2,046 years ago one of the most notorious political assassinations in world history took place.
Julius Caesar, the dictator for life of the Roman Republic, was killed by a group of Senators just before a session of the senate was to start. The murder famously took place on the Ides of March.
Learn more about the assassination of Julius Caesar, why it happened, and what exactly is the Ides of March, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before I get into the details about the assassination of Caesar, I’d like to explain a bit exactly what the Ides of March is, and what was so special about them.
I’ve talked before on this show about the Roman Calendar. The basic calendar we currently use, including all of the names of the months in English, all come from Rome. In particular, the calendar which Julius Caesar established, the Julian calendar, is pretty much what we still use save for a minor upgrade for leap years every four centuries.
However, within a month, the way Romans counted days was totally unlike what we do. The idea of a seven-day week was actually instituted by Emperor Constantine in 321, about 350 years after Caesar set up his calendar.
The Romans didn’t have days of the month. They didn’t refer to something called March 15th for example. What they did was pin three days down each month, and then referenced every day in the month with respect to those three days.
The three days were kalends, nones, and ides.
The kalends were always on the first day of every month.
The nones fell on the 7th day of months with 31 days, and on the 5th day of months with less than 31..
The ides fell on the 15th day of months with 31 days, and on the 13th day of every other month.
Days were referenced by the number of days before one of the three days, counting inclusively.
So for example, May 3rd would be 5 Nones of May.
Likewise, the ides of March are on the 15th, but the ides of April are on the 13th.
The days originally came from the lunar calendar and had something to do with the phases of the moon, and when the calendar changed, they just kept these days.
There isn’t anything special about the Ides. It isn’t like Friday the 13th, and it doesn’t imply some sort of omen. It was just that the events of this episode happened to fall on that day.
So, with that being said…..Julius Caesar.
The story of Caesar is one that is far too much for a single episode of this podcast.
It is a fascinating story and arguably one of the great biographies in history. However, for the purpose of this episode, I’m going to fast forward and summarize how Caesar got to the Ides of March in 44 BC.
Caesar was a very ambitious and capable man.
He rocketed his way up the cursus honorem and became a consul in the year 59 BC, the earliest he could have done it.
He established a strategic alliance with Pompeius Magnus and Crassus called the first Triumvirate, and they basically controlled Rome through their wealth and power.
After his year as consul, he was assigned to be the proconsul in the provinces of cisalpine and transalpine Gaul. Cisalpine Gaul was what is today Northern Italy along the Alps, and Transalpine Gaul was southern France along the Mediterranean.
His term as governor was set at five years, instead of the usual one for an ex-consul. It was later extended for another five years. That is important because so long as he was the governor, he had legal immunity.
While in Gaul, he basically conquered most of what is modern-day France, also extending into Belgium.
Caesar dramatically, and quickly grew the territory of Rome. In the process, he probably killed a million people and enslaved a million more. The thing was, none of his conquests were approved by the Roman senate.
His success in Gaul made him personally very wealthy, and it also brought in a lot of wealth to Rome. He sent dispatches back to Rome about his adventures written by himself in the third person. These served as propaganda which made him incredibly popular with the common people.
His success also made him very unpopular with a large faction of Senators.
When his term as governor was expiring, he would lose his legal immunity, so he wanted to run for consul again. The anti-Caesarian senators wanted to use this opportunity to arrest him and put him up for trial because you had to be inside the walls of Rome to run for office.
The anti-Caesarians refused to negotiate, so Caesar marched south to Rome with his army, which was a big no-no. This is where the crossing of the Rubicon and “the die is cast” comes from.
His opponents, led by his former ally Pompey, flee Rome and headed to Greece to raise forces of their own, and it was the start of a civil war.
Needless to say, Caesar won with a highly improbable victory at the Battle of Pharsalus. From there he goes to Egypt to hunt down Pompey and meets Cleopatra.
He is now unquestionably the number one guy in Rome.
Unlike many people in his position, he basically forgave most of his opponents who survived the civil war. He went well out of his way to be magnanimous, which in hindsight, was probably a bad idea.
While back in Rome, he expanded the Senate and packed it with his supporters.
The Senate began bestowing honors on Caesar. They elect him dictator for a year, which was an actual legal position in Rome. Normally, it was only given in times of extreme emergency for a six-month period.
His appointment as dictator gave him legal cover for everything he did.
His term as dictator was later extended to 10 years and then finally he was appointed dictator for life in February of 44 BC.
The more honors and power that were given to him, the more the anti-Caesarian forces began to worry. Their concern was that Caesar was going to commit the biggest sin a Roman could commit. He was going to proclaim himself king.
There were several incidents before the Ides of March which had people worried about his desire to become king.
This increase in power and the threat of declaring himself king made his enemies realize that something needed to be done. Caesar needed to be taken out.
The conspiracy began about three weeks beforehand on February 22 with a secret meeting between Cassius Longinus and his brother-in-law Marcus Brutus. They agreed that Caesar needed to die, but they didn’t just want to kill Caesar.
There was great symbolic significance to having a member of House Brutii in the plot as it was a Brutus who helped dethrone the last king of Rome.
