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Five Persistent Myths About Julius Caesar

by Paul Combs 6 months ago in Historical
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Spoiler: the salad is not named after him

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In any list of famous historical rulers, one name in particular is sure to come up: Julius Caesar. He is easily the most famous Roman of all time (and second only to Frank Sinatra as the most famous Italian) and most people know at least the basics of his biography. As is the case with any notable figure from antiquity, however, a number of myths about him have crept in among the fact, myths that need to be dispelled for us to have an accurate view of the man.

It is no easy task separating fact from fiction about Julius Caesar. There are contemporary accounts, of course, but they have been overshadowed by two much louder voices: William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Hollywood movies. In fact, many of the myths perpetuated by modern films trace their origins to Shakespeare’s play. In this particular case, you could say that the Bard is one of the biggest revisers of history who ever lived.

In any case, here are five myths about Julius Caesar that deserve to be cleared up:

1. “Beware the Ides of March.” It’s true that Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC, the Ides of March, but the idea that a seer predicted the exact date of his death was totally invented by Shakespeare. Two Roman historians, Plutarch and Suetonius, record that a soothsayer named Spurinna told Caesar on February 15th that danger, though not specifically death, would come to him in the next 30 days, but even this account cannot be fully trusted. Regardless of the accuracy of Roman fortune tellers, Caesar did die on March 15th, which leads directly to another famous myth: Caesar’s last words.

2. “Et Tu, Brute?” For the past 400 years, most people have believed that Julius Caesar’s last words were “Et tu, Brute?” or “You too, Brutus?” They were supposedly spoken by Caesar to his friend Brutus, who took part in the assassination. The reason it has been believed for only 400 years is that it appears in no historical record prior to Shakespeare inventing the phrase for his play. In fairness to Will, Suetonius records that Caesar’s last words were “You too, my child,” which is most likely where Shakespeare took his slightly altered phrase from. Plutarch, however, records that Caesar actually said nothing as he was being attacked; he simply pulled his toga over his head trying to protect himself as he was being stabbed multiple times. Since famous figures, like the rest of us, rarely leave the world with an eloquent speech, Plutarch’s account seems the most probable.

3. Caesar was Rome’s first emperor. This myth is an understandable misconception, as the Roman emperors all took the title of “Caesar” until the end of the empire, but Julius Caesar was never emperor of Rome. He was first a consul and the dictator for life, but at the time of his death Rome was still a republic. It was not until Augustus consolidated power following Julius Caesar’s death that Rome officially became an empire and Augustus its first emperor.

4. The Caesarian section was named after Julius Caesar. Contrary to popular myth, Julius Caesar was not delivered by Caesarian section, and the procedure is not named after him. First, the procedure is recorded even before Caesar’s lifetime; more importantly, it was only performed in an attempt to save the child when the mother had died or was clearly dying during childbirth. Historians record that Caesar’s mother not only survived but was still alive until at least his invasion of Britain, and thus the procedure would not have been used.

5. The Caesar Salad was named after Julius Caesar because he invented it. I’m throwing this one in just for fun, as it should be obvious that he did not invent the salad that bears the same name, and it’s actually not named after him either. The famous salad was actually first created by Italian restauranteur Caesar (also known as Cesar) Cardini at his Tijuana, Mexico restaurant in 1924. A rush of customers on July 4, 1924, severely diminished the supplies in his kitchen, so the ingenious Caesar decided to use what he had on hand: lettuce, eggs, garlic, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, and lemon juice. A fine salad to be sure, but with no connection to the famous Roman.

That’s five myths about Julius Caesar set straight for the next time you encounter them on an exam or during trivia night at the local bar. Have a great day.

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About the author

Paul Combs

I’m a writer, podcaster, and bookseller whose ultimate goal (besides being a roadie for the E Street Band) is to make reading, writing, and books in general as popular in Texas as high school football. It may take a while.

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