As the two tribunes approached the forum they found that the crowd had become impossible to disperse. All they could do was join them and watch as some of Rome’s most famous and powerful people swept into the square. At the centre of them was Julius Caesar himself and his wife Calphurnia. Caesar’s friend, Mark Antony, was at his side, stripped down like an athlete. Some of the other, almost equally famous people, surrounded them. Brutus and his wife Portia were among them. Cassius was there, and Casca and Decius too.
Caesar was tall and stiff. He stopped and turned majestically to his wife. ‘Calphurnia,’ he said.
Casca gestured to the crowd. ‘Quiet, there,’ he shouted. ‘Caesar is speaking.’
‘Calphurnia,’ Caesar said again.
‘Here my lord,’ she said and moved closer to him.
‘Stand directly in Antonius’ way as he runs in the race.’ He turned his head stiffly. ‘Antonius.’
Antony smiled. ‘Caesar?’ he said. ‘My lord?’
‘Don’t forget in your haste, Antonius, to touch Calphurnia as you run past her. Tradition tells us that barren women who are touched by a runner in this holy race become fertile.’
‘I’ll remember,’ said Antony. ‘When Caesar says do something it’s done.’
Caesar raised his arm. ‘Begin,’ he said, ‘and don’t leave anything out of the ceremony.’
The band began to play and they all started walking. An old man with a long beard called out from the crowd. ‘Caesar!’
Caesar stopped and turned to look at the faces around him. ‘Ha,’ he said. ‘Who called me?’
Casca shouted at the crowd again. ‘All be quiet. Again, quiet!’ The band stopped playing and the noise subsided.
‘Who is it that called me from the crowd?’ said Caesar. ‘I heard a high voice, higher than all the music, cry out ‘Caesar’. Speak. Caesar is turned to hear.’
The old man took a step forward. ‘Beware the ides of March,’ he said in his high-pitched voice.
Caesar took in the man’s scruffy appearance and turned up his nose. ‘Who’s that?’ he said.
Brutus was at Caesar’s side now. ‘It’s a fortune-teller, a soothsayer, telling you to beware the ides of March.
‘Bring him here,’ said Caesar. ‘Let me look at his face.’
Cassius gripped the man’s arm. ‘Come on, old man, come out of the crowd and face Caesar.’ He pulled the man, who shuffled out and stood before Caesar.
Caesar looked down at him. ‘What did you say to me? Say it again.’
The old man looked up at Caesar’s face. ‘Beware the ides of March,’ he said.
Caesar looked thoughtful for a moment then shrugged. ‘He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Move on.’
The band started up again and they walked on, towards the street that led to the stadium.
Two of the senators, Brutus and Cassius, hung back.
‘Aren’t you going to watch the race?’ said Cassius.
‘No,’ said Brutus.
‘Oh please do,’ said Cassius.
‘I’m not sporty,’ said Brutus. ‘I’m not like Antony. I don’t have that interest. But don’t let me stop you, Cassius. I’ll leave you to it.’
Cassius made no move to go. They stood for a moment then Cassius spoke. ‘Brutus, I’ve been watching you lately. You’ve changed towards me. I don’t see that friendliness in your eyes that I used to. You’ve become too remote from this close friend of yours.’
Brutus frowned. ‘You’re mistaken, Cassius,’ he said. ‘If I have veiled my look it’s because I’m preoccupied. I’ve been troubled lately with some thoughts that concern only myself. Maybe that’s affecting my behaviour. But I hope my good friends, among which you’re one, won’t be upset, nor put any construction on it other than that I’m at war with myself and that perhaps makes me seem as though I don’t value them.’
‘Then Brutus, I’ve mistaken it. And for that reason I’ve not shared some concerns that I have. Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?’
Brutus laughed. ‘Of course not, Cassius: for the eye can’t see itself except by reflection off something else.’
‘That’s true,’ said Cassius. And it’s a great pity that you don’t have the kind of mirrors that could make you see your hidden merit. I have heard that some of the highest regarded men in Rome, apart from the immortal Caesar, speaking of Brutus, and groaning under the burden of our time, have wished that you could see better.’
Brutus said nothing for a moment, then: ‘What dangers are you trying to lead me into, Cassius, that you want me to find something in myself that’s not in me?’
‘Alright, then, good Brutus,’ said Cassius, ‘be prepared to listen. And since you know that you can’t see yourself without some reflection, I will be your mirror and reveal to you something about yourself that you don’t know. And don’t be suspicious of me, gentle Brutus. If I were a buffoon or told everyone that he was my friend, or if you think I fawn over people, befriend them and then tell lies about them, or if you think that I throw myself around and claim friendship with anyone and everyone when I’m drinking, then think of me as dangerous.’
There was a sudden trumpet flourish and cheering coming from the stadium.
‘What does that shouting mean?’ said Brutus. ‘I really fear that the people are choosing Caesar as their king.’
‘Yes, do you fear it?’ said Cassius sharply. ‘Then I must conclude that you don’t want that.’
