The True Story of the Ides of March

caesarIn William Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar,” Caesar mocks the soothsayer’s earlier prediction to “Beware the Ides of March.” Later, Caesar says, “The Ides of March have come” to point out the supposed dreaded day did not bring disaster. The soothsayer responds with a prophetic point, “Ay, Caesar; but not gone.” Shortly thereafter, Caesar is stabbed many times over by conspirators in the Senate, including by his good friend Marcus Brutus. As he lies dying, Caesar mumbles those infamous last words, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!”

What often gets lost in popular history is that this is just a play, not an actual accurate portrayal of the assassination of Julius Caesar. Like any modern day movie, this was Shakespeare taking literary and creative license with a real event. Caesar’s last dying breath was not “Et tu, Brute?…”, as even some before Shakespeare had claimed. However, it is accurate that Caesar was murdered on the “Ides of March,” which is March 15th on today’s calendar. Here’s the real story of what happened on that historic day and why it’s called the “Ides of March” in the first place.

Rome in 44 BCE was a city bubbling over with tension. Several years earlier, civil war had begun when Pompey-led factions of the Senate asked Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Why did this spark a war?

Governors of Roman provinces (promagistrates) were not allowed to bring any part of their army within Italy itself and, if they tried, they automatically forfeited their right to rule, even in their own province.  The only ones who were allowed to command soldiers in Italy were consuls or preators. Caesar knew to return without his army at his back, which was what was required, given the political climate at the time would be exceptionally risky and so had to decide whether the risk was greater to bring his army or go alone.

His decision to bring his soldiers with him across the Rubicon (a small river whose location was actually lost to history until relatively recently, but at the time was the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy proper) meant that if he lost, not only would he be executed, but so would all the soldiers that followed him. According to the historian Suetonius, Caesar wasn’t at first sure whether he’d bring his soldiers with him or come quietly and hope for the best, but he ultimately made the decision to march on Rome.

Shortly after the news hit Rome that Caesar was coming with an army, many of the Senators, along with the consuls G. Claudius Marcellus, L. Cornelius Lentulus Crus, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, a.k.a. Pompey, fled Rome.  They were under the impression that Caesar was bringing nearly his whole, highly experienced army to Rome.  Instead, he was just bringing one legion, which was largely outnumbered by the forces Pompey and his allies had at their disposal, even if they were less experienced.

A few years later, Caesar defeated Pompey, with the older one-time friend and teacher being executed by Egypt’s king in 48 BCE.  The victor returned to Rome and was declared dictator for ten years. However, Caesar stocked the Senate with allies and was ultimately named dictator for life.

Of course, this did not sit well with many Roman citizens, elites or those who were not Caesar supporters in the Senate. A dictator for life was a bit too close to a “king” in the eyes of many.

To put the gravity of this designation in perspective, kings ruled Rome prior to the founding of the Republic by Lucius Junius Brutus. Lucius Brutus- ancestor of the more famous Brutus of “Et tu Brute?” fame- in roughly 509 BC summoned the Roman people to vote for the overthrow and exile of the monarchy – an act of rebellion sparked by the rape of a Roman noblewoman and Brutus’ kin, Lucretia, who felt being raped dishonored her family, so killed herself. (Fascinating to think that if not for that single abhorrent act of rape, much of human history may have been completely changed.)

After the monarchy was successfully deposed, one of Brutus’ first acts was to get the people to swear an oath that never again would a king rule in Rome.

Unsurprising from this, in the years leading up to 44 BCE, as described in Barry Strauss’s book The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination, several other Caesar assassination plots were thwarted before they were carried out. Nonetheless, the dictator wasn’t shaken despite the number of enemies he was accumulating.

By 44 BCE, a reasonable portion of Roman’s elite had decided that Caesar had to go. There were just too many signs that Caesar thought of himself as bigger than the Republic. For instance, in either December 45 BCE or January 44 BCE, the Senate voted on formally presenting honors to Caesar. As Caesar sat in front of the Temple of Mother Venus, the Senate marched to him expecting to be greeted. Despite etiquette calling for Caesar to stand, he did not – even making jokes about the Senators and rejecting their gift. This, of course, did not sit well with the ruling class.(Although it should be noted that according to Plutarch, Caesar would later blame his failure to rise and behavior on his frequent sickness, long claimed to have been seizures but may not have been as we’ll get to shortly, that resulted in him becoming “speedily shaken and whirled about, bringing on giddiness and insensibility…”)

The second “last straw” took place shortly afterward when a crowd greeted Caesar as “Rex” – Latin for “King”- a major no-no in Roman politics, as previously mentioned. According to Dio, two tribunes, Gaius Epidius Marullus and Lucius Caesetius Flavus, had the person believed to have started the chant arrested. Caesar was supposedly furious for what he thought to be poor treatment of the person and ultimately saw to it that the two tribunes were stripped of their titles.

