The Ides of March

Posted by Barry Strauss under on March 15, 2009

At the time of the outbreak of Spartacus’s revolt, Julius Caesar was still a young man. Only in his twenties, he did not yet bestride the world like a colossus. Caesar never takes center stage in the story of Spartacus but he does waits in the wings, now and then poking his head out.

Spartacus negotiated with pirates in 71 B.C., for instance; a few years earlier, Caesar had been taken prisoner by pirates and ransomed. Young Caesar then returned with a military force, defeated his former captors and had them crucified, foreshadowing the eventual fate of many of Spartacus’s men.

Capua offers another point in common. Spartacus began his revolt as a gladiator in Capua. Some years later, Caesar would own a gladiatorial school in that same city: a vast enterprise of a thousand fighters. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. and marched on Rome, his rival seized Caesar’s gladiators and farmed them out among Roman colonists where they could make no mischief. Caesar’s rival was Pompey, the man whose troops had massacred five thousand of Spartacus’s fleeing survivors after the Battle of the Silarus in 71 B.C.

Then, there is a rhetorical connection. Caesar made a veiled reference to Spartacus’s revolt in his Gallic War, his record of the conquest of Gaul in the 50s B.C. The conquest also included fighting against Germans. To buck up his men’s courage against a German army, Caesar reminded them that Rome had recently fought Germans in a slave revolt. Those Germans had “attained a certain level of skill and discipline that they had learned from us,” he had. Nonetheless, the Romans had prevailed. If they could beat those Germans, then Rome could win again today: that was Caesar’s message.

One last commonality: In 72 B.C. at the battle of Mutina (modern Modena), Spartacus defeated an army under the governor of northern Italy (that is, the proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul). His name was Caius Cassius Longinus. That leads to the heart of the famous story of the Ides of March. Twenty-eight years after the battle of Mutina, it was Longinus’s son who played a key role in the plot to kill Caesar – by then, dictator of Rome. Longinus’s son is known to readers of Shakespeare as, simply, Cassius. Cassius and his co-conspirators struck Caesar with weapons worthy of gladiators: daggers. It was the Ides of March: March 15, 44 B.C.

Filed under:
Barry Strauss © 2024