“The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar” by Peter Stothard. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. 274 pages, $27.95 (hardback).
The assassination of Julius Caesar is among the most well-known political murders in history, particularly from Shakespeare’s play focusing on the plot led by Brutus and Cassius, who, along with Judas received eternal damnation for their act in Dante’s Inferno. In “The Last Assassin” author Peter Stothard focuses on the hunting-down of the assassins over the following 14 years. Sir Peter Stothard is the former editor of London’s Times and current editor of the Times Literary Supplement and the author of books on Cleopatra and Spartacus, as well as memoirs focused on Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
The Prologue opens with Cassius Parmensis, a little-known poet and playwright living in Athens in 30 B.C. after many years sailing on the seas avoiding capture and still keeping track of how many of his fellow assassins had been tracked down and killed. The name Parmensis indicated that this Cassius came from Parma in Emiglia-Romagna in northern Italy, a town known today for its Parmesan cheese and prosciutto ham. Cassius Parmensis could not remember if his knife struck Caesar or one of his fellow killers. Amidst all of the confusion, what most eyewitnesses remembered “was the blood on so much fine linen, the steams of red on white.” Parmensis was related to the more famous Cassius and both men were Epicureans. The philosopher Epicurus believed in pursuing pleasures of the mind and avoiding pain and that the soul died with the body so there was no reason to fear death.
In early 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was at the height of his power after crossing the Rubicon with his troops and defeating his challenger (and former son-in-law Pompey) in the battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C. At the Lupercalia in February, Mark Antony offered Caesar a golden crown, which the dictator declined three times. Caesar’s imminent departure for Parthia to avenge the defeat of Crassus suggested to many Romans that Caesar would return victorious and assume the kingship. Stothard says: Assassination was an awesome act. But so too was allowing the battered republic to die. An assassination of one man might lead to a civil war. Thousands of other men might die. But failure to assassinate might bring more death or more lives that were little different from death. One choice had to be the greater evil. Textbooks would help decide.”
The murder on the Ides of March removed the dictator, but confusion and uncertainty abounded concerning the next step. Lepidus occupied the city with the troops he had been drilling to prepare to leave for Parthia and the conspirators sought refuge on the Capitoline protected by a group of gladiators. When Caesar’s will gave gifts to many Romans, public attitudes toward the assassination began to change and most assassins soon left the city and organized military opposition. Caesar’s adoption of his great nephew Octavian as his son and heir introduced another force into the situation. Despite his youth, Octavian was now Caesar and he automatically received allegiance from many of the dictator’s veterans. What had begun with noble goals soon degenerated into a power struggle where both sides exploited the resources wherever their armies went and prepared for still another massive fight to destroy each other. In setting the stage for the battles of Philippi between the forces of the Caesarians and those supporting Brutus and Cassius, Stothard says: “The two sides were massed in contradictions. There were legions with Cassius that had previously fought with Caesar; and there were those who had fought against him. There were horsemen with the triumvirs who had been ruthlessly subjected by Caesar, in Gaul, in Spain, and on the Rhine.”
The cover image of “The Last Assassin” is very effective and obviously eye-catching in red. The subtitle of the book is much more indicative of the main focus of this study than is the main title. Cassius Parmensis is little-recognized in Roman history and information about him is very scanty. Stothard does bring him in throughout the period covered, but mostly to speculate on where he may have been hiding out and what he may have been doing. The author has also omitted several details that are interesting or also relevant. One likely apocryphal story states that the night before the Ides Caesar at dinner commented that the Persian king Cyrus during his lingering illness had even arranged for his own funeral and raised the question of what kind of death his fellow diners preferred. Caesar himself said he preferred a sudden and unexpected one. In February, silver coins not only included Caesar’s portrait on the obverse, where Roman gods were normally shown, but also an inscription confirming that Caesar was dictator for life. The author says that conspirators were divided over whether to kill Mark Antony as well as Caesar, with Brutus insisting that only one man be targeted, but Dio Cassius says that they also considered killing Lepidus. Stothard mentions that Cassius was married to Brutus’ sister, but fails to point out that Lepidus was married to another of Brutus’ sisters and this likely explains why these two were paired in post-assassination discussion. The author says that when Mark Antony, Lepidus and Octavian formed the Second Triumvirate late in 43 B.C., none of the three wanted the consulship for themselves. This is a strange statement in light of the fact that Lepidus became consul for the second time just months later and that he was a natural choice to rule in Rome because he was the chief priest or pontifex maximus. While blaming Lepidus for naming his brother Paullus to be on the list of proscribed names to be killed, the author ignores Dio’s testimony that Lepidus also facilitated Paullus’ escape to Miletus, suggesting that the inclusion of relatives for proscription was merely symbolic. In addition, Stothard says that in 36 B.C. the troops sent from the Africa province numbered 14 legions, when Velleius and Appian both say there were 12 legions.
The author includes an index, a short bibliography, a summary of primary sources, a few maps and a list of illustrations introducing each chapter. Some of the images are a little too dark or hazy to enjoy fully and Stothard omits Suetonius’ biographies of Caesar and Augustus and Plutarch’s lives of Brutus and Mark Antony from his discussion of sources. Academic readers will likely wish that more details had been documented rather than just providing a few primary sources for each chapter, but the general readers are not likely to be concerned about that. The book is well written and interesting for both scholars and general readers.
“The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar” provides an unusual approach to a confusing period in Roman history. Stothard’s focus on tracking individual assassins as they sought refuge in the east or on the seas holds the reader’s interest and he also offers colorful details about the flora and fauna of the places where assassins spent time until the search finally ended soon after Octavian’s final victory at Actium in 31 B.C. I recommend it for anyone interested in classical history.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.