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Death of a dictator

How Caesar’s murder set the template for political assassination.

The assassination of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44BC (“the ides of March” by the Roman system of dating) is the most famous political murder in history. Caesar had recently been made “dictator for life”, and he was killed in the name of “liberty” by a group of men he counted as friends and colleagues. In the aftermath, the assassins issued coins with a design specially chosen to celebrate the deed and press home the message: it featured the memorable date (“EID MAR”), a pair of daggers and the image of the small hat, “the cap of liberty”, regularly presented to Roman slaves when they were granted their freedom. This was liberation on a grander scale, freeing the Roman people from tyranny.

Several of the characters whose biographies feature in Plutarch’s Lives – Caesar, Brutus, Cicero, Antony, Pompey – had a role in the story of the murder. Julius Caesar was the victim, his dying moments vividly described by Plutarch. In this account, there were no famous last words, “Et tu Brute?” or whatever; after a futile attempt to fight back, Caesar pulled his toga over his head and took the 23 dagger blows that killed him. Brutus was the leading figure behind the assassination, a frankly messy business, as Plutarch makes clear (with several of the assassins “caught in friendly fire”, accidentally wounded by blows from their own side), and he was soon more or less forced to leave the city.

Cicero, the Roman politician, philosopher, poet, wit and orator, was not party to the plot but was very likely an eyewitness of the murder, and was straight away consulted by the assassins about what on Earth to do next (one of their main problems was that they had not thought ahead). Antony was Caesar’s right-hand man, gave the address at his funeral, and tried to take on the role of Caesar’s defender and successor – though he soon found an even more powerful rival for that position.

Pompey was already dead by 44BC. He had been killed four years earlier in a civil war, leading those Romans who had then been prepared to resort to pitched battles to resist the growing power of Caesar. But his shadow hung over the assassination. Caesar was murdered in an expensive new meeting hall whose building Pompey had funded, and he fell in front of a statue of Pompey, splattering it with his blood. It was as if Pompey was finally getting his revenge.




The death of Caesar has provided the template for assassination ever since and has been the focus of debate on the rights and wrongs of political violence. In 1865, John Wilkes Booth used the word “ides” as the code word for the planned date of the assassination of President Lincoln. Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, largely drawing on an early translation of Plutarch’s biography, used the events of 44BC to reflect on the nature of political power, ideology and moral conscience. Others have seen the assassination as a useful reminder of the futility of such attempts at direct action. For what did it achieve? If the assassins had really wanted to quash the rise of one-man rule in Rome, if they had wanted to kill the tyranny as well as the tyrant, they were strikingly unsuccessful. More than a decade of civil war followed (a major theme in Plutarch’s biographies of Brutus and Antony), but the end result was that Caesar’s great-nephew – “Augustus”, as he was later known, and the man who rivalled Antony as Caesar’s heir – became the first Roman emperor. He established autocratic rule on a permanent basis. So much for the return of “liberty”.

In the long history of Rome – founded, as the Romans calculated it, around 750BC – the murder of Caesar, for all its later notoriety, was just one of many political crises, which became particularly intense and violent in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. This was a period of expansion, political change, even revolution. There were vast Roman conquests overseas and, as a consequence, an enormous influx of wealth into the city. Gleaming marble from Greece, rather than local brick and stone, began to be used for temples and other public buildings in the city; slaves started to make up the majority of the workforce; and so many people flocked to Rome that its population topped a million, the only Western city of that size until London in the early 19th century.

But this age also saw repeated outbreaks of civil war at home, political disintegration, mass pogroms of citizens and the final fracture of what had once been a more or less democratic system of government. As a leading politician, Caesar was almost typical in coming to a violent end. None of the men I have mentioned died in their beds, nor fighting some “barbarian enemy”. They were killed in conflict with other Romans, by Roman hands, or on Roman orders. Pompey, for example, after losing in battle to Caesar, was decapitated by an Egyptian eunuch, ably assisted by a couple of Roman veteran soldiers; Cicero was put to death in 43BC in one of the pogroms, on Antony’s instructions, his head and hands later pinned up in the centre of Rome as macabre trophies for the crowds to leer and jeer at. A little over a decade later, Antony ended up killing himself after he lost in battle to Caesar’s great-nephew and successor.

The Romans described and fiercely debated the stresses and breakdown of their political system, trailing all kinds of explanations and possible solutions. For this period was also one of intellectual revolution in Rome, when the rich tradition of Roman literature began. Starting in the early 2nd century BC, Roman writers for the first time tried to tell the history of their city, to reflect on its problems and on how they thought it should be governed; and they used writing, too, for political attacks, insults in verse, self-advertisement in public, and personal letters in which they shared their aspirations, fears and suspicions.

