Q. I’ve always been curious: Was William Shakespeare’s depiction of Julius Caesar’s bloody death historically accurate? Or, like many modern movies and TV dramas, did Shakespeare ramp up the gore for his 17th century audiences? How badly stabbed was he?
— R.G., of O’Fallon
A. When it comes to historical plays, films and TV shows, I must admit I am purist.
Yes, I know all the counterarguments. Writers and directors say they sometimes have to add characters who never existed and scenes that never happened to enhance the dramatic effect or move the story along. But I feel if you’re depicting an actual person or event, you should not blur reality and leave the audience with a muddled sense of history just so they better enjoy their popcorn. If it’s important enough to put on stage or celluloid, why mess with the facts?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
That’s why it gives me great pleasure today on the anniversary of the Roman emperor’s death in 44 B.C. to say that, except for a few insignificant changes, the great Bard of Avon did indeed give us the straight skinny on Caesar’s death. In several of his plays, Shakespeare closely followed Caesar’s biography as written by the Greek historian Plutarch in his best-known work, “Parallel Lives,” which Thomas North had translated into English in 1579.
So, no, Shakespeare did not have Caesar’s skewered, bleeding body collapse on the steps of the capitol (in reality, it was the Curia of Pompey) just to shock his audience. According to Plutarch as well as other historians, dozens of Caesar’s enemies converged that day to cut Caesar down with two dozen or more stab wounds.
If you’re a little rusty on your ancient history or English Lit, let me offer an oversimplified chain of events that led to one of history’s most infamous assassinations:
In January of 49 B.C., Caesar ignored orders to return to Rome and led his army across the Rubicon River in northern Italy, which kicked off a long civil war. For the next two years, he battled his primary rival, Pompey, and scored triumph after triumph. By 47 B.C., he had taken over the entire Italian peninsula to go along with major victories in Spain and North Africa. By some accounts, Pompey’s head eventually was served to him — literally — as a gift by Egypt, where Pompey had fled.
When he returned home in 47 B.C., Caesar began packing the Senate with his own appointees, bringing its number to 900. To avoid future power struggles, he had the Senate give him the right to appoint all magistrates, consuls and tribunes as well as impose term limits on governors.. By early 44 B.C., he had himself proclaimed dictator for life.
This, of course, did not sit well with those who felt Caesar’s consolidation of power was the antithesis of what the Roman political system should be. So, depeding on the account, anywhere between 30 and 60 noblemen — including one-time Caesar protege Marcus Brutus — concluded the only solution was to kill the power-hungry leader.
“The conspirators never met openly, but they assembled a few at a time in each others’ homes,” Nicolaus of Damascus wrote in his account of the murder. “... the majority opinion favored killing him while he sat in the Senate, where he would be by himself since non-Senators would not be admitted, and where the many conspirators could hide their daggers beneath their togas. This plan won the day.”
The fateful date they chose: March 15, 44 B.C. The choice wasn’t so Shakespeare later could use the classic line “Beware the Ides of March.” According to records, the senators knew that Caesar was due to speak to the Senate that day before leaving Rome three days later to fight another war. This might be the conspirators’ final chance for months.
Still, history was almost changed at the last second.
“The very night before his murder, he dreamt that he was flying above the clouds, and now he was clasping the hand of Jupiter,” according to Caesar’s biographer, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. “His wife Calpurnia thought that the pediment of their house fell, and that her husband was stabbed in her arms; and on a sudden the door of the room flew open of its own accord.
“Both for these reasons and because of poor health, he hesitated for a long time whether to stay at home and put off what he had planned to do in the Senate. But at last, urged by Decimus Brutus not to disappoint the full meeting, he went forth almost at the end of the fifth hour.”
Even then it was not a done deal. Mark Antony, who later would deliver the eloquent “Friends, Romans and countrymen” funeral speech, reportedly came to the Senate to warn Caesar of the plot but was scared off. Priests and soothsayers tried to convince him the omens were dangerously unfavorable. According to Suetonius, Caesar also was handed a warning note, but put it aside to read later.
The decision sealed his doom. As Caesar made his way toward his Senate seat, Tillius Cimber approached him with a petition to recall Cimber’s exiled brother. It was only a ploy. When Caesar waved him away, Cimber grabbed Caesar’s shoulders and pulled down his tunic as Caesar shouted, “Why this is violence!”
“That was the moment for the men to set to work,” Nicolaus wrote. “All quickly unsheathed their daggers and rushed at him.
“First, Servilius Casca struck him with the point of the blade on the left shoulder, a little above the collar-bone. He had been aiming for that, but in the excitement he missed. Caesar rose to defend himself, and in the uproar Casca shouted out in Greek to his brother. The latter heard him and drove his sword into his ribs.
“After a moment, Cassius made a slash at his face, and Decimus Brutus pierced him in the side. While Cassius Longinus was trying to give him another blow, he missed and struck Marcus Brutus on the hand. Minucius also hit out at Caesar and hit Rubrius in the thigh. They were just like men doing battle against him.”
Later, the physician Antistius would say that the only fatal blow was that second one to the chest by Casca’s brother, but the one we remember, of course, is the one to the groin by Brutus. Ironically, that involves one of the facts that has undergone the most scrutiny. By the time Shakespeare wrote his play in about 1599, it had become fashionable in Elizabethan literature for Caesar to deliver the famous line, “Et tu, Brute?” (“You, too, Brutus?”) In reality, some historians wrote that Caesar by that time may have been unable to say anything, while Suetonius said he heard reports of Caesar mumbling, “Kai su, teknon” in Greek, meaning “You, too, child?”
I’ll let Suetonius finish the grim tale.
“When Caesar saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe,” he wrote. “At the same time, he drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered.
“In this way he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke. ... All the conspirators made off, and he lay there lifeless for some time, until finally three common slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down.”
Other historians said even more of his enemies had taken a stab at him after he collapsed, resulting in 35 wounds. Either way, it was a truly bloody end to the short reign of one of the most famous leaders in history.
Who do some say was the last head of state to bear some semblance of Caesar’s name?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: If you were seen “in the buff” centuries ago, you were anything but naked. In the 1600s, a buff-coat was a light leather tunic, so called because its light brownish yellow color (buff) was the color of undyed buffalo leather. As Dromio says in Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors,” “I know not at whose suit he is arrested well; but he’s in a suit of buff which ’rested him, that I can tell.”
Over the years, however, people began linking the color of the buffalo hide to the color of human skin, so “in the buff” became an alternative for “naked.” As early as 1602, author Thomas Dekker likened “in buff” to “in stag,” which was a popular term for naked 500 years ago.
Other meanings began to emerge as well: The buffalo hide was found to be a useful material for “buffing” and could serve as a protective “buffer” between polished objects. In 19th-century New York, people who loved to watch firefighters battle infernos huddled together on street corners under buffalo robes. They soon were being called “buffs” for short, which eventually became a synonym for “enthusiast” — a history buff, for example.