This blog was originally written for THE SPARK newsletter for Arizona State University
Take comfort, for I am not a soothsayer, and I do not bring you dreadful news.
Immortalized through Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the fifteenth of March has been a particularly fun day that isn’t highlighted on the calendar. If you are surfing through social media, you are sure to find memes dedicated to the day when 60 Romans felt ‘stabby’ and ended the reign of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E. A soothsayer had warned Caesar that doom would befall him before the end of the Ides of March. Caesar had grown unstable with the Senate of Rome and fear grew among the Senators that Caesar would make himself a king of Rome, thus ending the Republic and throwing Rome into tyranny. Ironically, the assassination of Caesear would spark vengence in his only adopted heir, Octavian (later known as Augustus), and triggered the civil war which began the Roman Empire.
In his play, Shakespeare depicts the event as vengeance and betrayal wrapped in irony. Steeped in drama, it has become the subject of many Hollywood films. But is the entire story true, or did Shakespeare utilize his creative license? Is there anything significant in relation to the Ides of March and Caesar’s death? Was it really Caesar’s best friend who struck the final blow? Within the works of Plutarch, a platonist philosopher and historian, scholars have been able to determine what is fiction and what is fact.
Soothsayers were common in ancient society. Most were highly regarded and openly practiced. The Roman biographer Suetonius identifies the soothsayer as a haruspex named Spurinna. Gaius Suetonius Traquilius, an ancient Roman historian, also records Caesar being addressed by a ‘seer’ before his demise.
What are the Ides of March?
The Ides of March is precisely the 74th day of the Roman calendar year. Instead of counting each day within the calendar year, the Romans counted backwards from the end of the month. There were three fixed points in each month called the Nones, the Ides, and the Kalends. The Ides consisted of the thirteenth day or the fifteenth day for the months of March, May, July, and October.
Contrary to popular theory, the Ides of March is not an omen that alludes to a disastrous event. The Ides were very popular in Roman society as they were associated with the God Jupiter. Sheep were sacrificed in the name of Jupiter during the Ides of each month. March, however, was particularly special because during the Ides of March the ritual of Mamuralia was performed. During this ritual the ideology of scapegoating is observed in the form of a man who dressed in sheep skins and driven from the city as a sacrifice.
The date of Caesar’s assassination doesn’t appear to be correlated for symbolic reasons. However, it is interesting to note that Caesar was slaughtered with the intent on saving the Republic of Rome. One could say Caesar was the scapegoat of Mamuralia in 44 B.C.E.
Et tu Brute?
Marcus Junius Brutus, simply referred to as Brutus in Shakespeare’s play, was a Roman Senator and firm supporter of the Republic. Through ancient historians, Brutus was one of Caesar’s most trusted allies in the Senate. Perhaps Caesar favored him above the others? Although there is no evidence which shows the two had a brotherly bond, Caesar would not have expected Brutus to be an conspirator. However, there is no accounting of Caesar dramatically grasping the robes of Brutus and uttering the words, “Et tu Brute?” or, “You too Brutus?” Gaius Suetonius Traquilius records Caesar actually stating something roughly translated as, “And you child.” The actual meaning of this phrase is still up for debate by historians.
The assassination of Julius Caesar is as dramatic and frought with irony as it is depicted in Shakespeare. Although the popular theories and Hollywood details are fiction, it still appeals to the modern imagination. Ultimate power, greed, conspiracy and betrayal, ancient Rome had it all.
Fun Fact: The death site of Caesar, the curia of Pompey’s Theatre, is now open to the public for viewing and has become a sanctuary for feral cats.
For more reading material about ancient Rome we recommend SPQR by Dame Mary Beard. Dame Winifred Mary Beard, DBE, FSA, FBA, FRSL is an English scholar of Ancient Roman civilization. She is the Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of Ancient Literature.
As always, be kind to one another and celebrate the history that surrounds us.