Ides of March

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.

(from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, spoken by Marc Antony)

 

On this day, March 15th, in 44 BC, Emperor for Life Julius Caesar was assassinated on the senate floor of Rome as he prepared to speak to the political body collected before him. He endured 23 stab wounds by as many members of the senate, many of whom he considered friends and allies. Historically this date, commemorated first by the Romans, is considered the defining marker between Rome as a republic and Rome as the world empire the following generations would witness. Above is the imagined eulogy his true compatriot, general Marc Antony, would have delivered at Caesar’s funeral a few days hence. It is this stirring speech, delivered in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar as commentary on events that had occurred over 16 centuries earlier, that forever solidified the Ides of March as a date to ponder man’s inhumanity to man, as well as to reflect on pride, ambition, loyalty, and betrayal – among individuals and in government.

It is fitting that the March Ides occurs in the middle of the Lent season and in anticipation of the renewal of spring. It was Caesar who commissioned most of the changes that are part of our modern calendar. In his day, March was considered the new year; Caesar had already decreed that 46 BC would see March as the third month of the year on the Julian calendar, which is virtually the same calendar we still use today. Thus, the current year cycle is now a few months underway by the time march winds blow and final snows fall. The ides simply denoted the middle of the month; it is the fact of Caesar’s murder and the historical consequence that have lent the word ‘ides’ the ominous tone it still carries today.

At the time of Caesar’s assassination, spirituality consisted of keen observance and homage paid to the mythological gods like Jupiter and Mars, who were thought to rule mortals and influence fate through judgment, benevolence, or displeasure with human conduct both individual and societal. Oracles, omens, and assorted prognosticators were employed and influential in personal and government affairs. In fact, it was a seer in ancient Rome who warned Caesar to beware the ides of March of 44 BC.

Christianity and Catholicism would appear within a century after Caesar’s death. The Lent season, recognized by both religions, marks the six weeks before Easter – when Christ rises from the dead. Lent is a time for prayer and penance; it is a time for shedding bad habits and coming closer to the best within ourselves in preparation for a brand new season of piety and devotion to higher purposes. During Lent, most practicing Catholics give up something that is causing harm to themselves or others; many Christian denominations encourage followers to fast, cease smoking, and engage in prayer and various soul cleansing rituals, as well. For Caesar’s contemporaries, the new year – and the ides of any month – commenced with a sacrifice to Jupiter, the Roman’s supreme deity. Following the ritual, a time of celebration and feasting was observed, much like the modern feasts of Easter Sunday and the lighthearted rituals of egg hunting and spring baskets of candy for children. The Ides of March is not so different in modern society than it was in Caesar’s day. The Roman pagans, upon the death of Caesar, then also had a real life martyr to remember and study as they prepared for a season of renewal.

For a time before Caesar’s death, there had been a civil war between Caesar and Pompey, the prevailing leader of Rome. Caesar had routed Pompey in this war, both militarily and popularly. Caesar’s army had continued to march victoriously through the Gallic Wars, conquering more and more territory for Rome, even bridging the English Channel to invade Britain. Caesar simultaneously conducted a war with Pompey for the love of the people; he passed many laws that slowly diluted the power of the establishment – the rich and titled – and inflated the seats in the senate to further leech power from Pompey’s old guard. Most importantly to the populace, he allowed everyone to obtain Roman citizenship and share in the fruits of the rich, expansive empire and kept his people fed through alliances with or defeat of territories with rich food supplies like Egypt and Spain. He also sought to centralize the Roman government with less oversight on municipal concerns like methods of taxation. The calendar was also a very important populist strategy as it coincided with the seasons, which gave more order to a constant food supply.

Marc Antony’s eulogy in Julius Caesar was delivered to a large gathering of constituents and citizens of Rome. These countrymen, previously big supporters of Caesar, had been manipulated by the old guard of the Senate – through ‘media’ channels like graffiti, town criers called ‘praecos’ who broadcast news in the forum, and posted proclamations – to believe that Caesar no longer had their best interests at heart. Romans were told that Caesar had become arrogant and power hungry and had sacrificed their interests to his own. The audacious act of honorable senate members actually murdering Caesar themselves in the senate house further punctuated the need for swift and violent action the Senate had been trying to incite in the Roman mob.

Antony’s speech speaks to the disinformation fed to Roman citizens in a rhetorical triumph of emotion and logic. Antony begins by using his own stature as decorated everyman soldier of Rome being as one with the Roman people gathered: “Friends, Romans, countryman”; then, after reminding the crowd of his credibility with them as their defender, he asks them to listen to him. He starts his undermining of Brutus, the most publicly admired of the old guard, by questioning Brutus’ attacks on Caesar’s character. Antony then asks questions to make the Romans think not only about what they know about Brutus’ own character and reliability but, more importantly, about the efficacy of the actual facts or opinions they have been told. He uses several examples of Caesar’s public behavior to make his case: Caesar’s campaigns which kept Romans fed and safe, his refusal to be king, and his social programs that benefited every citizen. Antony concludes with sorrow that Romans have been so misguided by the Senate and asks if they have all lost their powers of distinction and reason. This is the lesson for everyone at the idea of March: what do we really know about the people and government we trust, where did we get that information, and to what purpose?

After Caesar’s death, Rome was favored with an excellent emperor in Augustus, the appointed heir of Caesar, certainly, but also a leader in his own right. He crushed the nepotism that had plagued Caesar’s tenure, eased the stranglehold of the old guard in the senate, and transferred more independence to the citizenry of Rome. He continued the social programs, territory gains, arts, and sciences begun by Caesar and led Rome to a golden age of relative peace. When Augustus died, his successors slowly but surely led Rome to its ultimate downfall through tyranny and greed. However, the lessons of the Roman empire, Caesar, Augustus, and the story of Brutus’ betrayal have endured to this day. What became of Brutus and Cassius and the other murderers of Caesar? Both Brutus and Cassius ended up suicides within a short time. After Caesar died, over 300 conspirators were hunted down exposed, and executed.

The Ides of March has an ominous feeling to it because we are reminded through one of the first well known political assassinations in world history, that evil sometimes triumphs. But, in addition to mourning for Caesar, it is a good reminder that what happens in the world is everyone’s responsibility: we must think for ourselves. Justice will ultimately be served. It is easier to find men who willingly volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience. – Julius Caesar