In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, a soothsayer repeatedly warns Rome’s all-powerful dictator, Julius Caesar, to “Beware the Ides of March,” a date that the soothsayer suggests could be injurious to Caesar’s health. And so, in the morning hours of the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 B.C., that very same Julius Caesar stood outside of Rome’s Pompey Theatre feeling healthy as a horse and a bit smug. Spotting the soothsayer, Caesar says to him contemptuously. “Well, soothsayer, the Ides of March are come.”
“Aye, Caesar,” the soothsayer replies in one of literature’s great rejoinders, “but not gone.” Minutes later Caesar lay in a pool of blood, having been stabbed to death by a group of conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Caius Cassius Longinus.
In both history, and Shakespeare’s play, the motives for murdering Caesar were mixed, but most conspirators hoped his death would return Rome to a Republican form of government. Since 78 B.C. when he began his political career as a reformer and brilliant orator, Caesar had been a man on the rise, accumulating increasing political power through alliances with men of wealth and influence.
Made a military commander in 58 B.C., Caesar also accumulated great military power through his successful campaigns in Gaul (France and beyond) and Illyricum (the Balkan Peninsula), adding new territory and wealth to the Roman Empire, but arousing the jealousy of powerful Roman politicians, including the great Pompey, who demanded that he resign from the army. Caesar refused, and crossing the Rubicon River (hence the phrase “Crossing the Rubicon” to describe a momentous and unalterable decision) he invaded Rome and initiated a bloody civil war. Caesar eventually defeated Pompey, was appointed Roman consul, and was given lifetime dictatorial powers.
As dictator, Caesar continued his reformist ways, but many Romans still longed for the days when the Republican Senate, not a single man, held power and exercised it only after informed debate. Thus was Cesar murdered, but the result was not a return to Republicanism, but a return to civil war. Forces led by Marc Antony and Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, eventually defeated those of Brutus and Cassius, but later Antony himself was undone by his affair with Cleopatra, paving the way for the rise of Octavian, who became Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor.
But not its last. With Republicanism gone forever, emperor after emperor proceeded to plunge Rome into a series of costly wars and conquests that sapped its wealth, its civic spirit and its morale, leading to rampant corruption, internecine strife and Rome’s eventual destruction by barbarian hordes from the East.
In essence, the Ides of March marked the turning point between the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.