The third incident was perhaps the most contrived. During the Lupercalia festival, in which fertility is celebrated, Marc Antony presented Caesar with a diadem (essentially, a crown). While many in the crowd sat in stunned silence, Caesar refused it. Antony tried again and this time Caesar said, “Jupiter alone of the Romans is king.” This got a huge applause from the crowd. Later, Caesar made sure it was recorded that he refused this crown.

Whether this was a staged event to try to convince everyone Caesar had no interest in being king (despite working hard at acquiring all the powers one associates with a king) or not, with more and more incidents of Caesar being compared to a king, the ruling class were restless – many among them saw Caesar as a power hungry tyrant who needed to be stopped before it was too late.

While Shakespeare gives Brutus and Cassius the credit as lead conspirators in the downfall of Caesar, it should also be noted that, outside of Plutarch (who wrote his account almost a century and a half after Caesar’s death), most other ancient sources list another as the key conspirator of the trio. This includes the earliest account, written by Nicolaus of Damascus within a few decades of the event, naming Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus (who Shakespeare incorrectly called Decius) as the most important of the three in organizing Caesar’s death. A high-ranking general and close friend of Caesar, Decimus was perhaps the man that the Caesar most trusted of the three, and the only one of the trio that supported Caesar throughout the war with Pompey.

It isn’t clear today why Decimus turned on his friend; speculation abounds on this, with some believing he was angry at having been passed over for a promotion or that he felt he had been disrespected, such as when Caesar broke tradition and allowed some of his other lieutenants to conduct triumphal parades, but did not allow Decimus the same honor after Decimus’ great victories in Gaul. Or maybe he was simply jealous of Caesar. Whatever the case, it was Decimus, a man who was one of Caesar’s most trusted lieutenants even through the previous war with Pompey, who made sure Caesar went to the Portico of Pompey that fateful day.

As for Brutus, while Shakespeare depicts him as something of a son to Caesar, in fact this is a bit of a misrepresentation. While Brutus was technically an ally of Caesar, this was only after being given a large amount of money and a posh political appointment to buy that allegiance. Directly before this, unlike Decimus, he had been Caesar’s enemy fighting alongside Pompey during the civil war. On top of that, about a year before the assassination, Brutus divorced his wife and marred his cousin Porcia, who was the daughter of Cato the Younger, a recently deceased enemy of Caesar’s, who had killed himself rather than live under Caesar’s rule.

That said, it should be noted that during the war, Caesar had specified that Brutus, if captured, should be brought in alive, unlike certain others. But why he did this isn’t fully clear, given Brutus’ actions. It has been speculated that this may have been out of affection for Brutus’ mother who was formerly Caesar’s mistress. (Some have further speculated that Brutus was in fact the son of Caesar and that Caesar knew it, but this would have put Caesar fathering Brutus at the age of 15. Not impossible, of course, but most historians think unlikely and there is no documented evidence to back this claim up.)

As for Cassius, he was a senator and likewise an opponent of Caesar’s during the war with Pompey, as well as known to have chaffed under Caesar’s rule.

This brings us to the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play- there is no record of any such individual saying: “Beware the ides of March.” It does appear, however, Caesar was warned that his life was in danger for a thirty day period ending on March 15th (not just in danger on the Ides of March). This warning came from a haruspex by the name of Spurinna. This, however, was an easy prediction that was likely no news to Caesar given the political climate. Spurinna’s access to the elites of Rome also ensured he was just as well acquainted with the rumors of conspiracies against Caesar.

Even the 30 day number was mostly a no-brainer. Everyone knew that Caesar was to embark Rome on March 18th, which meant that an attempt on his life needed to be done before that day. Once Caesar was off campaigning, if he was successful in those campaigns, his popularity with the people would only grow and, surrounded by his army, there would be little chance to safely get rid of him directly for some time.

And so it was that shortly before his death, Decimus convinced Caesar to change his mind on his plans to skip the Senate session on the 15th. Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia’s had been insisting that Caesar keep a low profile before his upcoming military campaign, and particularly that he avoid the Senate meetings where he’d be vulnerable, as only Senators were allowed inside and he would be unarmed.  As Nicolaus of Damascus writes,

…his friends were alarmed at certain rumors and tried to stop him going to the Senate-house, as did his doctors, for he was suffering from one of his occasional dizzy spells. His wife, Calpurnia, especially, who was frightened by some visions in her dreams, clung to him and said that she would not let him go out that day. But [Decimus] Brutus, one of the conspirators who was then thought of as a firm friend, came up and said, ‘What is this, Caesar? Are you a man to pay attention to a woman’s dreams and the idle gossip of stupid men, and to insult the Senate by not going out, although it has honoured you and has been specially summoned by you? But listen to me, cast aside the forebodings of all these people, and come. The Senate has been in session waiting for you since early this morning.’

