The Ides of March

by Thornton Wilder
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1663

First published: 1948

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical chronicle

Time of work: 45 b.c.e.

Locale: Ancient Rome

Principal Characters:

Julius Caesar

Pompeia, his second wife

Calpurnia, his third wife

Lady Clodia Pulcher, a conspirator

Catullus, a famous poet

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt

Marcus Brutus, another conspirator

The Story

There were so many different groups plotting to assassinate Caesar that it was impossible for him to guard himself from all of them. Each day, new leaders rose to incite the people against him. Many of the leaders were friends of Caesar; some were relatives; some were merely ambitious men; and some were citizens who sincerely believed that Rome was suffering under Caesar's rule and wanted to free her. The last group had Caesar's admiration. He knew that he had restricted the freedom of the people, but he knew, too, that the masses of people shrink from accepting responsibility for their actions. They want to be ruled by one who will make all important decisions for them, yet they resent that ruler because he has taken their freedom from them. Caesar knew that he would one day be assassinated, but he hoped that he would see in the face of his murderer a love for Rome.

Among the most persistent of the plotters was the mother of Marcus Brutus. She had long hated Caesar and wanted her son to assume the place of the dictator. Many Romans said that Brutus was the illegitimate son of Caesar, but no one had ever been able to prove the accusation. Brutus was loyal to Caesar until the very end; only his mother's repeated urging led him at last to join the conspirators.

Another important figure among Caesar's enemies was Clodia Pulcher, a woman of high birth, great wealth, and amazing beauty. Because of her ambitions and lusts, she had become a creature of poor reputation, so much so that her name was scribbled on public walls, accompanied by obscene verses. She was aided in her plots by her brother and by Catullus, the most famous poet in Rome. Catullus was a young man so much in love with Clodia that he would do anything she asked, and he wrote many poems and tracts against Caesar. Clodia spurned Catullus and his love, but her ridicule of him only strengthened his passion for her.

While all of these plots against Caesar were taking shape, he and the rest of Rome were preparing for the visit of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. She, too, suffered from a bad reputation, for her many conquests in love were well-known in Rome. Most of the high ladies planned to receive her only because Caesar had so ordered, among them Pompeia, Caesar's wife, who knew of his earlier relations with the queen. At Caesar's command, however, Cleopatra was accorded the honor due a queen. He visited her many times, always in disguise, and on one of his visits barely missed being killed. He could never be sure whether Cleopatra knew of the plot. Marc Antony had begun to find favor in the eyes of Cleopatra, and as Marc Antony was involved in the attempted assassination, Caesar suspected that she too might be involved.

After Cleopatra's arrival, all Rome began to plan for the mysteries of the Good Goddess. This festival took place each year on December 11, and every Roman woman of high birth and moral virtue took part in the ceremonies. The Vestal Virgins participated in the festival also, and only women whose reputations were above reproach were allowed to attend the mysteries. Clodia's recent actions had given rise to the possibility that she might be rejected. In fact, petitions had been sent to Lady Julia Marcia, Caesar's aunt and a directress of the mysteries, to debar Clodia. Caesar interfered in behalf of Clodia, however, for just as he could understand the reasoning of his enemies, he could understand Clodia. She felt that she was fated to live the life she did and blamed the gods for her actions rather than herself.

Clodia, however, was vengeful. When she learned a compromise had been reached—she was to be allowed to attend the mysteries only until the Vestal Virgins appeared—she arranged to have her brother dress in the robes of a woman and attend the ceremonies with her. No man had ever been present at that sacred rite, and the profanation was the greatest scandal ever to reach the streets of Rome. The two criminals, for so they were called, were arrested, but Caesar pardoned them, thus adding another reason for public resentment. Once again, it was suspected that Cleopatra knew of the plot, for she too had wanted to attend the mysteries and had been told she would have to leave when the virgins appeared. It was rumored that Pompeia had known of Clodia's plan, and for these rumors, Caesar divorced Pompeia, his reason being that, regardless of whether the rumors were true, Pompeia should have conducted herself so that no rumors could be started about her.

After his divorce, Caesar married Calpurnia. Catullus had died in the meantime, and Caesar reflected much on the poet's death. He was not sure about his own beliefs concerning the gods and their influence on the world. Often he felt that there were no gods, that each man was the master of his own destiny. He wished that he were not guided by fear and superstition concerning life and death, but he continued to employ soothsayers and magicians and hoped daily for good omens from the heavens.

There were few good omens for Caesar at that time. His chief soothsayer had warned him of several dangerous days, but as all of them had passed uneventfully, Caesar began to be less careful; and he planned to leave for the Parthian battlefront on March 17. He asked Brutus and his wife to care for Calpurnia while he was gone. He knew Brutus had been among his enemies, but he loved the younger man and believed that Brutus was now his friend.

Brutus promised Caesar to care for Calpurnia; but Brutus was to play a different role within a few days. The fateful Ides of March came. Caesar walked to the Senate chambers to make his farewell speech before leaving for the war. Approaching the capitol, he was surrounded by the conspirators. One plunged his dagger into Caesar's throat as the others closed in. Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times. When he saw that he was surrounded, he sat down and wrapped his robe about him. He did not cry out, but there are those who say that when he saw Brutus he said, "You, too, Brutus?" and ceased to struggle. Perhaps he was satisfied with his assassin.

Critical Evaluation:

Thornton Wilder twice received the Pulitzer Prize for his work as a playwright (OUR TOWN, 1938; THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, 1943). However, he is also respected as a novelist. His reputation was first made by THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, a best-selling novel that won him his first Pulitzer Prize in 1928. After the success of this work came a succession of other novels, many of which employed Wilder's characteristic device of centering on a group of persons whose lives at some point in time are all in some way interconnected.

This is also the technique Wilder was to use in THE IDES OF MARCH, a novel whose use of "documents" to tell its story fits it into at least two major novel categories: the historical and the epistolary. Wilder's use of these fictitious documents—only the parts from Catullus and the last entry are authentic—allows him an omniscient point of view in telling his story. He is thus able at the same time to maintain a sense of unfolding progression, as the same facts are discussed again and again from a different viewpoint and are filled in more completely by each character's successive letter.

This technique of multiple viewpoints also allows Wilder to present a more comprehensive picture of the novel's characters. Caesar is seen as rational, truly unvengeful, dedicated to the responsibilities he accepts as dictator, and generally superior in every way to those around him. His virtues are not understood by the other characters because they are incapable of possessing such strengths themselves. Brutus, for example, is incapable of the strong convictions, about Rome or himself, that are needed by a man in Caesar's position. Caesar's private character is revealed through his own letters to Lucius Mamilius Turrinus, but readers also see different and complementary sides of him in the letters of Clodia Pulcher, Julia Marcia, Pompeia, and others. These in turn are understood through their own and others' letters, so that the reader has a sense of completeness as well as objectivity in Wilder's characterizations.

Wilder's scrupulous accounting of his "documents'" origins, his knowledge of Roman history and customs, and his ability to simulate the Roman epistolary style and language lend further verisimilitude to the work. His unique talent for weaving several lives and points of view into one coherent, fascinating whole is the novel's strongest structural and stylistic asset.


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