Monday, March 15, 2021

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.” According to Seutonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, “When a note revealing the plot was handed him by some one on the way, he put it with others which he held in his left hand, intending to read them presently.”  Marc Antony (not “Anthony”), to whom the plot had been divulged, tried to intercept Caesar, but he was himself intercepted. As for the Beware the Ides of March warning, Seutonius wrote: “Again, when he [Caesar] was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the ides of March.  …. [H]e entered the House [the Theater of Pompey] in defiance of portents, laughing at Spurinna and calling him a false prophet, because the ides of March were come without bringing him harm. Spurinna replied that they had of a truth come, but they had not gone.”

        Although stabbed twenty-three times by the various conspirators, only one wound was fatal (hence the occasional description of the assassination as the ultimate group project). At the time of his death he was 56, and by some measures was among the richest men to have ever lived.

      Caesar rose to power out of the First Civil War that resulted from the dissolution of the First Triumvirate, it comprised of Caesar, Pompey (a/k/a Pompey Magnus) and Crassus. Crassus was killed in 53 b.c. when as Governor of Syria he invaded Parthia (the invasion was for Rome a disaster).  The relationship between Caesar and Pompey fell apart over personal differences, and Pompey was killed in 48 b.c. when he fled in Egypt

        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 been, at least as part of its foundation myth, ruled by kings and then thrown them off.  Still, at this stage Caesar had been appointed Dictator for Life (Dictator Perpetuo) by the Senate.  It seems this subset of the Senate sought to undo what the whole Senate had approved.

      As set forth in Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of Caesar titled (surprisingly) 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. As recounted by Nicolaus of Damascus in his Life of Augustus, “Even their [The assassin’s] houses were besieged by the people, not under any leader, but the populace itself was enraged on account of the murder of Caesar, of whom they were fond, and especially when they had seen his bloody garment and newly slain body brought to burial when they had forced their way into the Forum and had there interred it.”

      “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 Marc Antony (Lepidus, the third member of the Second Triumvirate, was a place holder) against the assassins and their various supporters. Octavian and Antony were not friends. Rather, applying the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” they were joined in opposition to Caesar’s assassins and little else. Regardless, 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 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. 

      For anyone who watched the “Spartacus” series, while the sources do not exclude Caesar's participation in the war against Spartacus (i.e., the “Third Servile War”), they provide no details of that participation.  Ergo, the portrayal of Caesar's actions are pure fiction.

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