What Really Killed Julius Caesar?

Greetings from Rome, where The Secret History of Art is entering the final week of his annual art and architecture course, run by Brown University.  Today we visited the Borghese Gallery, the first of two visits, after trekking through about two-dozen of the 600 churches of Rome, hunting Caravaggios and miracle-working icons.  In the course of teaching, I’ve presented a number of facts and slices of trivia that have surprised students, and so I’m offering a selection here, with more to follow in future posts.

What really killed Julius Caesar?

Caesar was killed coming out of a Senate meeting, not as many guidebooks suggested, emerging from the Theater of Marcellus.  He was indeed stabbed by a small gang of co-conspirators, knifed a total of 23 times, so yes indeed stab wounds did kill him.  But when his body was later examined, doctors concluded that only one of the 23 stab-wounds was fatal.  Had he been stabbed only 22 times, he would have been badly wounded but likely have survived.  How might history have been different had he survived the assault, or had he listened to the numerous warnings from his wife, his friends, and a soothsayer, to stay at home on his last day, the Ides of March?  He had even dismissed his loyal Spanish bodyguards that day, as if tempting fate.  He was about to embark on a campaign to the East, attempting to subdue a barbarian army that had thrashed the last two Roman generals and their legions.  The 23rd dagger blow is one of those moments in history on which so much turned, and so much might have been different.  What poorly-aimed dagger strikes the assassins must be credited with, in order for only one of 23 to have been effective?  Caesar did try to defend himself, but he was one against a mob.  He certainly seems to have accepted, if not tempted, his fate, refusing to heed so many warnings, dismissing his bodyguard, and ultimately succumbing to a fate that he must have known awaited him.

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