If it was only a matter of killing Caesar, one man could have done it. The more people you recruit into a conspiracy, the greater the odds of it unraveling.
However, Brutus and Cassius wanted the assassination to make a statement. They wanted as many senators to take part in the act to show the world that it was an act of tyrannicide, not just a common murder.
In the end, they got about 60 senators to take part in the plot. However, they didn’t recruit the one senator who was probably the most distinguished anti-Caesaria: Cicero.
The big debate was if they should kill Caesar, or all of his close advisors as well, in particular his right-hand man, Match Antony.
In the end, they decided that only Caesar should be killed, as they wanted this to be seen as moral action against tyranny, not simply an act by a political faction.
There were many ideas for where and how to kill Caesar. They eventually settled on doing the deed during a meeting of the Senate for purposes of symbolism, and because that was the one place where Caesar would have no bodyguards.
Caesar was planning on leaving Rome to campaign against the Parthians on March 18th, so they had to act relatively quickly, else he would be surrounded by his army for the next several years.
The conspirators eventually decided to do the deed on the Ides of March at the senate meeting. They made a vow that if the plot should be discovered, they would kill themselves.
There is an indication that Caesar knew something was going on the days before the assassination. The Roman historian Suetonius famously tells the story of a seer named Spurinna, who warned Caesar of the Ides of March.
The senate meeting that day didn’t take place in the forum where the Senate usually met. That day they met at the Theater of Pompey, as there was construction going on at the Senate building.
That morning, supposedly Caesar’s wife Calpurnia had a nightmare where she had seen her husband drenched in blood. She begged him not to go to the Senate meeting, but Caesar decided to go anyhow.
According to legend, he ran across the seer who warned him of the Ides of March on the way to the Senate. Caesar supposedly mocked him by saying that the Ides of March had come, and Spurinna replied “yes, but they have not yet gone”.
When Caesar entered the Senate, he took his seat and one senator, Lucius Tillius Cimber, came to him with a petition to bring his brother out of exile. Other senators gathered around Caesar in support of the petition and Cimber pulled down Caesar’s toga.
Caesar replied, “Why, this is violence!”, after which the first knife thrust was made by Publius Servilius Casca.
Caesar then shouted, “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?”
Then all the knives were out. Caesar stumbled with blood in his eyes and eventually collapsed on the floor where they continued to stab him.
It isn’t known what his last words were. The line “et tu Brute” was invented by Shakespeare. Plutarch just says that Caesar pulled his toga over his head when he saw Brutus and just gave up.
In the end, Caesar had 23 stab wounds, but a physician only found one that would have been fatal. It is believed he mostly died from blood loss from the multiple wounds.
His body lay on the floor of Pompey’s theater for three hours.
The assassins immediately rushed out into the streets yelling that Rome was now free. They thought they would be met with cheers, but in reality, they were met with stunned silence.
In the end, the entire plan backfired on the conspirators. They felt they were liberators freeing Rome from a tyrant. In reality, the vast majority of lower and middle-class Romans liked Caesar and the reforms he instituted.
It was only a small group at the top who really felt threatened by Caesar.
Caesar’s funeral turned into a riot after a stirring oration by Marc Antony, and it led to yet another Roman civil war.
While the Roman republic was hanging on a thread before the assassination, the death of Caesar broke it. Within 15 years, Caesar’s great-nephew Octavius would be the first Roman emperor.
Marc Antony and Octavius deified Caesar two years later. He became the first historical figure to be deified as a Roman god.
Octavius, later called Augustus, learned the lessons of Caesar and avoided the same fate. He and Marc Antony liquidated all their enemies rather than forgiving them as Caesar did.
When Augustus became Emperor, he made sure to avoid the appearance of accumulating too many titles and honors, and rather just kept certain legal powers. He lived in a modest house, dressed simply, and didn’t do anything to overtly antagonize the Senate.
Every emperor for centuries traced their legitimacy back to Julius Caesar, even adopting the name Caesar as a title. The name continued into the 20th century with titles such as Tsar and Kaiser, which are just the Russian and German words for Caesar.
There are very few events that we still commemorate which occurred over 2,000 years ago.
The Ides of March was such a day. It shaped the history of the western world and it is why it is still remembered in the 21st century.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
I have some more Bootagrams to share with you. Remember, a boostagram is sending me satoshis via a modern podcasting app you can find at newpodcastapps.com
Dave Jones sent 712 sats from The Great Nottingham Cheese Riot episode. He said The petroleum episode was top-notch.
Thanks, Dave. Those explainer episodes are usually some of the most fun for me to make. There are many things that we often hear about in the news or just casually throughout our lives, but we often don’t get all of the details or it is seldom explained in full. I’l be doing more episodes explaining various energy topics including how solar, wind, and nuclear energy work.
I received 314 sats from @petar from the Pi Day Episode, and they simply said, “Happy pi Day”
Thanks, Petar. I hope your Pi Day hang over doesn’t prevent you from celebrating the Ides of March as well. Remember, the Ides of March isn’t just about stabbing, it is about coming together to stab as a community.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a Boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.