Thursday, December 15, 2011

“Beware the Ides of March!”

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This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 877 published on 4 November 1978.

"You, too, Brutus!" That cry, ringing with mingled terror and disbelief was perhaps the most famous of all the last words uttered by a dying man. With this, his last breath, Caius Julius Caesar slumped in a bloodstained heap beneath his assassins' daggers in the Roman Senate building.

And that cry – the gasped amazement at the realisation that he had been betrayed by a friend and one of his favourites – has echoed down the centuries. That day of murder and treachery, the Ides of March (the 15th day of the Roman month) of 44 BC, is a day that every Latin scholar remembers.For more than a century the great city of Rome had endured turmoil and torment. Years of civil war and social strife had impoverished the people and emptied the Treasury.But then Caius Julius Caesar had come upon the Roman stage. Here at last was a statesman prepared to govern with a firm hand.Caesar was one of the greatest men who lived in the ancient world. He was a brilliant general, historian, administrator and statesman. What made him especially popular with the Romans, apart from his great conquests, was that he was their champion against the selfish ruling class which had controlled them for so long.

For all his great power, Caesar was a very human person. He was tall and lean, with piercing dark eyes. Yet he was worried about his thinning hair, and combed it forward to cover a bald patch.

Caesar could see that the only solution to Rome's continuous civil strife was the centralisation of authority in the hands of one man. That man had to be himself, Julius Caesar.


However, Rome was a Republic, and Caesar's solution meant that it would have to become a dictatorship. A party of the aristocratic members of the Senate threw up their hands in horror. "We must defend the Republic against the ambitions of this tyrant," they declared. In fact, they were much more interested in preserving the power for themselves, which was the way it was under the Republic.

Until that time, the Roman Republic had been officially governed by Consuls, two of whom were elected each year, and by the Senate. The Senate was not an elected parliament; it was a body of several hundred leading citizens. The Consuls were chosen by popular vote, although most of the real power had lain with the Senators. But when Rome grew from a city-state into a huge empire, they could no longer provide an effective government. It was these administrative difficulties that had led to a series of civil wars.

Several times during their history, the Romans had appointed a dictator to govern them and restore order in an emergency. Now Caesar, fresh from foreign conquests and the victor in a civil war against his rival, Pompey, was given the position of dictator for life.

Aghast, the more conservative Senators saw their powers slipping away from them. Caesar did nothing to persuade them otherwise. He appointed men of low birth to the Senate and did most of the magistrates' work himself. He made it clear that great changes would be made.

The resentful Senators decided that there was only one solution to this destruction of their traditional privileges: Caesar, they decided must be put to death.

The conspirators were led by Marcus Brutus and Caius Cassius. Although both men had been on the opposite side to Caesar in the civil war, the dictator had generously forgiven them. Indeed, most of the conspirators owed their fortunes to Caesar, who had given them all public office.

At first, Brutus disliked the idea of an assassination. He was a special friend of Caesar's, and a mild-mannered man. But Cassius quietly worked upon his good nature. "There is to be a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of March," whispered Cassius. "At that meeting Lucius Cotta will propose that Caesar be made king. This is because we must defeat our old enemies the Parthians – and according to a prophesy, the Parthians will only be defeated by a nation led by a king.

"If Caesar becomes king, the republic will be no more!"

The night before the Ides of March, Caesar entertained a party of guests at his home. The conversation came round to a discussion on what sort of death was the best one.

"I've no doubts on that subject," Caesar joked. "One that's sudden."

Next day, Caesar said goodbye to his wife, Calpurnia, and set off for the Senate building in the Forum, the business centre and market-place of Rome.

On the way, a soothsayer named Spurinna stepped into his path. "Beware the Ides of March, Caesar!" cried Spurinna.

"Well, they have come and all is well," laughed the dictator.

"But they have not passed," was the reply.

As he entered the Forum; crowds jostled about him. A stranger forced his way through the melee and handed him a message.

"Read it, Caesar," the man implored. "Read it now!"

The dictator thrust the piece of paper into the folds of his toga. "Later, my friend," he replied.

Ironically, if Caesar had read the note, the story of the ancient world might have been very different. For the message revealed the plot against him – and the names of all the plotters.

Caesar had one special friend who was not involved in the conspiracy. This was Mark Antony. It was the task of Trebonius, a conspirator who had been a favourite general of Caesar, to detain Antony from the meeting by holding him in conversation.

Outside the Senate building, Caesar had to make a traditional sacrifice. Then he went inside and at once the conspirators, drawing daggers from under their togas, fell upon him.

"Some have written," records the Roman historian, Suetonius, "that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, 'Kai su teknon?' – 'You too, my child?'" Other writers presumed that he spoke in Latin and said, "Et tu Brute!" – "You, too, Brutus!"

Whatever the truth of the matter, down the centuries Caesar's dying words have lived on – the classic reproach of a man betrayed by someone he trusted as a friend.

When Brutus struck, Caesar drew his toga over his head and submitted to the blows as if there were no defence that could be summoned against such a betrayal. He fell, ironically, at the foot of the statue of his old adversary, Pompey.

While Caesar's dying body still lay there, Brutus and the other assassins, brandishing their blood-stained knives, dashed out from the Senate building, proclaiming to the people that they had rid Rome of a tyrant and restored republican liberties.

For a time they received some support. But the mass of Romans mourned the great dictator's death. When Caesar's will revealed that he had left some money to every one of the Roman citizens, they grieved for the generous man they had lost. Then, roused by Mark Antony, they showed their hostility to Brutus and his friends. The assassins were forced to leave Rome, and took refuge in the Eastern Mediterranean provinces, where they raised money and organised armies.

Finally, two years after Caesar's murder, fate caught up with Brutus. Mark Antony and Caesar's nephew Octavian (afterwards, as Augustus, the first emperor of Rome) had suppressed all opposition in Italy. Now they transported their armies to the other side of the Adriatic to settle accounts with Marcus Brutus.

The armies met near the town of Philippi in Macedonia. In the first battle, Brutus came near to routing the opposing forces; but part of the army under his colleague, Cassius, was defeated. Cassius, supposing that all was lost, had himself killed by one of his men.

The battle was indecisive, and for nearly three weeks the armies remained inactive. Then they met again in a fiercely-fought battle. At last Antony's army was victorious, and Brutus was surrounded by his enemies. Seeing no escape, he took his own life.

So died a man whom many Romans regarded as an honourable fighter in the cause of liberty. But whatever he may have aimed to achieve, he chose the way of treachery to do it.

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