This is one of the most famous prophecies in literature (and history). It was said by a soothsayer to the great Julius Caesar – Dictator Perpetuo (“dictator in perpetuity”).
The Ides of March (Idus Martiae) refer to a date, specifically March 15. The ancient Romans did not number the days of the month but instead referred to three specific dates within a month. The Ides referred to the middle of the month.
The Ides of March have become an infamous date due to an event that changed the course of Roman history – the assassination of Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar became the sole leader of the Roman Republic after a great civil war. There was much dissent from the senate, who had lost much of their power through Caesar’s uprising. On March 15, 44BC, Brutus (Caesar’s adopted son) and members of the senate conspired to assassinate Caesar to end his rule.
In William Shakespeare’s eponymous play, it is said that Caesar passed the soothsayer who had warned him of this day and said to him: “The Ides of March are come”, mocking the failed prophecy. The seer simply replied: “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”
Not long after, Caesar was ambushed by 60 men led by Brutus and was stabbed multiple times to his death. With his dying breath, he uttered: “Et tu, Brute?” – meaning “You too, Brutus?”, showing his despair at the betrayal by his own son.
The Ides of March was traditionally the date when Romans would settle their debt. Perhaps Brutus, who had actually fought against his father in the civil war but then forgiven by Caesar, chose this date to symbolise settling the political tension of the time – to liberate Rome from Caesar’s monarchy.
Ironically, the assassination triggered a series of events that led to another civil war, ultimately causing the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, led by Caesar’s other adopted heir, Octavian (later known as Augustus). Augustus proceeded to round up 300 conspirators complicit in the murder of Caesar and executed them as a tribute to the now deified Caesar – Divus Julius.
Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus (ancient Greek/Persian state located in modern day Turkey), had a paranoia that there were people who wanted to assassinate him through poison. This likely stemmed from his father being poisoned by his mother (reportedly), who favoured his brother over Mithridates as the heir to the throne. He noticed in his youth that the meals brought to him induced stomach pains. He connected the dots and deduced that his mother was trying to poison him slowly so that his brother would become the next king. He fled to the wilderness and devised a plan to protect himself. It is said that he began taking a concoction of various poisons in non-lethal doses every day, to develop an immunity to the most common poisons available during his time. This led to the idea of mithridatism – the gradual self-administration of non-lethal doses of poison to develop immunity. Ironically, Mithridates’ plan backfired eventually when he attempted suicide by poison after a massive defeat against Rome. He found that the poison had no effect on him and had to request his bodyguard to kill him by sword.
Mithridatism has been recorded or suspected in various times of history. Indian epics tell the story of the king Chandragupta Maurya – the first king to unite India – who selected a group of beautiful girls and raised them in the palace. He gave the order to administer small amounts of poison to these girls as they grew up, making them invulnerable to toxins. He called these girls vishakanyas(poison maiden) and believed that they could be used as assassins who could kill men through the act of sex. There are suggestions that Rasputin was also a practitioner of mithridatism and that this was why he survived an assassination attempt involving poison, but there is not much evidence for this. The practice of mithridatism is also mentioned in various fictions, such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Princess Bride.
The concept of taking small doses of something to build up an immunity is still used in modern medicine. Desensitisation therapy is used to treat certain allergies, by exposing the body to small doses of the allergen. It is well-known that alcoholics and drug addicts required more substance to achieve the same effect as most people because they develop tolerance to it. There is some evidence that mithridatism is an effective way to build immunity to venomous snake bites. However, not all poisonings can be avoided with mithridatism. Poisons such as cyanide pass through the system too quickly to create any tolerance, while heavy metals simply build up in the body to create a toxic effect after a history of exposure.