“The best revenge,” counseled Marcus Aurelius, paragon of Roman rectitude, “is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”
For the record: Noted. But tales of vengeance are irresistible—especially if the vengeance is relentless, implacable, and delayed.
Charles II avenged his father by hunting down and snuffing out the parliamentary judges who had condemned Charles I to death—pursuing the regicides to their bolt-holes throughout Britain and as far as Switzerland and New England.
After the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Israeli intelligence launched Operation Wrath of God. In the ensuing years, the Mossad identified many of the killers and executed them systematically as opportunities arose.
Everyone remembers the baptism sequence at the end of The Godfather, when amber scenes of the unfolding sacrament—“Do you renounce Satan?”—are intercut with moments of orchestrated payback: Moe Greene looking up from the massage table. Carmine Cuneo trapped in the revolving door. Michael Corleone was forgetting his Marcus Aurelius.
In Cold Sanguis
The vengeance pursued in Peter Stothard’s The Last Assassin plays out over a decade and a half: tracking down the 19 men whose daggers tore at Julius Caesar in the Curia of Pompey in the year 44 B.C. The events of the Ides of March are familiar, and so are the fates of some of the conspirators. Shakespeare tells us about two of them: Marcus Brutus (“the noblest Roman of them all”) and Gaius Cassius Longinus (with his “lean and hungry look”). Both committed suicide after their defeat by Octavian and Marc Antony at Philippi. But what of the rest?
The ruthless will of Octavian—Julius Caesar’s adopted son and, later, under the name Augustus, Rome’s first emperor—drives the book’s narrative. But the biographical trail Stothard follows is that of a conspirator named Cassius Parmensis, a poet, playwright, and politician, and the “last assassin” of the book’s title. Fourteen years would elapse between the assassination of Caesar and the murder of Parmensis—dispatched in Athens, where he had gone to ground. Parmensis had been hoping for a pardon; the sarcastic verses he composed about Octavian, Stothard notes, “might have been a mistake.”
The Last Assassin opens with Parmensis behind a boarded door, his sleep disturbed by troubled dreams about an ominous night visitor. It ends behind that same door, with the night visitor’s arrival. In between come propaganda wars, civil wars, shifting alliances, battles on land and sea, and the periodic lopping off of heads, to be sent to the avenger in lieu of a receipt. The inexorable decay of the Roman republic forms the backdrop. The chaotic events resemble not so much affairs of state as a prolonged Mob war.
Fourteen years would elapse between the assassination of Caesar and the murder of Parmensis, a poet, playwright, and politician, and the “last assassin” of the book’s title.
“At first there was supposed to be an amnesty for all the conspirators,” Stothard writes, “but soon there wasn’t.” Few of Julius Caesar’s 19 assailants are household names. Gaius Trebonius, the first to die, was a consul and, as it happens, Cicero’s editor; he was tortured to death by a man named Dolabella, Cicero’s former son-in-law—“a slug, a sot, a charmer, and a shameless changer of sides.” Lucius Minucius Basilus, the sixth to die, had been known to mutilate his slaves; when a price was put on his head, his fate was sealed. As for Cassius Parmensis, his death was compounded by a final ignominy—literary eclipse. Only a handful of his sentences have come down to us, their survival an accident (quoted in works by others). In retrospect, one of the sentences seems prophetic: Nocte intempesta nostram devenit domum—“Late at night, he came into our home.”
Stothard, a former editor of The Times of London and the Times Literary Supplement, is steeped in the ways of power, modern or ancient, in Westminster or the Palatine. (His acclaimed book about the men around Margaret Thatcher is titled The Senecans.) Stothard’s writing style is a throwback. His narrative unspools with Victorian authority and, at times, Victorian sentence structure. Some passages read like translations from a schoolboy Latin exercise: “Decimus Turullius caused offence by cutting down a grove sacred to the healing god, Aesculapius, on Cos, the island of wine and quince blossom ointments close to Rhodes.” This isn’t just some obscure dash of color, though: felling those trees became a pretext for execution. Turullius was the 18th conspirator to die.
Stothard’s short book is unlike any you may have read about the Ides and its aftermath. In Rome today, the marble Ara Pacis—the “altar of peace,” erected by Augustus to mark the end of civil wars and the advent of an eternal imperium—stands on the banks of the Tiber, inside a modernist frame designed by Richard Meier. The monument has been restored—you can climb the ancient steps and walk inside. It is elegant, polished, calming. The Last Assassin evokes the bloodshed that made it possible, when Romans went to the mattresses.
Cullen Murphy is the editor at large of The Atlantic and the author of Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America