July 22, 2022

#08-225: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar: the Murder Scene

Note: The question has been asked whether "art imitates life" or "life imitates art." Whatever the answer, there's no doubt that much of our historical "knowledge" actually comes from creative works rather than actual history. Shakespeare's play presents an excellent example.

Get Ready: What (if anything) do you know about the death of Julius Caesar?

Much of what we know--or think we know--of the great Roman leader Julius Caesar comes not from history books but from the play about him by William Shakespeare.

The story is simple: before the play opens, Julius Caesar, then a general, had illegally seized power (some joke he was "Julius Seizer"). A popular reformer, his kindness to the lower classes made the elite worry that he was trying to become an emperor, so they conspired to assassinate him.

(In fact, he did not become emperor. The first emperor of Rome was Julius Caesar's great-nephew and adoptive son, Caesar Augustus, known as Octavian; he wasn't crowned emperor until 27 BCE, nearly 20 years after Caesar's death.)

History reports that on March 15, 44 BCE, around 60 men crowded around him in the Curia of Pompey--one of the meeting places of the Roman Senate--and stabbed him a total of 23 times. (Shakespeare relocates the assassination to the Capitol for dramatic effect.) In a macabre postscript, a life-size wax statue of Caesar was later erected in the forum which displayed clearly the 23 stab wounds.

Shakespeare makes other changes, too. He adds a soothsayer who emerges from a crowd to announce, "Beware the Ides of March." He has Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and the official fortune-tellers warn him that they, too, have had premonitions of his death. These warnings are entirely fictional, but Caesar was indeed killed on "the Ides of March," the "Ides" being the 15th day of March, May, July, and October, and the 13th day of other months.

We sometimes use the expression "Beware the Ides of March" to warn someone of a possible betrayal, often jokingly.


Historical sources report that Caesar said nothing before he died, but Shakespeare steals a line from other playwrights: When he sees that among the conspirators is Brutus, previously one of his closest friends and supporters, he cries out "Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!" The Latin means something like "Even you, Brutus?"; knowing that his friend wants him dead causes him to give up. People sometimes say this now when they feel betrayed--again, they're usually joking.


Our final quote is from the eulogy given by Mark Antony, a supporter of Caesar who went on to join forces with others and defeat Caesar's killers at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. When the Roman Republic was split between three men, Antony governed an area that included Egypt, which led to his famous love affair with Cleopatra.

In Shakespeare, Antony begins with the famous words, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears..." (You could use this humorously to test a microphone--or to get people's attention at a meeting.) Antony's actual eulogy was not nearly as poetic as the one written by Shakespeare, but it was no less stirring.

Art often makes a bigger impression than real life.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. assassinate
  2. conspired
  3. elite
  4. eulogy
  5. macabre
  6. postscript
  7. premonitions
  8. soothsayer
  9. stab
  10. stirring

  1. something that's added to some writing
  2. feelings of a future danger
  3. stick with a knife
  4. moving; emotional
  5. a fortune teller
  6. a speech at a funeral
  7. ghastly; horrible
  8. kill for political reasons
  9. the people of the highest class
  10. made a secret plan to do an evil act

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for July 22, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. h; 2. j; 3. i; 4. f; 5. g; 6. a; 7. b; 8. e; 9. c; 10. d