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The Assassination Of Caesar
by [?]

The assassination of Caesar, we find characterized in one of his latter works (Farbenlehre, Theil 2, p. 126) by Goethe, as ‘die abgeschmackteste That die jemals begangen worden‘–the most outrageously absurd act that ever was committed. Goethe is right, and more than right. For not only was it an atrocity so absolutely without a purpose as never to have been examined by one single conspirator with a view to its probable tendencies–in that sense therefore it was absurd as pointing to no result–but also in its immediate arrangements and precautions it had been framed so negligently, with a carelessness so total as to the natural rebounds and reflex effects of such a tragic act, that the conspirators had neither organized any resources for improving their act, nor for securing their own persons from the first blind motions of panic, nor even for establishing a common rendezvous. When they had executed their valiant exploit, the very possibility of which from the first step to the last they owed to the sublime magnanimity of their victim–well knowing his own continual danger, but refusing to evade it by any arts of tyranny or distrust–when they had gone through their little scenic mummery of swaggering with their daggers–cutting ‘5,’ ‘6’ and ‘St. George,’ and ‘giving point’–they had come to the end of the play. Exeunt omnes: vos plaudite. Not a step further had they projected. And, staring wildly upon each other, they began to mutter, ‘Well, what are you up to next?’ We believe that no act so thoroughly womanish, that is, moving under a blind impulse without a thought of consequences, without a concerted succession of steps, and no arriere pensee as to its final improvement, ever yet had a place or rating in the books of Conspiracy, far less was attended (as by accident this was) with an equipage of earth-shattering changes. Even the poor deluded followers of the Old Mountain Assassin, though drugged with bewildering potions, such men as Sir Walter Scott describes in the person of that little wily fanatic gambolling before the tent of Richard Coeur-de-lion, had always settled which way they would run when the work was finished. And how peculiarly this reach of foresight was required for these anti-Julian conspirators–will appear from one fact. Is the reader aware, were these boyish men aware, that–besides, what we all know from Shakespeare, a mob won to Caesar’s side by his very last codicils of his will; besides a crowd of public magistrates and dependents charged upon the provinces, etc., for two years deep by Caesar’s act, though in requital of no services or attachment to himself; besides a distinct Caesarian party; finally, besides Antony, the express representative and assignee of Caesar, armed at this moment with the powers of Consul–there was over and above a great military officer of Caesar’s (Lentulus), then by accident in Rome, holding a most potent government through the mere favour of Caesar, and pledged therefore by an instant interest of self-promotion, backed by a large number of Julian troops at that instant billeted on a suburb of Rome–veterans, and fierce fellows that would have cut their own fathers’ throats ‘as soon as say dumpling’ (see Lucan’s account of them in Caesar’s harangue before Pharsalia)? Every man of sense would have predicted ruin to the conspirators. ‘You’ll tickle it for your concupy‘ (Thersites in ‘Troil and Cress.’) would have been the word of every rational creature to these wretches when trembling from their tremulous act, and reeking from their bloody ingratitude. For most remarkable it is that not one conspirator but was personally indebted to Caesar for eminent favours; and many among them had even received that life from their victim which they employed in filching away his. Yet after that feature of the case, so notorious as it soon became, historians and biographers are all ready to notice of the centurion who amputated Cicero’s head that, he had once been defended by Cicero. What if he had, which is more than we know–must that operate as a perpetual retaining fee on Cicero’s behalf? Put the case that we found ourselves armed with a commission (no matter whence emanating) for abscinding the head of Mr. Adolphus who now pleads with so much lustre at the general jail delivery of London and Middlesex, or the head of Mr. Serjeant Wild, must it bar our claim that once Mr. Adolphus had defended us on a charge of sheep-stealing, or that the Serjeant had gone down ‘special’ in our cause to York? Very well, but doubtless they had their fees. ‘Oh, but Cicero could not receive fees by law.’ Certainly not by law; but by custom many did receive them at dusk through some postern gate in the shape of a huge cheese, or a guinea-pig. And, if the ‘special retainer’ from Popilius Laenas is somewhat of the doubtfullest, so is the ‘pleading’ on the part of Cicero.

However, it is not impossible but some will see in this desperate game of hazard a sort of courage on the part of the conspirators which may redeem their knavery. But the courage of desperation is seldom genuine, and least of all where the desperation itself was uncalled for. Yet even this sort of merit the conspirators wanted. The most urgent part of the danger was that which in all probability they had not heard of, viz., the casual presence at Rome of Julian soldiers. Pursuing no inquiries at all, they would hear not; practising no caution, they would keep no secret. The plot had often been betrayed, we will swear: but Caesar and Caesar’s friends would look upon all such stories as the mere expressions of a permanent case, so much inevitable exposure on their part–so much possibility of advantage redounding to the other side. And out of these naked possibilities, as some temptation would continually arise to use them profitably, much more would arise to use them as delightful offsets to the sense of security and power.

[Mommsen is more at one with De Quincey here than Merivale, who, at p. 478, vol. ii., writes: ‘We learn with pleasure that the conspirators did not venture even to sound Cicero’; but at vol. iii., p. 9, he has these significant words: ‘Cicero, himself, we must believe, was not ashamed to lament the scruples which had denied him initiation into the plot.’ Forsyth writes of Cicero’s views: ‘He was more than ever convinced of the want of foresight shown by the conspirators. Their deed, he said, was the deed of men, their counsels were the counsels of children,’ ‘Life of Cicero,’ 3rd edition, pp. 435-6.–ED.]