“Beware the Ides of March!” It’s a phrase embedded into our culture more deeply than “Remember the Alamo!” But what does it mean? Should we be wary of the “Ides,” whatever they are?
What Are The “Ides of March” Exactly?
Anyone who studied Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare’s tragic play about the assassination of the Roman dictator, knows the origin of “Beware the Ides of March!” well enough. It was the warning an old seer woman gave Caesar, and one he would have done well to heed. But before we get to that, let’s clarify what the “Ides” even are.
In simplest terms, the “Ides of March” refers to March 15th. But the day had greater significance than just a random date.
Though our modern calendar is a direct descendant of the ancient Roman calendar, there were also many differences. For one thing, while we number the days of each month sequentially, from one to 30 or 31 (or 28 or 29, in the case of February), the Romans, who always loved a party, counted backward to the next festival. Their calendar was literally a series of countdowns.
These countdowns moved toward one of three fixed points in each month: the Nones, which fell on the 5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month (March, May, July, and October were the longest months); the Ides on the 13th or 15th; and the Kalends, which began the following month. So the Roman calendar didn’t have March 1 or April 5, but rather “five days until the Ides of June” or “ten days until the Kalends of October.”
Although Rome had moved away from a strictly lunar calendar by the time of Julius Caesar, these special days aligned roughly with the phases of the Moon. The month started on Kalends with a New Moon, the Nones fell during its Quarter phase, and the Ides marked the full Moon.
Because of its association with the full Moon, the Ides was considered a holy day for the god Jupiter and set aside for feasting and sacrifice. This was especially true of the Ides of March, one of the highest holy days of the year, which was special, even before it went down in infamy, because of its status as the first full Moon of the year.
Yes, you read that right. During Roman times, the first full Moon of the year occurred in March. And no, there weren’t fewer full Moons back then. The Ides of March was the first because March used to be considered the first month of the New Year.
The Old Calendar
Have you ever noticed that the last four months of the year have numbers in their names? September, October, November, and December come from the Latin words seven, eight, nine, and ten. But those names don’t make much sense when you consider that they are the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the year. When you shift the beginning of the year from January to March, though, those names suddenly make perfect sense.
Julius Caesar and the Prophecy
As Emperor of Rome and spiritual head of the Empire, Julius Caesar would have naturally been expected to participate in the public festivities during this important day, despite the seer’s prophecy to “Beware the Ides of March.” Even though his wife, Calphurnia, prompted by troubled prophetic dreams of her own, also implored her husband to stay home, Caesar would not be swayed.
In fact, the historian Plutarch wrote that Caesar was defiant in the face of such admonitions, boasting to the seer moments before his death that the Ides of March had come and her prophecy had not been fulfilled. To this, the seer replied, “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”
When Caesar arrived at the Theater of Pompey, where the Roman Senate met, he was stabbed to death by a group of more than 60 conspirators led by the senators Brutus and Cassius, former friends turned enemies in the face of the Emperor’s unchecked ambition. “Et tu, Brute?” indeed …
That the conspirators chose the Ides of March to enact their plot was no coincidence. Not only was it a day when they could count on having access to the Emperor, but the religious implications of the day would also have been at the forefront of their minds. By killing their leader on a day of sacrifice, the conspirators were sending a message that their leader’s blood was an offering to the gods, shed for the continued prosperity of their nation.
As March 15th approaches, you may be wondering if you should “Beware the Ides of March.” Unless you’re a Roman Emperor, though, chances are your biggest worry isn’t whether you’ll become a sacrificial lamb, but simply whether March will exit like one.
Main photo: “The Ides of March,” Artist Carl von Piloty 1894. Wikimedia Commons public domain.