Back in the good old days, before 44 B.C., the Romans considered the Ides of March to simply mean March 15th – the date of the full moon. But on March 15, 44 B.C., Julius Caesar was assassinated, fulfilling the prophecies of the soothsayers who had warned him that he would be killed before the Ides of March and forever changing Roman society.
The suspected reasons for Caesar’s assassination are complex and varied, but most historians agree that his vanity and self-importance didn’t help him any. Romans weren’t fond of kings – they ousted their last king in 509 B.C. and set up a republican government with two consuls, a judicial system and a senate. The position of Dictator was reserved for use only during times of unrest. However, Caesar made himself “Dictator for Life” in February of 44 B.C. Prior to the position, Caesar had become somewhat full of himself and his power. He appointed his buddies to the Senate and renamed monuments to honor himself. And, according to Josiah Osgood, assistant professor of classics at Georgetown University, “Caesar was the first living Roman ever to appear on the coinage. Normally, the honor was reserved for deities.” (1)
Coins are like tiny little bits of signage – they communicate a lot of information with just a few words and symbols. In addition to denoting a particular monetary value, they give information about the culture and society in which they’re distributed. In the United States, coins typically have the profile of a historical figure on the front. When you look at the profile of Abraham Lincoln on the penny the image might evoke thoughts of the Gettysburg Address, or of Lincoln’s humble beginnings in his childhood log cabin home. The symbols on coins tell a story – one that helps us identify with our country. It’s appropriate to have Lincoln’s likeness on a coin, since he had a great impact on our history, but it’s also important to note that he didn’t appear on the U.S. penny until 1909 – more than 40 years after his death.
By putting his face on Roman coins while he was still alive and in control of Rome, Caesar was communicating that he was the man in power – a fact that his enemies did not appreciate. When they saw the coins with Caesar’s face, they imagined stories of a power-hungry dictator who was determined to promote his own fame and fortune.
After the death of Caesar, his assassins minted a new coin. In the middle, it features a hat commonly worn by freed slaves. On either side of the hat, downward-pointing daggers, and underneath, the words “EID MAR” (The Ides of March). On the front of the coin, a picture of Marcus Brutus, the mastermind behind Caesar’s assassination. This coin tells the story of Brutus, “the noblest Roman” and his role in freeing the people of Rome from the power-hungry dictator Caesar.
Since tomorrow is the Ides of March, here are a few lessons you can learn from Julius Caesar. First, don’t become a power-hungry dictator. Second, be careful when using signage. Make sure you’re telling a story that conjures images your constituents will like. A banner featuring your face and proclaiming “I’m the Owner of this Awesome Store!” evokes stories of a self-centered, egotistical business person. You might do better with “Come browse our great selection of 50% off sale items!” A sign like that tells your customers the story that you’re looking out for them – you’re the Brutus of retail – freeing shoppers everywhere from the drudgery of full-priced merchandise.
(1) National Geographic News. “Ides of March Marked Murder of Julius Caesar.” March 12, 2004.