History of the Ides of March: Who should Beware?
HISTORY OF THE IDES OF MARCH
According to the ancient Roman calendar, the ides fell on the 13th of the month except for March, May, July, and October, when it fell on the 15th of the month.
Something epochal occurred in 44 B.C.
Et tu, Brute?
On March 15, 44 B.C., the Roman dictator Julius Caesar was assassinated after a seer had warned him that harm would befall him before the end of the Ides of March, according to the historian Plutarch.
The historian Suetonius tells us the seer who had divined Caesar’s fate by reading the entrails of animals was named Spurinna. Caesar passed Spurinna on the way to the Theatre of Pompey and confidently said:
“Well, the Ides of March are come,”
suggesting that he had survived contrary to the prophecy.
“Aye,” Spurinna replied, “they are come, but they are not gone.”
Contrary to popular belief, including William Shakespeare‘s play, Caesar was not assassinated in the Capitol, meaning in the Curia Hostilia or “Senate House” in the Roman Forum at the foot of the Capitoline Hill (pictured at right). That building had been involved in a fire eight years earlier.
Ides of March Senate Meeting Place
Rather, Caesar was assassinated near the statue of Pompey at the Theatrum Pompeium — the Theatre of Pompey pictured at left in the Largo di Torre Argentina in modern-day Rome — where the Senate used to meet at that time during the Roman Republic. Pompey had been one of Caesar’s political allies as part of the tris homines (“three men”), or what would be called in the 18th century, the First Triumvirate of Rome. This precinct in Rome is now a voluntary Cat Sanctuary. You can see the white cat in the center of my photo.
I counted over a dozen homeless cats there. Local women regularly feed them. I was told they feed spaghetti, but I was not able to confirm that. In the 20th century, they were fed tripe.
Why was Caesar Assassinated?
The conspirators had hoped to protect the Republic from destruction by Caesar but inadvertently contributed to its demise. They feared that Caesar had become too powerful and would return Rome to a monarchy, and they despised the idea of a king. Caesar had been awarded countless honors and triumphs, some usual, others extraordinary.
What were his honors and offices that were deemed threatening?
- As a military leader, he was twice acclaimed as imperator, an honorary title assumed by certain military commanders.
- He was also elected four times to the most senior magistracy in the Republic, that of Consul. There were usually two consuls elected, though typically for only six months or a year. But Caesar had his Consulship extended to ten years. His last Consulship was without a co-consul. Also, he was elected pontifex maximus, chief priest of the Roman state religion.
- Caesar was appointed dictator on three occasions, with Marc Antony as his second-in-command. Usually lasting for only a year, his third appointment was for ten years.
- He tripled the number of Senators to 900. His appointments were, of course, loyal to him.
- The month before his assassination, he was appointed dictator in perpetuity.
- He was granted a golden chair in the Senate, was allowed to wear triumphal dress, and was offered a form of semi-official living deification — the first for a Caesar — with Antony as the high priest of what the Senate later decreed on January 1, 42 BC, the cult of Divus Julius, the divine Julius Caesar.
Most importantly, in that month of February, during the celebration of Lupercalia (the Roman fertility celebration now associated with modern Valentine’s Day), Marc Antony ran around the Forum adorned in oil and in his hand thongs of goat hide to whip women, in sport, in order to encourage fertility and easy childbirth.
“Neither potent herbs, nor prayers, nor magic spells shall make of thee a mother, submit with patience to the blows dealt by a fruitful hand” —Ovid, Fasti
(Meanwhile, Cleopatra, with whom Caesar had an affair, was in Rome seeking official recognition for her son with him, Caesarion.)
Marc Antony, during the celebration, ran up to Caesar sitting on his golden chair upon the Rostra and attempted to place a royal diadem on Caesar’s head. But Caesar refused in what was most likely a staged performance, perhaps to gauge the Roman public’s mood about accepting Caesar as king.
Caesar was planning on a campaign soon to conquer the Parthian Empire, so the assassins had to move quickly. He suffered 23 knife stabs to his body, though only one was lethal. Marcus Junius Brutus, the most famous of the assassins and a leader in the conspiracy, unable to speak to the fleeing Senate, went to the Capitol and shouted:
“People of Rome, we are once again free!”
The result of Caesar’s assassination and the subsequent rise of his grandnephew Octavian as his heir led to civil wars and the rise of the Second Triumvirate. Octavian became Emperor Caesar Augustus. The Roman Republic had ended.
Following the assassination, Marc Antony would have delivered his Shakespearean speech:
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears”
…from the Rostra of the Forum (pictured at right), directly across from the Curia. The Rostra was made up of six rostra (plural of rostrum, a warship’s ram) which were captured following the victory which ended the Latin War in the Battle of Antium in 338 BC and mounted to its side.
Ides of March: Burial or Cremation
Dead bodies could not be kept inside the City, and Caesar was cremated in the Forum (at the location pictured on the left). Flowers are left there to this day.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
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