Beware the Ides of March!

Caesar : Who is it in the press (crowd) that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry ‘Caesar!’ – Speak! Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer : Beware the Ides of March.

Caesar : What man is that?

Brutus : A soothsayer bids you beware the Ides of March.

Caesar : He is a dreamer; let us leave him.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Act 1, scene 2, lines 15–24 (edited).


“Beware the Ides of March” said the soothsayer, thus predicting Julius Caesar’s fate. For the superstitious Caesar this was no tabloid horoscope to be ignored, however, no matter how much he shrugged it off in public. And although Tudor playwright William Shakespeare may have embellished the language a little to make it more dramatic*, this was no fiction either; his play is based on real events in ancient Roman history. So as Rome prepares to mark the 2059th anniversary of the great ruler’s death, what actually happened on 15th March 44 BC and why?

The Death of Caesar by Italian painter, Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844)

The Death of Caesar by Italian painter, Vincenzo Camuccini (1771-1844)

Gaius Julius Caesar was born on the 10th July 100 BC into a patrician, but not rich, family. The aristocratic dynasty claimed descendancy from the Trojan (ancient Greek) prince Aeneas and thus from the goddess Venus. Despite his lofty beginnings, however, not much else is known about Caesar’s childhood until his father died in 85 BC when Julius was just sixteen.

A young Caesar

A young Caesar

The young head of the family was quickly caught up in a civil war between his uncle Gaius Marius and rival Sulla. And although things initially went well for the newly married Caesar, Sulla’s ultimate victory led to the young husband being stripped of his inheritance and his wife’s dowry, forcing him into hiding.

Julius wisely escaped to the army, serving with distinction in several campaigns in Asia. Eventually Sulla died in 78 BC and Caesar felt safe enough to return to his wife in Rome. Without an inheritance, though, he was reduced to making a modest living as a legal prosecutor becoming known for his ruthless pursuit of corruption.

The next few years saw Caesar rise through the ranks. A successful spell as governor of Spain was followed by more victories in Britain and then Gaul (modern day France) in 51 BC extending Rome’s empire still further. He was now the most powerful general in the empire and proclaimed imperator, commander, by his troops. Julius had the chance to parade his unarmed troops through Rome in triumph but refused as he had his eye on a bigger prize. Instead he entered the city illegally with a fully armed legion provoking civil war that lasted 4 long years.

Fresco of Julius Caesar in battle

Fresco of Julius Caesar in battle

A triumphant Caesar ultimately claimed victory to become Dictator perpetuo or Perpetual Dictator of Rome. But with great rises, come great falls too, and despite making many social and political changes that the lower and middle class populace liked, Caesar was becoming too powerful for his enemies in the Senate.

And so, after our quick gallop through Caesar’s hectic life, we catch up with the soothsayer again. Caesar had been greeting his citizens for Lupercalia, an ancient Roman religious holiday, when the astrologer came forward from the crowd to issue his warning about the Ides of March. The Ides themselves held no significance or danger, being just the name given to the middle day of each month. But according to accounts, this was not the first omen predicting Julius’s demise. His third wife Calpurnia had dreamt of his murder, he’d been having worrying dizzy spells and the skies were thunderous but Caesar pressed on relentlessly.

In fact, he’d only been in full power for just a year before Senators had started to plot against him. In that time he’d reformed the Roman calendar, reorganized local government and transformed the empire whose coins now bore his image. But clearly he’d made some enemies too.

Julius Caesar denarius, 44 BC

Julius Caesar denarius, 44 BC

Envy and resentment had grown over his increasing power. Some felt Caesar wanted to be king – a position that hadn’t existed in Rome for over 500 years, and which they had no desire to restore. And so senators, including Brutus and brother-in-law Cassius, began to plan Caesar’s assassination and a senatorial coup to seize power.

Brutus’s participation was complicated by the fact that his mother and Caesar had had an affair during the leader’s youth. Caesar, who believed him to be the result of his affair, had even adopted Brutus, but this didn’t stop the rebellious senator. Caesar would later famously exclaim “Et tu Bruté!” when he saw Brutus’s treachery but we’re skipping ahead!

Various ideas were proposed for how to dispatch Caesar to the land of the gods. Some suggested pushing him off a bridge, others that he could be killed at the gladiatorial games but the majority agreed that he be killed in the Senate so the conspirators could hide their daggers under their togas.

