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Ides of March: debunking the myths

Brutus and Cassius Longinus stabbed Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome, to death in the Roman Senate House in the hope of winning back Rome for the people. Before he died, Caesar uttered the immortalised final words of, ‘Et tu, Brute.’ Prior to this day, a soothsayer had warned Caesar of his impending doom, declaring to him, ‘Beware the Ides of March.’ 

Or did he?

Whilst a lot of what you just read will probably ring true, it’s not actually historically correct. In fact, most of it is wrong and we have William Shakespeare to thank for a lot of the legends surrounding Caesar’s assassination.  

So let’s sort the truth from the fiction and debunk six of the most commonly believed myths about the Ides of March and Caesar’s death.

Myth 1: the Ides of March is a cursed day like Friday the 13th

Whenever the Ides of March is referenced in modern pop culture it usually has a dark and foreboding connotation. The omens of the phrase are always bad making it seem as if the day itself is cursed. However, the origins of the Ides have no link whatsoever to anything ill-fated.

The Roman calendar did not mark each day of the month, instead, it used monthly markers to reference dates in relation to lunar phases - the Nones (5th or 7th), the Ides (13th or 15th) and the Kalends (1st of the next month). 

The Ides of March, therefore, was a day in the Roman calendar marking the mid-point of the month, supposedly when there was a full moon. Usually, the Ides fell on the 13th of every month, except for March, May, July and October when it fell on the 15th.   

On the earliest Roman calendar, the Ides of March signified the first full moon of the New Year, making it a time of great celebration and joyfulness…quite the opposite reputation to the one it garners today.

Myth 2: Caesar was told by a soothsayer to "Beware the Ides of March"

Perhaps it was this famous ominous warning that forever darkened this date in the calendar. If that is the case then William Shakespeare, the greatest wordsmith in history is to blame. 

In his tragedy Julius Caesar (1599), Shakespeare has a soothsayer utter the warning to Caesar, letting him know that his life is in danger and he should be very careful on March 15th. Yes, Caesar was killed on that date but there is no record of a soothsayer ever uttering that exact warning to him, this was Shakespeare taking creative license with the actual event.

Caesar had effectively turned the Roman Republic into a dictatorship

Caesar was warned that his life was in danger by a haruspex called Spurinna. A haruspex was a person trained to inspect the entrails of sacrificed animals and read any omens from them. We gather from the writings of Cicero, Plutarch and Suetonius that Spurinna was a man of high status who came from Etruria, a place known to specialise in divination. 

According to Barry Strauss, an American historian and author of The Death of Caesar, Spurinna and his fellow Etruscan soothsayers would have had ‘a lot of contacts. They're people who know what's going on.’ 

At that time, Caesar had effectively turned the Roman Republic into a dictatorship and there were many from the elite ruling class who resented this. With his access to the elites of Rome, Spurinna would have been able to gauge the anti-Caesar sentiment at the time. Therefore, when he did warn Caesar it was more a calculated judgement than a mystical prophecy that Shakespeare had made it out to be.

The story goes that on February 15 44 BC, after Caesar had sacrificed a bull, Spurinna discovered it to have no heart, which was a bad sign. After another sacrifice produced equally bad omens, Spurinna warned Caesar that his life would be in danger for the next 30 days, the threat expiring on the 15th of March. Therefore the Ides just marked the end period of this warning and was not the entirety of it.

It was known that on the 18th of March Caesar was to embark on a military campaign that would have him out of Rome for many years. So if anyone wanted to kill Caesar it had to happen before he left, which again shows that Spurinna’s warning was based more in fact than legend would have us believe.

Myth 3: Caesar’s right-hand man Brutus led the conspiracy

Although most will think of Brutus in the same league as Judas when it comes to betrayals, he was not, in fact, the main ringleader of the assassins, nor was he Caesar’s right-hand man. That honour should actually go to a man called Decimus. 

Decimus was a very close friend of Caesar and a high-ranking general who’d fought in Caesar’s army during the Gallic wars and was soon to take the position of governor of Cisalpine Gaul. Out of the three men who organised the assassination (Decimus, Brutus and Cassisus), Decimus was also the only one to have fought with Caesar in his civil war against Pompey (49-45 BC), the other two fought on his enemy’s side. After their defeats, Caesar pardoned Brutus and Cassius and granted them good political positions, as well as monetary rewards, in order to buy their allegiance. The fact then that Decimus had been loyal to Caesar throughout his career makes him the most trusted one of the three, making his betrayal far more shocking than that of Brutus’.

Once again it is mainly because of Shakespeare that this myth about Brutus exists. Shakespeare elevated Brutus and Cassius to the role of main conspirators and relegated Decimus (who he incorrectly spelt as Decius) to a back seat position. He did so because he used the writings of Plutarch to shape his picture of Rome and Plutarch believed Brutus and Cassius to be the main ringleaders. However, all the other sources we have about that time (Nicolaus of Damascus, Cassius Dio, Suetonius and Appian) place greater importance on Decimus.

The night before the murder Decimus had even dined with Caesar and the next day was the one who convinced him to attend the Senate meeting after Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, had foreboding visions in a dream. 

If any of the three conspirators deserve the title Judas, it’s Decimus. 

Nicolaus of Damascus writes: ‘But Decimus, one of the conspirators who was then thought of as a firm friend, came up and said, ‘What is this, Caesar? Are you a man to pay attention to a woman’s dreams and the idle gossip of stupid men, and to insult the Senate by not going out, although it has honoured you and has been specially summoned by you? But listen to me, cast aside the forebodings of all these people, and come. The Senate has been in session waiting for you since early this morning.’

If any of the three conspirators deserve the title Judas, it’s Decimus. As to why he would betray the man he spent the majority of his life serving, the jury is still out on that one. The most plausible reason is that he felt disrespected by Caesar after the dictator declined him the distinction of a formal parade in Rome after his victories in Gaul, although Caesar had broken with tradition and granted such privileges to lesser generals. Being a man who cared deeply about honour, this slight could well have pushed Decimus over the edge. 

Myth 4: Caesar was killed in the grand hall of the Senate House

When the death of Caesar is imagined it’s often pictured in the grand hall of the Senate House or on the steps just in front of it, neither of which was actually the case. Paintings like Jean-Léon Gérôme's The Death of Caesar have all added to that incorrect image. Shakespeare was also incorrect when he placed the Senate meeting at the Capitol, the temple situated on the Capitoline Hill. 

The truth of it was the Senate House was being rebuilt at the time, according to Plutarch, and so the meeting had been moved to the Portico of Pompey, which was within the Theatre of Pompey complex. According to Strauss, ‘It would have been a nicely decorated room…just not cavernous.’

Myth 5: Caesar’s final words were ‘Et tu, Brute?’ as Brutus stabbed him last

Translated, those words simply mean, ‘and you, Brutus.’ None of the ancient sources document anywhere Caesar uttering these final words. In fact, they all say he said nothing at all, although Suetonius reports on rumours being spread at the time that Caesar had said, ‘You too, my child?’ to Brutus. There is also no written evidence of Brutus being the last man to stab Caesar.

‘Et tu, Brute?’ was a phrase made part of the assassination mythology by Shakespeare, although he did not invent the phrase itself but lifted it from an earlier play by Richard Edes called Caesar Interfectus (1582)

As for the killing, Caesar was stabbed 23 times by the 60 men participating in the assassination. He tried to fight back being the great soldier that he was and even managed to stab one participant with a stylus, severely injuring them. In the end, though he could not escape and rather ironically drew his last few breaths lying next to a statue of Pompey. He pulled his toga over his face, supposedly to preserve his dignity and passed away. 

Myth 6: The idealistic conspirators wished to give the power of Rome back to the people

Whilst this one might be partly true, it drastically oversimplifies the motives of all the conspirators. 

Caesar had been crowned dictator for life at the beginning of 44 BC; the constitutional Republic it seemed was practically a thing of the past. For many, Caesar’s new position was a bit too close to being a king, although Caesar made contrived attempts to convince people otherwise. Caesar’s great ally Marc Antony once presented Caesar with a crown in front of a large gathering. Caesar made sure there were plenty of people there to see him reject the crown. This gesture was not enough to convince Rome’s elite though.

The three conspirators all came from Rome’s nobility who were now being increasingly sidelined by Caesar. Acts of disrespect towards the traditional ruling classes combined with the political appointments of Caesar’s allies, many of who came from outside of the Roman nobility like soldiers and men from the provinces, meant that many believed it was time for Caesar to go. 

So although there was likely concern for the average Roman citizen when the conspirators stuck their knives into Caesar, the driving force behind their actions was most likely self-interest.