Senatorial conspirators murdered Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 B.C. Caesar’s chief lieutenant fled the city for his life, but returned when the assassins failed to follow up their attack with assaults on Caesar’s allies. Upon his return, Mark Anthony and the conspirators agreed to a public funeral with Anthony delivering the eulogy. Anthony used the occasion to rally the people against the assassins and change the course of Roman history. His dramatic oratorical approach transformed Caesar into a martyr and the assassins from heroes to villains.
Brutus, Cassius, Cato, and several other Roman senators feared Julius Caesar’s ambition. They worried Caesar planned on forming a monarchy and ending the Roman Republic. After the senate voted him dictator for life, Brutus and his allies decided to murder the tyrant. On March 15, 44 B.C., they assassinated Julius Caesar. Caesar’s allies, including Mark Anthony, went into hiding temporarily. They worried the conspirators would seize power and purge potential enemies.
The conspirators appeared rudderless. After the assassination, they failed to consolidate their power or remove opponents. Instead, they insisted Caesar was the only target since he planned to destroy the Republic and make himself king. They needed to assuage people’s concerns. After Caesar’s death, Romans feared the conspirators. Brutus and his allies expected to be welcomed as heroes. Instead, the people worried about their intentions fearing further bloodshed. As a result, Brutus welcomed Mark Anthony back into the halls of power.
In order to calm public fears, Brutus agreed to a public funeral for Caesar. He planned a show of unity between factions and invited Anthony to deliver the eulogy. The cabal planned to bury the tyrant while Anthony would mourn the man. The public funeral proved one of the greatest blunders in history.
Mark Anthony knew how to work a crowd. Although a member of the aristocracy, he was a “man of the people” who easily transitioned from the halls of power to the rough streets of Rome. The assassins were out of touch aristocrats and out of their depth. While Brutus spoke of the Republic, Anthony spoke to the people.
During the eulogy, Anthony accused Brutus and the others of murder. He systematically undercut their arguments for the assassination transforming the “heroes” into murderers. Anthony grabbed Caesar’s blood soaked toga and showed the stab wounds to the people. He shamed and emasculated each assassin while pointing from wound to wound. Afterward, he read Caesar’s will, which left most of his property and money to the Roman population. This completely discredited the assassins since kings do not leave their property to the people.
Anthony’s rhetoric turned the crowd against Brutus and the cabal. The mob attacked the assassins who fled for their lives. This left Anthony in control of the city and led to civil war. In the aftermath, Anthony, Brutus, and the assassins were all dead. Julius Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, formed the Roman Empire in the ashes.
Mark Anthony used speech and drama skills to change public opinion. He whipped a leery crowd into a frenzy over Caesar’s murder. The assassins hoped to save the Republic, but failed. Their efforts allowed Anthony a platform to attack them and open a rift leading to civil war. Anthony’s eulogy morphed a political assassination into an attack on Rome itself.