Beware the Ides of March
It was ancient Rome’s most famous murder – but how much historical accuracy did our playwright actually depict?
The 15 March has been cursed as an ill-fated day, thanks in large part to Julius Caesar. But did Shakespeare get all the facts right?
For many of us, what we know of Caesar’s assassination on 15 March 44 B.C. is straight out of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s primary source was Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, and although he often stuck closely to his source he also changed and invented details to make for more compelling theatre. For better or worse, these elements are now fused in the popular imagination with ancient Roman history.
Here’s a short quiz to test your knowledge of Shakespeare’s ‘fiction’ and Plutarch’s ‘fact’…
True or false?
The day before Caesar is killed, a soothsayer warns him to ‘Beware the Ides of March’ (Act 1, scene 2).
You don’t become a Roman dictator without some people wanting you dead. Caesar was no fool – he knew that enemies were plotting his overthrow. According to Plutarch, a soothsayer did warn Caesar to be on his guard on the Ides (or midpoint) of March. But the warning came a ‘long time afore’ the actual assassination. On the day itself Caesar met the soothsayer again and told him, ‘The Ides of March be come.’ ‘So be they,’ the soothsayer responded, ‘but yet are they not past.’ The play includes a version of this exchange (Act III, scene 1). But leave it to Shakespeare to compress the timeline of events and come up with such an ominous catchphrase.
Brutus was Caesar’s best mate.
Plutarch tells us that during Caesar’s war with Pompey the Great for leadership of Rome, Brutus actually sided with Pompey. It was not until Pompey’s defeat that Brutus switched his allegiance. Moreover, Caesar questioned his frenemy’s loyalty in Plutarch, something Shakespeare leaves out. Instead, the play emphasizes their closeness to heighten Brutus’ betrayal.
There were signs portending Caesar’s death.
In addition to the soothsayer’s warning, Plutarch describes terrifying phenomena leading up to the assassination: strange lights and sounds coming from the heavens, men walking around in flames, a sacrificed animal without a heart, inauspicious birds perched in the Forum, and Calphurnia’s dream of her murdered husband. Shakespeare includes many of these details and adds a few more for good measure. Caesar in the play easily shrugs off these omens. But in Plutarch he has the good sense to listen to his wife and decides to postpone the Senate meeting. Too bad he changes his mind.
Caesar’s last words are ‘Et tu, Brute?’
In Plutarch it is Casca who strikes first, causing Caesar to cry out (in North’s translation) ‘O vile traitor Casca, what doest thou?’. Shakespeare’s line may have been inspired by another ancient Roman historian, Suetonius, who writes that Caesar appealed to Brutus in Greek ‘you too, child?’ It was widely rumoured that Brutus was Caesar’s illegitimate son. While the play suggests Caesar’s disbelief, Shakespeare omits the allusion to familial treachery. But both accounts have an air of polish. Maybe Caesar didn’t say anything when the conspirators attacked him.
Caesar is murdered in the Capitol.
In the play the assassination takes place at the Senate gathering in the Capitol. But in ancient Rome the Capitol wasn’t an administrative building but a geographic feature: the Capitoline Hill. Perhaps Shakespeare had the curia or Senate House in mind, which was located in the Forum. But alas, Caesar wasn’t killed there either. Because the curia was under construction, the Senate met at the Theatre of Pompey, in an arcade Plutarch calls ‘Pompey’s porch’ – which doesn’t have nearly the same ring.