In the final year of his life, Julius Caesar reportedly had several odd incidents involving laurel wreaths. It is possible that he may have even staged some of the events to test the reaction of the masses to the possibility of him becoming king. These odd episodes, along with Caesar’s vitriolic essay against his deceased enemy Cato, were some of the key blunders in public relations that led to the dictator’s eventual assassination.
One of the first incidents did not involve a wreath, but, instead, a ribbon. While Caesar prepared for an invasion of Parthia, he had his agents spread a prophecy from the Sibylline Books that claimed only a king could conquer the Parthians. In support of this prophecy, a ribbon was mysteriously tied around the head of a statue of Caesar in the Forum. As the Romans believed ribbons to be an eastern symbol of kingship, the masses, and especially the Senate, understood and feared what was being suggested. Two Tribunes of the Plebeians, named Epidus Marullus and Caesetius Flavus, had the ribbon quickly removed from the statue.
In another account, possibly another version of the story mentioned above, a laurel wreath with a white fillet was draped over the head of a statue of Caesar while the dictator was away from Rome, attending the Latin Festival of Jupiter Latiaris, which was held at the Alban Mount. The same tribunes, Marullus and Flavus, once again had the wreath removed from the statue’s head and arrested the person who had placed it there. The tribunes also reacted negatively when somebody in a crowd shouted out Caesar’s affiliation with a respected family (through a grandmother)—the clan in question was the Marcii Reges family, with reges being the plural form of rex, or “king.” Caesar skillfully deflected the comment, by responding “my name is Caesar, not King” or “No, I am Caesar, not King” (Suetonius, Twelve Caesars, Divus Julius: section 79). The persistent Tribunes, Marullus and Flavus, brought about their own downfall when they moved to prosecute anyone caught laying wreaths on statues or calling out regal titles. Caesar responded poorly to this move, and he ultimately had both of the Tribunes kicked out of the Senate.
Another incident occurred on February 15, during the Lupercalia, a festival that had some connection to the she-wolf (lupa) that, according to myth, raised Romulus and Remus. During the festivities, Mark Antony apparently attempted to crown Caesar multiple times with a wreath or diadem. After observing the crowd’s reaction, Julius Caesar eventually had the crown sent to a temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
Even though Caesar never accepted a crown or ribbon in the stories mentioned above, the powerful senators in Rome could not shake the feeling that Caesar had an ambition for kingship. Their suspicion of the dictator was deepened even more by some of the changes Caesar had made in Rome since his ascension to power. Of the many titles and privileges that Caesar accepted, the most annoying to the senators were the statue he supposedly placed alongside the sculptures of ancient Roman kings, and especially two alleged golden thrones that Caesar had made for himself to sit upon in the Senate House and the tribunal. With actions like this, it is easy to see why so many senators feared the future plans of Julius Caesar and joined the conspiracy to end his life.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Statue of Julius Caesar [Public Domain] via Skitterphoto and pexels.com).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
- Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.