Famous Figures & Omens: Julius Caesar
According to Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars, Julius 81) there were many warnings presented to Julius Caesar about his impending doom. He received bad omens such as the discovery of a table of brass that spoke of “a descendant of Iulus” being slain by his kinsmen, and a soothsayer named Spurinna observed various signs that something bad was going to happen to Caesar. There was such a fear that Caesar’s wife begged him to skip his final appearance before the senate prior to launching his next military campaign. Unfortunately for Caesar, he believed that avoiding the senate meeting would bring him shame and further problems.
In Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar , numerous omens foreboding the death of the eponymous lead character can be found. In Act I, Scene III, Casca informs Cicero about the omens that he has seen:
A common slave—you know him well by sight—
Held up his left hand, which did flame and burn
Like twenty torches join'd, and yet his hand,
Not sensible of fire, remain'd unscorch'd.
Besides—I ha' not since put up my sword—
Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glaz'd upon me, and went surly by,
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
"These are their reasons; they are natural";
For, I believe, they are portentous things
Unto the climate that they point upon.
(Shakespeare, Julius Caesar , Act I, Scene III, 15-32)
Cicero, however, doesn’t believe in superstitions, and remarks,
“But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.”
(Shakespeare, Julius Caesar , Act I, Scene III, 34-35)
For students of English Literature, this ‘(mis)interpretation of omens’ becomes a major theme of the play. However, one may obtain other insights if one were to consider these omens from the viewpoint of a Classicist.
For a start, Shakespeare drew his inspiration for the play from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives , which is a collection of biographies of famous Greek and Roman figures. Indeed, much of the omens that were mentioned in the play were recorded by Plutarch himself. However, the meeting between Casca and Cicero is purely a fictional one, and invented by Shakespeare to highlight his point. After all, Cicero was regarded as the voice of reason.
Plutarch was not the only ancient writer who recorded the omens concerning Caesar’s death. In Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars: The Life of Julius Caesar , it is mentioned that:
“A few months before, when the settlers assigned to the colony at Capua by the Julian Law were demolishing some tombs of great antiquity, to build country houses, and plied their work with the greater vigour because as they rummaged about they found a quantity of vases of ancient workmanship, there was discovered in a tomb, which was said to be that of Capys, the founder of Capua, a bronze tablet, inscribed with Greek words and characters to this purport: "Whenever the bones of Capys shall be moved, it will come to pass that a son of Ilium shall be slain at the hands of his kindred, and presently avenged at heavy cost to Italy.
(Suet., The Life of Julius Caesar , 81)
Suetonius even adds at the end, “And let no one think this tale a myth or a lie, for it is vouched for by Cornelius Balbus, an intimate friend of Caesar.” (Suet., The Life of Julius Caesar , 81). While Suetonius’ work is an interesting piece of writing due to its vivid portrayal of Roman emperors, it is also because of this feature that makes him a somewhat unreliable source. The fact that he needed to convince his readers of the authenticity of his claim should raise some doubts about how truthful he really is.
For a more serious piece of writing, one may consult Cassius Dio’s Roman History . Dio’s monumental work consisted of 80 books, although only Books 36-60 have largely survived the ravages of time. Fortunately, the death of Julius Caesar is found in Book 44. Like all good Romans, Dio took omens seriously, as seen in his recording of those that signalled Caesar’s impending death. According to Dio,
the arms of Mars, at that time deposited in his house, according to ancient custom, by virtue of his position as high priest, made a great noise at night, and the doors of the chamber where he slept opened of their own accord. 3 Moreover, the sacrifices which he offered because of these occurrences were not at all favourable, and the birds he used in divination forbade him to leave the house. Indeed, to some the incident of his golden chair seemed ominous, at least after his murder; for the attendant, when Caesar delayed his coming, had carried it out of the senate, thinking that there now would be no need of it.
(Dio, Roman History , Book XLIV. 17)