When Plutarch in the early 2nd century AD was writing these biographies, he could base his narrative on plenty of contemporary material from the age of Caesar. Some of this we can still read, including Caesar’s one-sided account of his campaigns against the tribes of Gaul and later against Pompey (one of the very few eyewitness descriptions of ancient warfare to have come down to us) and volumes of Cicero’s political speeches, philosophical treatises and hundreds of his private letters, made public after his death by his loyal heirs. This writing helps us to understand what lay beneath all that chaos.

The rapid growth of the Roman empire was a crucial and destabilising factor. For us, why Rome grew in a few centuries from a small, moderately successful town in central Italy to one with control over more of Europe and the Mediterranean world than any state before or since is one of history’s big puzzles. Most modern observers put it down to some unfathomable combination of greed, a highly militaristic ideology, a dose of good luck and a happy knack of converting those they conquered into Roman citizens, and so into new soldiers for the Roman cause. The Romans were less puzzled on this score, pointing to the support of the gods, their piety and a succession of defensive rather than aggressive wars, in which they intervened to protect allies under threat. They were more troubled by the consequences of overseas growth for society and politics back home.

Despite their popular modern image, the Romans were not simply thoughtless and jingoistic imperialists. Some worried that the wealth and luxury that came with conquest overseas undermined what they saw as old-fashioned Roman austerity, a few about the cruelty of conquest (there was even
one, perhaps not entirely serious, proposal to put Caesar on trial for genocide during his conquest of Gaul). Others faced the question of how to adapt the traditional structures of Roman government to cope with new imperial demands. For how could you control and defend a vast empire, stretching from Spain to Syria, with a power structure and a system of military command developed to run nothing more than a small town?

That was one of the big issues behind the revolutionary changes of this period, and one of the factors that promoted the rise of dynasts such as Caesar. The political traditions of Rome, going at least as far back as the end of the 6th century BC, had been based on the principle that power was only ever held on a temporary basis and was always shared. The citizens as a whole elected the city’s officials, who combined both military and civilian duties, held office for just one year at a time, ideally not to be repeated, and never had fully independent decision-making power.

That there had always been not one but two consuls (the most senior of these annual officials) is a clear sign of that long-established commitment to power-sharing. But it was a principle ill suited to governing a far-flung empire and to fighting wars that might take place several months’ distance from Italy; you could hardly travel there and back in the regular year of office.

The Romans improvised various solutions to that problem: sending men out to the provinces, for example, after their year of office in Rome. But increasingly the Roman people voted more and more power into the hands of ambitious individual politicians on an almost permanent basis, even though those votes were often ­controversial and sometimes violently resisted.




Caesar was not the first to challenge the traditional model of power-sharing. Despite leading the traditionalists against Caesar in 49BC, Pompey had, only 15 years or so earlier, been granted unlimited power for years on end across the whole of the eastern Mediterranean, first to deal with the pirates and human traffickers operating on the sea, then to deal with one of Rome’s remaining enemies in the East, King Mithridates of Pontus (in modern Turkey). Cicero was one of those who successfully spoke up, in a speech whose text we can still read, to quell the opposition to this grant, which was regarded as a dangerous step in the direction of one-man rule.

Even Brutus, despite his fine slogans on the subject of “liberty”, seems not to have been entirely immune from similar dreams of personal power. The coin celebrating Caesar’s assassination may have displayed the daggers and cap of liberty on one side. But on the other was an image of the head of Brutus. In Roman eyes, heads of living people on coins smacked of autocratic ambitions: Caesar was the first to risk such a display at Rome, Brutus the second.

So one side of the age of Caesar, richly documented in Plutarch’s Lives, was a series of “big men”, bankrolled by the vast profits that followed imperial conquests, competing for personal power. And that competition often came down to open fighting – whether in the streets of Rome, where there was no police force or any form of peacekeepers to maintain order, or across the empire more widely (the final battle in the Roman Civil War between Caesar and Pompey was fought in northern Greece, and Pompey was brutally finished off on the coast of Egypt). As the coin of Brutus hints, Caesar’s murder came too late to put the clock back to old-fashioned power-sharing. If Augustus had not established permanent one-man rule, Antony or some other rival would surely have done so.

