The Ides of March (Latin: Idus Martii or Idus Martiae) is a day on the Roman calendar that corresponds to 15 March. It was marked by several religious observances, and became notorious as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. The death of Caesar made the Ides of March a turning point in Roman history, as one of the events that marked the transition from the historical period known as the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.
Although March (Martius) was the third month of the Julian calendar, in the oldest Roman calendar it was the first month of the year. The holidays observed by the Romans from the first through the Ides often reflect their origin as new year celebrations. The Romans did not number days of a month sequentially from the first through the last day. Instead, they counted back from three fixed points of the month: the Nones (5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st) of the following month. The Ides occurred near the midpoint, on the 13th for most months, but on the 15th for March, May, July, and October. Thus for example, the Romans would not say “11th of May” but, rather, “4 days before the Ides of May.”
The Ides of each month were sacred to Jupiter, the supreme deity of the Romans. The Flamen Dialis, Jupiter’s high priest, led the “Ides sheep” (ovis Idulius) in procession along the Via Sacra to the arx, where it was sacrificed. In addition to the monthly sacrifice, the Ides of March was also the occasion of the Feast of Anna Perenna, a goddess of the year whose festival originally concluded the ceremonies of the new year. The day was enthusiastically celebrated among the plebeians (common people) with picnics, drinking, and revelry.
One source from late antiquity also places the Mamuralia on the Ides of March. This observance, which has aspects of scapegoat or ancient Greek pharmakos ritual, involved beating an old man dressed in animal skins and perhaps driving him from the city. The ritual may have been a new year festival representing the expulsion of the old year.
In the later Imperial period, the Ides of March began a “holy week” of festivals for Cybele and Attis. The Ides was the day of Canna intrat (“The Reed enters”), when Attis was born and exposed as an infant among the reeds of a Phrygian river. He was discovered—depending on the version of the narrative—by either shepherds or the goddess Cybele, who was also known as the Magna Mater, “Great Mother.” A week later, on 22 March, the day of Arbor intrat (“The Tree enters”) commemorated the death of Attis under a pine tree. A college of priests called “tree bearers” cut down a tree, suspended from it an image of Attis, and carried it to the temple of the Magna Mater with lamentations. The day was formalized as part of the official Roman calendar under Claudius. A three-day period of mourning followed, culminating with the rebirth of Attis on 25 March, the date of the vernal equinox on the Julian calendar.
Nowadays people remember the Ides of March as the day Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. Tensions had been mounting in the senate for some time because Caesar seemed to be intent on dismantling the democratic foundations of the Roman Republic which had been in place for hundreds of years. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy with a revolt against the last king Tarquin the Proud, traditionally dated around 509 BCE, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and advised by a senate. A complex constitution gradually developed, centered on the principles of a separation of powers and checks and balances. Except in times of dire national emergency, public offices were limited to one year, so that, in theory at least, no single individual wielded absolute power over his fellow citizens. When consuls left the senate after a year they were required to leave Rome and take up a governorship in one of the provinces.
During his early career, Caesar had seen how chaotic and dysfunctional the Roman Republic had become. The republican machinery had broken down under the weight of imperialism, the central government had become powerless, the provinces had been transformed into independent principalities under the absolute control of their governors, and the army had replaced the constitution as the means of accomplishing political goals. With a weak central government, political corruption had spiraled out of control, and the status quo had been maintained by a corrupt aristocracy, which saw no need to change a system that had made its members rich.
In the 50’s BCE Caesar had built up a strong army in the provinces and had vastly expanded Roman territories in the Western parts of Europe – notable Gaul. He had even invaded Britain although he could not sustain a Roman province there. By 49 BCE he was determined to return to Rome with his army and seize power. The momentous occasion occurred in 49 BCE when he crossed the Rubicon river, the traditional boundary separating Rome from the provinces. Once he was in Roman territory with an army it was clear that he was going to take power and could not turn back. Hence “crossing the Rubicon” now means making a decisive and irreversible move. Between his crossing of the Rubicon and his assassination in 44 BCE, Caesar established a new constitution, which was intended to accomplish three separate goals. First, he wanted to suppress all armed resistance out in the provinces so that what he did could not be repeated, and thus bring order back to the empire. Second, he wanted to create a strong central government in Rome. Finally, he wanted to knit together the entire empire into a single cohesive unit.
Biographers describe tension between Caesar and the Senate, and his possible claims to the title of king. These events were the principal motive for Caesar’s assassination. The Senate named Caesar dictator perpetuo (“dictator in perpetuity”). Roman mints produced a denarius coin with this title and his likeness on one side, and with an image of the goddess Ceres and Caesar’s title of Augur Pontifex Maximus on the reverse. While minting the title of dictator was not controversial, Caesar’s image was, as it was unusual to feature living consuls and other public officials on coins during the Republic.
According to Cassius Dio, a senatorial delegation went to inform Caesar of new honors they had bestowed upon him in 44 BC. Caesar received them while sitting in the Temple of Venus Genetrix, rather than rising to meet them (sitting being symbolic of kingship). Suetonius wrote (almost 150 years later) that Caesar failed to rise in the temple, either because he was restrained by Cornelius Balbus or that he balked at the suggestion he should rise. Suetonius also gave the account of a crowd assembled to greet Caesar upon his return to Rome. A member of the crowd placed a laurel wreath on the statue of Caesar on the Rostra. The tribunes Gaius Epidius Marcellus and Lucius Caesetius Flavus ordered that the wreath be removed as it was a symbol of Jupiter and royalty. Caesar had the tribunes removed from office through his official powers.According to Suetonius, he was unable to dissociate himself from the royal title from this point forward. Suetonius also gives the story that a crowd shouted to him rex (“king”), to which Caesar replied, “I am Caesar, not Rex”. Also, at the festival of the Lupercalia, while he gave a speech from the Rostra, Mark Antony, who had been elected co-consul with Caesar, attempted to place a crown on his head several times. Caesar put it aside to use as a sacrifice to Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
Plutarch and Suetonius are similar in their depiction of these events, but Dio combines the stories writing that the tribunes arrested the citizens who placed diadems or wreaths on statues of Caesar. He then places the crowd shouting “rex” on the Alban Hill with the tribunes arresting a member of this crowd as well. The plebeian protested that he was unable to speak his mind freely. Caesar then brought the tribunes before the senate and put the matter to a vote, thereafter removing them from office and erasing their names from the records.
Suetonius adds that Lucius Cotta proposed to the Senate that Caesar should be granted the title of “king” for it was prophesied that only a king would conquer Parthia. Caesar intended to invade Parthia, a task that later gave considerable trouble to Mark Antony during the second triumvirate.
His many titles and honors from the Senate were ultimately merely that, honorary. Caesar continually strove for more power to govern, with as little dependence as possible on honorary titles or Senate. The placating ennobling of Caesar did not allay ultimate confrontation, as the Senate was still the authority, granting to Caesar his titles. Formal power resided in them, in tension with Caesar.
Brutus began to conspire against Caesar with his friend and brother-in-law Gaius Cassius Longinus and other men, calling themselves the Liberatores (“Liberators”). Many plans were discussed by the group, as documented by Nicolaus of Damascus:
The conspirators never met exactly openly, but they assembled a few at a time in each other’s homes. There were many discussions and proposals, as might be expected, while they investigated how and where to execute their design. Some suggested that they should make the attempt along the Sacred Way, which was one of his favorite walks. Another idea was to do it at the elections, during which he had to cross a bridge to appoint the magistrates in the Campus Martius. Someone proposed that they draw lots for some to push him from the bridge and others to run up and kill him. A third plan was to wait for a coming gladiatorial show. The advantage of that was, because of the show, no suspicion would be aroused if arms were seen. The majority opinion, however, favored killing him while he sat in the Senate. He would be there by himself, since only Senators were admitted, and the conspirators could hide their daggers beneath their togas. This plan won the day.
Nicolaus writes that in the days leading up to the assassination, Caesar was told by doctors, friends, and even his wife, Calpurnia, not to attend the Senate on the Ides for various reasons, including medical concerns and troubling dreams Calpurnia had had:
…his friends were alarmed at certain rumors and tried to stop him going to the Senate-house, as did his doctors, for he was suffering from one of his occasional dizzy spells. His wife, Calpurnia, especially, who was frightened by some visions in her dreams, clung to him and said that she would not let him go out that day. But Brutus, one of the conspirators who was then thought of as a firm friend, came up and said, ‘What is this, Caesar? Are you a man to pay attention to a woman’s dreams and the idle gossip of stupid men, and to insult the Senate by not going out, although it has honored you and has been specially summoned by you? But listen to me, cast aside the forebodings of all these people, and come. The Senate has been in session waiting for you since early this morning.’ This swayed Caesar and he left.
