Reviewing Caesar’s Death as Ides of March Approaches

conspiracy laden with confusion, mistakes

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

March 15 marks the infamous “Ides of March” associated with Julius Caesar. The Roman emperor was assassinated by dozens of other officials on this day in 44 BCE. However, his killing had unintended consequences.

Julius Caesar statue
Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on March 15 in the Roman Senate house by a group of conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. Photo by Eder / Shutterstock

In Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, the titular character receives the warning “Beware the Ides of March,” on which day the real emperor was assassinated. Before Caesar’s murder, the ides were simply one of three ways that the Romans marked the lunar phases. For the last 2,000 years, however, they’ve taken on an ominous meaning, starting with the death of Julius Caesar.

What really happened the day Caesar died? In his video series Living History: Experiencing Great Events of the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, Dr. Robert S. J. Garland, the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University, explains the confusion and unintended reaction to the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Dressing Caesar

Dr. Garland paints a colorful picture of Caesar’s last day on Earth: March 15, 44 BCE.

“The past four or five months have not been easy ones for Caesar,” he said. “He’s been irritable and bad-tempered; he’s made it abundantly clear that he utterly despises the Senate, and as a result he has become politically isolated. Even before his triumphs, he alienated a great number of people on his way to power—and now he seems to have grown completely indifferent to public opinion.”

As a result, the plot to murder Caesar had formed by this point, with more than 80 men onboard. Among their ranks were Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, who Caesar pardoned after they fought with Pompey during the Roman Civil War. Then came the meeting of the Senate that resulted in Caesar’s death.

“The Senate meets at around 6 a.m. and three hours pass with no sign of Caesar; growing restless, the conspirators send one of their numbers, Decimus Brutus, to find out what’s going on,” Dr. Garland said. “Decimus arrives at Caesar’s house around 10 a.m. and—over Calpurnia’s protests—persuades Caesar to attend the Senate by revealing to him that he will be honored with yet another title: king.”

Adorned with a fed ego, Caesar arrived at the Senate around noon, and incredibly was given a scroll revealing the details of the plot, but which he didn’t read. He saw a seer named Spurrina, who allegedly told him to beware the Ides of March. It’s said that Caesar joked with her that the Ides of March had come, to which she replied “Yes, Caesar, but they have not yet gone.”

The Ed Sullivan Show Got Canceled, Same Date

“A hush falls as Caesar takes his seat,” Dr. Garland said. “Then, swiftly, several conspirators rise from their benches—obstructing the dictator from the view of the rest. One of them, named Tillius Cimber, falls to his knees in feigned supplication, and requests that his brother be allowed to return from exile. When Caesar tells Cimber that he is out of order, the man grabs hold of Caesar’s toga so that he cannot defend himself.”

The conspirators then stabbed Caesar among a flurry of knives and togas. Contrary to popular belief, when Brutus stabbed Caesar, the dictator didn’t say “Et tu, Brute?” but “Kai su, teknon?” meaning “And you, my child?” in Greek.

Following this, the Senate made a serious mistake in letting Mark Antony survive and then allowing Caesar’s body to be returned home. Mark Antony delivered a eulogy that inflamed the Roman populace, who learned via a reading of Caesar’s will that he had left them each enough money to live on for more than a month.

“At this moment, all Hell breaks loose,” Dr. Garland said. “A surging mass of mourners breaks through the soldiers’ cordon, onto the Rostra, taking possession of Caesar’s corpse and hoisting it onto their shoulders. The mob parades around the forum with the dictator’s body held high. Roman soldiers, lining the route, struggle to keep the crowd in check. Then a cry goes up that Caesar should be cremated in the Forum, rather than the Field of Mars—as he had requested in his will—because Caesar is the second founder of Rome.”

Eventually, citizens and even Roman soldiers contributed items to a pyre that burned for several days in Caesar’s honor. These events changed the reaction to his death so strongly that perhaps the conspirators should have been the ones to beware the Ides of March rather than Julius Caesar.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily