“Beware the Ides of March”

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

When writing the play “Julius Caesar”, William Shakespeare must have been aware that the Roman Empire, as it then stood, had already reached the zenith of its expansion east and west and was actually in the process of decline. From the internal wrangling of internecine conflicts portrayed in Julius Caesar the scene switches in Anthony & Cleopatra dramatically to imperial political problems posed by its expansions to the east. Furthermore, it suggests that the cause of the Fall of Rome lay not in its’ own internal instability but in its’ colonial expansions into Asia Minor and beyond. Julius Caesar returns to Rome triumphant in thwarting civil war, but Pompey’s sons have reservations about his increased popularity. They secretly ally themselves with two other of Caesar’s enemies, Brutus and Cassius. They learn from Casca that Mark Anthony has offered him the crown on three occasions to which Julius Caesar refused. Cassius forges numerous letters from the citizens of Rome supporting him in a stand against Caesar’s ambitions. That night a number of supernatural events occur in the midst of a thunderstorm. In a dilemma over his loyalty to Rome, to Cassius’ plans or to Caesar Brutus lies awake the following night and decides to question his advisor and architect of the plan, his comrade Cassius. The counsel of conspirators meet but Brutus absolutely refuses to murder Mark Anthony into the bargain. The scene switches to Caesar’s apartments where he too experiences a sleepless and disturbed night. His wife awakes screaming she has had an ominous dream where he was murdered, so she begs him stay away from the Capitol. However, Caesar decides, partly in expectation of honour and elevated status to keep to his plans and happily submits to the entreaties of the co-conspirators. Thereby Caesar arrives at the Capitol soon after, brushing aside the alarms of the resident soothsayers he is deceitfully led to his impending assassination. However, it is Brutus who delivers the final death blow and Cassius meanwhile calls for liberty, freedom and prosperity. We hear on news of the tragedy, Anthony has fled and demands the body of Caesar, to dispose of it honourably in return for which he will thereafter respect Brutus as leader. Brutus then asks to take Caesar’s body to the market place where he will give explanation to the crowd. He explains that while he dearly loved Caesar, he loved the people of Rome more, which sentiment drove him to the crime. The assembled crowd are then told that a considerable estate of public gardens, plus a considerable sum of money for every family has been deposited by Caesar for them to invest in their welfare. To which the crowd becomes more incensed, wishing that perhaps they might now be better off if Caesar had never been killed. In act IV the triumvirs, Anthony, Octavius and Lepidus meet to discuss who shall be executed, where we learn that the wife of Brutus, Portia has committed suicide. In a military camp a quarrel breaks out between Brutus and Cassius, then news arrives that Mark Anthony and Octavius are marching against them in Phillipi. The same night Brutus has a dream where the ghost of Caesar visits him, with a dark warning. The two armies meet on the field and commence battle, where Cassius’ men, being overwhelmed flee the imminent dangers. He then kills himself thinking he had deserted Brutus in his hour of need. However, Brutus has managed to overthrow Octavius and when he hears his compatriot Cassius had died unnecessarily he asks his friend and attendant Volumnius to kill him also, which he refuses. However, another by the name of Strabo agrees to hold the sword while Brutus, with brute strength runs into it. The curtain closes with the entry of Anthony and Octavius, the magnanimous victors who praise and forgive Brutus for being a noble citizen of Rome.

There are certain anomalies in the historical timing of events in the play. Although Caesar’s triumph took place in October 44BC, Shakespeare aligns it to the Roman Lupercalia which took place in February, allowing for dramatic inauspicious reference to the Ides of March. Similarly, Brutus and Cassius withdrew from Rome more than a year after the assassination and not immediately as is depicted in the play. These changes or historical discrepancies might have been distorted purely for dramatic effect. Because of his military victories and popularity at home, Caesar’s power had assumed god-like status and an unrivalled dynastic supremacy was feared by lesser statesmen and generals. As an ailing republic with colonial aspirations abroad, the city of Rome remained a quagmire of class-struggle, corruption and nepotism. Like France’s Napoleon, the illustrious Emperor Julius Caesar could have been perceived as the progenitor of a unifying and transformative period had the social and political background been more conducive.

The play deals with the dilemmas faced by society or the senate of an unjust or over-bearing ruler and to what lengths or means might the populace or their representatives resort to terminate that ruler’s stubborn supremacy? While historically and in retrospect we might consider Julius Caesar as a dubious character and applaud the actions of Brutus and Antonius, the line between insurrection and justice is not easy to draw especially in the light of further textual and historical anomalies. In the original theatre text Caesar supposedly proclaims; “Know that Caesar doth not wrong but with just cause” (Act 1, sc iii), meaning his absolutism could always be excusable when burdened with the affairs of state. Apparently, whether or not it was an uncorrected error by Shakespeare, this line was ridiculed by Ben Jonson, which, by imputation justifies any means by the expected end. Although the Roman Empire abroad was extensive and extremely powerful, within the precincts of Rome itself there was a great deal of discontent, injustice and political corruption. A combination of strength without and weakness within appears to be the main constituents of an impending but unforeseen disaster. How the Elizabethan playgoers might have regarded the cryptic warnings of this dramatic trope is not easy to gauge bearing in mind that England was not itself a republic and was never ruled by an emperor. A fascination with Rome, its institutions, culture and its religious and political significance may have been the playwrights’ prime motivations to stage such a grandiose play. Clearly, on analysis it is an artfully veiled allusion to the stubborn persistence of Queen Elizabeth I, who after a formidable reign of over 44 years had yet to name a successor to the English throne.

As in Anthony & Cleopatra here the Glory of Rome with all its pomp and then its eventual demise is magically transported to the London Theatre. This was a watershed moment for the sixteen players, the theatre and the self-made literary genius and it required a gargantuan statement veiled in prosaic mist to define it in popular history. Presumably, certain parallels or topical allusions could have been drawn to suggest that the succeeding monarch, James was himself extremely afraid of dying by assassination. Like Caesar, he was also convinced of his “divine right” or invincible role in the affairs of the realm regardless of the wishes of the populace or state. The dying monarch, Elizabeth herself had faced this fear of sudden attack from an unknown quarter for a large portion of her reign. The threat came largely from Rome but was supported in other dominions such as the north and east of England in the advent of Reformation and counter-reformation. Would that fear as a poisoned cup now be passed onto James Ist and was this play a portent of the political future? In the light of the Gunpowder Plot to come in 1605 it is not impossible to surmise from events that the writing was already on the wall. On the death of Caesar Cassius proclaims:

How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

So could an ailing republic regress into an autocratic rulership and would assassination be the only virtuous and expedient solution? Holding this type of “Roman Mirror” to an Elizabethan audience would have been perceived as a clue to whoever harboured such thoughts and ideas to search one’s own conscience than as a definitive answer to the archetypal question.

Countryside activities in the month of March were often disrupted or dictated by very changeable weather conditions, often characterised with intermittent beams of sunshine, sudden showers of rain, high winds, verging on lightning storms and sometimes even bouts of hailstones. The month of March has long been described as the sulky, yet boisterous adolescent of the rural calendar tending to periods of youthful excitement, then teenage rebellion followed by intense moodiness. In farming circles however this was essentially a time for sowing seed and the first drills were prepared to take the first sowing of cereals such as wheat, rye and oats. Farmers were also obliged to scare off the numerous birds, which enjoyed grain in their diets with occasional blasts from their 12-bore shotguns or perhaps erecting scarecrows to protect the newly sown seed. Superstitiously, March was always considered an unlucky or perhaps an unpredictable month, as in the well-known phrase “Beware the Ides of March.” Indeed, the first three days of March were considered unlucky by farmers who would not dare sow seed in their furrows during those days. It was thought these days belonged to the previous month, perhaps an allusion to the errors of the calendar, although customarily rural folk thought that certain months exchanged or borrowed days from the forthcoming or preceding period.
A month sacred to the Alder (Alnus glutinosa) and Divination many people consider this to be an indirect reference to the severe winds of change that often uprooted any unstable trees and brought dead or rotting branches crashing down. However, the Ides were actually dedicated to the Etruscan, Greek and Roman Jupiter, the god of good fortune, so this was originally the time of the full moon in the old calendar. Whenever a full moon comes halfway through each lunation, its day was called Idus in Latin from an Etruscan word meaning, “to divide.” After Ides, the next new moon was expected to appear in anything from 15 to 17 days. The Julian New Year began on the 1st March but the Gregorian calendar placed it back to 1st January which has consequently confused or retrograded many arcane customs and rituals going back to antiquity. The Roman Matronalia which took place on the 1st March, in honour of the goddess Juno, gave all female slaves the same freedoms as their corresponding male slaves. Some orthodox attitudes and traditions to either class or status were relaxed at this time thereby allowing married women to solicit other married or single men for sexual favours and to be waited on them hand and foot. This practice may have migrated into the relaxations in marriage proposals associated with a leap year. March signalled the beginning of the Roman secular calendar.
Any variations in the length of time before every new moon can be sighted is due to constantly changing positions of our Moon and Earth relative to the Sun. In the old Roman calendar, that contained only 10 months, the classical writers Ovid and Plutarch said that Martius, originally the first month, was named after Mars, the Roman god of war or Greek Ares. Six of the other original ten months were simply numbered as Quintilis through to Decembris (5th through 10th) but there were already disagreements when Ovid wrote, two thousand years ago, as to the sources of names for what were originally the second through fourth, Aprilis, Maius and Junius. These calendrical disagreements continued through to the present time. Similarly, the Scandinavian Celts knew this time as Egg-Tide suggesting a cultural link to the ancient Greeks who still celebrate Easter with painted eggs. This is also a time for Morris dancers and Mummer’s plays in many parts of the British Isles especially in the south. The time of Good Friday is linked specifically to the lunar calendar and is equivalent to the older pagan festivals celebrating the flagellation and ritual sacrifice of the scapegoat. There were then numerous taboos of sexual abstinence, on work and the eating of fish, for Palm Sunday is a festival celebrating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on the back of an ass or donkey and the 1st day of the Holy Week at Easter. It is thought that the ass or donkey symbolises the humility of Christ however, more likely it is a remnant of the Egyptian or Hittite God Seth (Evil or Darkness), to whom the ass was sacred and over whom the Egyptian god Osiris (Goodness & Light) finally triumphed.
If you were out in the pastures and heaths gathering Ling (Heather) for your new broom or for kindling you might occasionally see wild hares standing upright on their hindquarters performing rival boxing bouts in a playful attempt to establish territories and impress the females with their virility. Unlike wild rabbits, hares do not burrow underground but have their lairs in thick clumps of grass. This animal has a curious call reminiscent of a whistle and has long been associated with witches and shamanistic “shape-shifting” as recorded in an ancient British rhyme describing the archetypal love-chase:

