The acquisition of empire ultimately spelled doom for the Roman Republic. After destroying Carthage, conquering Macedonia and thrashing the Seleucids the Roman Republic ruled the Mediterranean world. The remaining states that retained their independence lay supine before Roman might. One king even willed his kingdom to the Romans on his death. However, the acquisition of empire weakened the civic bond on the Republic. Armies in the field were more loyal to the general who earned them their loot than the cranky patricians in the Senate. As time went by Generals were unwilling to submit to Senatorial authority and the machinations of their enemies. The last decades of the Republic were a grim time where politicians vied for power playing off the Senate, army and the Roman mob against each other.
At the beginning of 44 B.C. one man reigned supreme. Having destroyed his great rival Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus, humbled the Kingdom of Egypt and mopped up the Pompeian remnants in North Africa Julius Caesar showed clemency to the survivors. The Senate proclaimed him dictator for life and allowed his face to appear on the coinage (a first for Rome). Caesar was king in all but name, but technical power still resided with the Senate. Rumors abounded that Caesar meant to declare himself king.
As a result a group of Senators calling themselves Liberators conspired to eliminate Julius Caesar. Rumors of the conspiracy started to circulate and Caesar’s impending departure for war with Parthia accelerated the timeline. On the Ides of March, the assassinate Caesar as he arrived at the Senate, then meeting at the Theater of Pompey. Caesar was stabbed 23 times his last words allegedly being the Greek phrase “καὶ σύ, τέκνον;” (transliterated as “Kai su, teknon?“: “You too, my son?” in English).
When the conspirators marched to the Capitol proclaiming their deed and telling the Roman people of their freedom, they were met with silence. Caesar had been popular with the mob, and they were outraged that a group of aristocrats killed Caesar. The assassins had to flee the city as the Caesarians rallied around Mark Antony and (to his chagrin) Caesar’s 18 year old great nephew Octavian – who was proclaimed his primary heir in his will.
Ironically the assassins accelerated the fall of the Republic. Power in Rome fell to the Second Triumvirate – which unlike its predecessor was a formalized legal institution. The assassins were eliminated at the Battle of Philippi. A decade later the triumvirs would go to war after which Octavian would stand at the top of the Roman world. In 27 BC the Senate would proclaim him Augustus, and princeps (first citizen – the root of the word that evolved to prince). While Augustus maintained some of the forms of the Republic, this date is considered the start of the Augustan principate – what we call the Roman Empire.
The assassination of Caesar may be the most famous assassination in the ancient world. It was commemorated by possibly the most famous coin of the ancient world. Starting with Caesar, his heirs Antony and Octavian did not scruple to place themselves on the coinage. Interestingly Brutus followed suit – an act not emulated by his co-conspirator Cassius. Brutus also issued a coin commemorating the assassination.
This is one of the few specific coin issues mentioned by a classical author, Cassius Dio who in his Roman History 47. 25, 3 states: “Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted his own likeness and a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he and Cassius had liberated the fatherland.”