The Political Animal

Human History as Natural History

Beware the Ides of February!

Hairy Family Values

It was snowing last week in Rome. The pope made an appearance at St Peter's in a white coat, and the Colosseum was closed. But in Italy, the middle of February is usually the beginning of spring. A nice time for fertility rites.

Once upon a time, Romulus and Remus -- twin sons exposed and left to die in the Italian wilderness, who were suckled and brought up by a she wolf -- founded the city of Rome. And for centuries after that, the Romans had a party on the Ides of February. They called it the Lupercalia -- from calidus, or hot, and lupus, or wolf. Happiness is a warm puppy, they thought.

Anyway, every year at the Lupercalia, small mammals were sacrificed to fertility gods, and the best men in Rome ran naked through the streets beating women with strips of shaggy hide. That was supposed to promote pregnancies, and guarantee easy deliveries. "Let the sacred he goat pierce the Italian wives!" people said.

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But one February, just a generation before our era began, when Mark Antony streaked through the streets he ran off course. His friend, Julius Caesar, was up on his gold throne in his purple toga, and Antony tried to put a laurel wreath on his head -- 3 times. Cicero, who was not a fan of monarchy, remembered how it all went down. "Drunk, naked and anointed," Antony had offered Caesar a crown. "You mount up, you approach the chair -- as if you were Lupercus, yet you should have remembered that you were a magistrate too -- you display a diadem. There is a groan all over the Forum."

A month later, on the Ides of March, Caesar was mobbed by his friends in the senate.  They left him with 23 wounds. Marcus Brutus, who was one of his attackers, hit him in his chest -- or his groin.  He had personal reasons. There were rumors that Brutus' sister, Tertulla, had been "prostituted" to Caesar, in order to get a cut rate on an estate. And there were rumors that Brutus' mother, Servilia, had sent an "unchaste" note to Caesar in the senate -- intercepted by her brother Cato, who handed it back in disgust. So as Brutus was stabbing him between the legs, Caesar may have complained: "You too, my son?"

Those senators weren't the only ones to suspect that Caesar's ambition to monopolize power was connected to Caesar's ambition to monopolize sex.

More than a century after the Ides of March, Gaius Suetonius, who was an imperial secretary, called Caesar "every woman's man and every man's woman," and told a wonderful story about his last days.  He said that Helvius Cinna, who represented the commons, had a bill drawn up, "which Caesar had ordered him to propose to the people in his absence," making it legal for him to marry as many women as he liked -- explicitly for the purpose of begetting children.  And another century after Suetonius, the historian Cassius Dio more or less repeated that rumor. "Some actually ventured to suggest permitting him to have intercourse with as many women as he pleased, because even at this time, though 50 years old, he still had numerous mistresses."

All of which was remembered in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, over 1600 years later. It has Cinna, the poet, meet up with a few citizens in the street soon after the Ides of March. "Wisely I say, I am a bachelor," Cinna tells them. And one of the citizens answers: "That's as much as to say, they are fools that marry; you'll bear me a bang for that, I fear."  So happiness became a warm gun.

Evidently, "Caesar" means "hairy." It was a family trait. Julius Caesar, who was otherwise fuzzy, wore a combover. "Home we bring our bald whoremonger: Romans, lock your wives away!" his proud soldiers would say. Mallonia -- an otherwise unknown woman of rank -- is supposed to have stabbed herself to death, rather than give in to "that filthy mouthed, hairy, stinking old man," Tiberius Caesar. And Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula, was hirsute, but made it a capital offense to mention goats in any context.

Even before there were Tsars, Kaisers or Caesars, and long before the Ides of March, hairy mammals were struck down for their sexual prowess.  Extraordinarily sexy macaques, baboons, bonobos? and common chimps were confronted by the reproductively suppressed -- and cut where it hurt most.

These days, we have Valentines on February 14th. This year, roughly 180 million cards will be sent, and an estimated 196 million roses bought. There will be candy, there will be dinners out. The average consumer will spend over $100 on a valentine. And it won't all come from the same man.

These days, the Ides of February are fun for most women -- and most men!  Which is a good thing. Happy Valentine's Day, sweeties. Enjoy the chocolates and Thai food, and remember to play nice.

 

 

Laura Betzig, Ph.D., is a Darwinian historian at work on her fourth book, The Badge of Lost Innocence: A History of the West.

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