In the midst of the most turbulent American political season in decades, I recently re-read Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. His source was mostly the historian Plutarch. The play is still relevant, and still illuminating on the subjects of loyalty to others versus loyalty to country, honest differences of political opinion, the uses and abuses of power, and whether and when violence is justified. And because it’s Shakespeare, every word is memorable. In history and in the play, Julius Caesar meets a bloody end. But Shakespeare gave him some memorable lines before he went down. In the play, contemplating his risks, Julius Caesar says, “Cowards die may times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
This day, the 15th of March in year 44 B.C., did not work out well for Julius Caesar. According to the historian Plutarch, a fortune-teller warned Caesar that something terrible would happen to him before the “Ides of March.” There were other warnings, too: a graphically violent dream by Caesar’s worried wife Calphurnia, men seemingly walking around on fire in the marketplace, a lion wandering the streets. Confident (or foolhardy) fellow that Julius Caesar was, he laughed at the portents and predictions. He even gloated, as he made his way to the Roman Senate on that morning. When he reached the Theater of Pompey, where Senate sessions were being temporarily held, he figured he was home free. But a lethal circle of assassins awaited him, knives concealed under their togas. Calphurnia’s nightmare came horribly true.
Julius Caesar’s death marked the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of fierce civil wars that eventually led to the formation of the Roman Empire–a period that was stable, but definitely not democratic. Julius Caesar had already more or less ended the Republic: at the height of his power, he had named himself “Imperator.”
Could Caesar have avoided his violent end? Given his personality and supreme self-confidence, he probably could not. He had refused to resign when the Senate politely requested that he step down, and with one of his legions he had defiantly crossed the Rubicon River into Italy. That was strictly forbidden. Military conquest was for the frontiers. Rome was for reasoned debate among civilized men. Ever since Julius Caesar’s audacious and risky march across that border river, the expression “crossing the Rubicon” has meant a fateful and irreversible action. There was no turning back, for Caesar or for Rome.
Looking back over the centuries, it appears that the common people loved Julius Caesar for his flamboyance and for the military glory he had brought home to Rome. But his aristocratic peers saw only danger ahead. They decided that Caesar had to go. Once he was safely dead and out of the way, his heir, Octavius, obligingly made Julius Caesar a god. No danger there, and the move placated the restive common people.
Today, the Roman Forum is a haunting place to wander, pondering the ups and downs of history. When I visited, I bought a book with clear overlays which shows how the various buildings must once have looked back in the day. But even without a visual aid, it is not hard to imagine Julius Caesar and his entourage making his way through the Forum on his way to the Senate session on that fateful day, the Ides of March in 44 B.C.
Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe!