“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”
The death of legendary Julius Caesar is brought to mind every year on March 15th. “Beware the Ides of March” echoes the tension of Caesar’s last day in 44 BC. The end of his life is described in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Surprisingly, the play about the famed Roman dictator focuses far more on his death and funeral rather than his lifetime achievements. Often, Caesar is remembered simply as the ambitious dictator assassinated by the senators of Rome.
Caesar’s funeral was a massive event. The intense public reaction to his assassination can be traced to his funeral specifically, as Marc Antony gave a stirring funeral oration to rouse the crowd. While the speech he actually gave is unknown, Shakespeare’s version is often remembered and held as true. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” captures the same passion and emotion cultivated by Antony’s oration. He roused the passions and spoke to the grief of the Roman people, resulting in lamentation and chaos. This famous speech has been recited and captured dozens of times, most famously by Marlon Brando in the 1953 film Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar was cremated publically in the Roman Forum. According to legend, the riled crowd threw branches, robes, jewels, and other possessions into the burning funeral pyre in their grief. The flames are said to have flown out of control, nearly burning the Forum down as the crowds moved against the conspirators. This madness can be attributed to the work of Marc Antony and his political allies. The deification of Caesar at his funeral showed public adoration for the assassinated leader, while they paraded a wax figure of his corpse to create horror and outrage. Antony and his followers created the wax replica and inflicted the same 23 wounds onto its body to show the violence suffered by Rome’s beloved leader.
Julius Caesar’s funeral was a political turning point for Marc Antony and Gaius Octavius, Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted son. Antony was able to harness the public grief of the Roman people to his political advantage, igniting a civil war between Caesar’s assassinators and his avengers.