Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March!

So said the soothsayer to Julius Caesar -- at least in Shakespeare's account of the Roman dictator's life and assassination. Good advice as it turned out.

Caesar was assassinated by a horde of friends-turned-foes on March 15, 44 B.C., in the Roman Senate. The story goes something like this:

After a series of military victories (including receiving arch nemesis Pompey's severed head on a platter from grateful Egyptians), Caesar declared himself dictator for life in February 44 B.C. Pretty good job security, huh?

The Roman Senate said, "Back up, partner," and decided to kill him.

"The conspirators never met openly, but they assembled a few at a time in each others' homes," Nicolaus of Damascus, who spoke to many of the participants, later wrote.

Suggested plots included killing Caesar when he took one of his favorite walks along the Sacred Way, or waiting until the elections, when he would have to cross a bridge to appoint the magistrates in the Campus Martius. But most wanted to do the deed when he took his position at the Senate, when he would be alone. (Non-Senators were not admitted.)

The rumors reached his ears. Caesar didn't feel too good that fateful day. He was dizzy. His wife, Calpurnia, was having bad dreams. He was warned not to go to the Senate.

Not to fear, "friend" Brutus said. He challenged Caesar's manhood. Couldn't believe the great Roman dictator would be swayed by his wife's nocturnal visions and by "idle gossip of stupid men."

Thus Caesar went.

More bad omens awaited at the Senate. Priests brought up victims for sacrifice. It was unsuccessful. Again, Caesar demurred. Again Brutus challenged him. His fate was sealed.

"All quickly unsheathed their daggers and rushed at him," Nicolaus wrote.

Tillius Cimber held him. Again and again the conspirators stabbed. Finally Caesar fell, ironically at the foot of Pompey's statue.

"There was not one of them who failed to strike his body as it lay there," Nicolaus wrote. "Until, wounded 35 times, he breathed his last."

Talk about the politics of personal destruction...

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