It’s a day late, but something odd jumped into my head regarding the assassination of Julius Caesar. According to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives:

The following stories also are told by many; that a certain seer warned him to be on his guard against great danger on that day of the month of March, which the Romans call the Ides; and when the day had arrived, as Caesar was going to the Senate-house, he saluted the seer and jeered him saying, “Well, the Ides of March are come;” but the seer mildly replied, “Yes, they are come, but they are not yet over.”

The seer in question is undoubtedly an Augur, an office elected for life by the Senate to perform divination on behalf of the Republic. Initially, there were three Augurs at any one time, although by Sulla’s dictatorship (81 BCE) the number had swelled to fifteen. Any major undertaking in Rome required such divinations beforehand, and as interpreter of the gods’ will, the Augur had the final word as to whether or not such an undertaking could proceed.

But if we look at Caesar’s résumé, we see not only spectacular military and political achievements, but also that he was briefly Flamen Dialis (high priest of Jupiter) from 84-82 BCE, co-opted to the College of Pontiffs (the supreme council of religious advisers) in 73 BCE, made Pontifex Maximus (chief religious authority in Rome) in 63 BCE and finally, in 47 BCE—three years before his death—became an Augur himself.

In light of this, Plutarch’s seer seems a bit superfluous: if Caesar—who held the highest religious, political and military offices in the Republic, conquered Gaul and distinguished himself as one of the world’s greatest generals and most powerful leaders ever—didn’t have the gods’ ear, then who would have?

It’s telling that in his Parallel Lives, Plutarch compares Caesar to Alexander the Great. Whilst it appears that Plutarch’s conclusions haven’t survived, he does recount in his biography of Alexander:

Just as Alexander was on the point of starting for Babylon, Nearchus, who had returned with his fleet up the Euphrates, met him, and informed him that some Chaldaeans had warned Alexander to avoid Babylon. He took no heed of this warning, but went his way. When he drew near the walls he saw many crows flying about and pecking at one another, some of whom fell to the ground close beside him. After this, as he heard that Apollodorus, the governor of Babylon, had sacrificed to the gods to know what would happen to Alexander, he sent for Pythagoras, the soothsayer, who had conducted the sacrifice, to know if this were true. The soothsayer admitted that it was, on which Alexander inquired what signs he had observed in the sacrifice. Pythagoras answered that the victim’s liver wanted one lobe. “Indeed!” exclaimed Alexander, “that is a terrible omen.”

Alexander would die in agony soon thereafter in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II. Authorities disagree as to whether or not he was poisoned, but it’s widely taken that he died because he ignored the gods’ warnings.

It seems to me that Plutarch may have inserted the soothsayer in his Caesar biography to provide a parallel classical hubris to shore up his claims that the two great leaders shared similar fates. Then again, Caesar was notorious for ignoring omens which didn’t suit him, so it could just have easily been a sly dig at the deceased Dictator.

I guess we’ll never know.

Advertisements