Ides of March: The Soothsayer

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? 100
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer. Beware the ides of March.

Caesar. What man is that?

Brutus. A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March. 105

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

Cassius. Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

Caesar. What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.

Soothsayer. Beware the ides of March.

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

Julius Caesar:  Act I, Scene 2


I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

This Ides of March we are focused on the unnamed Soothsayer in the play who warns Caesar to beware of the Ides of March.  From ancient sources we know the name of the Soothsayer, Spurinna.  Suetonius, that National Enquirer style ancient historian, mentions him in a passage, go here to read it, noting numerous signs that Caesar was the subject of a plot against his life:

Again, when he was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the ides of March.

Certainly it required no soothsayer to predict assassination attempts against Caesar.  The civil wars which had brought Caesar to power were in the recent past, and Caesar being made Dictator for life, displeased probably a majority of the Senate, now reduced to being a mere cheering section for Caesar.  However, the Romans lived by signs and portents and bringing in the supernatural gave a certain inevitable quality about it.

Long before he rose to rule Rome, Caesar had been elected Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of the Roman state religion.  Caesar’s private life was a public scandal, but private morality and the state religion were two separate things.  For the good of the State the religious rites of the State had to be properly performed.  That the aristocrats performing the rites were often privately skeptical was of no matter, paganism tending to be intensely transactional in the Roman cults.

Skepticism also tended to march side by side with superstition.  Virtually anything could be taken as a sign from the gods of a future event.  The ancient histories are filled with them.  That they may have been concocted after the fact is no matter.  They accurately reflect the world view of the Romans where forces beyond their ken moved humanity around like pieces on a game board.

Spurinna was a haruspex, a religious official who divined the future by looking at the entrails of a slaughtered animal, and Spurinna perhaps read doom in the entrails of the animal that Caesar had just sacrificed.  (Our ancient sources of course recall the predictions that came true and consign to oblivion the ones that were erroneous.)

Plutarch provided the famous scene for Shakespeare regarding the last meeting of Caesar and Spurinna:

The following story, too, is told by many. A certain seer warned Caesar to be on his guard against a great peril on the day of the month of March which the Romans call the Ides; 6 and when the day had come and Caesar was on his way to the senate-house, he greeted the seer with a jest and said: “Well, the Ides of March are come,” and the seer said to him softly: “Ay, they are come, but they are not gone.”

For the Romans the assassination of Julius Caesar was a turning point in their history, and thus it was important that this event be surrounded in a supernatural wrapper.

Published in: on March 15, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Ides of March: The Soothsayer  
Tags: , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: