William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is based on historical events, filtered into drama via the Greek writer Plutarch. This coin, from the collection of the British Museum, is a connection to the historical events. On one side it carries the likeness of one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, Marcus Brutus. On the other it records the date of the assassination.
What are the Ides of March?
In the ancient Roman calendar, the months were divided by three marker days. The Ides is the third marker day and, notionally at least, arrives on the day of the full moon. This varied according to the length of the month and in March, as in May, July and October, it would be the 15th. In the others months, it would be the 13th. This was true of both the Julian calendar – the one established by Julius Caesar – and that which preceded it.
What significance do they have in Julius Caesar?
In the play, Caesar is approached by a soothsayer who tells him to beware the Ides of March. (Though the soothsayer is often shown as blind on the stage, this is not specified in Plutarch, or in Shakespeare.)
The soothsayer’s warning is among a variety of other ill omens. These include the discovery that one of the animals Caesar sacrificed to the gods had no heart, and that Caesar’s wife Calphurnia has dreamt that Caesar had been murdered. Then when, regardless of these warnings, Caesar goes to the Senate, the Soothsayer warns him that the Ides are not yet over, and the character Artemidorus also tries to warn him about the impending danger. But in Act 3, Scene 1, Caesar is stabbed by the conspirators, Casca first and Brutus last.
How does the coin record this date?
The coin shown here records Caesar’s death in text and image. The Latin inscription ‘EID MAR’ directly refers to the Ides of March. The two daggers are a direct reference to the murder weapons employed by the conspirators. Between them is a ‘Pileus’, a sort of soft, brimless felt cap which was, as it had been in Greece, a symbol of free, non-enslaved men in classical Rome. (Later, it would become a broader symbol of Republicanism) In this position, then, it demonstrates what the conspirator Cinna shouts after the assassination:
Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about in the streets. (3.1.80–81)
The coin itself was made in 42–43 BC, after the date of Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, but before Brutus’s own death in 42 BC.