By Ken Zurski
In the iconic painting The Death of Caesar (1867), artist Jean-Léon Gérôme’s portrayal of the famous assassination on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., the unfortunate victim, Julius Caesar, is seen crumpled in the foreground while his murderers celebrate by raising their weapons in victory. The only man holding a weapon at his side is Brutus, who is seen with his back turned, walking toward the other celebrants. Perhaps, as history suggests, Brutus dealt the final blow.
He also carries a sword.
This would seem appropriate for the time, since swords were used by Roman soldiers. But the weapon of choice to kill Caesar was not a sword, but a dagger. Brutus all but confirms it in a coin he commissioned after Caesar’s death. On the coin are two daggers with different shaped hilts.
Presumably, the first dagger belongs to Brutus. The second likely belongs to another assassin.
The shorter daggers make more sense in the killing of Caesar. They were as martial arts experts explain today, “streamlined and remarkably light.” They were also very effective, especially at close range. Plus, a dagger could easily be hidden in a toga and retrieved quickly. The only advantage a sword would carry is the distance between the striker and the intended target. But that was in combat and against another armed assailant.
Caesar was ambushed and received blow after excruciating blow. A brutal and revolting mess, historians explain, and not an easy task.
Instead of celebrating with weapons held high, as Gérôme’s painting suggests, more realistically, the band of conspirators would be hunched over from exhaustion and nausea. Their hands and white garments covered in blood.
“Few felt comfortable talking about it,” author Barry Strauss (The Death of Caesar) writes about the gruesome aftermath of military daggers, “and fewer still doing it.”