Monday, 15 March 2021

The Assassination of Julius Caesar: Kαί σύ τέκνον;


The Ides of March

Guard, O my soul, against pomp and glory.

And if you cannot curb your ambitions,

at least pursue them hesitantly, cautiously.

And the higher you go,

the more searching and careful you need to be.

And when you reach your summit, Caesar at last—

when you assume the role of someone that famous—

then be especially careful as you go out into the street,

a conspicuous man of power with your retinue;

and should a certain Artemidoros

come up to you out of the crowd, bringing a letter,

and say hurriedly: ‘Read this at once.

There are things in it important for you to see,’

be sure to stop; be sure to postpone

all talk or business; be sure to brush off

all those who salute and bow to you

(they can be seen later); let even

the Senate itself wait — and find out immediately

what grave message Artemidoros has for you.

(CP Cavafy)

A soothsayer had warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March (15 March). On the day, the sophist Artemidoros tried to inform Caesar of the conspiracy to assassinate him, but was ignored.

The clip above shows the scene as depicted in David Bradley’s 1950 film version of Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar.

Shakespeare records Caesar's last words as ‘Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!' (‘Even you, Brutus? Then fall, Caesar.') Plutarch says he said nothing, pulling his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators. However, Suetonius gives Caesar's last words, spoken in Greek, as 'καί σύ τέκνον;' ('Kai su, teknon?'; 'You too, my child?').

Is it possible that the Roman emperor’s last words would be in Greek?

Certainly, Julius Caesar knew Greek, as any educated Roman aristocrat of the time would have known Greek. Greek culture and learning, in fact, dominated Rome and was the cornerstone of patrician education and intellectual standing. (Horace: ‘Captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought the arts to rustic Rome’).

Julius Caesar also spent a great deal of his career in the Greek-speaking east, in Bithynia, Cilicia, Caria, Rhodes – where Caesar studied with the leading rhetorician of the day, Apollonius Molon – and Alexandria, where he notoriously became infatuated with the Greek queen of Egypt, Cleopatra.

Indeed, it has been suggested that Caesar’s ‘You too, my child?’ is the first part of a Greek proverb widely known to the Romans: ‘You too, my child, will have a taste of power.’

‘You too, my child, will have a taste of power’ is in fact a more complex and compelling statement than either Suetonius or Shakespeare and suggests denunciation as well as pity and shock in Caesar’s final words, horror that his trusted friend Brutus is among the assassins but also irony, sarcasm and contempt as he bitterly reproaches Brutus, predicts (correctly) his violent demise and reveals him not as ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, but as a power-hungry hypocrite, as ambitious and envious as the other assassins.