February 15, 44 B.C. was the day in which public opinion in Rome took a big swing against Julius Caesar. It was the Lupercalia, an annual religious festival in which men ran through the streets half-naked and lightly touched young women with goatskin thongs. It was all good fun and the Romans thought the gesture would bring fertility. (Writing this in Upstate New York where it is currently -3°F, it seems crazy to call this a rite of spring but in Rome today the high was 63°F.)
As I wrote last year Julius Caesar carried out an unfriendly takeover of the festival, which now featured a new group of “Julian” priests who served in his honor. Caesar himself presided over the event. He sat on the Speaker’s Platform in the Forum, a venue that he had rebuilt and renamed after himself. He was wearing splendid, triumphal robes. And he presided over a public relations disaster.
We do not know whether the idea was his or his advisors’ or whether an enemy sprung it on him. In any case, Mark Antony, Caesar’s close ally, approached him on the platform and offered to make him King of Rome. The crowd gasped in shock, because this was their worst nightmare.
Caesar had fought – and won – a civil war that left him Dictator for Life. No such office ever existed in Rome before – the very idea went against the limited, constitutional republic. Even Caesar’s friends felt that he had gone too far, but at least he wasn’t trying to be king. Now, suddenly, it looked as if he was doing just that.
Caesar tried to reassure the crowd. Rome, he said, had no king except Jupiter, the king of the gods. He insisted that it be recorded for posterity that he had turned the kingship down, but that just looked like grandstanding. Many people came away convinced that Caesar had planned the whole thing as a trial balloon for the throne that he really wanted.
There’s a lesson here. For most people the takeaway was Caesar saying, “I deserve even more honor than before because my power grab is merely huge rather than gigantic.” That was the wrong message. Instead of saying “I, Caesar, want everyone to know that I don’t want to be king” he should have said, “We the Roman people will work together to prevent anyone from being king. Thank you for entrusting me with such awesome power as Dictator. Here is how we will unite to use that power for the common good.”
Sometimes a good leader needs to hold power tightly in his hands. That’s the moment for him to project humility and reassurance. Instead Caesar just made things worse. His enemies began sharpening their knives.
The Ides of March was only a month away.
Barry Strauss is the author of The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination, amazon.com’s #1 New Release in Ancient Rome Biographies, available in paperback March 22.