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Hot on the heels of International Pi Day, we take time today to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Roman emperor and beloved tyrant Julius Caesar, who was killed by some of his friends while on his way to work in 44 B.C. “Ides,” for readers who may have forgotten high school Latin, originally referred to the day of the full moon; usually around 13th day of most months, but the 15th day of March, May, July, and October. The Roman calendar was a mess.
According to Eutropius, around sixty or more men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times, which seems to indicate that a majority of the conspirators were less than keen upon the idea of actually doing the dirty deed. According to Suetonius, a physician later established that only one wound had been lethal.
In case you’re interested, the designation “B.C.” (Before Christ) is being used, instead of the more au courant “B.C.E.” (Before the Common Era). No one knows why historians are now using “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” (Common Era), instead of “B.C.” and “A.D.” (Anno Domini, or The Year of Our Lord). It probably has something to do with the fact that Roman coins of the era did not have either “B.C.” or “A.D.” on them.
Plutarch tells us that Caesar was stabbed in the forum; although he does not explain how a wound in that area could have been fatal. There is reason to believe that Caesar was also wounded in the fracas. Pliny the Elder tells us that Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, warned him not to go to work that day; she having had a bad dream the night before. As with most husbands, it appears Julius did not appreciate his spouse giving him suggestions on how to run his business. Like the time Michael Corleone told Kay to keep her nose out of his affairs.
Speaking of affairs, it appears that Pompeia was Julius’ second wife, and that she was still a bit peeved over her husband’s dalliance with Elizabeth Taylor (before Liz dumped him for Richard Burton).
Actually, Caesar was a victim of failure to take his own advice. Shakespeare (who probably got this second-hand) quotes him as saying: “Let me have men about me that are fat; Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights; Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.” And then he turns around and gets himself killed by sixty of the skinniest men in Rome. Go figure!
Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, Edwin Booth, and Junius Booth, Jr. appeared in a production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," in 1864. Although Shakespeare did not coin the word assassin, which means hash eater, the first recorded use of the word assassination occurred in his play, "Macbeth." Assassin John Wilkes Booth was a skilled and popular Shakespearean actor.
Caesar was quite an accomplished phrase-maker. He is famous for saying “Jacta est!” (literally, “Let’s shoot dice,” and “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” (literally, “Omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa est,” or, “You can never get three Frenchmen to agree on anything.”)
Caesar also said, “Veni, vidi, vici,” (literally, “I came, I saw, I conquered”). There is no evidence that he ever said “Veni, vidi, visa,” (“I came, I saw, I maxed out my credit card”).
The dictator's last words are not known with certainty, and are a contested subject among scholars and historians alike. The version best known in the English-speaking world is the Latin phrase Et tu, Brute? (literally, "and you Brutus?" It can also be read as, "even you, Brutus?" or "you too, Brutus?", or “WTF, Brutus!”); this derives from Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar. Shakespeare's version evidently follows a tradition hinted at, but discounted, by the Roman historian Suetonius, who reports that there have been claims that Caesar's last words had been the Greek phrase "κα σ, τ κνον;" (transliterated as "Kai su, teknon?": "You too, my child?" in English), although why a stabbed Roman would say something in Greek is not explained. Plutarch also reports that Caesar said nothing, pulling his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators.
It is probably not true that Caesar’s last words were: “Is that a dagger you’ve got in your toga, or are you just glad to see me?”
In any event, today is the day we celebrate the murder of the first Roman dictator who was, by all accounts, a pretty nasty piece of work. We should probably credit Brutus, Cassius, and the rest of the dastardly sixty (space will not permit a complete listing of their names) as heroes. After all, they “impeached” the guy who destroyed democracy in Rome. Like Michael Corleone said: “It was only business.”
Interestingly (to us historians; perhaps not to you), Brutus was alleged to have exclaimed “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”) right after he knifed his boss. Actor John Wilkes Booth, who often played the part of Brutus on the stage, shouted the phrase after shooting President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. Timothy McVeigh was wearing a T-shirt with this phrase and a picture of Lincoln on it when he was arrested on April 19, 1995, the day of the Oklahoma City Bombing.
The phrase was recommended by George Mason to the Virginia Convention in 1776, as part of the state's seal. The Seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia shows Virtue, sword in hand, with her foot on the prostrate form of Tyranny, whose crown lies nearby. The Seal was planned by Mason and designed by George Wythe, who signed the United States Declaration of Independence and taught law to Thomas Jefferson. Historians just love this sort of thing.
In one of those ironic twists which make the study of history such a joy, Julius Caesar’s birth was by Caesarian section. It’s a coincidence right up there with the fact that Lou Gehrig died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Go figure.
Read the play: Julius Caesar (1623)
Listen to the play: Julius Caesar
Download free E-Book: Project Gutenberg
See the movie: Julius Caesar (1953)
See the movie: Julius Caesar (2002)
See the movie: Cleopatra (1963)
See more of Elizabeth Taylor