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  
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Ides of March: Caesar and Welles

 

 

CASSIUS

Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

BRUTUS

How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!

CASSIUS

So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1

 

 

 

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.

One of the more celebrated performances of Julius Caesar was that of Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre players on November 11, 1937.  Welles was all of 22 and playing the angry young genius in a hurry role to the hilt.  Welles was already a radio star earning the fantastic, for that time, salary of $1500 a week.  The average annual salary in Depression era America in 1937 was $890 a year.  However, Welles was determined to make his mark in the theater, and he plowed back almost every cent into his Mercury Theatre company, after he broke with the Federal Theater Project.  Julius Caesar was the first play of the company.  The play was performed in modern dress, partially because Welles could not afford costumes, and partially because he saw the play as a mechanism to warn about the rise of fascism in Europe.  The uniforms used could just have easily caused the play to be set in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

 

The play received laudatory reviews and caused a sensation in the theater world.  Orson Welles portrayed Brutus, the hero of the play, with such bravura that in one performance he accidentally stabbed the actor portraying Caesar.  The poor fellow was off for a few months recovering.

The play established the reputation of Welles as a genius, a reputation that would prove a considerable burden to Welles over his three score and ten in this Vale of Tears.  It also predicted much of Welles’ subsequent career:  the critics loved it but it failed to turn a profit.  Me and Orson Welles (2008) gives a fictional portrayal of the production.  Christian McKay gave a mesmerizing performance as Welles.

Published in: on March 15, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Ides of March: Caesar and Welles  
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Ides of March: Octavian

ANTONY
Why do you cross me in this exigent?

OCTAVIUS
I do not cross you; but I will do so.

Julius Caesar: Act V, Scene 1

 

 

 

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.

Octavian is almost a bit player in Julius Caesar with very few lines.  Eighteen at the time of his uncle’s assassination, the future Augustus masterfully played a rather weak hand in the chaos that reigned after Caesar was dead.  Almost completely devoid of the military skill of Julius Caesar, his political genius far outshone that of his uncle.  Fortunately for him Antony, not a bad general, was, contrary to his image in the play, not extremely skilled in political intrigue and it was not that hard for Octavian to outmaneuver him in the political game of chess.  Octavian quickly became stronger than Antony both in political support and number of troops, but Octavian shrewdly used Antony’s military acumen, by forming with him the Second Triumvirate and smashing the forces of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi.    Octavian then embarked on the twelve years of political intrigue and military conflicts that would leave him the sole ruler of Rome.  As Dictator for Life, in effect, he forged the creation of a new state, the Empire, all the while protesting that he was merely a humble servant of the Republic.   Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra would give Octavian his due:

OCTAVIUS CAESAR

Let our best heads
Know, that to-morrow the last of many battles
We mean to fight: within our files there are,
Of those that served Mark Antony but late,
Enough to fetch him in. See it done:
And feast the army; we have store to do’t,
And they have earn’d the waste. Poor Antony!

The play Julius Caesar is filled with great characters, exuding charisma and given great lines to recite.  Yet the audience and Shakespeare know that it is the colorless Octavian, given only a few brief lines in the play, who will take all.

 

 

 

Published in: on March 15, 2019 at 5:30 am  Comments (3)  
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Kalends of March

 

Today is the Kalends of March.  On this day in 293 AD the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian appointed Constantius Chlorus and Galerius as Caesars.  Constantius Chlorus and Galerian eventually became Emperors.  On the death of his father, Constantine seized the title of Emperor.  After a series of wars he became sole Emperor and proclaimed  the legalization of Christianity in the Edict of Milan and became, on his deathbed, the first baptized Christian Emperor of Rome.  Take that Ides of March, always hogging all the limelight!

 

Published in: on March 1, 2019 at 5:26 am  Comments Off on Kalends of March  
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Ides of March: Julius Caesar

Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,
Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,
And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.

Stephen Vincent Benet

 

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.

