EP 007: Beware the Ides

What do soothsayers, animal organs and the 15th of March have in common? Answer: one murder, 60 conspirators, and countless fantastic spinoffs. Including this podcast. Today we're talking about the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the invention of a legend.

If you’re in any way superstitious, Roman, or considering becoming a dictator, you might want to grab your lucky charms and lock your doors, because in this episode, we’re heading into the Ides of March.

The big questions you probably have at this point are, in increasing order of importance: Are the Ides of March real, do they matter, and should you be worried about them? To which I would answer: sort of, no, and only if you’ve recently dissected an animal that looked a bit funny inside.

The phrase “the Ides of March” – like most of the things in this story – is famous because Shakespeare made it famous. But it is real in the sense that, as we all know, the 15th of March rolls around every year, come hell or high water. Actually, at some point our water will probably get so high that they’ll stop coming around, but that’s a conversation for another day. A very long time ago, Kalends, Nones and Ides were terms used to describe particular times of the month, in relation to what the moon was doing on that day. Fortunately for the ancient world, the moon is generally pretty reliable. It arrives when it says it will and leaves on time, which is probably by some cultures thought it was a goddess. That’s unrelated so we’ll move swiftly on. The Ides of a month simply referred to the first new moon of that month, which usually fell between the 13th and the 15th.

So, why the bad rep? Well Shakespeare’s soothsayer delivered the classic “beware the Ides of March” which, frankly, is a bit of a downer. Also, we know how a lot of people feel about their school Shakespeare and everything that reminds them of it. And then there’s also the trifling matter of it actually being the day that Julius Caesar was brutally stabbed to death 23 times by group of 60 of his nearest and dearest, which was probably a bit of a downer for him too.

The story that most people know – feel free to let your mind wander if you’re one of them – is that Julius is in charge of Rome. But Rome is very democratic (assuming you’re a rich, educated male). So, Rome is slightly democratic, and they’re very proud of their Republic. So when everyone starts treating Caesar like a god, a few folks get their noses out of joint. If they’re bent out of shape over a few parades and a Caesar-themed party or two, you can imagine the backflips they do when Julius Caesar is appointed Dictator in Perpetuity. Which is fancy way of saying Dictator for life. Which is a fancy way of saying just Dictator, quite frankly. The other members of government are none too pleased. They whisper in dark corners and have a few dinner parties that Julius is not invited to, and they all agree that this calls for a bit of murder. For the greater good, obviously. Apart from this they’re all nice, law abiding people. They decide on the Ides of March as the fateful day, because they know it will sound good in history books, and would make a great title if George Clooney ever wanted to star in a spin-off blockbuster. Fortunately for Caesar, a helpful, if dour, soothsayer, warns to “beware the Ides of March.” Also, his wife is super in touch with her star sign, so she has a well-timed nightmare, and tells him to stay at home. Unfortunately for Caesar, he’s really got his heart set on being the best dictator ever. He’s due for a session at the Senate, and he knows it just won’t happen properly if he sends an intern. He ignores his wife (not for the first time) and tootles of to work. The conspirators meet up with him, yank him by the toga and stab him twenty-three times. His best friend Brutus is the last to have a go, at which point Julius utters the famous line “et tu Brute?” or “You too, Brutus?” And then he dies and everyone except the conspirators is very sad. At least, until the Roman people turn on them and break into civil war, at which point one assumes they became very sad too. Or very dead.

Now, the next question is, how much of this is actually true? Because if we’re being honest, it mostly sounds like the synopsis of a really good play. And the answer might surprise you, because most of this did happen. Julius Caesar was considered to be a very talented orator and statesman, but he is also considered to be an excellent author and historian. A lot of details about his life came from his own accounts of his military campaigns – so, obviously, they’re super objective, and not at all biased. But there are other sources as well – Cicero, one of Caesar’s contemporaries – left behind a trove of letters and speeches, and the historians Plutarch and Suetonius wrote pretty comprehensive biographies of Caesar. Of course, these were written after Caesar’s death, so there’s information that may be incorrect, or missing. This is where the balancing act of History kicks in – on one hand, Caesar isn’t alive to interview; on the other he isn’t there to cut your head off if your write something he doesn’t like.

Now don’t throw things at me for saying this, because I love the Bard as much as the next man. But I think we can all agree that Shakespeare pinched and borrowed phrases and words, and a couple of ideas. Fortunately, in the case of Julius Caesar, he mostly pinched from Plutarch, who historians still agree was a fairly reliable source. (This didn’t turn out so well for Richard III, but we’ll get there). But there are still a few bits and bobs that we’ve absorbed as true, which Shakespeare completely made up. And no judgements here – the man was a playwright, not a biographer, and creepy soothsayers and clairvoyant wives are good drama. Way more interesting than an old man running political calculations with red marbles, green marbles and abacus, and working out that Caesar isn’t too hot with the aristocracy right now. Also the man really, really liked a good rhyme, so that’s worth twisting the truth a little bit.

So which bits are true, and which are a bit fudged? Well, for one thing, it wasn’t a soothsayer who warned Caesar to beware the Ides of March, it was the haruspex Spurinna. And he was being smart, but he wasn’t being supernatural. A haruspex (I promise I’m not making this up) was person who was trained to read the future by inspecting the entrails of sacrificed animals. The story goes that Caesar sacrificed a bull around about the 15th of February, and, upon close examination, Spurinna discovered that the bull had no heart. Which obviously did not bode well for our friendly neighborhood dictator. Nor, presumably, for the bull. But this is more less a sign of a good haruspex, and more the sign of a really bad vet. In reality, Spurrina would have been well respected due his job, and would have hobnobbed with the Roman elite. As we’ve already mentioned, Caesar had just turned the Republic into a dictatorship, and the elite of Rome were quite cross about it. So most of the haruspex’s divination would have been more about reading the room than reading the organs. It was also common knowledge that Caesar was about to leave town on a military campaign, and would be gone for at least a couple of years. Between entrail-examining and going on his next road trip, there were only a handful of opportunities for anyone to get close enough to Caesar to bop him off, and the Ides of March were looking quite likely. He may even have heard something of the conspiracy – that isn’t certain, but its not impossible either.

The same is true of Calpurnia – Caesar’s wife. She almost certainly did NOT know about the conspiracy in any detail, but one gets a pretty good sense when one’s husband goes from being the apple of the Roman eye, to literally hated and despised by all your former dinner guests. It’s kind of like have a dream that your boyfriend is going to be stabbed, after a few months of people looking at him as though they’d quite like to plunge a dagger in between his shoulder blades. The real mystery is why she bothered to warn him, because the man had A LOT of very public affairs, and quite frankly I would have left him to take his chances.

Perhaps the biggest misconception people have is those famous last words: Et tu Brute. It’s a great line, and I fully encourage you to keep using it as often as possible. But sadly, there’s no real evidence that Julius Caesar actually spoke them. Brutus wasn’t actually the greatest traitor in the group – that dubious honour goes to one Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus. That sounds like four people, but its really not. We’ll call him Decimus for short, because that’s what the Romans did. Decimus was one of the main leaders of the conspiracy, and he was closer to Caesar than Brutus ever was. Several sources have him saying something along the lines of “But this is violence” at the beginning of the attack. (He was very observant – nothing got past him). But Julius Caesar’s last words are hotly contested. Plutarch says that he didn’t say anything, while Suetonius reports that he said something like “You too, child” when he saw Brutus. This would make sense – Brutus was the son of one of Caesar’s favorite mistresses, although probably not Caesar’s son as well.

One interpretation of “you too, child” that I’m very fond of – although I admit it’s never been confirmed as true – is understanding the words as a curse or a warning. The Romans had become so fond of the Greek sentence “You too, my son, will have a bite of power” that they’d turned it into a proverb, and one theory goes that Caesar was invoking this idea with his words to Brutus. It’s a very poetic theory, given that Brutus went on to commit suicide by throwing himself onto his own sword. Although one has to admit that Caesar never really behaved like a guy who held this proverb in particularly high esteem.

Still, “Et Tu, Brute,” is a great line for when your mates forget to invite you out, or your brother comes home with the wrong number of ice creams. And unless you’re a budding dictator-in-training, you probably have nothing to fear from the Ides of March. If you are, you might want to pay attention to dreams, organs, and proverbs. Or, and this is preferable, consider accounting. The job prospects are pretty sweet.

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