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Beware the Ides of March...

The Roman holiday was marked by religious observances before Julius Caesar's notorious murder.

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  • 'The Death of Caesar' by Jean-Léon Gérôme.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

“Beware the Ides of March.” These infamous words are uttered by an unnamed “soothsayer” in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The voice coming from a throng of citizens is one of many omens in the play that presages Caesar’s doom. Like many aspects of the story, Shakespeare borrowed the encounter from Plutarch’s account of Caesar in his famous work Parallel Lives, which was, itself, written more than a century after Caesar’s death.

In Plutarch’s version, the seer is similarly nameless. As Caesar passes them on the way to the Theatre of Pompey, where he will meet his demise, he jokes, “Well, the Ides of March are come.” To which the seer replies, “Aye, they are come, but they are not gone.” It was another biographer, Suetonius, who identified the seer, claiming that they were a haruspex—someone who perceives the future through the spilling of entrails—named Spurinna.

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Since Shakespeare wrote those famous words, the Ides of March has become an idiom, a warning of both fatal hubris and a political fall from grace. The phrase has found its way into everything from an episode of The Simpsons to the title of a George Clooney/Ryan Gosling political drama. But what made the Ides of March so important, and why has the date stayed fixed in our minds ever since?

Caesar and his contemporaries used the Roman calendar, a lunar calendar in which the days were divvied up by a somewhat complex calculus that focused on finding three specific fixed points in each month: the Nones, which were nine days before the Ides; the Ides, which usually fell on either the 13th or 15th day of the month; and the Kalends, which was the first of the following month.

The Ides were holy days, sacred to Jupiter, the chief deity of the Roman state and the rough equivalent of the Greek god Zeus. So, the Ides of March was an important day to the Romans, even before the bloody events of March 15, 44 BCE—the day of Julius Caesar's murder.

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On that day, some 60 Roman senators participated in a conspiracy to stab Caesar 23 times, ending his life. This took place not in secret, but in a meeting of the senate at the Theatre of Pompey. Leading the conspirators were Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus—friends and compatriots of Caesar, whose betrayal landed them the worst of all punishments in Dante’s Divine Comedy, where they join Judas Iscariot in being forever gnawed upon by Lucifer himself in the center of hell.

For the 60 conspirators, one thing was clear. They believed that Julius Caesar had become a tyrant, consolidating too much power in the hands of one man and threatening the very republic itself. Indeed, the famous phrase “sic semper tyrannis,” which roughly translates to “thus always to tyrants,” is sometimes attributed to Brutus in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, although Plutarch suggests that Brutus was unable to say any words in the moment.

julius caesar ides of march
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  • 'The Death of Julius Caesar' by Vincenzo Camuccini.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Indeed, the conspirators were not all in agreement with one another over their precise motives, though all wished to prevent Caesar from becoming king of Rome. Some sought to overturn reforms he had put into place and go back to the way things had been before, while others believed that Caesar’s reforms were beneficial but the man’s ambitions were simply too dangerous for the republic.

Though he was “dictator in perpetuity” at the time of his death, Julius Caesar had not held the title for long. After serving for eight years in the Gallic Wars, Caesar was ordered to disband his armies and return home. Instead, he brought his armies across the Rubicon, the river that marked the border of the lands controlled directly by Rome, kicking off what became known as Caesar’s Civil War in 49 BCE and also giving us yet another idiom that we still use today—“crossing the Rubicon” to mean going beyond a point of no return.

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This conflict eventually led to Caesar consolidating his power considerably, which in turn led many to fear that he was attempting to declare himself king of Rome, something that the republic had not had since 509 BCE. Indeed, three “last straws” have been identified leading up to the assassination, all of which suggested that Julius Caesar was considering trying to place himself on the throne of Rome.

Perhaps ironically, the actions of the conspirators had the exact opposite outcome they had hoped. Though the murderous senators are said to have marched through the streets saying, “People of Rome, we are once again free,” their actions actually began another civil war—one which eventually saw the fall of the Roman Republic.

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Julius Caesar had named his grandnephew Gaius Octavius his sole heir, lending the 18-year-old considerable political power and also the support of the populace, with whom Caesar had been widely popular. In less than 20 years, the inheritor of the Caesar name had re-styled himself Augustus and became the first Roman Emperor, ending the Roman Republic forever.

Though in Shakespear’s Julius Caesar, the eponymous character’s last words are, famously, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar,” no one really knows what the last words to leave the dying man’s lips were. Whatever they might have been, probably no one in that room at the time, no matter how justified they believed their actions were, could have imagined that they were at a turning point that would see the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of an empire that would last more than 400 years.

Sources: History.com