Beware the Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March

Thanks to Shakespeare the stark warning of the soothsayer, “Beware the ides of March,” means that people always remember March 15 and it is forever imbued with a sense of foreboding.

The Ides of March (Latin: Idus Martiae, Late Latin: Idus Martii) is a day on the Roman calendar that corresponds to 15 March. It was marked by several religious observances and became notorious as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

The death of Caesar on this day  made it a turning point in Roman history, as one of the events that marked the transition of the Republic  to the  Roman Empire.

Julius Caesar was a brilliant military general. He successfully conquered Gaul (France) and he twice invaded Britain (in 55 BC and 54 BC).

Julius Caesar was ordered by the Senate to give up control of the military. Caesar disobeyed the order and crossed the Rubicon river with his army. A civil war took place and Julius Caesar gained control of Rome.

He had enormous political power. As dictator, he could veto the Senate, he controlled the armies of Rome and he was the first Roman to be officially deified.

The assassination of Julius Caesar is one of the most notorious events in history. We are more  be familiar with a version of events in William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. But there are some facts  from five other sources of world’s most famous political murders. Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio and Nicolaus of Damascus, all wrote detailed accounts.

Julius Caesar suffered 23 stab wounds on the Ides of March but only one of them, the second stab wound he received to the breast, was fatal to the 55-year-old. Many of the estimated 60 conspirators were amateurs at murder. It takes sheer physical strength and a certain brutality to drive a dagger through a man’s flesh. Some of the stab wounds hit rib cage bone which made his death slow and painful.

The conspirators waited until Caesar took his seat in his golden chair for the tribunal of the Senate at Teatro di Pompeo, which meant, cunningly, that some were in a position to approach him from behind and stab him in the back.

Famously the murder was the result of much plotting, intrigue and betrayal.  Shakespeare’s famous quote “Et tu Brute” sums up the perfidy of his trusted friend Brutus, but the line from Carry on Cleo “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” is just as well known.

De bunking the myth of the date

The soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March,” ” did not necessarily evoke a dark mood—it was simply the standard way of saying “March 15.” The fanciful expression meant no more than merely another day of the year. Even in Shakespeare’s time, sixteen centuries later, audiences attending his play Julius Caesar wouldn’t have blinked twice upon hearing the date called the Ides.

The term Ides comes from the earliest Roman calendar, which is said to have been devised by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. Whether it was Romulus or not, the inventor of this calendar had a penchant for complexity. The Roman calendar organised its months around three days, each of which served as a reference point for counting the other days:

  • Kalends (1st day of the month)
  • Nones (the 7th day in March, May, July, and October; the 5th in the other months)
  • Ides (the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; the 13th in the other months)

The remaining, unnamed days of the month were identified by counting backwards from the Kalends, Nones, or the Ides. For example, March 3 would be V Nones—5 days before the Nones (the Roman method of counting days was inclusive; in other words, the Nones would be counted as one of the 5 days).

So, the Ides of March is just one of a dozen Ides that occur every month of the year. Kalends, the word from which calendar is derived, is another exotic-sounding term with a mundane meaning. Kalendrium means account book in Latin: Kalend, the first of the month, was in Roman times as it is now, the date on which bills are due.