The Ides of March: The assassination of Julius Caesar and how it changed the world
Caesar’s death paved the way for the Roman empire after a bloody cycle of civil wars, and secured him the hallowed immortality he always craved
Spurinna was a haruspex. His calling was vital, if a little unusual, requiring him to see the future in the warm entrails of sacrificial animals.
At the great festival of Lupercalia on the 15th of February 44 B.C., he was a worried man. While priests were running around the Palatine Hill hitting women with thongs to make them fertile, Spurinna was chewing over a terrible omen.
“Spurinna knew it was a terrible sign: a sure portent of death.”
The bull that Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, had sacrificed earlier that day had no heart. Spurinna knew it was a terrible sign: a sure portent of death.
The following day, the haruspex oversaw another sacrifice in the hope it would give cause for optimism, but it was just as bad: the animal had a malformed liver. There was nothing for it but to tell Caesar.
In grave tones, Spurinna warned the dictator that his life would be in danger for a period of 30 days, which would expire on the 15th of March. Caesar dismissed the concerns. Although in his scramble for political power he had been made the chief priest of Rome (Pontifex Maximus), he was a campaign soldier by trade, and not bothered by the divinatory handwringing of seers like Spurinna.
The Ides of March
As the 30 days passed, nothing whatsoever happened. Yet when the 15th of March dawned, Caesar’s wife awoke distressed after dreaming she held his bloodied body. Fearing for his life, she begged him not to leave the house. His dreams, too, had also been unsettling. He had been flying through the air, and shaken hands with Jupiter. But he pushed any concerns aside. The day was an important annual celebration in Rome’s religious calendar, and he had called a special meeting of the Senate.
His first appointment of the day was a quick sacrifice at a friend’s house. Spurinna the seer was also there. Caesar joked that his prophecies must be off as nothing had happened. Spurinna muttered that the day was not yet over.
The sacrifices proceeded, but the animals’ innards were blemished and the day was plainly inauspicious. Caesar knew when to call it a day, and agreed to postpone the meeting of the Senate and to go home.
Later that morning, his fellow military politician and protégé Decimus called round, urging him to come to the Senate in case his absence was seen as mocking or insulting. Persuaded by his friend, soldier to soldier, Caesar agreed to go in person to announce the meeting would be postponed.
Shortly after, a slave arrived at Caesar’s house to warn him of the plot against his life. But he was too late: Caesar had left. A short while later, a man named Artemidorus of Cnidus pushed through the jostling crowds and handed Caesar a roll setting out details of the plot. But the crowds were so thick he had no chance to read it.
The conspiracy and assassination
The main Senate House was being rebuilt on Caesar’s orders, so the meeting was instead at the Curia behind the porticoed gardens attached to the great Theatre of Pompey. Another round of animal sacrifices before the start of the session was unfavourable, and Caesar waited outside, troubled. Again Decimus spoke with him. Unaware of his friend’s treachery, Caesar allowed himself to be led towards the chamber by the hand. Decked out in his triumphant general’s reddish-purple toga embroidered in gold, Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, entered the Senate’s meeting room, and ascended his golden throne.
The end came quickly. A group of Senators approached the dais. Daggers were produced from the capsae document chests the slaves had recently brought in. The metal flashed. In a frenzied attack, the most powerful man in Rome was stabbed 23 times. He fell, still clutching the unread scroll warning him to stay away.
In the English-speaking world, we know a slightly different story, thanks to Shakespeare. He lifted Caesar’s dramatic dying words, “Et tu, Brute?” from an earlier play by Richard Edes, and made them a part of the assassination mythology. In reality, most Roman writers state that Caesar said nothing, but merely pulled his toga up over his face. They do note, however, that some people were spreading the story that Caesar had gasped, “καὶ σὺ, τέκνον?/You too, my child?” to Brutus. (Many Romans of all classes were bilingual, with the more educated frequently preferring to speak Greek.)
Most famously, however, Shakespeare does away with Spurinna, the venerable entrails-gazer, and instead invents a soothsayer in a crowd, who shouts the famous prophetic warning to Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March!” It is, perhaps, one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and, as a direct result, “the Ides” has come to mean a date of doom.