Hares in a chase after females

Cunning and art he did not lack
But aye her whistle would fetch him back.
For I shall go into a hare
With sorrow and sighing and mickle care,
Yeah, I shall go in the Devil’s name;
‘Til I be found back home again.

In the parks and woodlands the stems of daffodils can be seen alongside the first violets and primulas. This is a good time to collect the first new shoots of sorrel. The ancient Celts knew this period in their lunar calendar from March through to April as “Budding Trees Moon” or Awakening Moon, the Colds’ End or Lenting. Already we detect the notion that the final shedding of the previous year is imminent and festival preparations for the critical watershed of the Spring Equinox around the 17th followed by the Catholic Annunciation, which we popularly celebrate as Mother’s Day on the 25th. According to custom March borrows three days from April and these are known as “Borrowing Days or Borrowed Days” suggesting that the first three days of April were actually colder and the last three days of March warmer than expected.

March borrowed of April
Three days, and they were ill
The one was sleet, the other was snow
The third was the worst that ever did blow.

March was always a time of personal austerity in appearance, sexual indulgence or eating and drinking and exceptional charity to those less well off. Hence Maundy Thursday, whose name derives from the name of the donor himself. These individual acts of charity (Almsgiving) were originally known colloquially as “Doles” that were established by the clergy or the local parish council and the term even extended in use to refer in a derisory manner to State Charity, such as unemployment benefit, which is why it is now called Jobseeker’s Allowance just to offset any shame connected to receipts of money. In some parts of the country generous, God-fearing folk simply donated flour, cakes or buns to the poor at this time. One surviving and well-known 12th century dole was the Tichbourne Dole which was instituted by Lady Mabella although her husband, Sir Roger Tichbourne was himself something of a scrooge and cared little for the poor.
According to historical legend Lady Mabella had a wager with her husband while she was still on her death bed that he would donate as much land as she was able to circumscribe while she was still ailing. He took a brand from the fire and declared that while the flame remained she was to crawl on her hands and knees to allocate what land would be donated for crops to be given to the poor. Apparently, and contrary to his presumptions, Lady Mabella managed to circumscribe some 23 acres of land before the brand expired and she herself finally died with the knowledge that the poor of the parish would be well cared for in her absence. Her dying admonition was that should this tradition be stopped then a curse would fall upon the Tichbourne family and the sign that the curse had come to pass would be when a generation of seven sons and seven daughters would be born. In 1796 an heir of the estate Sir Henry Tichbourne stopped the distribution of loaves of bread and instead gave money to the Church. However, soon after the family tree revealed a generation of 7 sons and daughters so the charitable gift of flour and bread was re-instituted to stave off the curse. The official ceremony takes place on March 25th (Lady Day) concurrent with the Christian Annunciation and involves a blessing by priests over the flour which is then baked into loaves and distributed to the poor.
There are a great many other “doles” with accompanying ceremonies that take place in the British Isles, some donate cloth, some apprenticeships and other boons to the young, old and disadvantaged of society. For example, the legend of Lady Godiva is also an historical remnant of many courageous British women who were even prepared to publicly embarrass themselves so that the poor would be looked after.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,