If Not For the Swimming Prowess of Julius Caesar, There Would Be No Ides of March
If Not For His Swimming Prowess, Julius Caesar Would Not Have Lived to the Ides of March
“Beware The Ides of March!” Had Julius Caesar not been a strong swimmer, we would never know the term – he would have died in 48 BCE and never lived to die on the Ides of March in 45 BCE.
It is from the historian and biographer, Plutarch, that we know of a famous swimming feat from ancient Rome. The year was 48 B.C.E., during the great Roman Civil War. Julius Caesar had just defeated his rival, Pompey, in Greece, and Pompey had escaped to Alexandria with his family and entourage to seek asylum. But Caesar followed and landed in Egypt a few days later. When he arrived, Caesar was greeted by the Egyptian king Ptolemy XIII, who presented him with Pompey’s head. Ptolemy had expected Caesar to be pleased and hoped to win the Caesar’s support in his own dispute with his sister, Cleopatra, whom he had driven into exile.
But according to Plutarch, it had the opposite effect. When shown Pompey’s head, Caesar turned away and wept, for Caesar and Pompey had been closer than most friends. As consuls, they had ruled Rome together and in 59 B.C.E. Pompey had married Caesar’s only legitimate daughter, Julia. When she died during childbirth four years later, Caesar and Pompey had grieved together. Caesar never wished Pompey dead, but had hoped to rehabilitate their friendship and it was a distraught Caesar who consoled Pompey’s wife and children and won over the favor of his army by granting them all clemency.
When Caesar first met Cleopatra he was captivated by her beauty and intelligence. Although he was 52 years old and she only 21, they became lovers. Ptolemy was imprisoned and Cleopatra, backed by Caesar’s small army, was declared sole ruler of Egypt. This upset Ptolemy’s generals and they marched on Alexandria. With Egyptian ships blocking the harbor, and greatly outnumbered, Caesar had little choice but to prepare for a siege until Roman legions from nearby Syria and Greece could come to his aide.
In an effort to break the siege, Caesar prepared 30 of his ships for an attack on Pharos, the island fortress that controlled ingress and egress to the port and contained the great Alexandria lighthouse. Control of the island was essential if Caesar was to get reinforcements and supplies by sea. According to Plutarch, Caesar was watching from land as the ships clashed and then, he tried to go to the aide of his men in their struggle in a small boat. “But the Egyptians sailed up against him from every side, so that he threw himself into the sea and with great difficulty escaped by swimming. At this time, too, it is said that he was holding many papers in his hand and would not let them go, though missiles were flying at him and he was immersed in the sea. He held the papers above water with one hand and swam with the other; his little boat had been sunk at the outset.”
Some months later, reinforcements arrived. Caesar defeated Ptolemy’s army and subjugated Egypt under Roman rule. Cleopatra became his mistress and gave birth to his son, Ptolemy Caesar, and she returned to Rome with him, which caused quite a scandal, as he was married to someone else. So it was that because of swimming, Caesar survived to meet his fate on the Ides of March in 45 B.C.E. Had he not known how to swim, the history of the world might be quite different today.