The Roman calendar
In fact, it implies neither good nor bad. In Rome’s impossibly complicated calendar, every month had an Ides. Although Monty Python spelled out many of the Romans’ achievements, a user-friendly dating system was not among them.
In the mists of time, the early Romans began each month at the new moon. They called that day the Kalends (Kalendae). Two weeks later came the full moon, which they named the Ides (Idus). Midway between the two was the half-moon, which they referred to as the Nones (Nonae). For some inexplicable reason, they then chose to refer to every other day in the month in terms of its relationship to the next one of these coming up. So they would say, “five days before the Kalends of March,” or “three days before the Nones of June”.
The Kalends was always the 1st of the month. Over time, the others came to fall on set days. In March, May, July, and October, the Nones was the 7th and the Ides was the 15th. For the remaining months, the Nones was the 5th and the Ides was the 13th. Therefore the 4th of July was IIII Nones July (ie four days before the Nones – the calculation is inclusive, so both the 4th and the 7th are counted).
Although every month had an Ides in the middle, the date chosen by Caesar’s murderers was nevertheless significant. Traditionally, the Roman year started on the 1st of March, meaning the Ides was the first full moon of the year. It was a major celebration, and the festival of Anna Perenna, the goddess of the cycle of the year. Her special gift was to reward people with long life. Caesar’s assassins clearly thought they were giving long life to Rome (and their own political careers) by removing the dictator they believed was blighting it all.
A world changing aftermath
As it happens, the murder of Caesar did turn out to be a key moment in history.
Caesar may have brought Rome glory in his conquest of Gaul. He may have started and won a civil war that eventually vested absolute power in him. He may have begun highly popular social and political reforms, and even had time to abolish the chaotic ever-changing calendar and bring in his “Julian calendar,” which lasted a millennium and a half until tweaked by Pope Gregory in 1582. But in his muscular assumption of power, and his popularity among the citizenry, he threatened the deep vested interests of the patricians, who had run the Republic and the Senate for so long. It was enough to seal his fate.
“The murder of Caesar did turn out to be a key moment in history.”
With Caesar gone, Rome spiralled into another cycle of civil wars, which resulted in one of the most significant constitutional transformations in history. The Eternal City abandoned its trademark republican system of government and became an empire. In place of the Senate electing two consuls each year as joint heads of state, they transferred power to a largely omnipotent emperor. Ever since, people have argued which system was better.
Supporters of the Republic point to how it threw off the tyrannical king Tarquin the Proud and introduced elements of democracy, with power held by the patricians and the plebeians: SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus. They note how it found fame and glory in conquering almost all the Mediterranean basin: Italy, Spain, France, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, spreading its influence far beyond ancient Latium.
Advocates of the Empire, on the other hand, highlight that the Republic was in reality a hereditary oligarchy in the hands of the wealthy patrician families who ran the all-powerful Senate with no genuine voice for the plebeians, women, or slaves. They also point out that the Republic was too weak to govern effectively at home or abroad, instead relying on “bread and circuses” to keep its citizens happy amid endless civil wars. They note that Rome only truly became a great power under the might of the Empire, which lasted even longer than the Republic, and in the East until A.D. 1453.
Caesar himself remains equally as contested a character. He embodies the conflict between Republic and Empire like no one else. He was a military colossus, original thinker, compelling writer, magnetic orator, dynamic reformer, and magnanimous politician. Yet he was also manipulative, narcissistic, egotistical, sexually predatory, shockingly savage in war even by Roman standards, and monomaniacally obsessed with acquiring absolute power for himself.
Little did Spurinna the haruspex know, as he pored over the succession of hot entrails in early 44 B.C., that the man who teased him about his dud prophecies would, within two years, rise from the tomb as “the Divine Julius” (Divus Iulius), Rome’s first resident to be declared a god. Far from heralding doom, the Ides of March, in fact, finally brought Caesar the hallowed immortality he always craved.