Ides of March and Everything Afterwards

Today is March 15. As I write this, the day is almost over and for many people who read this post, it will be March 16, 2022. March 15 is also known as the Ides of March for you Roman history buffs. Before the calendar reforms instituted, the ancient Roman calendar had only 4 named days. Ides is one of them. Every other day was named in relationship to those days. For example, you might say “Two days before Ides, the day after Ides…” I agree: it was complicated.

By now you may have guessed that from the picture that “Ides of March” was the day Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Few other events have captured the western imagination for the next 2000 years. Dante’s Inferno featured Brutus and Cassius in the circle of hell for traitors. Shakespeare immortalized the events in his play Julius Caesar. John Wilkes Booth shouted the same lines Sic Semper Tyrannis as Brutus as Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. Most recently, the 2005-2007 HBO series Rome brought everything to life on TV (and now streaming devices).

It was 30 years ago when I first read Julius Caesar in 8th grade English class. In addition to reading it as a play in class with different students assigned as different characters, my teacher also partnered with our drama teacher to act out the play. My teacher went even further and got tickets as a highly optional assignment to watch an avant-garde production of Julius Caesar where the entire cast was just 3 people – two men and woman.

My connection with Julius Caesar does not end there. In 10th and 11th grades, I participated in a speech tournament. To practice giving speeches, I read Antony’s famous speech which begins: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” Antony’s eulogy of Caesar swayed the crowds’ allegiance and sentiments away from Brutus and the conspirators back to Antony and Caesar’s friends and heirs. Whether you can attribute it all to Antony’s speech, the conspirators must flee when they realized the Roman mob has turned against them. Brutus and Cassius’s forces were eventually defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. (Obviously, there is more to the story than the dramatized version in Shakespeare’s play, and same goes for the HBO series where creative license takes precedence over historical accuracy.) Such is the power of words.

It’s been 30 years since I read Shakespeare’s play and I am not the same person as that 12 year old middle school student any more (I really hope not). Nevertheless, the objective lessons are the same: be careful of rhetoric and the mob. Beware of individuals who can sway the crowds to their side even though they and their message are wrong (Hitler, Mao, Hussein, etc.) After all, professional speech writers are always trying to find those magic words that sway the audience to their side.

Despite the darker side of the play, and it is a Shakespearean tragedy, I will always admire the language.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.

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