The shade of Caesar probably would have objected to his portrayal by Shakespeare.  Caesar comes off as a stuffy dodo, almost reduced to a plot device, his assassination setting the play in motion.  To his contemporaries Caesar was a prodigy of nature.  Coming from a largely impoverished aristocratic family of no special note, Caesar rose to the front rank of the Roman political scene largely due to his political daring and his mastery of the intricate Roman political machinations of his time.  His military genius, which so fascinates us, he was able to exercise because of his political ability and intrigues, his political career in no way resting upon his military career.  His military genius did allow him to seize power and to begin the funeral ceremonies for the Republic which had been manifestly dying since the time of the Gracchi brothers decades before the birth of Caesar.  Caesar was a great destroyer in historical terms, but it would be up to his nephew Octavian, who lacked all of Caesar’s military skill but who was a greater political genius, to erect on the ruins of the Republic the Principate, that would morph in time into the Roman Empire, all while Octavian/Augustus protested that he was a Republican and that he was merely restoring the Republic.

The Ides of March deserve to be carefully marked in our contemporary time, because it demonstrates how swiftly a political system of great antiquity could be swept away, and one man rule installed.  Republics tend to be fragile things, and tend to die unless carefully tended and guarded.

 

BRUTUS

Be patient till the last.
Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

All

None, Brutus, none.

BRUTUS

Then none have I offended. I have done no more to
Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. The question of
his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not
extenuated, wherein he was worthy, nor his offences
enforced, for which he suffered death.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2

 

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Ides of March: Cato the Younger

And, in general, Cato thought he ought to take a course directly opposed to the life and practices of the time, feeling that these were bad and in need of great change.

Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger

 

 

 

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.

Caesar was assassinated because he had established himself as absolute ruler of Rome as Marius and Sulla had done before him.  Once again the Senate was to be reduced to a rubber stamp.  However unlike the brief periods of one man rule engaged in by Marius and Sulla, Caesar, a much abler man, was clearly aiming to turn Rome into a monarchy to be ruled by him alone, and his successors after him.  The Republic, clearly dying for the last half century, was now dead and Caesar was the undertaker.  However, some Romans refused to accept this fact.  Foremost among them was Cato the Younger.  A living anachronism, Cato longed for the Republic that his ancestor Cato the Elder had helped to create and stood against those who sought to hurry on the death of the Republic.  Fate has allowed only one speech of Cato to survive, his powerful brief oration that convinced the Senators to impose the death penalty on the Cataline conspirators.  In this speech we see Cato’s love of the Republic and his clear eyed awareness that it was unlikely to survive the corrupt generation among whom he lived.  Cato understood that the Republic was a lost cause, but he viewed this lost cause as worth fighting for and dying for.  Here is the text of his speech:

MY feelings, conscript fathers, are extremely different when I contemplate our circumstances and dangers, and when I revolve in my mind the sentiments of some who have spoken before me. Those speakers, as it seems to me, have considered only how to punish the traitors who have raised war against their country, their parents, their altars, and their homes; but the state of affairs warns us rather to secure ourselves against them, than to take counsel as to what sentence we should pass upon them. Other crimes you may punish after they have been committed; but as to this, unless you prevent its commission, you will, when it has once taken effect, in vain appeal to justice. When the city is taken, no power is left to the vanquished.

But, in the name of the immortal gods, I call upon you, who have always valued your mansions and villas, your statues and pictures, at a higher price than the welfare of your country, if you wish to preserve those possessions, of whatever kind they are, to which you are attached; if you wish to secure quiet for the enjoyment of your pleasures, arouse yourselves and act in defense of your country. We are not now debating on the revenues, or on injuries done to our allies, but our liberty and our life is at stake.

Often, conscript fathers, have I spoken at great length in this assembly; often have I complained of the luxury and avarice of our citizens, and, by that very means, have incurred the displeasure of many. I, who never excused to myself, or to my own conscience, the commission of any fault, could not easily pardon the misconduct, or indulge the licentiousness, of others. But tho you little regarded my remonstrances, yet the republic remained secure; its own strength was proof against your remissness. The question, however, at present under discussion, is not whether we live in a good or bad state of morals: nor how great, nor how splendid, the empire of the Roman people is; but whether these things around us, of whatever value they are, are to continue our own, or to fall, with ourselves, into the hands of the enemy.

