different.  Therefore, there exists the misconception that Suetonius (Iul. 81) offers a relatively complete listing of the omens that attended Caesar’s assassination (Weinstock 1971, 342-343).  The list of omens provided by Suetonius is far from complete, as he notes merely a third of those reported overall by the ancient sources, and merely adding those reported by Plutarch (Caes. 63; Pelling 2011, 476) is only of limited help.  If we are to avoid the temptation to draw upon the omens primarily for dramatic colour (Gelzer 19606, 301-302; Canfora 1999, 360-361; Goldsworthy 2007, 616-617; Woolf 2007, 46-48; Billows 2009, 250-251; Strauss 2015, 108-109, 122-123), then a complete list is necessary.  In creating such a list, I prepare the basis for an anthropological interpretation that is not shackled to the literary devices of an individual author, whether Suetonius or Plutarch or another.

The extraordinarily large number of omens reported in connection with Caesar’s death betrays an ancient Graeco-Roman mentalité altogether different from the secular view of history that currently prevails in Post-Modern society.  This proliferation, as we have been taught by anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, is evidence for the communication of something that society deems essential to its own self-conception, and it may be compared with phenomena such as the miracles that have manifested themselves and thereby allowed for the rapid canonization of John Paul II.  Whether accurately reported or not, in the aggregate these omens speak for a religious sensibility according to which the divine presence is imminent (cf. Suet. Iul. 84.3) and divinity is normally in communication with humanity (cf. Matth. 27.46; Marc. 15.34).

Consequently, I argue that a distinction must be observed between individual and community, with implications for Graeco-Roman behaviour in the aggregate.  As modern biographers have observed, it is extremely doubtful whether Caesar took omens seriously (Gelzer 19606, 303).  Indeed, the few persons of whom the historian may speak as individuals all seem to be characterised by disbelief (cf. Denyer 1985; Beard 1986; Schofield 1986).  However, Caesar was pontifex maximus, and actions such as Caesar’s celebrating the Latin festival in December 49 point to the individual’s meticulous observance of communal norms.  The proliferation of omens regarding the assassination of Caesar is therefore, regardless of their historical veracity, to be taken as crucial evidence for how the world worked according to Graeco-Roman notions.  This was something intuited by Shakespeare, who, with a dramatist’s liberty, invents some omens that could have been part of the ancient historiographical tradition.  What is of most interest to the modern historian, however, is the fact that this mentalité can be seen to have informed corporate behaviour, so that even the exceptional individual fell into line and was assimilated to society at large.

Session/Panel Title:

The Ides of March: New Perspectives

Session/Paper Number

5.2

Share This Page

© 2019, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy