Friends, Romans, Countrymen: The Ides of March

By Owain Williams

“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.” 

From William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar


Gaius Julius Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BC is truly one of the most momentous events in history. His assumption of the title dictator in perpetuum (‘perpetual dictator’), becoming the de facto monarch of the Roman world, was the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. The Ides of March, however, was truly the death knell of the Republic, ushering in a destructive period of civil strife and discord, which ended only with the one thing the assassins of Caesar had tried to prevent – a monarchy in all but name.

There is no doubt that Caesar’s accomplishments were impressive. As Cicero says, Caesar “had performed exploits in war which, though calamitous for the republic, were nevertheless mighty deeds” (Philippic 2.116). Thanks to the monumentality of his achievements, and the subsequent longevity of the Roman Empire, Caesar has been immortalized, even admired, in modern historical memory. Indeed, he has been remembered throughout history. William Shakespeare brought him to the stage in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, he appears alongside Cyrus and Alexander as rulers who used their funds liberally in Machiavelli’s The Prince (16), and he has featured in dozens, if not hundreds of novels, films, and television shows about ancient Rome. However, if there were a man such as Caesar today, a man who overturned the legitimate government through force and installed himself as a dictator, he would be reviled. Therefore, on this historic date, I feel we should question how we remember historic figures.

The Death of Julius Caesar (1806) by Vincenzo Camuccini

This is hardly a modern idea. The memory of Caesar was rather divided even during the reign of Augustus. Much of Cicero’s later writings are full of invective language expressing a strong dislike of Caesar. In his second Philippic, he wrote that Caesar “brought a free city, partly by fear, partly by patience, into a habit of slavery” (2.116), which, to Romans, was a fate worse than death (Philippic 10.19).

Even Augustus’ treatment of Caesar’s memory has been subject to debate for decades. Given that the Roman historian Cremutius Codrus was supposedly able to call Brutus and Cassius the ‘last of the Romans’ in the presence of Augustus without any repercussions (Suetonius, Tiberius 61.3; Cassius Dio 57.24.3), it appears that Augustus was content for Caesar’s memory to be disputed. Indeed, even in the immediate aftermath of Caesar’s assassination, it has been argued, Augustus (then Octavian) tried to distance himself from the dictator. A coin issued in 43 BC portrays Augustus as consul, pontifex, and augur, while Caesar is the perpetual dictator. As the office of dictator had been abolished in the aftermath of Caesar’s death (Cicero, Philippics 1.3-4), this depiction of Caesar as the holder of an abolished office, while Augustus occupied legitimate offices, might be interpreted as a comparison between the destroyer of the Republic and its saviour. 

A coin from 43 BC depicting Julius Caesar as Perpetual Dictator (The Trustees of the British Museum)

Moreover, when one considers that Augustus appears to have tried to present a narrative of refusing the office of dictator, calling it “contrary to the traditions of our ancestors” in the Res Gestae (5-6; cf. Velleius Paterculus 2.89.5, Suetonius Augustus 52, and Cassius Dio 54.1.3-5), it certainly appears that Augustus was trying to distance himself from the actions of his adoptive father. Instead, Augustus placed great emphasis on the legality of his position, beginning the Res Gestae by reminding the audience that all he did he did “under the sovereignty of the Roman people” (1; cf. Ovid, Fasti 2.129-144).

Throughout the literature produced during Augustus’ reign, there is also a distinct lack of references to Caesar’s accomplishments. Caesar does not appear in the Shield of Aeneas, in Virgil's Aeneid, which depicts the heroes of Rome’s history (8.626-731), nor does he appear in Propertius’ elegy similarly listing Roman heroes (3.11.61-8). Clearly, there was some hesitancy on Augustus’ part to broadcast the actions of his adoptive father, actions which brought war to Rome, to the Roman people. However, it must be noted that we do not have any versions of Augustus’ speeches. It is certainly possible he appealed to the memory of Caesar on more than one occasion, as he supposedly did, according to Cassius Dio, when imposing an inheritance tax, using Caesar’s own documents (55.25.5).

Furthermore, the record of Augustus’ buildings in Rome certainlsuggestsst that Caesar had a prominent presence in the urban landscape. Firstly, the Temple of Divine Julius was central to the Roman forum. The tribes would sometimes convene there (Frontinus, On the Water-Management of the City of Rome 129.1-2), and the emperor would give speeches there in the event of a funeral of a member of the imperial family, such as Octavia, Augustus’ sister, or Augustus himself (Cassius Dio 54.35.4-5; 56.34.4). It would have been difficult to not be reminded, as an everyday citizen of Rome going about your business, of Julius Ceasar. What’s more, Augustus, upon the completion of the Curia Julia, built “in honour of his [Augustus’] father” (Cassius Dio 51.22.1), dedicated it to Caesar. 

A coin depicting the Temple of Divine Julius

The complex legacy of Gaius Julius Caesar during the reign of Augustus clearly shows how keen Augustus was to control the narrative of history. To remind the people of Rome that he was the son of the dictator who “brought a free city … into a habit of slavery” (Cicero, Philippics 2.116) would no doubt have damaged his political reputation. Instead, rather than remind the people of Rome of the death and destruction of the preceding decades, which he himself disowned (Cassius Dio 53.2.5), Augustus chose to inter the bad with Caesar’s bones. To all intents and purposes, as Cassius Dio says, Caesar “numbered among the demigods” (56.34.2).

It is important for us, as readers of history, to understand how our image of the past, our historical truth, might not, in fact, be the truth. We have no way of knowing the truth. Rather than let the dead rest, we should question them and what they have left to us. We should also question how we remember them. Is Gaius Julius Caesar really worthy of idolisation? He was, undoubtedly, a powerful man who did terrible things. 

1 comment

Certainly, Julius Caesar did ‘terrible things’ but as a ‘powerful man’ he was also thoroughly practical. Apart from his brilliance in battle, his initiative to reform the cumbersome Roman calendar must surely be lauded as a great step in Western history.

Ron Denholm

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