“A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March”

By Emily Petermann, Library Assistant

If your name is Gaius Julius Caesar (and it’s 44 BC…and you’re the tyrant of Rome) you may want to stay home today. For everyone else—are you ready for the Ides of March?

The Ides is the 13th or 15th day of the month in the Roman calendar. It is the third of three named days in the Roman month: the first is the kalends, or first of each month, and the second is the nones, the 5th or 7th day of each month. The Ides of March is a particularly famous Ides—it’s the day the tyrant died. On thisday in 44 BC Julius Caesar was assassinated by 22 Roman senators. You may know his final words—according to Shakespeare—as “et tu, Brute?” or “and you, Brutus?”

To celebrate this year’s Ides, I decided to look through our holdings for Caesar and for Latin related items.

The first item that drew my attention was this 1826 volume of Shakespeare’s Works, which has some beautiful engravings. The engraving pictured below appears at the beginning of the play Julius Caesar and depicts that fateful Ides in 44 BC.

Image of a page from a book. There is a name at the top of the page and text at the bottom. In the middle is a black and white image of several standing male figures and one person lying on the ground.
The grisly final moments of Caesar, taken from this 1826 edition of “The dramatic works of William Shakespeare,” published by C. Whittingham. This volume is from our Dowse Library, which you can read more about here!

We also hold quite a few non-Shakespearean works related to Julius Caesar. The most relevant is written by Caesar himself: the MHS holds a few editions of his work Hoc uolumine continentur haec. [C. Iulij Caesaris] Commentariorum de bello Gallico...”  The title translates to “These chapters contain G. Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War…” This volume is Caesar’s account of multiple wars that he was involved in, with the most famous being the Gallic War.

Color image of a book spine and the hand holding it. There are book shelves in the background.
A small edition of Caesar’s “Commentaries,” published by the Aldine Press in 1519. This book is the perfect size to hold in your hand!

Pictured above is an edition of Caesar’s work published by the Aldine Press, a company started by Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer responsible for creating the italic typeface. Manutius also notably put out small and affordable editions of Latin and Greek texts, like our copy of Caesar’s work, which is the perfect size to hold in your hand.[i] Open this copy of “Commentariorum de bello Gallico…” and you can use the map of part of Western Europe to follow Caesar’s campaign through Gaul as you read!  

Image of a book open to a map that spans both pages.
A map of ‘Gaul’ printed in 1519.

We also hold quite a few (55!) Latin primers and readers: books intended to teach Latin to students. Quite a few of them claim to teach in new and innovative ways. I’ve taken several years of Latin, so I’m always looking for “new” ways to learn the language. My favorite of the primers is titled “A Demonstration How the Latine Tongue May be Learnt With Far Greater Ease and speed then Commonly It Is.” This primer was published in London in 1669 by Arthur Brett. Brett begins his primer with a complaint that the “older” ways of teaching Latin negatively affected student’s health. He said of the old way: “Least pouring on hard Rules should crack their brains, impair their health, and make them to nauseate all kind of knowledg[sic].”

Image showing two pages of a pamphlet. Text fills both pages.
Pages 2 and 3 of Brett’s 6—page pamphlet on the ‘best’ way to learn Latin.

To the modern eye, Brett’s Latin is also likely to crack our brains – he expected students to know to write “What wouldst thou have” (“What would you like?” in 17th century English) as “Nihil moror quid objicis,” instead of the apparently obviously incorrect “Quid tibi vis?” (which he translates as “What wilt thou to thee?”) It took me a few passes to figure this sentence out, thanks to 354 years of language changing- I’m glad I wasn’t learning Latin from Mr. Brett!

Finally, I thought I would look for some familiar Latin phrases-like “et tu, Brute?”- in the collection. I was excited to find  a volume titled, “Adagiorum chiliades Desby Erasumes Desiderius, which contains Latin adages and explanations for those adages broken down by the century they were common in.

Image of a hand pulling an old book from a shelf. There are two similar books to the right.
The “Adiagorium” is a large volume, sitting on the shelf. Unlike Caesar’s “Commentarium” this is a two-handed sort of book

One of my favorites from this collection is “Elephantum ex musca facis” or “you are making an elephant out of a fly.” This adage sounds a lot like our contemporary phrase, “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill!”

If you’re not supposed to stay inside today (looking at you, Caesar), consider visiting the Reading Room to check out some of our materials on Caesar and the Latin language. You can find out more about visiting the Reading Room here, and can request an appointment here.

[i] Kuiper, Kathleen, “Aldus Manutius” in Encyclopedia Brittanica, updated Feb. 2, 2023.