Caesar had been preparing to invade the Parthian Empire (a campaign later taken up by his successor, Mark Antony) and planned to leave for the East in the latter half of March. This forced a timetable on to the conspirators. Two days before the actual assassination, Cassius met with the conspirators and told them that, should anyone discover the plan, they were to turn their knives on themselves. His successors did attempt the conquests of Parthia and Germania, but without lasting results.
On the Ides of March of 44 BCE, the conspirators staged a gladiatorial games at Pompey’s theatre. The gladiators were provided by Decimus Brutus in case their services were needed. They waited in the great hall of the theatre’s quadriportico. Mark Antony, having vaguely learned of the plot the night before from a terrified Liberator named Servilius Casca, and fearing the worst, went to head Caesar off at the steps of the forum. However, the group of senators intercepted Caesar just as he was passing the Theatre of Pompey, located in the Campus Martius (now adjacent to the Largo di Torre Argentina), and directed him to a room adjoining the east portico.
According to Plutarch, as Caesar arrived at the Senate, Lucius Tillius Cimber presented him with a petition to recall his exiled brother. The other conspirators crowded round to offer their support. Both Plutarch and Suetonius say that Caesar waved him away, but Cimber grabbed Caesar’s shoulders and pulled down Caesar’s tunic. Caesar then cried to Cimber, “This is violence!” (“Ista quidem vis est!”). At the same time, Casca produced his dagger and made a glancing thrust at the dictator’s neck. Caesar turned around quickly and caught Casca by the arm. According to Plutarch, he said in Latin, “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” Casca, frightened, shouted “Help, brother!” in Greek (“adelphe, boethei”). Within moments, the entire group, including Brutus, was striking out at the dictator. Caesar attempted to get away, but, blinded by blood, he tripped and fell; the men continued stabbing him as he lay defenseless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times. Suetonius relates that a physician who performed an autopsy on Caesar established that only one wound (the second one to his chest) had been fatal. This autopsy report (the earliest known post-mortem report in history) describes that Caesar’s death was mostly attributable to blood loss from the multiple stab wounds.
The dictator’s last words are a contested subject among scholars and historians and people alike. Suetonius reports that others have said Caesar’s last words were the Greek phrase “καὶ σύ, τέκνον” (transliterated as “Kai su, teknon?”: “You too, my son?” in English). However, Suetonius himself says Caesar said nothing. But Suetonius was writing in 122 AD about events on March 15, 44 BCE. Plutarch also reports that Caesar said nothing, pulling his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators. The version best known in the English-speaking world is the Latin phrase “Et tu, Brute?” (“You too, Brutus?”); this derives from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1599), where it actually forms the first half of a macaronic line: “Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar.” It has no basis in historical fact, and Shakespeare’s use of Latin here is not from any assumption that Caesar would have been using the language, but because the phrase was already popular at the time the play was written.
According to Plutarch, after the assassination, Brutus stepped forward as if to say something to his fellow senators not involved in the plot; they, however, fled the building. Brutus and his companions then marched to the Capitol while crying out to the city: “People of Rome, we are once again free!” They were met with silence, as the citizens of Rome had locked themselves inside their houses as soon as the rumor of what had taken place had begun to spread. Caesar’s dead body lay where it fell on the Senate floor for nearly three hours before other officials arrived to remove it.
A wax statue of Caesar was erected in the Forum displaying the 23 stab wounds. A crowd who had amassed there started a fire, which badly damaged neighboring buildings. In the ensuing years a series of civil wars resulted with the end of the Republic and the rise of imperial Rome under Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, who took the imperial name, Augustus. The supreme irony, therefore, is that the conspirators, while trying to maintain the republic, ended up causing its demise.
This is a recipe for saffron chickpeas that is alluded to several times in ancient literature, and Apicius provides a recipe in De Re Coquinaria. (See here too) It originated in ancient Greece but was apparently quite popular in Rome for several centuries. This is my adaptation of Apicius. I decided to mash the end product because I am currently in a phase of serving fried fish on something mashed. This dish would be at home in ancient Rome because fried fish was very popular.
© Saffron Chickpeas
Combine in a large saucepan 14 ozs/400g of dried chickpeas, ½ cup olive oil, ½ tbsp ground cumin, and ½ tbsp ground coriander. Cover with light stock and add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer and cook the chickpeas until they are very tender (about 3 hours). Top up the stock as necessary.
Towards the end of the cooking process let the liquid reduce and add ¼ tsp of powdered saffron.
Mash with a fork or use a food processor. I use a fork because I like the mash to retain some texture.
Use as a base for meat or fish, or serve as a side dish.