Avenging a Conspiracy

‘They had to be like the Furies of tragedy, hounding down the guilty until the last stain was cleansed.” So writes esteemed British journalist Peter Stothard of the Roman commanders who punished the killers of Julius Caesar. That sentence both summarizes the plot of his taut historical narrative, “The Last Assassin,”and also exemplifies its darkly lyrical style. In prose that evokes (and often quotes) tragic verse, Mr. Stothard tells a grim tale that spans 15 chaotic years and 19 violent deaths.

The story of Caesar’s fall has been retold countless times, most notably by Plutarch and Shakespeare, but the events that followed that cataclysmic event in 44 B.C. are far less familiar, in part because they’re so complex. Caesar’s murderers, whose numbers may have ranged into the 30s, scattered in many directions after the Ides of March, when they realized their support at Rome was dangerously thin. Caesar’s avengers, led by Marc Antony and Octavian, took after them, but these two rivals for power were often at odds, each willing to partner with conspirators now and again to do the other harm.

The multi-pronged manhunt covers three continents and claims nearly a score of victims. The most notorious conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, took their own lives after losing the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. A less prominent figure, Gaius Trebonius, was the first conspirator killed, after two days of gruesome torture; Cassius Parmensis, a poet and playwright of small repute, was the last. This Parmensis is thus the “last assassin” of the book’s title, a man who lived to see Antony’s defeat at Actium, in 31 B.C., but fell victim the next year to the victorious Octavian (later known as Augustus).

A tale of such breadth and scope, with characters often shifting venue or changing political partners, would strike terror into many authors, but Mr. Stothard is a writer of rare talent. Former editor of both the Times of London and the Times Literary Supplement, he has a longstanding passion for the classical world and has used it as a touchstone in his previous memoirs and political studies. Here, in his first historical narrative, he weaves a tense, fast-paced tale from the many strands of a turbulent era. In an opening list of 13 assassins and five of their supporters, he lays out the path we will follow: All will meet their dooms, one by one, chapter by chapter.

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