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The Ides Have It

March 17, 2020

By Jim Rhodes

Sunday was March 15, the famous Ides of March when Julius Caesar was assassinated in the year 44 BC.

I thought of this, because I have recently been immersed in re-reading my Roman History about the period in which the Roman Republic morphed into a dynastic dictatorship. Right now, my desk at home is stacked with volumes from Suetonius, Plutarch and Tacitus as well as more modern books by classic scholars like Theodor Mommsen.

I generally think it’s unwise to draw literal parallels between the past and present, and it’s worth noting that the Roman Republic was not a democratic form of government at all. The Roman Senate, which was the ruling body, was never an elected assembly but more of an all oligarchic institution whose members were appointed by the chief magistrates. Nonetheless I believe that historical perspective may shed useful light on affairs of today.

Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) was a man of many facets. As a conquering general he led Rome’s legions to victory after victory. When he wasn’t out campaigning with the army, Caesar pursued political power in Rome. He occupied a succession of jobs of increasing power in the civil government as consul (co-head of the Senate and chief executive), tribune (an advocate with the power to veto laws), censor (the top magistrate) and finally dictator (normally a temporary position of supreme leadership conferred by the Senate to meet certain emergencies of state).

He was also an orator and writer of extraordinary talent with a forceful style all his own. He was not modest, famously summing up one of his famous military victories in three words: “Veni. Vidi. Vici.” (“I came. I saw. I conquered.”)  Along the way, he found time to “reinvent” the monthly calendar, which is the basis for the one we still use two millennia later. If that’s not enough for one man’s life, he also took as a mistress Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, who was said to be the most beautiful woman in the world.

In early 44 BC, the Senate proclaimed Julius Caesar to be the first-ever dictator and imperator for life. He quickly consolidated his position by demanding authority to appoint consuls, tribunes and magistrates (a right until then reserved to the Senate).

That was the last straw.

On the 15th of March, Caesar was scheduled to address the Senate. When he rose to speak, a large group of Senators surrounded him and stabbed him to death with daggers. It was reported that at least 60 men joined the attack on him, inflicting 23 wounds.

William Shakespeare, in his play Julius Caesar, memorably dramatizes the dictator’s fall:

The play opens with Caesar’s triumphant march into Rome, when a soothsayer steps in front of the procession and says to the conquering hero “Beware the Ides of March.”

Fast forward a few days. It is early morning before dawn on the 15th day of March. Julius Caesar is at home. His wife Calpurnia wakes up from horrible nightmares of fire, death and blood. She thinks her dreams are an evil omen and begs him not to go to his scheduled appearance before the Senate in the morning. He replies in a speech:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;

The valiant never taste of death but once.

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,

It seems to me most strange that men should fear,

Seeing that death, a necessary end,

Will come when it will come.”

On his way to the Senate, Caesar spies the Soothsayer, to whom he shouts tauntingly “The Ides of March are come,” to which the old fellow replies “Ay Caesar but not gone.”

And so Caesar marches manfully to meet his doom.

A final word …

During the last year of his life, Julius Caesar had named his nephew Octavian his heir. The assassination in the Senate was followed by more than a dozen years of civil wars before Octavian — who took the name Augustus — defeated his rivals and became the first true emperor. Augustus and his successors made a show of retaining and cultivating the institution of the Senate, which became an honorary society of the wealthiest landowners from Rome and the empire — with lots of prestige but no real power.

The Roman Senate survived as an institution 600 more years.