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Beware the Ides of March – But Why?

Is March 15 really unlucky? Not unless you are Julius Caesar.

By:  |  March 15, 2022  |    918 Words
ides of march

Members of the Roman Historical Group take part in a re-enactment of the Ides of March in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Alessandra Benedetti – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s the Ides of March – also known as March 15. This date is often seen as a bad omen – but why should we “beware the Ides of March”? And what are “Ides,” anyway?

The Roman Calendar

In the ancient Roman Republic, the Ides occurred every month. Today’s Gregorian calendar wasn’t invented until the 1500s, so time was marked differently in ancient societies.

In Rome, each month was divided into thirds: The Kalends were the first day of the month, the Nones were the 5th or 7th day, and the Ides marked the middle of the month, on either the 13th or 15th day. The Romans didn’t use a number for each day of the month like we do today; they would count backward from each marker. For example, the 3rd day of the month would be called “two days before the Nones.”

New Year Festivals

While every month contained Kalends, Nones, and Ides, the Ides of March were special because they marked the first full moon of the Roman new year. Martius (March) was the first month of the new year. The Ides were supposed to match the full moon each month, and the Kalends were supposed to correspond with the new moon, but the length of the calendar didn’t match the lunar cycle, so the dates gradually got out of alignment.

The Romans would celebrate the new year from the Kalends until the Ides of March, when the celebration of the god Jupiter would take place. The goddess Anna Perenna also had a festival on the date. Her celebration was popular among the commoners, and it’s said they would make an offering to her so “that the circle of the year may be completed happily.”

It’s thought the festival Mamuralia also occurred on March 15. It celebrated Mamurius Veturius, who was said to be the artisan who made the shields that hung in the temple of Mars, the god of war.

The Ides of March was a special time in ancient Rome, but why should we beware of this date?

The submission of Gallic warrior Vercingetorix to Caesar. Painting by Lionel Noel Royer (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

March 15 gets its bad reputation due to an event that happened on that day. It was the date Julius Caesar was killed.

Caesar, a general and politician, had taken control as the dictator of Rome. He had been away, conquering lands in Gaul (France and Germany). He was a powerful figure, but he had political enemies in Rome, including a man named Pompey. When his campaign to conquer Gaul ended, the senate ordered Caesar to return to Rome and give up his military command. He defied the order and marched his army to the city. This began Caesar’s Civil War – he defeated Pompey’s army and was named dictator of the Republic. Apart from Pompey’s supporters, Caesar pardoned his opponents.

The dictator never managed to have himself crowned emperor of Rome, but his enemies in the senate thought he was gaining too much power and becoming a tyrant. So, they hatched a plan to assassinate him. Caesar was called to the senate, but when he arrived, he was stabbed and killed by a group of around 60 senators, including one of his greatest friends, Marcus Brutus.

The death of Caesar brought about the end of the Roman Republic and the birth of the Roman Empire.

Shakespeare’s Contribution

Caesar was assassinated on March 15, in the year 44 BC, but it was not until much later that the phrase “beware the Ides of March” became popular. English playwright William Shakespeare wrote the line in his play Julius Caesar, which was first performed in 1599.

caesar GettyImages-624465782

Soothsayer warning Julius Caesar of the Ides of March – the day on which he was assassinated. Illustration for “Julius Caesar” from an edition of Shakespeare’s works, 1858. Wood engraving. (Photo by: Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The play tells the story of the conspiracy to kill Caesar. A fortune teller warns Caesar about his fate, but the dictator ignores it. The scene goes:

Soothsayer: Caesar!

Caesar: Ha! who calls?

Casca: Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me?

I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,

Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: What man is that?

Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

Caesar: Set him before me; let me see his face.

Cassius: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

Caesar: What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

Caesar: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.

The other characters in the scene – Cassius, Casca, and Brutus – are all part of the plot to kill Caesar.

A Legacy of Doom

Funnily enough, Caesar replaced the Roman Calendar with a new Julian calendar during his time as dictator. This calendar moved the new year from the Ides of March to the first of January.

These days, the Ides of March is still a phrase that means doom. It gives a sense that something unlucky will happen. But do we really need to beware of this date? Probably not – unless you are an ancient Roman dictator, you are probably safe this March 15.

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