‘I don’t, Cassius, although I love him well. But why are you keeping me here for such a long time? What is it that you want to tell me? If it’s anything beneficial to the general welfare, whatever it is, good news or bad, I’ll look on either impartially. Let the gods prosper me in that I love honour more than I fear death.’
‘I know that about you, Brutus,’ said Cassius. ‘Just as well as I know your outward appearance. Well, honour is the subject of my story. I can’t tell what you and other men think about this life, but as for myself I’d rather not exist than live in awe of someone no greater than I am. I was born as free as Caesar and so were you. We have both eaten as well as he has and we can both endure the winter’s cold as well as he can. Once, on a raw and gusty day, when the whipped up Tiber was beating on her banks, Caesar said to me: “Cassius, do you dare to jump into this angry flood with me and swim to that point over there?” Immediately, fully dressed, I plunged in and beckoned him to follow: so indeed he did. The torrent roared and we fought against it with youthful muscles, throwing the water aside, breasting it in rivalry. But before we could arrive at the proposed point Caesar cried out, “Help me Cassius or I’ll drown”. I, like our great ancestor, Aeneas, who carried the old Anchises from the flames of Troy on his shoulders, carried the exhausted Caesar from the Tiber.’
Cassius paused. He was almost overwhelmed by emotion. Then he spun round and he faced Brutus squarely. ‘And this man!’ he said bitterly, ‘has now become a god. And Cassius is a wretched creature and has to bend and scrape if Caesar just nods carelessly at him. He had a fever when he was in Spain and when it was at its worst I saw how he shook. It’s true: this god did shake. His coward’s lips lost their colour, and that same eye whose glance awes the world lost its lustre. I heard him groan. Yes, that tongue of his, that told the Romans to take notice of him and record his speeches, “Alas,” that tongue cried, “Give me something to drink Titinius,” like a sick girl. Ye gods! It amazes me that a man of such a feeble disposition should outdo all the majestic Roman world and take all the honour for himself.’
There was another cheer from the stadium and more fanfares.
Brutus shook his head. ‘More cheering? I really do believe that this applause is for some new honours that are being heaped on Caesar.’
‘You see?’ said Cassius. ‘He straddles the world like a Colossus, and we mere men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find dishonourable graves for ourselves.’
The two senators stood for a moment, each deep in his thoughts. Then Cassius spoke again. ‘Men can ultimately be masters of their own fates,’ he said. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not written in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings. Brutus and Caesar. What is there in the name ‘Caesar’? Why should that name be spoken more than yours? Write them down together. Yours sounds just as good. Speak them, it suits the mouth just as well. Weigh them: it is just as heavy. Conjure with them. ‘Brutus’ will raise a ghost just as soon as ‘Caesar’. Now, in the name of all the gods put together, what food does our Caesar eat that he has become so great?’ He turned and walked away then raised his face up to the heavens. ‘This age, you are shamed,’ he said. ‘Rome, you have lost the breed of noble blood. When did any age go by since the great flood but that it was framed with more than one man? When could one say of Rome before now, that her wide streets contained only one man? Is this really Rome, and with enough room for us all, when there is only one man in it? Oh, we have both heard out fathers say that there was once a Brutus who would have put up with the absolute devil to keep Rome a republic.’
Brutus chose his words carefully and spoke at a measured pace. ‘That you love me I have no doubts. I think I understand what you are trying to work up to. What my thinking about this is, and all these matters about the present situation, I’ll tell you about at another time. For the time being, and I ask you to respect this, I don’t want to hear any more. I’ll consider what you’ve said. Anything else you want to say I will listen to with patience and find a time more suitable to listen and respond to such serious things. Until then, my noble friend, chew on this. Brutus would rather be a villager than think of himself as a son of Rome under the hard conditions that we are likely to see.’
Cassius’ eyes shone. ‘I am glad that my feeble words have produced this much passion from Brutus.’
‘The games are over and Caesar is coming back,’ said Brutus.
‘As they pass us, grab hold of Casca,’ said Cassius. ‘And in his sour way he will tell you anything important that may have happened.’
The dignitaries arrived at the forum.
‘I’ll do that,’ said Brutus. ‘But look at that, Cassius. Caesar looks angry, and all the others look like a frightened lot. Calphurnia is pale and Cicero looks shifty, like we have seen him in the Capitol when he has been crossed by some senators.’
‘Casca will tell us what it’s about,’ said Cassius.
Caesar saw the two and stopped. ‘Antonius’, he said.
Caesar began walking again and as he went he talked to his friend. ‘Let me have men around me who are fat,’ he said. ‘That Cassius over there has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.’
‘Don’t be afraid of him, Caesar,’ said Antony. ‘He’s not dangerous. He’s a noble Roman and well disposed towards you.’
Caesar snorted. ‘I wish he were fatter. But I don’t fear him. Yet if a Caesar could experience fear I do not know any man I would avoid more than that skinny Cassius. He reads a lot, he’s very observant and he looks right into the hearts of men. He doesn’t like plays, as you do, Antony. He doesn’t listen to music: he seldom smiles, and when he does it is as though he’s mocking himself, scorning the idea that he could be moved to smile at anything. Such men as he is can never be at ease when they see someone greater than themselves, and therefore they are dangerous.’