The ruins of the Theatre of Pompey in the

The ruins of the Theatre of Pompey in the Largo di Torre Argentina

And so, despite friends’ warnings, murderous dreams and dizzy spells, Julius Caesar left for the Senate on the afternoon of March 15th 44 BC. On his way to the meeting at the Theatre of Pompey Caesar passed the soothsayer once more and joked “The Ides of March have come” as if to dismiss the seer’s deadly prediction. The soothsayer, who Roman biographer Suetonius later named as Spurinna, however, replied calmly “Aye Caesar, but not gone.” Da-da-dahhhhhhhh!

The senators encircle Caesar. A 19th-century interpretation by Karl Theodor von Piloty (1826-1886)

The senators encircle Caesar. A 19th-century interpretation by Karl Theodor von Piloty (1826-1886)

As many as 60 senators reportedly awaited Caesar as he arrived at the theatre. Greek historian Plutarch later wrote that Caesar was surrounded by the conspirators on the pretence of a legal matter. Caesar tried to wave them away but was grabbed by the shoulders and attacked with a glancing blow across the neck. Confronting the attacker, Julius exclaimed “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” at which the isolated Casca called for help and the entire group piled on, stabbing Caesar a total of 23 times. Shakespeare dramatized the scene as successive senators took the chance to plunge the knife in, safe in the knowledge that no individual could then be accused of murder. Even his adopted son, Brutus, had a go, with Shakespeare’s Julius uttering the melancholy reproach “Et tu Bruté?”

Caesar tried in vain to get away but, blinded by his own blood, tripped and fell. The senators continued to stab the 57 year old as he lay on the floor. A doctor would later perform the first recorded autopsy establishing that only one wound had been fatal and death had mainly come from blood loss.

The Death of Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904)

The Death of Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) (Photo credit Wikimedia Commoons)

Julius Caesar’s funeral was well attended and Brutus allowed Marcus Antonius,  otherwise known as Marc Anthony, to give a eulogy to his friend on condition that he didn’t name or blame anyone publicly for the death. In Shakespeare’s play Marcus Antonius opens with another extremely well known line; “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar.” The politician carefully calls the assassins “honourable men” although his sarcasm becomes increasingly obvious as he points out the wounds on Caesar’s body made by men who the ruler had trusted. Gradually the crowd turns against the conspirators as Marc Anthony suggests that they have been misled by Brutus. And finally its revealed that in his will Caesar has left every Roman citizen seventy-five drachmas, as well as land, at which point the crowd riots and sets out to find the murderers to exact justice themselves.

'Julius Caesar', Act III, Scene 2, Marc Antony's Oration by William Holmes Sullivan. Photo credit: Royal Shakespeare Company Collection

‘Julius Caesar’, Act III, Scene 2, Marc Antony’s Oration
by William Holmes Sullivan (1836-1908). Photo credit : Royal Shakespeare Company Collection

Ultimately the ruler’s death led to a series of civil wars as everyone jostled for power. Meanwhile Julius Caesar, military man, prosecutor and statesman, was quickly proclaimed as a martyr and just 2 years after his death became the first Roman person to be deified and declared a god, gaining the eternal title of “The Divine Julius.” His adopted heir Octavius, also known as Augustus, would eventually win the civil war and take control in 27 BC to regain the family’s control of the enormous Roman Empire.

So, just as predicted, the ides of March turned out to a bad day at the office for Julius Caesar. Today his death is marked in Rome with a number of special tributes and events. Flowers are laid in his honour at the remains of his temple in the Roman forum and a re-enactment of the events surrounding Caesar’s murder takes place at the location of his assassination. Which just leaves one question – does this mean we should we take more notice of our horoscopes in future?! :o)

Useful information

The site of Caesar’s assassination can still be found between the tram stops and bus stops of Largo di Torre Argentina, a busy square in central Rome and home to a shelter for abandoned cats.

*Shakespeare ramped up the drama of the soothsayer by giving him the famous “Beware the Ides of March” line whereas contemporary accounts recorded the seer warning Caesar to “Take heed of the day of the Ides of March.” You can see why old Bill changed the line, can’t you? I think we can forgive him!

Marc Anthony’s stirring funeral oration

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious;
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest,–
For Brutus is an honorable man;
So are they all, all honorable men,–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome,
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept;
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honorable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honorable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?
O judgment, thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Act3, scene 2, lines 79-113

 

 

 

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One Response to Beware the Ides of March!

  1. What an amazing post!!! Your Caesar history was more interesting than any high school history class I took!!! Grazie!!

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