Well, it’s that day again: March 15. Also known as the Ides of March, we’re supposed to beware. Why? What’s so ominous about March 15? It’s one more month till Tax Day, right? That sounds pretty ominous to many of us. So beware, beware I tell you!
Wait! Halt! Cue the rewind music.
Hold with the beware stuff. The Ides of March simply refers to the full moon according to the calendar used by the ancient Romans. Their year used a ten-month cycle that began in March, so the Ides of March was the first full moon of the year (although it could also fall on the 13th, depending on the phases of the moon). Celebrating the new year is an old idea, and it was no different in Rome. In the early centuries of Rome the poor would build little tents on the Field of Mars and pray to the goddess Anna Perenna (which means per annum in Latin, referring to the “ring of the year;” she represented renewal and long life). In the later years of the Republic, people would gather at the Tiber River and offer sacrifices, along with praying and feasting.
So, phases of the moon. Well who cares about that and why should we beware? Brutus cared. Calpurnia cared. The prophets of Rome cared. William Shakespeare cared. The one person who didn’t seem to care was Julius Caesar, and of course, today that’s what we most remember about the Ides of March–it’s the day Caesar was murdered.
Caesar’s vanquishing is only one of the most well-known and remembered deaths in history, but how much do we really know about it? And how much of what we know really happened? For the interest of trivia pursuers everywhere, let’s take a look at the who, what, why, when… um, wait, we know the when, so just etc.
Truthfully, though, there is more we can know about the when and it is closely tied in with the why. The Romans were always warlike; said to have descended from the Mars, the god of war, and having links to the ancient people of Troy, it makes sense that military arts would be part of their national character. Julius Caesar took it all to the extreme. If history was a video game, Caesar would be a leveling up point. He was once captured by pirates and held for ransom. His response? He was outraged by the smallness of the ransom and insisted that they ask for more! They did, and they received it and freed Caesar. Unfortunately for them, he had also declared that he would hunt them down and kill them, which he did.
Boldness was not a quality Caesar lacked. Making his way from the top of Italy across Gaul to Britain, he conquered many tribes and added vast territories to the Republic’s holdings (which here means, almost every place he went). At different times, he held almost every leadership position available in both the Roman military and in politics. His means were sometimes dubious, which played into his decision to eventually turn and conquer his own city of Rome. He was worried about being prosecuted and losing his personal wealth and power, so he famously crossed the Rubicon, won the civil war that erupted, became dictator for life, and was even declared a sacred personage (which is the more polite way of saying a god). After peace was restored, Caesar began his Rome improvement plans. One of those changes was the creation of the Julian Calendar, which changed the new year to January and added a leap year once every four years.
All this was a little too much for many among the senators and nobility, though. The Romans had driven out their kings and existed as a republic for almost five centuries, so to say Caesar’s almost unlimited power was a concern would be putting it mildly. All it took was the whispers of the word “king” and a conspiracy was born. Of course, having created many enemies along his path to power meant that conspirators were in no short supply.
Will Durant, in his volume “Caesar and Christ” (book two of his 11-volume “Story of Civilization”) says, “Men who have been deprived of wonted power cannot be mollified by pardoning their resistance; it is as difficult to forgive forgiveness as it is to forgive those whom we have injured” (p 195). Nobles, senators, military–Caesar pardoned many who had fought against him, but it didn’t win their loyalty. Caesar gave them fuel for their fears by wearing purple (a kingly color), sitting on a golden throne in the Senate and not rising when senators approached him (a kingly attitude), and having statues of him made (a kingly command). Despite the famous incident of Caesar refusing to be honored with a kingly crown, the conspirators had all the evidence they needed that their leader would become their king, so they recruited the most famous assassin of all: Marcus Junius Brutus.
Brutus’s involvement was important for three reasons. First, he had been a follower of and friend to Caesar. To show that even he was worried about Caesar’s motives lent credibility to the plot. Second, he was considered one of the most virtuous men in Rome, which again added credibility. Third, he was named after, and supposedly descended from, one of the most famous figures in Roman history, Lucius Junius Brutus, who had driven out the last despotic Etruscan king of Rome in 509 BC and founded the Roman Republic in its place. The Roman historian Suetonius hints that Brutus may even have been Caesar’s son, but modern historians are more doubtful (although Caesar did have an affair with Brutus’s mother, the timing is spurious). Brutus certainly felt the weight of his namesake, though. ” ‘Our ancestors,’ he wrote to a friend, ‘thought that we ought not to endure a tyrant even if he were our own father’ ” (Durant p 196). Appian records that at first Brutus was unconvinced but was egged on by notes attached to statues of his namesake that said things like “Brutus are you dead?” Finally, the Sibylline oracle proclaimed that the Parthians could only be conquered by a king and rumors went wild about Caesar’s intentions. Brutus caved, and the conspirators chose the date that would become so famous.
