Wednesday, March 15, 2006

March 15, 44 B.C. THE IDES OF MARCH

Julius Caesar is stabbed

"Beware the Ides of March," the soothsayer urges Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's Tragedy of Julius Caesar (act I, scene ii). Despite the forewarning, Caesar is stabbed in the back by his friend Marcus Brutus. Caesar falls and utters his famous last words, "Et tu, Brute?" (And you, Brutus?)

Shakespeare's source for the play was Thomas North's Lives of the Nobel Grecians and Romans, which detailed the murder of Caesar in 44 B.C. Caesar's friends and associates feared his growing power and his recent self-comparison to Alexander the Great and felt he must die for the good of Rome. North's work translated a French version of Plutarch, which itself had been translated from Latin. Shakespeare's version was written about 1599 and performed at the newly built Globe Theater.

Gaius Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome, is stabbed to death in the Roman Senate
house by 60 conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius
Longinus.Caesar, born into the Julii, an ancient but not particularly
distinguished Roman aristocratic family, began his political career in 78 B.C.
as a prosecutor for the anti-patrician Popular Party. He won influence in the
party for his reformist ideas and oratorical skills, and aided Roman imperial
efforts by raising a private army to combat the king of Pontus in 74 B.C. He was
an ally of Pompey, the recognized head of the Popular Party, and essentially
took over this position after Pompey left Rome in 67 B.C. to become commander of
Roman forces in the east.In 63 B.C., Caesar was elected pontifex maximus, or
"high priest," allegedly by heavy bribes. Two years later, he was made governor
of Farther Spain and in 64 B.C. returned to Rome, ambitious for the office of
consul. The consulship, essentially the highest office in the Roman Republic,
was shared by two politicians on an annual basis. Consuls commanded the army,
presided over the Senate and executed its decrees, and represented the state in
foreign affairs. Caesar formed a political alliance--the so-called First
Triumvirate--with Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in
Rome, and in 59 B.C. was elected consul. Although generally opposed by the
majority of the Roman Senate, Caesar's land reforms won him popularity with many
Romans.In 58 B.C., Caesar was given four Roman legions in Cisalpine Gaul and
Illyricum, and during the next decade demonstrated brilliant military talents as
he expanded the Roman Empire and his reputation. Among other achievements,
Caesar conquered all of Gaul, made the first Roman inroads into Britain, and won
devoted supporters in his legions. However, his successes also aroused Pompey's
jealousy, leading to the collapse of their political alliance in 53 B.C.The
Roman Senate supported Pompey and asked Caesar to give up his army, which he
refused to do. In January 49 B.C., Caesar led his legions across the Rubicon
River from Cisalpine Gaul to Italy, thus declaring war against Pompey and his
forces. Caesar made early gains in the subsequent civil war, defeating Pompey's
army in Italy and Spain, but was later forced into retreat in Greece. In August
48 B.C., with Pompey in pursuit, Caesar paused near Pharsalus, setting up camp
at a strategic location. When Pompey's senatorial forces fell upon Caesar's
smaller army, they were entirely routed, and Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was
assassinated by an officer of the Egyptian king.Caesar was subsequently
appointed Roman consul and dictator, but before settling in Rome he traveled
around the empire for several years and consolidated his rule. In 45 B.C., he
returned to Rome and was made dictator for life. As sole Roman ruler, Caesar
launched ambitious programs of reform within the empire. The most lasting of
these was his establishment of the Julian calendar, which, with the exception of
a slight modification and adjustment in the 16th century, remains in use today.
He also planned new imperial expansions in central Europe and to the east. In
the midst of these vast designs, he was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C., by a
group of conspirators who believed that his death would lead to the restoration
of the Roman Republic. However, the result of the "Ides of March" was to plunge
Rome into a fresh round of civil wars, out of which Octavian, Caesar's
grand-nephew, would emerge as Augustus, the first Roman emperor, destroying the
republic forever.


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