You’ve probably heard the old (and very cryptic) phrase “beware of the Ides of March”. But you would be forgiven if you didn’t know why we should be on our guard on this date. As the story goes, the meaning of the mysterious warning lies in the real history of Ancient Rome. And fictional history of the Elizabethan era in England.
But what are the ides, and why does each March become especially dangerous? To answer this question, we need only turn to the historical figures William Shakespeare and Julius Caesar. And dig a little.
What are the Ides of March?
In ancient Rome, the term “ides” was used as a designation of time in the monthly calendar. At a time when the use of lunar calendars was still popular, the moon and its phases were essential to mark the passage of time. Months began at the time of the new moon. As a result, several terms have appeared for different parts of the month.
Kalends were the first day of the month. By the way, this is how we get the word “calendar”.
Nones – originally they corresponded to the first quarter of the moon. And usually fell on the seventh days in March, May, July and October. And also on the fifth days of other months.
Ides – originally had to correspond to the full moon. This date fell on the 15th in March, May, July and October. And on the 13th for the rest of the months.
So, when we talk about the “Ides of March”, we are referring to one specific day: March 15th. But there is a much bigger story behind this date. And this is not just a point on the calendar.
March used to celebrate the New Year
In addition to the consequences, which we will discuss in a moment, the Ides of March were of great importance to the ancient Romans. For a variety of reasons. There are many holidays in March. But to understand why, it’s important to remember that the calendars of the ancient world were very different from those we use today.
For most of ancient history, March was considered the first month of the new year. Until this was changed to January around 153 B.C.
Calendars as we know them today have gone through many changes. Especially during the time of Julius Caesar. A well-known Roman ruler himself became the initiator of these changes. Eventually developing the Julian calendar. Later named in his honor and widely used.
For help, Caesar turned to astronomers. Who advised him to abandon the lunar cycle and instead base the calendar on the solar year.
What is the significance of the Ides of March?
The Ides of March was traditionally a sacred day when the Romans celebrated and honored an ancient goddess named Anna Perenna. She was mentioned both in the ancient works of Ovid and Virgil. And it was associated with life, health, spring and the New Year.
Her name, Perenna, comes from the Latin “per annum”, which means “every year”. She personified the circular or cyclical nature of the year and its new beginning. Hence its connection with the pre-Julian beginning of the year. And since the new year was celebrated in March, Perenna’s day was celebrated every March 15th.
Some sources indicate that March 15 was also known as the day to pay off old debts. Kind of like March 1st is known as the day we have to pay taxes.
Shakespeare’s Warning: “Beware of the Ides of March”
This phrase is taken from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In the play, a mysterious soothsayer tells Caesar to “beware of the Ides of March.” As a warning of impending murder. Which, in real life, actually happened on March 15th.
But is there a historical basis for the story told by Shakespeare? Numerous Roman sources, including Suetonius, Plutarch, Cicero, and Valerius Maximus, show that an Etruscan soothsayer named Spurinna did indeed warn Caesar of impending danger.
However, he was not as specific as Shakespeare’s famous line might lead us to believe. In fact, he warned Caesar about the danger in the days before the Ides. Which is still pretty impressive.
Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC. sixty senators. Who took turns slaughtering him. The assassins acted on the hatred that simmered between Caesar and the Senate. The Senate was afraid that Caesar was going to overthrow them. Crown himself and turn the republic into an empire ruled solely by himself.
This is why the date of Caesar’s assassination is still considered an unlucky day for those of us who are relatively superstitious. When it comes every year.
Consequences of Caesar’s assassination
Although the idea of killing Caesar was to protect the Roman Republic. Ironically, everything ended exactly the opposite. This backfired in the form of two civil wars. Because some sided with potential liberators. And others took the side of the new potential rulers, Mark Antony and Octavian (aka Augustus). Who was the great-nephew and successor of Caesar.
In the end, the liberators who favored the old republican system were defeated. Which more or less marked the end of the Roman Republic.
In the end, instead of fighting, Mark Antony and Augustus decided to divide the kingdom between themselves. Which would mark the transition of Rome from a republic to an empire.
Of these two, Augustus undoubtedly became the central power of the Roman Empire. And eventually crowned himself its emperor. He was widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman emperors of all time. And the imperial system of government he developed lasted until 476 AD.
Four years after Caesar’s death, the slain ruler had the last laugh. When Augustus executed 300 senators, some of whom, like Decimus Brutus, participated in the betrayal and assassination of Caesar.
To this day, the Ides of March are still considered unlucky due to Caesar’s death. And the sinister charm that Shakespeare undoubtedly instilled in them. But at least they never fall on Friday the 13th.