"A certain seer warned Caesar to be on his guard against a great peril on the day of the month of March which the Romans call the Ides; and when the day had come and Caesar was on his way to the Senate house, he greeted the seer with a jest and said: ‘Well, the Ides of March are come,’ and the seer said to him softly: ‘Ay, they are come, but they are not gone.’”
– Plutarch, Parallel Lives, circa 100 C.E.
Today is the 2,051st anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar.
According to the account of Nicolaus of Damascus, who visited Rome just a few years after Caesar’s death and interviewed many of the eye witnesses to the assassination, Caesar was stabbed 23 times, and each conspirator made sure to get at least one stab in, even after he lay dying, so that they could all be “official” assassins of Caesar.
The conspirators, all of whom were Roman Senators, felt justified in their plot, believing they were committing tyrannicide, rather than assassinating a legitimate head of state. Though Caesar, only a month earlier, had publicly refused a diadem and a proclamation of kingship by Marc Antony, they believed Caesar planned to dismantle the Republic and become an autocrat.
By this time, Caesar already held the title of Dictator for Life, but this, alone, was not remarkable enough to justify fears of a destruction of the Republic. Pompey the Great, only several years earlier, and Lucius Cornelius Sulla about forty years earlier, had both held the same title.
Instead, the conspirators feared that Caesar’s planned military conquest of Dacia and Parthia (areas in the modern day Balkans and Iran) would be the final stepping stone in Caesar’s rise to kingship. Ancient lore stated that Parthia would only be subdued by a king, and as such, Caesar had been given permission to wear a crown while campaigning outside of the province of Italia. The conspirators feared that Caesar would return from the campaign as a king and never relinquish the title.
Caesar didn’t help his own cause when, after returning from the civil war with Pompey, he had coins minted with his own likeness on them. This was the first time a living Roman had been put on a coin. He also approved of a statue of himself placed alongside the seven ancient kings of Rome, as well as another statue placed in the Temple of Quirinus – who was the deified figure identified with Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome.
Additionally, sometime prior to the assassination, Caesar failed to stand when receiving several honorary titles bestowed upon him by the Senate. The conspirators took this as an indication that Caesar felt a sense of entitlement and was ungrateful. Caesar’s supporters claimed that he failed to stand because he had just had an episode of epilepsy and was afraid he would collapse if he stood up (he was known for having occasional “fits,” and it was the veritable “thorn in his side” throughout his public life as he attempted to hide the condition from the public; the condition had worsened as he had gotten older).
It will never be known for certain whether an epileptic fit was truly the reason Caesar didn’t stand to receive his honors, but either way, for the conspirators, it more or less sealed Caesar’s fate.
The conspirators mistakenly believed their plot would save the Roman Republic. In fact, Caesar’s assassination not only failed to save the Republic, it ushered in the rise of the Roman Empire and the complete destruction of the values of the Republic, and it set the stage for Octavian (Caesar’s nephew and named heir) to seize the reigns of power and become the very autocratic ruler Caesar’s assassins had feared.
Caesar had planned to leave for his campaign in Dacia and Parthia in April of 44 C.E. Thus, the conspirators knew they must implement their plan prior to his departure.
On March 15, a Senate meeting was convened under the auspices of having Caesar read a petition. The Senate was to meet at the Theater of Pompey. This was a temporary meeting place for the Senate, as a new Senate house was under construction at the time. (The new Senate house, incidentally, was to be named in honor of Caesar – another thing that fed the conspirators’ ire.) While waiting for a quorum, several of Caesar’s friends and family tried to dissuade him from going. His wife claimed to have dreamed of his death the night before, and all the augers and soothsayers were proclaiming bad omens (augers and soothsayers were always called upon before meetings of the Senate to predict favorable or unfavorable outcomes). Most significantly, Marc Antony had heard rumors that the Senate meeting was a ruse, and that something bad was going to happen instead. He begged Caesar not to go.
Caesar was reportedly about to give in when his longtime friend Marcus Brutus came to tell him quorum had been reached and to escort him to the Theater of Pompey. According to the account of Nicolaus of Damascus, Brutus reportedly told Caesar to “turn your back on these people’s nonsense and do not postpone the business that deserves the attention of Caesar and of the great empire, but consider your own worth a favorable omen.”
Brutus, of course, was one of the conspirators, and, thanks to Shakespeare, has been remembered most of all for his betrayal of his friend.
Several years earlier, Brutus – who had been one of Caesar’s top generals – had betrayed Caesar during the civil war and had fought instead for Pompey. When Pompey was defeated, Brutus was captured. But instead of executing him as all his advisors insisted, and custom dictated, Caesar pardoned Brutus and allowed him back into his inner circle. Upon his return to Rome after the civil war, he even named Brutus as his second heir, should Octavian die before Caesar.
His compassion for his old friend proved to be his undoing. In fact, most of the conspirators were men Caesar had pardoned in the past for various betrayals and transgressions, most associated with the civil war.
Brutus led Caesar to the Theater of Pompey, and instructed him to enter the portico adjoining the main hall. Marc Antony was still there, attempting to turn Caesar back, but Caesar followed Brutus toward the portico, leaving Marc Antony behind.
Caesar entered the portico where the Senate was convened and began reading the false petition. Casca, one of the conspirators – and the person who, the evening before, had inadvertently hinted at the plot to Marc Antony – stepped forward, snatched Caesar’s toga, and stabbed him in the shoulder. Caesar grabbed him by the arm and reportedly said, “Villain Casca, what are you doing?” Casca called for help, and the other conspirators jumped to his aid and began stabbing Caesar with daggers hidden underneath their togas.
Caesar, naturally, was trying to get away, and the melee ended up outside on the steps of the portico. Caesar, bleeding and seriously injured, tripped and fell onto the steps, where he was overcome by the assassins.
Reports of his last words vary, and the actual truth is not known. The familiar line “Et tu, Brute?” (“Even you, Brutus?”) was invented by Shakespeare, and is therefore not a historical account of what was said. One of Caesar’s ancient biographers, Suetonius, reports that his final words were “You too, child?” directed at Brutus (this, of course, is the source of inspiration for Shakespeare’s line). Suetonius, however, states that Caesar spoke the words in Greek, not Latin. Plutarch, another of Caesar’s biographers, states that Caesar said nothing, and instead covered his head with his toga in resignation when he realized Brutus was among the assassins.
In the wake of the assassination, the conspirators went through Rome proclaiming that Rome was free again, but mob violence erupted all over the city and a large portion of the Forum was burned. Ultimately, a series of civil wars broke out, waged by Marc Antony and Octavian, eventually ending with Marc Antony’s suicide (along with Cleopatra), the deaths of most if not all of the conspirators, and Octavian’s rise to emperor. (Octavian is better remembered by some as the Caesar Augustus referred to in Luke’s New Testament narrative of Jesus’s birth – he had given himself the new name after becoming emperor.)
Considering the dramatic impact on Roman history that Caesar’s assassination had, and considering the dramatic impact on world history that the Roman Empire had, the Ides of March may be the single most important date in history.