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Monday, March 13, 2017

Beware - It's the Ides of March.

Today is the Ides of March - notionally, in the Roman lunar calendar, the day of the full moon that marked the midpoint of the month.* It was on this date in 44 B.C. that Julius Caesar (wiki) was assassinated by a conspiracy headed by Marcus Junius Brutus (wiki) and Quintus Cassius Longinus, who feared Caesar's growing power in the Roman Senate. 

The most famous portrayal of the events of that infamous day is found in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, based largely on Sir Thomas North's 1579 English translation of Plutarch's Lives** and likely first presented at the Globe in the summer of 1599. 

Julius Caesar:

Soothsayer: Caesar!

Caesar: Ha! who calls?

Casca: Bid every noise be still: peace yet again! 

Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me?

I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music, 

Cry "Caesar." Speak! Caesar is turned to hear. 

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: What man is that?

Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

Caesar: Set him before me; let me see his face.

Casca: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

Caesar: What sayst thou to me now? speak once again.

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.

~ William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act I, Sc. 2) 

Pulling Caesar’s toga was the signal to begin the attack

On the fateful day, Caesar encounters the soothsayer again:

Caesar: The ides of March are come.

Soothsayer: Ay, Caesar, but not gone.

~ Ibid., Act III, Sc. 1

Caesar: Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!

~ Id.

The corpse was still lying where it had fallen, abased and stained with blood - that of a man who had marched west to the British Isles and the Ocean,and intended to march east to the thrones of Parthia and India, so that they too might be made subject to a single empire and all land and sea be governed from one capital; but no one dared to remain and recover his body. Those of his friends who were present had fled, those who were outside were hiding in their houses; or changed their clothes and departed for the countryside and the nearby towns. 

~ Nikolaus of Damascus (fl. ca. 40-20 B.C.)** (Universal History, fragment)

The Bard has Marc Antony saying:

"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 interrèd with their bones. 

So let it be with Caesar..." *** 

* In the Julian calendar (reformed in 46 B.C.), the ides were the 15th days of March, May, July, and October - and the 13th days of all the other months. From 222 until 154 B.C., the ides of March was the day on which the new consuls of the Roman Republic entered office. The Romans did not number days of a month sequentially from the first through the last day. Instead, they counted back from three fixed points of the month: the Nones (5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st) of the following month. The Ides occurred near the midpoint, on the 13th for most months, but on the 15th for March, May, July, and October. The Ides were supposed to be determined by the full moon, reflecting the lunar origin of the Roman calendar. On the earliest calendar, the Ides of March would have been the first full moon of the new year.

** According to Plutarch, Caesar was not killed in the Senate itself, but rather in the Theater of Pompey, as the main Senate building was being restored at the time, so the Theater was being used as a substitute. The actual death of Caesar appears to have gone something like this, (from Plutarch's Lives):
Casca gave him the first cut, in the neck, which was not mortal nor dangerous, as coming from one who at the beginning of such a bold action was probably very much disturbed. Caesar immediately turned about, and laid his hand upon the dagger and kept hold of it. And both of them at the same time cried out, he that received the blow, in Latin, “Vile Casca, what does this mean?” and he that gave it, in Greek, to his brother, “Brother, help!” Upon this first onset, those who were not privy to the design were astonished and their horror and amazement at what they saw were so great, that they durst not fly nor assist Caesar, nor so much as speak a word. But those who came prepared for the business enclosed him on every side, with their naked daggers in their hands. Which way soever he turned, he met with blows, and saw their swords leveled at his face and eyes, and was encompassed, like a wild beast in the toils, on every side. For it had been agreed they should each of them make a thrust at him, and flesh themselves with his blood; for which reason Brutus also gave him one stab in the groin. Some say that he fought and resisted all the rest, shifting his body to avoid the blows, and calling out for help, but that when he saw Brutus’s dagger drawn, he covered his face with his robe and submitted, letting himself fall, whether it were by chance, or that he was pushed in that direction by his murderers, at the foot of the pedestal on which Pompey’s statue stood, and which was thus wetted with his blood.
** Nikolaus of Damascus was a Greek historian who befriended Herod the Great and Augustus Caesar, Julius's nephew, heir, and later Roman emperor. This excerpt from his fragmentary Universal History is believed to be the earliest account of Caesar's murder.

*** After the Roman people were aroused against the conspirators by Marc Antony, Brutus and Cassius fled to Syria and in 42 B.C. were defeated by Antony and Octavian at the battle of Phillipi. This left the way open for Octavian to seize power and - as Caesar Augustus - become the first Roman emperor. 

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar summary:

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