Another important side of the period was the increasingly intense debates about what we would call “civil liberties”. How was it possible to protect the rights of the individual Roman citizen in this violent turmoil? How were the rights of citizenship to be balanced against the safety of the state? This came to a head almost 20 years before Caesar’s assassination, in 63BC. As Plutarch and others described it, Cicero was consul and believed that he had uncovered a terrorist plot, masterminded by a bankrupt and desperate aristocrat named Catiline, to eliminate some of the leading politicians, Cicero included, and to burn down much of the city. Once he had frightened Catiline out of Rome, Cicero rounded up those he believed were his accomplices and had them all executed without trial, even though they were Roman citizens and, as such, had a right to due legal process. “Vixere” (“They have lived” – that is, “They are dead”), he said in a particularly chilling euphemism, as he left the jail after super­vising their execution.

Not everyone at the time approved. Caesar was among those who stood up and objected. He was what we can still recognise as a classic populist, combining – as many have since – aspirations for dictatorship with a knack for popular rhetoric and an ability to appeal to the interests of the people (though, unlike some more recent examples of his kind, he also had a strong sense of popular justice). But in general Cicero was hailed as a hero who had saved the state from destruction.

The approval did not, however, last for long. Despite claiming the protection of an ancient equivalent of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Cicero was banished into exile, on the charge of executing citizens without trial. He was recalled within a few months but, during his absence, his house had been demolished and a shrine to the goddess Liberty had pointedly been erected on the site.

The rights and wrongs of this case were debated ever after. How far, the Romans wondered, were elected officials allowed, or obliged, to transcend the law to save the state? We now debate very similar issues; how far the interests of homeland security make it legitimate to suspend the rights and protection that citizenship ought to ­offer, or how far we can stomach the idea of detention without trial, or summary deportation, if it prevents the “bad dudes” from doing us harm. That is why this is one of the Roman causes célèbres that speak to us most directly.




The age of Caesar, then, was one of political murder, street violence, constant warfare both inside and outside Rome and fundamental disagreements about how the state should be run, how democracy and liberty might be preserved, while the demands of empire and security were met. It is impossible not to wonder what it was actually like to live through – and not just for the elite, rich and male political leaders who were the leading characters and celebrity victims in the conflicts and the focus of all ancient writers. What of the ordinary men and women who were not in the limelight? Did life for them go on much as before, while the big men and their armies fought it out? Or did the violence and bloodshed touch almost everyone?

It is hard to know and wrong to generalise. Just occasionally, Plutarch does take his eyes off those at the top of the pile and throw a fleeting glance at ordinary people carrying on with their lives more or less as usual in the chaos around them. We meet in passing Cicero’s wives and his daughter, Tullia who, like so many women in the Roman world, died from complications of childbirth, along with her infant son. We have a glimpse of an enterprising trader from northern Italy, a man called Peticius, who in 48BC just happened to be travelling in his ship along the coast of Greece when he spotted Pompey, on the run after his defeat by Caesar – and gave him a lift south.

Most engagingly of all, thanks to information he had picked up from his grandfather, Plutarch gives us a tiny but vivid insight into the practices “below stairs” in the kitchens of the palace in Alexandria that – to the horror of many Romans – Antony eventually came to share with Queen Cleopatra. Apparently, the cooks were so concerned about preparing the wild boar to perfection, whenever the company upstairs decided to eat, that they had eight boars roasting, each put on to cook at a different time, so that one would be sure to be just right when dinner was summoned (do the cooks at Mar-a-Lago or, for that matter, Balmoral have the same problem?). It is a nice image of ordinary people living in their own world and dealing in their own way with (and maybe laughing at) the capricious demands of the world leaders they served.

But not all were so lucky. One memorable story told by Plutarch, repeated and made even more famous by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, tells the fate of an unfortunate poet called Cinna. This man was not quite as ordinary as Peticius or the cooks in Alexandria; he was a friend of Caesar but he was not in the political mainstream. A couple of days after the assassination, he went to the Forum to see his friend laid out for his funeral and fell in with a crowd of Caesar’s mourning and angry supporters. These men mistook the poet for a different Cinna, who had been one of the assassins, and so tore the poor man limb from limb.

The message of the story is clear. Assassinations have innocent victims, too. Simple cases of mistaken identity (and there must have been many of those at Rome, in the absence of any form of official ID) can leave a blameless bystander dead. Shakespeare’s plaintive line “I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet” is a haunting reminder of the many who must have been caught in the crossfire when the leaders of the Roman world clashed.

“The Age of Caesar: Five Roman Lives” by Plutarch, translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Romm, is newly published by W W Norton

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue