The Ides of March

Supposedly the word “ides” refers to the middle of the month, any month, but we never hear about the “Ides of July” or the “Ides of October”. We only hear of the Ides of March in reference to the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15 in the year 44 B.C., a conspicuous date because of Shakespeare and his sources (primarily Plutarch). Beware the Ides of March says the soothsayer to Caesar, but he did not, or could not. In somewhat of the same way as we would use the phrase 9/11, the phrase was used afterwards to refer to the cataclysmic event and its impact: Caesar’s murder and the consequential (though short-lived) restoration of the Roman Republic. But Julius Caesar was also remembered as a martyr by some, and a brilliant commander and conqueror by all (I do not remember him fondly in this capacity, having struggled for so many years with Latin lessons based on Caesar’s Gallic Wars). I always find it interesting to see lavish medieval manuscripts devoted to Caesar’s life and death. There is a noticeable emphasis on his birth (giving rise to the myth that he was the product of the first “Caesarean section”) as well as to his military exploits: like Alexander the Great, he becomes an “acceptable” pre-Christian hero. A bit later, he is always found among the “three worthy pagans” or “three heroic heathens’ of Renaissance histories.

Ides of March Bl MS Royal

Ides of March Hopfer

Ides of March Negker

The medieval Ides of March, from British Library MS Royal 16 G VII, 14th Century(Les anciennes hystoires rommaines (A compilation of ancient history in two parts); and the Renaissance Caesar in Daniel Hopfer’s “Three Worthy Pagans: Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar”, c. 1516, and Hans Burgkmair’s “Three Heroic Heathens”(also on the right), c. 1516, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

And then there’s Shakespeare, whose tragedy of Julius Caesar inextricably linked the iconic man with his assassination–and the date thereof. When you read histories of England from his era, the same histories that Shakespeare would have read, you can see why he would have wanted to add a play about Caesar to his English history plays: for the Elizabethans, English history begins with the Roman invasions of 55 and 54 BC, and this would be the framework for several centuries. And during this time Britain would become an Empire, like Rome, with democratic ideals, like Rome: the life and death of Julius Caesar could serve as reference points for the emerging pax Britannica.

Shakespeare_William-Julius_Caesar-Wing-S2922-297_26-p2

Ideas of March Sharp BM-001

A 1684 edition of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar; William Sharp print of the death scene of the play, with an avenging Antony kneeling over Caesar’s slain body, 1785, British Museum.

Ultimately it is the mutability or adaptability of Caesar (and his death) that explains his (ever-) lasting appeal: he represents triumph and tragedy, power and corruption, reach and over-reach. There are many romantic contradictions in Caesar’s story, which is why I think the French classical painters of the nineteenth century depict him most effectively–they certainly had their Caesars! But a Caesar could appear at any time, in any place, bringing forth another Ides of March.

Ides of March 19th c

Ideas of March Death of Caesar Gerome 1867

Ides of March Sketch-001

Ideas of March Puck-001

Alexandre Denis Abel de Pujol, Julius Caesar Proceeding to the Senate on the Ides of March, 19th century, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes; Jean-Leon Gerome, Death of Caesar & sketch, 1859-67, Walters Art Museum; Puck cover from June, 1908 with a Caesar-like Theodore Roosevelt rejecting the crown of 1908 while that of 1912 hovers nearby, Library of Congress.


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