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Real story of Caesar's death a lesson for our time

Two thousand, fifty nine years ago on the Ides of March, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death. With him died the Roman Republic. Why, given the stakes, did Caesar walk unprotected into the Roman Senate that day? Why, knowing how anti-monarchy the Roman people were, did he take upon himself the trappings of kingship, even installing his royal mistress Cleopatra in his villa outside of Rome?

One reason, perhaps, was that Caesar was a risk taker, says Barry Strauss, Cornell’s Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, in his new book, “The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination” (Simon and Schuster). Caesar was getting older, feeling the effects of his struggle with epilepsy perhaps more keenly, and thumbing his nose at potential assassins on March 15 was a chance to prove he hadn’t lost his edge.

Chats in the Stacks
Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics, will give a Chats in the Stacks book talk on “The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination” at Olin Library, Room 107, on Wednesday, March 11, 4:30 pm. Buffalo Street Books will offer books for purchase and signing, and light refreshments will be served. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit booktalks.library.cornell.edu.

Reading Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” was Strauss’ inspiration to delve into what really happened at Caesar’s assassination and discover what, if anything, the great bard had gotten wrong. One source of truth Strauss found were the many letters between Cicero and the conspirators that had survived, “hidden in plain sight.” The letters gave Strauss a deep insight into the characters in the drama and their motivations. As he researched, it became clear that the real story was very different from the one Shakespeare had crafted.

For example, says Strauss, there were three main conspirators, not two. Perhaps because of Shakespeare’s influence, scholars, with rare exception, have largely underestimated Decimus Brutus Albinus and barely looked into his motives. Yet he was as instrumental as Marcus Brutus in the assassination plot.

Shakespeare’s Brutus is a man with an ethical dilemma, torn between his friendship with Caesar and his love of the Republic. “But the real Brutus was not much of a friend to Caesar,” says Strauss. “He did love the Republic, but he also loved himself and his career. He saw that being smothered by Caesar, and that’s one of the things that motivated him.”

Character details like these about Brutus fill the book. Strauss portrays the historical figures as real, live human beings. “They were characters with depth, profundity, complexity and contradiction,” he explains. “What’s more, their motives were different from what we assumed: They were Romans through and through, and their choices reflected the values of Roman society and culture.”

Strauss expects the book to appeal to a wide audience, because while it uncovers important historical facts, “it’s also just a great story, with unexpected twists and turns and unforgettable characters.”

In addition to an intellectual curiosity, Strauss had a personal motivation for writing the book. “I grew up hearing my father’s stories about marching to liberate Rome with the U.S. Army in June 1944,” he explains, “so Rome always had a special meaning for me as a city.”

In the course of researching his book, Strauss spent plenty of time in Rome. “I left no stone unturned,” he says. “I crawled through basements to look at the foundations of ruins. I went to the Vatican Museum and was able to hold the Ides of March coin in my hands. I traveled to France and Turkey and retraced Caesar’s steps in his famous ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ campaign. I got a sense of just what the conquest of Gaul meant to him.”

The same challenges Caesar faced confront leaders today, says Strauss, such as bringing change to a society in transition and of being a reformer without being a tyrant. “Caesar’s story provides an informative, if chilling lesson for modern times,” he concludes.

Linda B. Glaser is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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