The ides will soon arrive. As once they did in March, so too will they in April. Caesar received the ides some two millennia ago, while for Lincoln it was but seven score and thirteen years in the past. Both men, in their respective days—on the one hand, ancient and Roman and on the other, recent and American—were suspected of having been tyrants. Rumors impossible to ignore bruited about the capitals of Italy and America. Their content told of extraordinary and foreboding tales.
Both Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln, they said, had pretensions to be kings. Indeed, they dreamt at night of becoming despots. As such, Sic semper tyrannis, in the ancient opinion and classical tongue, captured well the general feeling in the case of Caesar and the conspiratorial fear in that of Lincoln. It was first said by he who was probably (and if I might add, quite scandalously) the great conqueror and prolific philanderer’s illegitimate son. With incomplete certainty but a sweeping desire for it to be true, we’ve come to accept as historically firm Marcus Junius Brutus’s royal parentage. It’s to him history and the ides turn first.
Brutus—from whose mouth those words, Sic semper tyrannis, or “thus always to tyrants”, first rang—was very likely Julius Caesar’s own son. What’s known with complete assurance is that Brutus was born of the radiant Servilia, a patrician woman of noble lineage. Not only that, she was of gentle countenance and beguiling allure, the very traits that make a woman unforgettable to a man.
As impressive as was she, so was the subject of her affection. Thus, no one in Rome could’ve blamed her for having swooned and squandered her fidelity and her chastity to the burgeoning emperor’s irrepressible charm. Hers and Caesar’s relationship reached its most torrid point, its steamiest climax, when that bundle of joy Brutus eventually and perhaps unexpectedly arrived. It’s because of this timeframe that most of the circumstantial evidence linking Brutus to Caesar’s kin holds sway. At the very least, and perhaps most importantly, in Caesar’s mind, Brutus was indeed his son. However, the mind of the masses thought differently. They thought of Brutus merely and ignominiously as a bastard—certainly unworthy of the Caesarian name. His mother may very well have been noble, but his lineage was, at least in part and where it most counted, lacking.
Brutus didn’t handle the public’s misbegotten opinion of him well. Fuming with the proverbial chip on his shoulder, he proceeded to team up with that infamous Cassius and his crew and, with thoroughly malign discretion, plan his ancient putsch. Only a soothsayer, a servant, a wife, and a tablet saw through his bloody machination and his dastardly plan (the soothsayer ominously warned Caesar, whilst on his way to the Senate, that the ides had indeed come but had not yet passed; the servant tried to deter Caesar from going to the court by staging an ancestral picture to fall to the ground—as if an omen had compelled it down; his wife more explicitly saw his impending death in a dream, and a tablet, fatefully ignored, but informing him of his conspirators’ plan was placed in his hand). History might’ve been very different had the sensitive Brutus cared less for the mass’s judgment of him than that of his putative father.
Alas, the numbers swayed him and it wasn’t to be. Popular opinion ruled him where the scepter of his father failed. The silly conclusion that he was a spurious child of Rome and an undeserving aristocrat nagged him to no end and Caesar, with his somewhat illiberal ascendancy to the throne and his unprecedented political claim, was made to pay.
We’re prone to think, given his imperial parentage and his incontrovertibly noble chin, that, in confronting his father, Brutus couldn’t have been so barbaric and so cold. Surely, he couldn’t have been so monstrous as to conceive of an execution, to raise a hand against a father, to smite him with the fatal end of a trenchant blade, and to effectuate history’s most memorable coup d’état. More sure is it still that Brutus couldn’t have been so ruthless nor so callous as to watch unmoved and unshaken as his poor father slumped to the ground, pallid, vanquished, and most painfully of all, deceived on the precipice of death.
It seems to be the case, however, that he could’ve been and that he was. He was willing to risk the impiety of parricide at the cost of the audacity of regicide. It’s said that only after having been struck by Brutus did Caesar end his resistance. Drop after drop and thrust after thrust, the floor of Pompey’s theater was awash in Caesar’s blood, but he didn’t succumb to the enticements of Tartarus until Brutus’ blow. Caesar’s abdomen—penetrated, opened, and, at last, eviscerated—spewed from its gratuitous two-dozen wounds the very self-same blood that rushed through Brutus’s veins. It was the very same blood that fed his muscles and mentally conceived of his plan. Ultimately, it was the blood of a kinsman, a Roman, and a son that tore from Caesar’s grasp his unmatched and abbreviated life.
