Caesar: The ides of March are come.
Soothsayer: Ay, Caesar; but not gone.
Indeed, as they come about again it is hard to escape the thought that the Ides are never quite fully gone, that we are living in a world predicated upon the death of Caesar and the Augustan settlement. Caesar’s very name, after all, remains a byword for regality, his death one to furnish seemingly endless materials to playwrights, philosophers, and poets.
We can see his death now. Here is Caesar, old but still vital, near-black eyes energetic in a tanned and campaign-worn face, toga crumpled (ever so slightly, there are slaves for that after all) from where Calpurnia clung pleadingly to him. Caesar’s luck had survived his debtors, seen him from the Suburra to the domus publica (the stately residence of the chief priest), given him a Gallic revolt to crush and shattered the invincible aura of Pompey the Great (Caesar hadn’t even had to kill his rival himself). Surely it would hold for one more day? What were the cries of a woman, or so-called omens, to Caesar’s luck? His fortuna? This is certainly how his close friend Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus certainly argued. A false friend wearing a dramatic mask to lure his benefactor to his death. Was it a tragedy or a comedy?
There today, on the Ides (15th) of March, in the Curia of Pompey, Tullius Cimber lays his hands upon Caesar, Servilius Casca (“envious Casca”, as Shakespeare has it) strikes the first blow. Others follow. As many as 23 blows in one account. The man who conquered the enemy as soon as he saw them, the colossus who bestrode three continents, was reduced to a bloody heap by his countrymen, his eyes as glazed and empty as those in the statue of Pompey, his former rival, looking down at him.
The topic of Caesar’s last words is an especially fitting one for an Anglophone Classics journal. This is partially because words, literature, and their context(s) are of major concern to Classicists. More so, perhaps, since Shakespeare’s account is well known, well quoted, and well parodied in Anglophone literary culture. The fact that it comprised only three words means that even a comparatively short piece can treat them well. What is intended here, then, is a good old-fashioned bit of Classical philology, a combination of what we’re told to call Quellenkritik and Quellenforschung: not just analysing and critiquing our sources but trying to ascertain from where they themselves got their information.
Let us look at the principal sources. There are effectively six historical accounts, each with their virtues and vices. Nicolaus of Damascus (c.64 BC–AD c.10), who comes down to us only in fragments, also explicitly mentions that he writes his account at the behest of Caesar’s successor, Augustus (63 BC–AD 14). Then comes Velleius Paterculus, writing under the Emperor Tiberius (ruled AD 14–37). Suetonius, Plutarch, and Appian all composed their histories during the height of the Roman Empire, in the 2nd century AD, and Cassius Dio followed soon after, having survived Commodus (ruled 180–92).
Straight away, though, we have a problem. Of these, only Suetonius and Cassius Dio report that Caesar said anything – and the latter of these is quite problematic. The best place to start is the account as handed to us by Suetonius:
atque ita tribus et viginti plagis confossus est uno modo ad primum ictum gemitu sine voce edito, etsi tradiderunt quidam Marco Bruto irruenti dixisse: καὶ σὺ, τέκνον.
And in this way, [Caesar] was struck with 23 blows; at the first strike he gave a groan but uttered no cry. Certain men hold, however, that he said to the attacking Marcus Brutus: You too, child.