Caesar stopped himself then changed tack. ‘I’m only telling you what there is to be feared, not what I fear. For I am always Caesar. Come on my right side because this ear is deaf, and tell me what you think of him.’
Cassius and Brutus waited for their fellow senator, Casca, to pass them and when he did Brutus tugged at his cloak. Casca stopped. ‘You pulled at my cloak. Did you want to talk to me?’
Brutus nodded. ‘Yes Casca. Tell us what happened today that’s made Caesar look so sad.’
‘You were there, weren’t you?’ said Casca.
‘I wouldn’t have asked you if I had been there.’
‘Why, he was offered a crown, and being offered it, he pushed it aside with the back of his hand, like this.’ Casca demonstrated with a sweep of his arm. ‘And then the people started shouting.’
‘What was the second noise for?’
‘Why, for that too.’
‘They shouted three times,’ said Cassius. ‘What was the last cry for?’
‘Why, for that too.’
‘Was the crown offered to him three times?’ said Brutus.
‘Yes, indeed, it was,’ said Casca. ‘And he put it aside three times, each time less emphatically than the last: and at every pushing aside my honest neighbours shouted.’
‘Who offered him the crown?’ said Cassius.
‘Tell us exactly what happened,’ said Brutus.
‘I’ll be hanged if I can tell you what happened,’ said Casca. ‘It was mere foolery: I took no notice of it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown, and yet it wasn’t really a crown, it was one of those coronets: and as I said, he put it aside once: but for all that, to my mind he would have liked it. Then he offered it to him again, then he put it aside again, but to my mind he was very reluctant to keep his hands off it. And then he offered it the third time: he put it aside the third time, and still, as he refused it, the rabble were hooting and clapping their hands and throwing up their sweaty night-caps: and they gave out such a wave of stinking breath because Caesar refused the crown, that it almost choked Caesar: because he fainted and fell down at it. And for my own part, I dared not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.’
‘But wait,’ said Cassius. ‘What was that? Did Caesar faint?’
‘He fell down in the market-place and foamed at the mouth and was speechless.’
‘I think he has epilepsy,’ said Brutus.
‘No,’ said Cassius. ‘Caesar hasn’t got it but you and I, and honest Casca, we’ve all got epilepsy.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by that,’ said Casca, ‘but I’m sure Caesar fell down. If the rag-tag people didn’t clap him and hiss him according to how he pleased and displeased them, just as they do to the actors in the theatre, I am no true man.’
‘What did he say when he came to himself?’ said Brutus.
‘I swear, before he fell down, when he saw that the common herd was glad he had refused the crown, he pulled open his doublet and offered them his throat to cut. If I had been a workman I wouldn’t have believed a word of it, I’d sooner go to hell among the sinners. And so he fell. When he came to himself again he said if he had said or done anything amiss he hoped they would realise it was his infirmity. Three or four young women standing near me shouted, ‘Alas, good soul’, and forgave him with all their hearts. But we don’t have to take any notice of them: if Caesar had stabbed their mothers they would have done no less.’
‘And after that he left sadly like that?’ said Brutus.
‘Did Cicero say anything?’
‘Yes, he spoke Greek.’
‘About what?’ said Cassius.
Casca laughed. ‘No, if I told you that I couldn’t ever look you in the face again. But those who understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads, but for my own part, it was Greek to me. And I’ve got more news. Marullus and Flavius have been condemned to death for pulling decorations off Caesar’s statues.’ He turned to go. ‘Goodbye. There was even more foolery if I could remember it.’
Cassius stopped him. ‘Will you dine with me tonight, Casca?’
‘No, I’ve got something on.’
‘Will you dine with me tomorrow?’
‘Yes, if I’m still alive, and your mind lasts, and your dinner’s worth eating.’
‘Good, I’ll expect you.’
‘Do that. Goodbye both.’
‘What a blunt fellow he’s become!’ exclaimed Brutus when Casca had left. ‘He was pretty sharp at school.’
Cassius caught Brutus’ eye and held it. ‘He still is when it comes to doing anything bold or noble. However, he puts on this stupid act. This rudeness is sauce to his intelligence and makes it easier to digest the things he’s saying.’
‘I’m sure that’s right,’ said Brutus. ‘Well, I’ll leave you for the present. Tomorrow, if you want to talk to me, I’ll come to your house or, if you’d rather, come to mine, and I’ll wait for you.’
‘I’ll do that,’ said Cassius. ‘Until then, think about the state of Rome.’
As Cassius walked home his mind raced. Brutus was noble. And yet his honourable mettle could nevertheless be worked on to bend it from its natural form. Noble minds should stick together because otherwise, who can be so firm that he couldn’t be seduced? Cassius knew that Caesar hated him but loved Brutus. If he were Brutus now and Brutus was him he wouldn’t be taken in by Caesar. He decided that he would employ people to throw some notes in through Brutus’ window as though they had come from several citizens. They would be flattering to Brutus, suggesting that he was held in great esteem by Rome, and they would all hint at Caesar’s ambition. After that Caesar had better watch his back because they were either going to shake him or endure worse times to come.