Mar 15, 2007

Beware the Ides of March

March 15, 44 BC--Julius Caesar is assassinated.
On the Ides of March, the senate was to meet in the Curia Pompeii, an annex of the colonnaded Porticus adjacent to the stage of the Theater of Pompeii, which had been built by Pompey (Pompeius) just a decade or so before. Caesar was late. As Brutus and Cassius anxiously waited for him to arrive, one of the senators confided that his prayers were with them. "May your plan succeed," relates Plutarch, "but whatever you do, make haste. Everyone is talking about it by now." But there was nothing the conspirators could do except grasp their daggers and prepare to use them on themselves, if need be. Porcia, the daughter of Cato, whom Brutus had married within a year of her father's death, had insisted that she be told of the plan. The day of the assassination, her anxiety was so great that she became hysterical and fainted from apprehension.

Suetonius relates that a soothsayer had warned Caesar that he was in grave danger, which would not pass until the Ides had ended. Entering the building, Caesar now chided him that the day had arrived. "Yes," he replied, "but they have not yet gone." As Caesar took his seat, the conspirators gathered around him on the pretext of presenting a petition. One then took hold of his purple toga and ripped it away from his neck. A dagger was thrust at Caesar's throat but missed and only wounded him. Another assassin then drove a dagger into his chest as he twisted away from the first assailant. Brutus struck Caesar in the groin (a telling blow, perhaps, given that his mother Servilia once had been Caesar's mistress). Hemmed in, "Caesar kept turning," writes Appian, "from one to another of them with furious cries like a wild beast." When he saw that Brutus, too, had drawn his dagger, Plutarch relates that Caesar covered his head with his toga and sank to the ground, reproaching him in Greek, says Suetonius, with the words "You, too, my child?"

Even after he had fallen, the conspirators continued to strike, at times cutting one another with their own daggers, until they, too, were covered in blood. (Having recently sworn to defend the person of Caesar, which was sacred and inviolate, the assassins must have paused at enormity of their deed; only the second wound later was thought to have been fatal.) Slumped against the pedestal of Pompey's statue, Caesar died, having been stabbed twenty-three times. "The pedestal was drenched with blood," writes Plutarch, "so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this act of vengeance against his enemy, who lay there at his feet struggling convulsively under so many wounds."
You can read Plutarch on Caesar here. You can read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar here.

More than 2,000 years after his death Caesar continues to fascinate artists and writers. Here's a brief overview of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. One of my favorite novels about Caesar is Thornton Wilder's Ides of March. Here's a 1948 review from Time.

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