The Ides of March arrive tomorrow; are you ready? If all you know of the history of Rome comes from Shakespeare or
the movies, you are not alone, but you should be aware that there is more to
the story than the dramatic bits. Shakespeare
has a great deal to answer for to historians.
His plays never hesitated to disregard history for the sake of dramatic
effect. To this day, every tenth grader reads Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
, and can recite two lines that
make an indelible impression.
“Beware the Ides of March” is the prediction of a
soothsayer, who supposedly warned Caesar of his impending assassination. True? Doubtful. Yes, there were lots of soothsayers in Rome,
and the Romans were big on reading omens, particularly in the entrails of
sacrificial animals., But there was
little for Caesar to fear from the Ides of March itself. March was the first month of the Roman year,
and the Ides (roughly the 15 day) was a holiday that most closely
resembled our own New Year’s Eve. It was
a time of celebration, heavy drinking, and general silliness engaged in by the
common people. Julius Caesar himself was a populist, and the common people
loved him. I have always suspected that the assassination occurring on that day
was just an unfortunate coincidence.
The other line is “Et tu, Brute,” and every tenth grader
knows at least that much Latin. The
phrase immediately calls to mind Caesar’s assassination, but we sometimes
forget how sad a remark it was. Caesar
loved Brutus and regarded him as not only a friend but the (legitimate) son he
never had. “Et tu, Brute” is the voice
of the ultimate betrayal, spoken in deep sadness.
So what’s the real story of Julius Caesar? Well, he really
did march an army across the Rubicon River, a clear violation of the law of the
land. He did foment a Civil War that
began the process of collapsing the Roman Republic. He was responsible for the
deaths of many of his political enemies.
He did use his daughter as a political tool by marrying her off to
someone whose loyalty he though could be purchased. He did father a couple of
children by Cleopatra while he was married to another woman. It’s hard to make a case for him as an
all-around “nice guy.”
But he had many good qualities as well. He was an amazingly successful general who
greatly expanded the borders of Rome. He
reformed the calendar to bring it into line with the seasons. He reformed the
Senate, too, making it easier for newcomers to share in their government. His
political appeal was always toward the good of the common people as opposed to
supporting the interests of a conservative elite. He was a master of clear and
persuasive prose, as any second-year
Latin student will tell you. And further, there was no evidence that he was
guilty of wanting to become a king – the crime for which he was killed.
Julius Caesar was very much a man of his time, and his
actions, for good or ill, were the natural outcome of forces that had been
operating for a long time. Certainly his death did not solve any of the
problems faced by Rome. Those who hoped to preserve the Republic by killing the
man who threatened it succeeded only in hastening the arrival of Rome’s first
emperor. If you spare a moment tomorrow to commemorate the Ides of March, spare
a kind thought or two for the man who immortalized the day.