By Ken Zurski
The Death of Caesar is an 1867 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme’, a 19th century artist and sculptor known for the French inspired “academism” artistic style. Among the many portraits and works inspired by Greek mythology, Gérôme’’s portfolio also includes historical recreations.
So here, as the title not so subtly suggests, he recreates the assassination of Julius Casear on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.
Gérôme’ paints the tale of Ceasar’s death in stark clarity. He shows the moment immediately following Ceasar’s murder as the unfortunate victim is seen in the foreground crumpled on the floor. The throne chair is overturned signifying a struggle and those not part of the killing are seen fleeing the room in terror. The conspirators celebrate by raising their weapons in victory.
The only man not holding a weapon above his head is Brutus.
His back is turned. He is walking toward the other celebrants and dragging his weapon behind. Perhaps, as history suggests, this signifies Brutus dealt the final blow. He also carries what appears to be a sword, not a dagger. This would seem appropriate for the time, since swords were commonly used by Roman soldiers in battle. But as history books explain, the weapon of choice to kill Casear was a dagger, not a sword.
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.
Daggers 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 have over a dagger is the distance between the striker and the intended target.
But that was in combat. Caesar was ambushed, presumably unarmed, and received blow after excruciating blow. A task, while effective, that took stamina and strength. Instead of celebrating with weapons held high (as Gérôme’s painting suggests) more realistically, the band of conspirators would be hunched over from exhaustion. Their hands and white garments covered in blood.
Author Barry Strauss in his book The Death of Caesar says this about the use of daggers in warfare: “Few felt comfortable talking about it and fewer still doing it.”
In another painting of Ceaser’s frantic death titled The Death of Caesar (1798), artist Vincenzo Camuccini seems to show a more accurate portrayal of the weapons used in the murder. The depiction portrays most of the mob carrying the shorter daggers, except for a few who still sport a longer blade.
Is one of them Brutus?
One might debate, and likely get few detractors, that Brutus used a sword for the final blow, thus marking Ceasar’s end for all eternity: Et tu, Brute
Yet, despite the graphic detail, there’s still no bloody mess.
That’s because the representation shown in Camuccini’s painting is the moment before Ceasar is struck not after like Gérôme’s and therefore spares the viewer the gory aftermath.