On the 15th March 44BC (otherwise known as the Ides of March), Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by Marcus Brutus and his cohorts. It has become one of history’s most well known dates, in part thanks to William Shakespeare’s play of treachery, Julius Caesar. But just how important was it?
Born in 100BC, Caesar grew up in a noble family but had no power or influence in the politics of Rome. By the time he was of an age to have ambition, Rome had become a dangerous place. Its influence was growing faster than it could cope with, and corruption and dissatisfaction was rife throughout the ruling hierarchy.
Julius Caesar believed that the only way to tame Rome and to increase its territiory was via military dictatorship. Allying himself with as many nobles as he could, his standing in society grew and he won a number of political offices, sometimes honestly, but often by applying force, either physical or financial. By 63BC, Caesar had become a well-known but controversial figure, and was appointed to govern the region known as Farther Spain.
While he was away, Caesar took advantage of his position. He plundered the land to line his own pockets, but kept the people in strict and obedient line. This success at keeping the Spanish under control won him a return to Rome in 60BC in triumph, to be appointed Consul, the highest office in the republic.
Now holding real authority, Caesar allied himself to men of power such as the war hero Pompey, who considered himself badly treated by the Senate, and the multimillionaire Crassus. Although there was deep distrust between these men, Caesar used their combined influence and money to secure himself the governorship of Gaul. His military skill and extreme ruthlessness while he was in Gaul (between 858-50BC) was such that eventually the majority of the country was claimed for Rome.
By the time Caesar returned to Rome, his previous allies had become increasingly jealous of his success. Feeling himself surrounded by enemies in the Senate, Caesar declared a civil war in 49BC. Such was his success during this campaign, that by 46BC he was declared Dictator of Rome.
Despite his success however, Caesar’s position as the head of Rome was insecure, He had no son of his own, and so he adopted his great nephew, Augustus. He also moved fast to strengthen the northern borders of the empire and tackle its enemies in the east.
Although his methods in consolidating Rome’s position across what we now know as Europe was often violent and underhand, Caesar did accomplish some reforms which we still recognise today. He reformed the Roman calendar, tackled local government, resettled veterans into new cities, made the Senate more representative and granted citizenship to many foreigners to create a greater diversity of art, ideas and science in society.
However, only two years after his appointment as Emperor in 46BC, Caesar was to become a victim of the very political unrest he’d used to elevate himself to power.
A very superstitious society, it was normal practice in Roman society to consult a haruspex. This was a fortune-teller who could predict the near future by examining the entrails of dead animals. Spurinna was haruspex to Caesar, and it is recorded that, at the great festival of Lupercalia on the 15th of February 44 B.C., she claimed to have seen a portent of treachery concerning the Emperor. Historian Dominic Selwood told The Telegraph, “In grave tones, Spurinna warned the dictator that his life would be in danger for a period of 30 days, which would expire on the 15th of March. Caesar dismissed the concerns.”
Although the haruspex continually warned Caesar to be in fear of his life, she was not taken seriously, until she told him this. he would be betrayed within the next thirty days. Thirty days which ended with the Ides of March.
The thirty days passed, without incident, but then, on 15th March, Caesars wife had a terrible dream, and begged him not to go to the planned meeting at the Senate that day. He agreed to postpone the meeting, but fearing that people who called him a coward, his friend Decimus, persuaded Caesar to go to Senate himself to declare the postponement, so people would not think him afraid. Unknown to Caesar, Decimus was working with the traitors, and as Caesar ascended to his golden throne, a group surged forward, with knives in their hands.
Although Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times, only one of the blows was fatal. In Shakespeare’s retelling of the emperor’s downfall, he replaces the historical character of Spurrina with a yelled warning from a soothsayer in the crowd, who calls out the now famous words, “Beware the Ides of March.”
Although Julius Caesar’s rule was unremarkable when compared to his peers, his death lead the way forward to improving the groundwork he’d created to create a vast empire. A series of violent civil wars began, which slowly turned the Republic into the Roman Empire, that spread across most of the known world. A system which remained in the Eastern quarter of the Empire until as late as 1453.
Caesar’s lifelong ambition, followed by his early death, triggered the start of a brand new age for Rome.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.