Thursday, March 15, 2018

Beware the Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March


“Et tu, Brute?”

        Today, the Ides of March, marks the anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. Caesar was famously assassinated at a meeting of the Roman Senate after having (almost certainly apocryphally) been warned to “Beware the Ides of March.” He was presented with a written warning of the conspiracy against him as he was walking to the Senate meeting, but seems to have never read the warning. Marc Antony, to whom the plot had been divulged, tried to intercept Caesar, but he was himself interrupted.  Although stabbed twenty-three times by the various conspirators, only one wound was fatal. At the time of his death he was 56.
            Caesar’s murder by members of the Senate (some 60 senators were part of the plot, but not Cicero – the conspirators were unsure he had the stomach for such an act) was premised upon the notion that they were somehow preserving liberty for Rome; after the deed they paraded through the streets shouting “liberty.”  This against the fear that Caesar sought to be king, an especially galling notion in light of Rome having (at least as part of its foundation myth) having been ruled by kings and then thrown them off.  Still, at this stage Caesar had been appointed by the Senate Dictator for Life (dictator perpetuo).  It seems this subset of the Senate sought to undo what the whole Senate had approved. 
            As set forth in Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography Caesar:
The conspirators spoke of liberty, and believed that this could only be restored by removing Caesar. Most, perhaps all, thought they were acting for the good of the entire Republic. With Caesar dead the normal institutions of the State ought to function properly again and Rome could be guided by the Senate and freely elected magistrates. To show that this was their sole aim they decided they would kill the dictator but no one else, including his fellow consul and close associate Antony. Brutus is said to have persuaded them to accept this, against the advice of some of the more pragmatic conspirators.
The “huddled masses” of Rome were less worried about Republican principles than they were with the loss of Caesar’s largess and the interruption of public work programs that provided desperately needed employment.
         “Liberty” was not to be had. Caesar’s death unleashed upon the tottering Roman Republic the Second Civil War of Caesar’s heir Octavian (18 years old at the time of Caesar’s death and later to be Caesar Augustus) and his compatriot Marc Antony (Lepidus, the third member of the Second Triumvirate, was a place holder) against the assassins and their various supporters. The decision of the night before the assignation to not as well target Marc Antony, in retrospect, was no doubt regretted.
Assassins Brutus and Cassius (Gaius Cassius Longinus) would each commit suicide after losing a phase of the Battle of Philippi (notwithstanding the presentation in the HBO series “Rome,” they actually died on different days).  Cicero (who as noted above was not himself part of the conspiracy) would be executed as part of the proscriptions after the victory of the Second Triumvirate.
Still later Octavian and Antony would turn on one another, Antony’s forces being routed at Actium.  Octavian would go on to be the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus.
         But back to Caesar’s dying words. “Et tu Brute” is not recorded by any classical historian – it is a quote from Shakespeare. Plutarch, who was born exactly 100 years after the assassination, reports that Caesar said nothing after the attack began in earnest. Suetonius wrote that others reported his last words to be “καὶ σύ, τέκνον” (Greek still being the lingua franca of the Romans), transliterated as “Kai su, teknon” or “You also child,” addressed to Brutus (that is Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, not to be confused with Decimus Junius Brutus, another party to the assignation). There were rumors, later reported by Plutarch (Suetonius is silent on the topic) that Caesar was in fact Brutus’ father – it was known that Brutus’ mother Servilia was Caesar’s mistress.  Still that would appear to be something of a stretch; Caesar was 16 at the time of Brutus' conception; Servilla was at that time 28. 

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