The Ides of March — Mar. 15 on our current calendar—is famous as the day Caesar was murdered in 44 BCE, but the infamy of the calendar date tends to obscure the actual history of what happened then. Few can give more than a couple of lines from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, in which the soothsayer tells the emperor to beware the date.
But how did Julius Caesar actually die?
Here’s what was going on in Rome at that time: the empire had faced a century of challenges and violence. Fighting (an eventually winning) the latest civil war only strengthened Caesar’s rule of Rome. At first he had been meant to be absolute ruler for one year. Then a decade. Soon enough, he was named dictator for life. “Rome had never had a dictator for life, much less a dictator for ten years, and people were very sensitive about that” says Barry Strauss, a professor of history and classics at Cornell University, and author of The Death of Caesar.
The ruler tried to convince the Roman people, particularly the nobility, to follow him—but it didn’t work. Rome’s elite reached the conclusion that Caesar’s real goal was to be “an uncrowned king of Rome,” Strauss says, and leave Rome’s traditional nobility “holding empty titles without real power.” Some even saw his affair with Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra and the recent adoption of a calendar based on Egypt’s as evidence he wanted a monarchy like Egypt’s.
A group of about 60 men began to plot how to rid Rome of Caesar. Many of the conspirators were trained military men who, according to Strauss, spent weeks, if not months, planning Caesar’s downfall. They were led by a group of three—including Marcus Brutus, of “Et tu, Brute” fame—whose individual motives went beyond a quest for liberty, Strauss argues. “The real Brutus” he says, “was a complex character, who yes, did care about liberty, but he also cared about the power and prestige of his own family,” as opposed to the idealistic hero of Shakespeare or Dante’s betrayer consigned to hell.
Credit : Merrill Fabry for time.com