What Are the Ides of March Anyway?
You might remember from your history class that the Ides of March are a big deal, with a sinister reputation. But how did all of that drama really start anyway?
Actually, it started by not being dramatic at all. It was really just a date.
“Before Caesar’s time in Roman history, there were ten months, and the first month of the year was March, then called Martius, after Mars, the war god,” says A.K. Patch, author of the historical adventure novels Passage at Delphi and Delphi’s Chosen. The first full moon of that month—the first of the calendar year—was called “the ides” and took place around March 15. “‘Ides’ means ‘split’ as the lunar month was split into three parts, the ides being in the middle of the month and coinciding with the full moon,” says Patch. So to be clear, the New Years of that time was the Ides of March on March 15. Still with us?
Now, as for the saying “Beware the Ides of March,” it’s not meant to mean that the Ides of March itself is sinister. This was just a normal day in the Roman calendar, and though the word is plural it denotes a single day that happens to fall in the middle of the month. “The Ides weren’t anything. They were just a name given to a division of the month, and every month had its ides. But ever afterwards they became associated with bad luck, largely because Shakespeare incorporated the words into his play Julius Caesar,” says Robert Garland, professor of classics at Colgate University in New York.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “A seer called Spurinna warns Caesar about the Ides of March first a month before his death and later on the morning of his death,” Garland says. “After his death, the Ides of March was dubbed Parricide Day in Rome because Caesar had held the title of Father of the Fatherland. The place where he was assassinated was cursed and left vacant for a while and later still it became converted into a public latrine.”
Caesar died because some senators thought he desired too much power and thought they would save the republic. However, “after his death, a civil war began and all those senators died, and Octavian, Caesar’s nephew, became Augustus Caesar, the emperor, and the republic was no more anyway,” says Patch.
Unless you are demagogic politician—and even then—chances are the Ides of March will likely feel like any other day of the month. (Read on for inspiring quotes on the power of democracy.)