In such a case, does any one talk to me of gentleness and compassion? For some time past, it is true, we have lost the real names of things; for to lavish the property of others is called generosity, and audacity in wickedness is called heroism; and hence the State is reduced to the brink of ruin. But let those who thus misname things be liberal, since such is the practise, out of the property of our allies; let them be merciful to the robbers of the treasury; but let them not lavish our blood, and, while they spare a few criminals, bring destruction on all the guiltless.

In such a case, does any one talk to me of gentleness and compassion? For some time past, it is true, we have lost the real names of things; for to lavish the property of others is called generosity, and audacity in wickedness is called heroism; and hence the State is reduced to the brink of ruin. But let those who thus misname things be liberal, since such is the practise, out of the property of our allies; let them be merciful to the robbers of the treasury; but let them not lavish our blood, and, while they spare a few criminals, bring destruction on all the guiltless.
Caius Cæsar, a short time ago, spoke in fair and elegant language, before this assembly, on the subject of life and death; considering as false, I suppose, what is told of the dead—that the bad, going a different way from the good, inhabit places gloomy, desolate, dreary and full of horror. He accordingly proposed that the property of the conspirators should be confiscated, and themselves kept in custody in the municipal towns; fearing, it seems, that, if they remained at Rome, they might be rescued either by their accomplices in the conspiracy, or by a hired mob; as if, forsooth, the mischievous and profligate were to be found only in the city, and not through the whole of Italy, or as if desperate attempts would not be more likely to succeed where there is less power to resist them. His proposal, therefore, if he fears any danger from them, is absurd; but if, amid such universal terror, he alone is free from alarm, it the more concerns me to fear for you and myself.
Be assured, then, that when you decide on the fate of Lentulus and the other prisoners, you at the same time determine that of the army of Catiline, and of all the conspirators. The more spirit you display in your decision, the more will their confidence be diminished; but if they shall perceive you in the smallest degree irresolute, they will advance upon you with fury.
Do not suppose that our ancestors, from so small a commencement, raised the republic to greatness merely by force of arms. If such had been the case, we should enjoy it in a most excellent condition; for of allies and citizens, as well as arms and horses, we have a much greater abundance that they had. But there were other things which made them great, but which among us have no existence—such as industry at home, equitable government abroad, and minds impartial in council, uninfluenced by any immoral or improper feeling. Instead of such virtues, we have luxury and avarice, public distress and private superfluity: we extol wealth, and yield to indolence; no distinction is made between good men and bad; and ambition usurps the honors due to virtue. Nor is this wonderful; since you study each his individual interest, and since at home you are slaves to pleasure, and here to money or favor; and hence it happens that an attack is made on the defenseless State. (more…)

Published in: on March 15, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Ides of March: Cato the Younger  
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Ides of March: Two Antonies

 

 

 

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.

The late Charlton Heston played Antony twice in films: in 1950 at age 27, the videos at the beginning of this post are from the 1950 film, and in 1970 at age 47:

Mark Antony was 39 at the time of the events depicted.  Plutarch tells us what happened:

And therefore, when Caesar’s body [22] was brought to the place where it should be buried, he made a funeral oration in commendation of Caesar, according to the ancient custom of praising noblemen at their funerals. When he saw that the people were very glad and desirous also to hear Caesar spoken of, and his praises uttered, he mingled his oration with lamentable words, and by amplifying of matters did greatly move their hearts and affections unto pity and compassion. In fine, to conclude his oration, he unfolded before the whole assembly the bloody garments of the dead, thrust through in many places with their swords, and called the malefactors cruel and cursed murderers. With these words he put the people into such a fury, that they presently took Caesar’s body, and burnt it in the market-place with such tables and forms as they could get together. Then, when the fire was kindled, they took firebrands, and ran to the murderers’ houses to set them afire, and to make them come out to fight.

At this time Antony had a well deserved reputation as a wastrel and a well deserved reputation as a military man from his service under Caesar, but he had no reputation as an orator.  However, Antony’s paternal grandfather had been the foremost orator in Rome in his time, so there was a family tradition which Brutus and other conspirators would have done better to take into consideration before granting Antony a forum at Caesar’s funeral. (more…)

Published in: on March 15, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Ides of March: Two Antonies  
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