What really happened on the Ides of March?
- History & Culture
The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C still resonates as a day of infamy. Here’s how the plot unfolded.
Published March 14, 2023
5 min read
Julius Caesar‘s bloody assassination on March 15, 44 B.C., forever marked March 15, or the Ides of March, as a day of infamy. It has fascinated scholars and writers ever since.
For ancient Romans living before that event, however, an ides was merely one of several common calendar terms used to mark monthly lunar events. The ides simply marked the appearance of the full moon.
But Romans would soon learn to beware the Ides of March. That iconic phrase came to represent a day of abrupt change, setting off a ripple of repercussions throughout Roman society and beyond.
Why did Romans plot to kill Caesar?
By the time of Caesar, Rome had a long-established republican government headed by two consuls with joint powers. Praetors were one step below consuls in the power chain and handled judicial matters. A body of citizens forming the Senate proposed legislation, which general people’s assemblies then approved by vote. A special temporary office, that of dictator, was established for use only during times of extreme civil unrest.
(What did Julius Caesar really look like?)
The Romans had no love for kings. According to legend, they expelled their last one in 509 B.C. While Caesar had made pointed and public displays of turning down offers of kingship, he showed no reluctance to accept the office of “dictator for life” in February of 44 B.C. This action may have sealed his fate in the minds of his enemies.
Caesar had pushed the envelope for some time before his death. “Caesar was the first living Roman ever to appear on the coinage,” Josiah Osgood, a historian at Georgetown University told Nat Geo in 2004. Normally, the honor was reserved for deities. He notes that some historians suspect that Caesar might have been attempting to establish a cult in his honor in a move toward deification.
The plot’s conspirators, who termed themselves “the liberators,” had to move quickly as Caesar had plans to leave Rome for a campaign against the Parthians. Two days before his departure, he was summoned to the Senate for what would be a fateful meeting. The conspirators gathered around Caesar and stabbed him to death as the rest of the Roman Senate watched in horror.
(These blow-by-blow accounts reveal what happened on the Ides of March.)
What did Brutus have to do with it all?
Whether or not Caesar was a true tyrant is debated still to this day. It is safe to say, however, that in the mind of Marcus Brutus, who helped mastermind the attack, the threat Caesar posed to the republican system was clear.
Brutus was famously portrayed in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as a tragic hero, while Caesar was written as an unequivocal tyrant. In the play, Caesar sees Brutus among the crowd of assassins and says of the betrayal with his dying breath, “Et tu, Brute?”
Brutus’s involvement in the murder is made tragic given his close affiliations with Caesar. His mother, Servilia, was one of Caesar’s lovers. And although Brutus had fought against Caesar during Rome’s recent civil war, he was spared from death and later promoted by Caesar to the office of praetor.
Brutus, however, was torn in his allegiance to Caesar. Brutus’s family had a tradition of rejecting authoritarian powers. Ancestor Junius Brutus was credited with throwing out the last king of Rome, Tarquin Superbus, in 509 B.C. Ahala, an ancestor of Marcus Brutus’s mother, had killed another tyrant, Spurius Maelius. This lineage, coupled with a strong interest in the Greek idea of tyranicide, disposed Brutus to have little patience with perceived power grabbers.
The final blow came when his uncle Cato, a father figure to Brutus, killed himself after losing in a battle against Caesar in 46 B.C. Brutus may have felt both shame over accepting Caesar’s clemency and obligation to do Cato honor by continuing his quest to “save” the republic from Caesar, Osgood speculated.
It is this moral dilemma that has caused debate over whether or not Brutus should be branded a villain. Plutarch’s Life of Brutus, Osgood noted, is quite sympathetic in comparison to surviving documents naming other enemies of Caesar and his successors.
Legacy of the attack
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was based on Plutarch’s account of Brutus. The poet Dante, however, took a different stance: Brutus, in killing the man who spared him, was doomed to the lowest levels of hell.
(How blood and betrayed turned Rome from republic to empire.)
Scholars disagree on just who was the on the side of good. But in the end, the Roman public turned against the assassins—and the legacy of power Caesar established lived on through his heir Octavian, who later became Rome’s first emperor, also known as Imperator Caesar Augustus.
Editor’s note: This story originally published on March 12, 2004. It has been updated.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.