Suetonius Caesar 82
Suetonius, you will have noticed, provides two versions of Caesar’s death. He is not nearly so credulous as people believe and he wrote from a fairly a privileged position (although he is now an author more read about than read, sadly). His first account suggests that Caesar, upon first being struck, uttered a cry (gemitu) but no words (surely the sense of voce). The second version, which has our Greek utterance, may well be the one Suetonius has less faith in, hence his vagueness about his source (certain men, quidam). This judgement of the two competing hypotheses is made much more explicit by Cassius Dio, writing in the 3rd century:
προσῆλθέ τις αὐτῷ ὡς καὶ χάριν τινὰ γιγνώσκων, καὶ τὸ ἱμάτιον αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὤμου καθείλκυσεν, σημεῖόν τι τοῦτο κατὰ τὸ συγκείμενον τοῖς συνωμόταις αἴρων· κἀκ τούτου προσπεσόντες αὐτῷ ἐκεῖνοι πολλαχόθεν ἅμα κατέτρωσαν αὐτόν, ὥσθ’ ὑπὸ τοῦ πλήθους αὐτῶν μήτ’ εἰπεῖν μήτε πρᾶξαί τι τὸν Καίσαρα δυνηθῆναι, ἀλλὰ συγκαλυψάμενον σφαγῆναι πολλοῖς τραύμασι. ταῦτα μὲν τἀληθέστατα· ἤδη δέ τινες καὶ ἐκεῖνο εἶπον, ὅτι πρὸς τὸν Βροῦτον ἰσχυρῶς πατάξαντα ἔφη “καὶ σύ, τέκνον”.
Someone approached him as if in recognition of a favour [Caesar had done him] and dragged his cloak from his shoulders, giving the signal that had been agreed upon by the conspirators. Thenceforth they, having fallen upon him from many sides at the same time, wounded him, so that – owing to the number of the attackers – Caesar was unable either to say or do anything, but, covering himself, was slaughtered by many wounds. These are the truest accounts. Yet there are certain others who say that when Brutus had struck him mightily he said to him: You too, child?
Cassius Dio 44.19
The wording here is too close to Suetonius, even across languages, to be a coincidence. Either both depend on a lost source or Cassius Dio is following Suetonius. Despite Cassius Dio’s stronger editorialising (“these are the truest accounts”) the latter seems more likely. This is especially unfortunate, since it means that, by the rules of fair play, only one of our principal sources independently mentions Caesar saying anything at all. But all is not lost. This is not philology via the spreadsheet: this is more than just a numbers game, and the quality of the sources matter. Appian’s account may well have a bit of missing text at this point, and Paterculus glosses over the entire murder as if it was something distasteful to talk about.
Effectively, in our surviving sources, the situation comes down to choosing between Suetonius (who includes the line) and Plutarch (who does not), with at least one major historian, Cassius Dio, siding with Suetonius. Even if both authors seem to think that the version where Caesar said nothing is more credible, our version still had enough of a tradition about it to be included. It cannot be stated strongly enough that our sources are never mere repositories of facts; in fact, they consciously (re)create histories from a plethora of sources and narratives. That Plutarch does not include the words καὶ σύ, τέκνον in no way means that he was unaware of this tradition.
One last note on the sources behind our sources. Is there any indication that there could be other authorities from which Suetonius has taken these words? I think the clue, slight as it is, lies in the quidam/τινες. Caesar’s murder was by no means a secretive event. It occurred at the end of a conspiracy of uncertain numbers: there were many other men in the Curia of Pompey that day, and so there were many and various routes by which his words could be passed on to some source.
The revenge killings pursued by Mark Antony and the future Augustus would have acted as a powerful corrective to such a loose and lively tradition. Why admit to being involved and thus potentially share the kind of end that Publius Cornelius Dolabella gave to Gaius Trebonius? There were others who wrote of the period too, but who sadly have not survived to our age. Any of these could have mentioned the words: the fabulously named Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, Volumnius, and Asinius Pollio, who had marched with Caesar and elsewhere been used so productively by Plutarch. We have clearly lost much more than we have saved.
This would not be the first time that a single ancient source has preserved something others have not. We need to perform our source criticism and close reading, yes, but we should also be charitable: to reject everything at first hand is prejudice, not scepticism. So let us take the words as we have them seriously. If nothing else, they are and will remain our only option.
The first thing to face is that Caesar’s words were uttered in Greek. This stands out in Suetonius’ Latin text just as much as the Latin does in Shakespeare’s famous English. It has become too much of a commonplace that elite Romans spoke in Greek, and I suspect much of the way we think about multilingualism is driven partially by our own engagement with foreign languages, which in the Anglosphere at least may be said to be lacking among Anglophones. Greek, ancient or modern, has an intimidating reputation for us. Greek is frightful, Greek is alien. Not so for the Romans. Yes, elite Romans were educated in Greek, but the language was pervasive throughout the empire from a very early period.
Caesar, having grown up in the Suburra, was just as likely to pick up the language from immigrant groups and nannies as from his later tutors. This apparent disjunction is important. Caesar’s last utterance could have just as easily been (part of) a learned quotation as it was a primal return to a language he knew very well, in the same way that Casca called to his brother. I think this latter point is best understood by native bilinguals. There is evidence for Caesar using Greek in both ways, drawing from high and low registers: when he crossed the Rubicon, entering Italy proper and setting off a devastating civil war, he quoted the Greek comedian Menander. Plutarch elsewhere tells us that Caesar’s elasticity in moving between both languages was remarked upon in his day. 
How then, after all this context, are we to take καὶ σὺ τέκνον? Taking it as axiomatic that Caesar could and did say the words, there are effectively two possibilities. Either Caesar said the words as part of a larger sentence (whether that be a quotation or an off-the-cuff remark) or the sentence was self-contained and requires further close reading. Like an aquilifer, I must put my standard in the sand. I feel that the three words are inherently explicable alone in their context. Nevertheless, I would like to consider two of the more interesting readings which seek to supplement the words we have.
Woodman alights upon an interesting parallel within the Suetonian corpus where Augustus predicts that the young Galba will one day ascend to the purple:
constat Augustum puero adhuc, salutanti se inter aequales, apprehensa buccula dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον τῆς ἀρχῆς ἡμῶν παρατρώξῃ.
It is said that when [Galba] was a boy and called to pay his respects to Augustus with others of his age, [Augustus] pinched his cheeks and said “you too, child, will taste my rule.”
Suetonius Galba 4
Naturally, the historicity of this is dubious. The source is clearly from Galba’s short-lived court and part of a broader political strategy to legitimise the first Princeps not drawn from the house of the Julio-Claudians. What is interesting is the line itself, which opens with καὶ σὺ τέκνον. Woodman’s argument is that this phrase was well known enough to have entered elite Roman parlance in the same way we might now use Horace’s dulce et decorum est,and that Caesar was cut off before he could finish his line.
Among the chief virtues of this solution is that there was an already existing parallel. However, I am disquieted by its connotations. Even if Caesar chose to characterise his primacy as an ἀρχή (a term more suitable to Hellenistic monarchs), there is no especial reason to suppose that Marcus Junius Brutus would inherit his position. Not only is Brutus not the most qualified person, he is not even the most qualified Brutus present at the assassination.
Ziogas instead proffers a more extensive reconstruction of Caesar’s words, arguing that what he meant to say was a full line of hexameter verse: καὶ σύ, τέκνον, θάνατον στυγερὸν καὶ πότμον ἐφέψεις (“and you, child, will come upon a horrid death and fate”). But it is hard to credit the reconstruction of any line based on just one and a half feet. Other issues present themselves: whilst the first syllable of τέκνον can, under certain circumstances, be scanned short (thus allowing this reconstruction), this never occurs in the 77 cases where τέκνον crops up Homeric corpus. So, to accept such a reconstruction, we must posit a completely lost Greek epic, similar in tone but differing in style and metre from Homer, which was familiar to Caesar and his coterie but otherwise unknown to us. If we really need a Homeric parallel, perhaps there are others closer to hand.
I am also not convinced that Caesar would have been likely to quote a hexameter anyway. Lucretius aside, Virgil had not yet rehabilitated hexameter poetry for Latin speakers, and I suspect that amongst the highly literary circles of Caesar’s day, Callimachus’ famous dictum of a big book being a big evil (μέγα βιβλίον, μέγα κακόν) still held some sway. Besides, 13 or so syllables are a mouthful at the best of times, let alone when you have been stabbed 23 or so times.
Before we return to considering the words as we have them, I would like to proffer my own possible reinterpration. One that depends not on any speculative reconstruction of whole lines nor on recondite parallels. I really am not wedded to this idea, I must say: it is problematic, but pursues an interesting thought none the less.
Let us step back a moment and reconsider Greek as a living tongue. For Greek, of course, was not frozen in time the minute Alexander the Great broke the Achaemenids. It was a truly living language, subject to change, like any other. And this would be the case especially for the kind of Greek that Romans spoke to their slaves, to the tutors, and perhaps to their equals. But how would it sound?
One of the most significant changes in Greek phonology is so-called ‘iotacism’. This was a long gradient of changes, not fully completed well into the Byzantine period (and even then, certain dialects escaped the changes even longer). This was a change as momentous as the ‘Great Vowel Shift’ in English, with the once distinct sounds represented by η, υ, ι, οι, υι, ει all coming to be pronounced in the same way. This is now the sound profile of Modern Greek, but these phonological changes were complete by the late Byzantine period, and a handful had begun before the Roman Empire reached its zenith. In particular, we are concerned with any possible confusion between υ and οι. As it happens, there is papyrological evidence for such a confusion occurring from at least the 1st century AD. Thus one can find λυπόν for λοιπον and μυ for μοι as well as the obverse changes such as τῦς for τοῖς and ἀνύξει for ἀνοἰξει amongst others.
If we follow this line of thought, it is just about possible that in Caesar’s day one might speak Greek without distinguishing καὶ σὺ τέκνον (“and you, child…”) and καὶ σoὶ τέκνον (“and to you, child”). Given the tumult and panic of the moment, the blood, the adrenaline, it would certainly not be a surprise if people misheard σύ for σoί. If we then allow καί to be taken adverbially, this would give us something like “The same to you as well, child”. καὶ σoὶ τέκνον would then stand as a self-contained phrase, needing no amendment or supplementation. In terms of register this would be something of an offhanded, colloquial, expression, entirely suited to the moment – something akin to the phrase often heard from bellicose publicans, “And to you as well, mate.”
Are there other verbal parallels? There is an intriguing bit in Sophocles’ Philoctetes
Ἡρακλῆς: ἃ δ᾽ ἂν λάβῃς σὺ σκῦλα τοῦδε τοῦ στρατοῦ,
τόξων ἐμῶν μνημεῖα πρὸς πυρὰν ἐμὴν
κόμιζε. καὶ σοὶ ταῦτ᾽, Ἀχιλλέως τέκνον,
παρῄνεσ᾽: οὔτε γὰρ σὺ τοῦδ᾽ ἄτερ σθένεις
ἑλεῖν τὸ Τροίας πεδίον οὔθ᾽ οὗτος σέθεν.
Heracles: those spoils which you recieve from this campaign,
bring to my pyre as a memorial for my bow.
and the same things to you, child of Achilles,
I advise: for you have not the strength
to seize the Trojan plain without him, nor he without you.
These lines come from the coda of the play, where Heracles is offering detailed advice to both Philoctetes and the young Neoptolemus. Eyes are straight away drawn to the skeleton of the phrase καὶ σοὶ… τέκνον, and the broader connotations are seductive, not least the concern with Troy and the Asiatic East being conquered (Caesar was, of course, of Trojan blood and ready to set out to conquer the Parthians). Yet, truly, if we are to oppose the idea of Caesar whipping out whole lines of Greek (or, in Ziogas’ reconstruction, a possible hexameter), then it is difficult to accept that he would slyly allude to Sophoclean drama in the midst of a barrage of stab wounds. Moreover, whilst my playful reconstruction requires καὶ to be adverbial, Sophocles is clearly using it as a copula and σὺ appears in the dative, σoi, as the indirect object governed by the verb παρῄνεσα. This is interesting, but we are looking at a chance similarity, not a source of a quotation or a parallel construction.
Could Caesar then have said καὶ σοὶ, τέκνον? I have perhaps strained the reader’s indulgence too long with fanciful parallels, although I hope this trek down phonological variations and Greek tragedy has been interesting. Whilst the phonological corruption between σύ and σοὶ may (just about) have been possible in Caesar’s day, there is no textual trail throughout which to trace the corruption. In fact, even scholars in Dio’s day and later, where such confusion was quite common, managed still to record σύ. Nor, sadly, is there any singular convincing parallel for the phrase. I have said that the three words are explicable in their context, without supplement or speculation, and I believe that to be the case.