Rumors weren’t the only things swirling in Rome; prophecies also abound in this tale of treachery. According to Suetonius, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia dreamt that an ornament honoring him had fallen and she saw him stabbed and dead across her lap. The augur Spurinna foretold that the threat to Caesar’s life would not come later than the Ides of March. A kingbird carrying a laurel was chased into the temple and torn apart by another flock of birds. William Shakespeare would add more omens of doom in his famous play “Julius Caesar,” including shooting stars and thunderous skies, ghosts roaming the streets, and a lioness giving birth in the city. In Act II of that famous play, Calpurnia begs Caesar not to go to the Senate, and he responds: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of earth but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come” (Act II, Scene II). In the end, he yields (but we knew that was coming already) and even sasses Spurinna the soothsayer along the way by saying “The ides of March are come.” Spurinna responds, “Ay Caesar; but not gone.” Dreams, ravaged birds, ghosts–it’s pretty chilling stuff.
But what could be more chilling than realizing that one of your attackers is a man you called friend? The most famous line from Shakespeare’s play (and this play is FULL of famous lines) has to be in Act III Scene I when Caesar says, “Et tu, Brute! Then fall Caesar!” This is another of those almost-true-but-not-quite lines from history. Suetonius says that Caesar, “reproached him in Greek with: ‘You, too, my child?’ ” (p 41). This could also be inaccurate, though, and a reflection of Suetonius’s belief that Brutus was Caesar’s son. After so many centuries, who knows. Shakespeare’s Latin certainly is powerful in showing the despair of betrayal at the hands of a friend. That betrayal is why Dante places Brutus in the innermost circle of Hell with only two other people, being gnawed on by Lucifer himself. One is Gaius Cassius, the man who convinced Brutus to take part in the assassination, and the other is Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus Christ to the Romans. Literary punishment aside, the sight of his friend as an assassin caused Caesar to pull his robe over his face and submit to the blows of the knives.
Stabbed 23 times, only one wound to his chest was said to have been a mortal blow. It should be noted that gathering around someone in a mob and then trying to stab is a haphazard method of murder. Other ideas had been to waylay Caesar on a bridge and tip him over the side where assassins waiting below would finish him off. As it was, some of the 60 men who took part stabbed themselves or each other before fleeing and leaving Caesar to bleed to death. Plutarch records that at a dinner on March 14, Caesar was said to have been asked what sort of death was the best one, to which he replied, “A sudden one.” As he walked to the Senate that day someone had tried to warn Caesar by thrusting a note detailing the plot into his hand. He put it to the bottom of his other papers and died still clutching it.
So there you have the Ides of March in 44 BC. But the story doesn’t stop there, as anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s play will tell you. The conspirators themselves reaped little benefit; all were declared enemies of the Republic. While plotting, Brutus had convinced the others that only Caesar was the danger and that they should not also assassinate Marcus Antonius. Mark Antony, as he is more commonly called, was one of Caesar’s generals and supporters and would become the biggest enemy to those who thought they had done the Roman Republic a great service. Suetonius notes that few of the killers lived longer than three years after the crime, “All were condemned, and all perished in different ways…some using the very daggers with which they had murdered Caesar to take their own lives” (p 44).
Starting at the funeral a couple days later, Antony began to make trouble. Thinking he had been made an heir in Caesar’s last will, he was angered when he discovered otherwise. One of Caesar’s bequests had been to leave his private gardens as a public park for the people, as well as 300 sesterces to every citizen of Rome. Antony used these bequests to stir the crowd against the conspirators, eventually lifting up the blood-stained robe before the crowd. The flames of the funeral pyre grew as the enflamed citizens began throwing extra items on it–furniture, robes, musical instruments, ornaments, weapons. The crowd seized wood from the fire and set out from the Forum to burn the homes of the conspirators. They were stopped by guards (mostly–some of the buildings in the Forum were burned), but most of the conspirators had fled Rome, if not Italy, by then.
Brutus and Cassius were both assigned positions outside of Italy, but not trusting for their safety, instead fled to Greece. Rome itself was once again plunged into civil war. In 42 BC the two fought Antony’s armies (along with his newest allies) at the Battle of Philipi. In two separate battles, each was defeated and committed suicide rather than be captured–probably not with the same daggers they had used on the Ides of March but less than three years later.
So sandwiched in between Pi Day and St. Patrick’s Day is this momentous piece of history. It’s the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire—one of those events with lasting impact. If you want to learn more about Julius Caesar and his deeds, you might start by reading some ancient sources (many of which are anything but dull), including Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars, Plutarch’s Lives, or Caesar’s own The Conquest of Gaul. I really recommend Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, which includes a masterful bit of writing during the funeral where Brutus tries to defend their actions and Antony stirs up the crowd. Shakespeare retells the story with some historical accuracy and a lot of wonderful drama. If you want some condensation, Carl J. Richard’s Twelve Greeks and Romans Who Changed the World is quite engaging. And if this were some fancy holiday you could spend hours on Pinterest planning some kind of party. Since it’s not, and I don’t know any Roman recipes off the top of my head to share, you could just enjoy a glass of wine and refrain from any torch brandishing. The wine might also help with the next Ides in April—it’s coming soon. Beware, beware!