Beyond Decimus goading him into going, it is also significant to note that Caesar may not at this point have been in his right mind. While it’s traditionally stated, as previously noted, that Caesar suffered from the occasional seizure, this may not have actually been what was happening, despite Caesar himself claiming such. (Caesar played up the “morbus comitialis” angle, owing to the fact that those who suffered from epilepsy were thought to be touched by the gods during their episodes, with the condition called by Hippocrates “the Sacred Disease” because of it.) However, researchers Dr. Francesco Galassi and Hutan Ashrafian posit that Caesar’s actual symptoms, including dizziness, headaches, limb weakness, and sudden falls, seem more closely in line with suffering from Transient Ischemic Attacks, also known as mini-strokes. Beyond the symptoms more lining up with this, it is also noted that rather than being a lifelong malady, his condition did not pop up until late in life, which would be a very rare thing for an actual epileptic.

From this, it is speculated that the supposed episode that occurred shortly before the Senate meetings may have seen Caesar not thinking as rationally as he otherwise might have. And, indeed, given the rumors and Caesar himself knowing any attempt on his life, if it came at all, would come around this time, it seems odd that he chose to go on that day.

Whatever his state of mind, Caesar made his way to the Senate on the so-called “Ides of March,” essentially the “divide” or “middle day” of March, signifying the mid-point of the month, which was the 13th in most months at this time, excepting March, May, July, and October. (This was originally supposed to be marked by the full moon in the Roman calendar, see: The Evolution of the Modern Day Calendar.)

Contrary to many depictions, he did not, however, go to the Senate House, as it was being renovated at the time according to Plutarch. Nor did he go to Capitoline Hill as Shakespeare said. Rather, he went to the Portico of Pompey, where the conspirators were putting on gladiatorial games at the theatre and the Senate was convening. Here, once again, we see Decimus playing a key role in that he provided the gladiators, not just for the show, but so that they’d be nearby if the conspirators needed them for protection after the assassination.

Soon after his arrival, several senators approached Caesar, seemingly to discuss important matters with him. They formed a perimeter around Caesar, not just to get close to attack him from all sides, but also to make sure no Senators who supported Caesar could come to his aid before he’d been dealt a fatal blow.

Outside, Marc Antony was being distracted by Gaius Trebonius.  A seasoned soldier and strong supporter of Caesar, Antony could have potentially foiled the plan, or at least made it much more risky for the conspirators if the two great soldiers fought back to back. This, perhaps, would have allowed some of the other former soldiers turned Senators that Caesar had strategically put in place the needed time to come to his aid before the deed was done. And, indeed, we know at least two of the Senators, Gaius Calvisius Sabinus and Lucius Marcius Censorinus, attempted to aid Caesar, but could not get to him fast enough.

Vincenzo_Camuccini_-_La_morte_di_CesareInside of their togas, the conspirators hid daggers. Caesar reportedly seemed suspicious of their approach, but an old friend, Tillius Cimber, came to him with a petition. Upon reaching Caesar, he grabbed Caesar’s toga causing Caesar to exclaim, “Ista quidem vis est!” (“Why, this violence?”)

Caesar very quickly got his answer as daggers were produced and he began to be stabbed. That said, unlike Shakespeare’s play, Caesar, a great fighter himself, fought back, including severely injuring at least one participate, Casca, with a stylus. Caesar also tried to escape, but tripped and fell, where he was an easy target lying on the ground.

But he did not die in the arms of Brutus and did not say “Et tu, Brute?…” as far as any historical account notes. Historians agree that Brutus was there and stabbed Caesar, but there is no indication he was the last person to do it or that Caesar placed any significance on Brutus being one of the attackers.

As for what Caesar actually said as he lay dying, most historical accounts seem to indicate nothing at all, or at least nothing that was recorded. Once the deed was done and death was near, he simply covered his face with his toga, speculated to have been an act to preserve his dignity as he lay dying, ironically enough near a statue of Pompey.

After Caesar’s assassination, there was initial hope that Rome would become a Republic once again. Instead, it fell back into the hands of an all-encompassing leader in less than two decades – Emperor Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and one of the most influential rulers in history, in terms of shaping aspects of the future. In other words, Caesar’s assassination more or less had the opposite effect as was intended.

But for Shakespeare, it was great source material for his “based on a true story” play- as with so many films today, not tending to bother too much with accuracy. “Et tu, Shakespeare? Then fall duller, more accurate, historical accounts.”

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  • There’s a thread of speculation that Caesar was aware that his health was bad, and actually preferred a quick death at the hands of his enemies than the potential of mental disability, etc. caused by more strokes. There’s no way to prove it now, but it is consistent with his actions.

  • G. Maenhout

    Caesar wouldn;t have said “Et tu, Brute?…”, but “kai sou, teknon’: Greek was the lingua franca amongst the Roman elite.