So here we are again on the Ides. Caesar is down, exsanguinating, expiring, but not wholly without fight. It is never easy for hyenas to take a lion. Finally, he sees Brutus rushing to attack him (Marco Bruto irruenti). He does not give in to animal panic, but nor does he have the breath or the time to start reciting hexameters. A simple phrase then, but one that takes in all the recent history of the Late Republic – the political murders, the proscriptions, the civil wars – that Caesar had sought to prevent. One, like Casca’s earlier utterance, uttered from the pit of his stomach. Perhaps the dictator props himself up, perhaps one last weak gesticulation from him to his final attacker as he speaks with a sense of affront and betrayal (“YOU too, child?”) or with weary resignation (“AND you, child?…) or even derision that it took so many to topple him (“Oh you as well, child!”). Perhaps. These are permissible alternatives, but one can’t help but feel that a man as conscious of his dignity as Caesar, as perspicacious, as great a friend – and even greater an enemy – would not go easily. A curse then, an imprecation, and a warning.
The Classical Sources.
- The first port of call should be the Classical sources themselves, not least because they are curiously alike in detail (leaving aside καὶ σύ, τέκνον, of course). Excepting Nicolaus of Damascus, all the sources are available in popular translations by Penguin and other reputable publishers, as well as online here.
- Though not directly relevant (he could not write about his own death, of course), Caesar’s own works are worth reading to glimpse his character. Again, several reputable presses offer translations.
The Late Republic
- Tom Holland’s Rubicon (2003) is still the best popular introduction to collapse of the Late Republic.
- Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution (1939) is an erudite and elegant exposition on perhaps the most transformative period of Roman civilisation.
Caesar (and his last words)
- Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus (2006) is one of the most read biographies in English, and the sheer weight of the book seems to reflect the magnitude of the man.
- Krešimir Vuković’s Wolves of Rome (2022) has a chapter on the infamous Lupercalia, which is one of the best introductions to the debate over whether Caesar aimed at kingship. Contra this please see:
- Napoleon Bonaparte’s Précis des guerres de César par Napoléon: suivi de plusieurs fragments inédits (1836). This first edition is available online. Napoleon’s exoneration of Caesar’s monarchical ambition is interesting, given where both ended up.
- Peter Stothard’s recent work The Last Assassin (2020)is a deceptively easy read on a gruesome topic.
Throughout this piece I referred to two differing reconstructions of Caesar’s last sentence. These were:
- A.J. Woodman, “Tiberius and the taste of power: the year 33 in Tacitus,” Classical Quarterly 56 (2006) 175–89.
- I. Ziogas, “Famous last words: Caesar’s prophecy on the Ides of March,” Antichthon 50 (2016) 134–53, available here.
Greek in the Roman World
There have been many recent tomes and articles on bilingualism and the learning of languages in the antiquity, too many to mention, but my thinking has largely been informed by:
- J.N. Adams, Bilingualism and the Latin language (Cambridge UP, 2003).
- A. Wallace-Hadrill, “To be Roman, go Greek: thoughts on Hellenization at Rome,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 42 (1998) 79–91.
On Greek phonology and its development in this period, see:
- G. Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and its Speakers (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2014), for a general overview.
- F.T. Gignac, A Grammar of the Greek Papyri of the Roman and Byzantine Periods: Volume I; Phonology (Istituto Editoriale Cisalpino/La Goliardica, Milan, 1976).
|⇧1||German Kaisar, Russian tsar, and perhaps a few lesser-known variants: Ottoman Turkish qaysar, Indonesian kaiser (likely through a Dutch intermediary). Even English, during the British Empire, used the word to advertise its Indian dominions, giving the king the title kaisar-i-hind (“Emperor of India”).|
|⇧2||Suetonius, earlier in the same section, also records that Caesar, when first apprehended by Tillius Cimber, cried out “ista quidem vis est!” – “this is violence!”. Stripped into English translation, this seems a comical example of bathos: of course, violence is about to occur. Yet the movement is much more violent than the language suggests: I suspect that ab utroque umero togam adprehendit (“grasped his toga from both his shoulders”) means Cimber used the distinctive Roman garment to entangle Caesar in a clinch and make him easier to stab. Caesar, seasoned veteran that he is, would immediately grasp the implication. This early recognition is what allows him to turn and offer some semblance of counterattack. What of Caesar’s words themselves? vis has a near-clinical, legal sense to it. Just the right tone to catch the ears of men who spent half their time at forensic oratory. This makes the later Greek address to Brutus much more marked. Whether a learned quotation (the kind passed around in dinner parties at Caesar’s or Servillia’s) or a spontaneous exhortation, this is much more intimate and personal than the earlier Latin.|
|⇧3||A sensible and even-handed reaction. I can report that on being struck with a knife, I was unable to offer anything witty. But then Caesar was no ordinary man: violence for him came as often and as mundane as the rains.|
|⇧4||Suetonius is notoriously keen to record the last words of two other emperors: Nero “What an artist dies in me!” (qualis artifex pereo, Nero 49); Vespasian “I think I am becoming a god!” (puto deus fio, Vespanian 23). None the less, these are reported without any evaluative comment.|
|⇧5||For more on Plutarch’s sources, an incredibly interesting topic in and of itself, see the Further Reading section.|
|⇧6||If the innovative translation originated with Shakespeare, it is hard to underscore just how brilliant it is. Latin to an Elizabethan audience was distal enough to recreate the exoticism of the Greek. Given allegations of paternity, replacing the word for child with Brutus’ name is an excellent double entendre, not to mention that Brute sounds similar to English brute. The bard was on fire.|
|⇧7||Virginia Woolf’s 1923 essay On Not Knowing Greek, republished here, is a typical example of this.|
|⇧8||Whilst Greek for us signifies an elite education, we ought to remember that Hellenic influence was strong at Rome from its beginnings, and that Romans encountered Greek language and culture in many ways, at many registers and levels. The cattle-drover employing Sicilian Greek slaves and the son of a senator learning his Homer were both learning, speaking, using Greek.|
|⇧9||Plutarch Caesar 66. Casca was clearly in fear of Caesar, despite his attack, and the entire situation was stressful and confusing. Greek had seeped into his lizard brain, so to speak: it had bypassed his logical faculties and nestled amongst his survival instincts. You simply cannot gain that level of automaticity from a textbook.|
|⇧10||Plutarch Pompey 60 specifies that Caesar spoke in Greek (ἀνερρίφθω κύβος), whereas Suetonius Julius Caesar 32 gives a Latin translation (alea iacta esto): “let the die be cast”.|
|⇧11||Plutarch Caesar 46. In fact, he specifically cites Asinius Pollio for this claim, someone who saw this at first hand many times. But there is no reason to assume that this was unique to Caesar: similar code-switching may be seen, for instance, in Cicero’s letters. The aristocracy of the Late Republic must have been the most Greek-proficient generation of Roman citizens until Justinian’s troops set foot in Italy during the 6th century AD.|
|⇧12||There are other sources for this: Cassius Dio (59.17) repeats the line with some synonymous substitutions of words καὶ σύ ποτε τῆς ἡγεμονίας γεύσῃ (“…you will taste my rule”), and Tacitus reports the words in Latin but claims that they were said in Greek (Graecis verbis, Annals 6.20). Both authors, however, ascribe the incident to Tiberius.|
|⇧13||ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ (“But friend, you die too,” Iliad 21.106); καὶ σὺ κακὸν μόρον ἡγηλάζεις (“and you will lead a wretched existence,” Odyssey 11.618), amongst others. No parallel is exact. None is satisfying.|
|⇧14||Further examples are found in Gignac (1975) 197–99, with more expansive explanation in 262–75. This served as an intermediary step before both sounds collapsed into ι.|