‘The Last Assassin’ breathes life into the events of Julius Caesar’s death

By looking through the eyes of a minor player in the assassination, Peter Stothard is able to tell a more intimate tale.

Oxford University Press
“The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar” by Peter Stothard, Oxford University Press, 288 pp.

So persuasive, so memorable, is the artistry of William Shakespeare that devotees of his plays who are only casual skimmers of history might be surprised to remember that it wasn’t just Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius who assassinated Julius Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. Despite the fact that they’re the only two being forever gnawed in the jaws of Dante’s Satan at the heart of the Inferno, it was actually a small crowd of senators who drove the knives in.

And their goals were so passionately focused – kill this one man they feared was making himself a tyrant and then explain themselves to their colleagues and countrymen – that they laid themselves open to a danger that more cynical men would have anticipated: retribution. Caesar’s grandnephew and heir, Octavian, was away at his studies in the Western Balkans when word of the assassination reached him, and he wasted no time returning to Rome and fighting for Caesar’s mantle of power.

Octavian had an empire to win and control. Still, he found time to hunt down the assassins, and the odd outermost points of that pursuit form the basis of “The Last Assassin: The Hunt for the Killers of Julius Caesar” by former Times Literary Supplement editor Peter Stothard.

Stothard makes a seemingly odd but ultimately wise organizational choice: He centers the bulk of his book on an assassin whose name will be unfamiliar to pretty much everybody except his fellow historians: Cassius Parmensis, an amateur philosopher and poet. In Stothard’s dramatic reconstruction of the key event, Parmensis scarcely knows what role he played in the assassination; in the rush to complete the deed, dozens of men were stabbing at the tyrant and sometimes hitting each other. “Somewhere else in the press of men,” Stothard writes, “as conspirators pierced the flesh of Caesar and each other, was Cassius Parmensis.”

He was a distant acquaintance of the poet Horace. But unlike Horace, who’d fought on the losing side for Brutus and Cassius but quickly put up his sword and shield, Parmensis chose to remain at war. He allied himself with Octavian’s enemies, fighting at the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Eventually, after Octavian swept aside all opposition, Parmensis settled down in Athens, the “cultural beacon of the world,” where he wrote plays and poems for over a decade while Octavian consolidated power in Rome.

Octavian became consul at the age of 19, and his colleague in office, Quintus Pedius, put his name on the Lex Pedia, which ended any amnesty and declared every one of Julius Caesar’s assassins an outlaw. “Every magistrate of the wider Roman world was required to discover and arrest those listed to face the new justice,” Stothard writes. “With the speed of bad news every assassin learnt he was a hunted man.”

Stothard uses Parmensis as a very human focal point for the broader story of the seismic changes that gripped the Roman world, and this approach works surprisingly well. Through Parmensis, we see the larger tale unfold: Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon and marching his troops on Rome, power realigning itself as a proto-autocracy, and the savage battles fought by key players like Brutus and Cassius and Mark Antony and Octavian.

Centering so much of the story on Parmensis allows Stothard to craft a more miniature drama that’s at times intensely emotional – almost novelistic. He’s helped considerably in this by the fact that his primary source is Velleius Paterculus, a flamboyant historian not above telling tall tales if they made good reading. “He had a rhetorical style in which he too much pleaded to be believed,” Stothard writes. This meshes well with the melodrama of Parmensis, where “Some changed their stories; some had their stories changed. Imagination became memory.”

The assassin settled down in Athens and hoped that the past would leave him alone. As Stothard puts it, “He had reasons to fear but no reason to be uncomfortable.” Thanks to Stothard’s narrative skill, readers get a visceral sense of the jittery, clammy life Parmensis must have led in Athens, one ear cocked to every rumor from Rome, constantly suspicious of every new face.

The past left him alone for 13 years, but he’d been a military commander as well as an assassin, and Octavian was nothing if not thorough. Eventually, a man named Quintus Attius Varus found Parmensis at his villa, killed him, and, anecdotally, brought one of Parmensis' tragedies – along with his head – back to Octavian.

“The Last Assassin” brings to vivid life the whole extended drama of the death of Julius Caesar and the rise of the young man who would become Augustus Caesar. It’s a remarkable reframing of that familiar old story.

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