Brutus acted with such little reverence that a son owes as a matter of nature to his father, with such little devotion that a subject owes as a matter of homage to his king, and with such little compunction and filial scruple that a man owes to his morals, that it’s no wonder Caesar asked with his last, muffled breath, “You too, Child?” It was the desperate inquiry of an incredulous father and a terror-stricken king. How could Caesar be convinced that Brutus, out of all the faceless senators, praetors, and aristocrats, all of them who looked upon this ambitious, yes, but magnanimous king with a mixture of suspicion, anxiety, and envy, would be so treacherous as to bury into his flesh an unfaithful dagger? It was the last thought and the final rumination of a father forsaken by his son. It’s a haunting proposition to consider. It was the dying thought of a man stabbed not in the back—as that might’ve been less painful to bear, if for no other reason other than having not had to stare into the eyes of his son-turned-assailiant—but in the torso, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, and father-to-son.
Thus, as Caesar’s lungs drowned in a pool of what was once godly and was now clearly mortal blood, Brutus’s sanguinary task was complete. His plan had come to its fruition and the world, for the nonce, was set aright. The Republic, such as it was, could at long last be restored. Of course, any student of the subsequent years following Brutus’ coup knows what happened next with the second Triumvirate and his own suicidal death. But while he lived, he was able to destroy on that mid-March day the man who’d sired not only him, not only the young Caesarion by the youthful Egyptian queen, not only a generation of virile and prosperous youth, and a proletariat full of hope, and a Rome reinvigorated once again, but an empire that would swell in time to stretch from Iberia to Macedonia, Carthage to Gaul, Dalmatia to the Danube, and Britain to the Bosporus Strait.
But, as goes time, so goes the ides. They didn’t stop halving each month after Caesar was cut in two. Sic semper tyrannis—thus always to tyrants. The mantra breathes so long as tyrants live. It remains, through the centuries, the assassin’s platitudinous creed.
Nearly two millennia after Caesar, this cry for democracy, for the shuffling off of the federal and regal yoke, found new voice. It the alleged exclamation of an indignant, young, and—if we’re to be completely honest—dashing American actor. On the stage, he performed creditably, though always he stood in the shadow of his more accomplished thespian of a brother (so much more accomplished was he that much like a latter-day Laurence Olivier, he was considered the preeminent Hamlet of his time). Off the stage, however, this dramatis personae was one of a dark, excitable, and violent type. His passions, misplaced as they were, simply couldn’t be sublimated in his craft nor restrained in his heart. He was a hot-blooded rebel and a dour soldier. He was a vehement anti-abolitionist and an ardent white supremacist. He was conspiratorial, suspicious, impetuous, and hateful. He was, until the very last of his days, a devoted son of the antebellum South. His home was that now bygone place of resilience and toughness and pride. Yet home is an obdurate idea to forget. In his memory, he held on to like the thin and failing fibers of a rope strained beyond its tensility and strength.
Echoing that same Brutus, whom he had occasion in his profession to portray, John Wilkes Booth shouted with a resonance that still vibrates every American clean through to his soul. He yelled that ancient trinity of words, which still to this day erects to attention the hair on one’s arm and instigates an involuntary shiver of horror along the nape of one’s neck. After a forgettable career on the stage, it was his one and only enduring line: Sic semper tyrannis—thus always to tyrants. In front of a shocked and incredulous crowd, Booth descended gracelessly from the presidential suite. It was there that Abraham Lincoln, seated beside his often mercurial but always doting wife, was taking in the hit British comedy (such a thing existed in his day), “Our American Cousin”. America was just rediscovering mirth. The war was over and levity, if only for an evening, was just what the president needed.
Little did Lincoln know, only moments earlier, Booth had quietly entered the suite from which he enjoyed the play in Ford’s humble theater. Infamy and history know what happened next. Booth brandished his pistol and his knife. Even having been slightly tipsy (before he entered the theater, he’d diluted his inhibitions with two shots of brandy from a nearby pub), he was able to access Lincoln’s suite with relative ease. Both weapons in hand, he considered which of the two might best avail him of his task. So nefarious was he that Booth took the time to mull over which he should use to dispense of the president. Unlike his hero and muse, Brutus, who hadn’t this modern convenience of choice, Booth opted for the gun. Bullet in the chamber and his Derringer—likely a relic from his soldiering days in the Richmond militia— held at a deadly and infallible aim, Booth pointed his gun at Lincoln’s head. An unsuspecting occiput received the explosive blow. The curtain closed and an already unstable Mary Todd shrieked.
Booth jumped from the loft. Like an unexpected entr’acte, or a quite literal deus or devilish ex machina falling from the sky, he landed with a thud upon the stage. Gravity, perhaps a Republican or merely a weighty friend of the North, hastened his descent and upon striking the stage, caused Booth to fracture his left leg. The injury, however incapacitating it might soon prove to be, did little to hamper Booth in the moment. Pain blunted, he was moving on a tincture of brandy, a rush of adrenaline, and a desperate surfeit of self-preservation.
He scampered to his feet, steadied his voice, and bellowed with an actor’s trained tongue his historic line, “Sic semper tyrannis”. One can almost hear him rehearsing this dreadful line in front of a cloudy mirror just hours before. Having spoken his piece, he darted off. All that remained were Lincoln’s remains (the president was alive, but only barely), the smell of gunpowder, the growing plume of smoke, and the miasma of a murderer who’d just made his escape. By the time the audience could fathom exactly what was happening before their eyes and what Booth had meant in shouting what he did, the assassin was already en route to Ms. Surratt’s boarding house. There, he’d have the good, villainous Doctor Samuel Mudd tend to and cast his broken fibula. All the while, he would listen with despair to the tales of his co-conspirators’ failures. Craven and incompetent, Booth’s team of assassins was unable to accomplish its ambitious goal of felling not only Lincoln, but Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward as well. Ulysses S. Grant, fortuitously, was out of town. Had he not been, he too would’ve been on the list.
The end for Booth wasn’t pretty. Nor, for that matter, was it for Brutus. The former was tracked down in eleven days—a remarkably long time given his fractured leg and his inability to walk. Besieged by local soldiers at a Virginia farmhouse, Booth took his last stand, probably with his newest accoutrement—crutches. Again, in responding to the threat, the actor-turned-assassin brandished his gun. To do so in front of the well-armed soldiers was nothing short of a suicidal act. Taking his aim, he hadn’t the chance to fire before a bullet struck him in the neck. It severed his vertebrae but didn’t yet paralyze his thought. He had wits enough to look at his hands and mutter “Useless…Useless!” At the risk of waxing metaphorical, one wonders exactly what he meant when uttering those words. Was he realizing that the “peculiar institution” for which he fought had collapsed, and that all further efforts to salvage it were futile? Or was he simply angry that he couldn’t continue the fight by shooting back? The literary side of me hopes for the former.
Brutus, much like Booth, very nearly escaped his fate. Octavian, not yet Augustus (having only recently acceded the throne) ordered the execution of all conspirators responsible for Caesar’s untimely and unnatural death. Sensing perhaps a weakness in this royal upstart Octavian, Brutus called the new king’s bluff. He, bedecked with seventeen legions and Cassius by his side, attempted to march on Rome. One can’t know if his intention was to restore to safety a republic habitually in need of saving, or to claim power for himself. What’s known is that he met Octavian on the battlefield of war, this time at Philippi in Macedonia.
The royalist Octavian, successor to Caesar according to the dead king’s will, repulsed Brutus’ attacks. Ultimately defeated, Brutus opted rather for a private than a public death.
Mimicking the Medieval Japanese practice of hara-kiri, or suicide by cutting of the belly, Brutus fell upon his own sword. Eerily, like Booth nearly two-thousand years later, Brutus referenced in his dying breath his very own hands: “By all means” said the dying liberator, “must we fly…not with our feet, but with our hands”. An enigma, no doubt, but what's clear is that he thought of hands as much more fundamentally useful appendages than did Booth.
It’s in this amazing and haunting context that the ides do again draw near. We won’t soon forget, nor could we if we tried, that it was on the ides that both Lincoln and Caesar drew their last breaths: the fifteenth of April for the president (he succumbed early in the morning of his irreparable gunshot wound) and the fifteenth of March for the Pontifex Maximus. Both were assaulted in theaters—famously Ford’s in Lincoln’s case, and less famously Pompey’s in Caesar’s—and both had just succeeded in navigating their countries through the fratricidal throes of civil wars. Both, when viewed together as one, leave to posterity the image of history’s two most admirable, capable, and unflappable men. Both were charged of tyranny, both were absolved by history, and both are cherished in the modern day. It’s to them we turn as the ides return.