Should You Beware of the Ides of March?
March 15 is the Ides of March, a date many know about thanks to Shakespeare’s play ”Julius Caesar,” in which the Roman general and politician Julius Caesar is told by a soothsayer to “beware the Ides of March.” It does seem that he should have: in 44 B.C.E., on the Ides of March, Caesar was assasinated at a meeting of the Roman Senate in the Curia Pompeii. As many as 60 conspirators, fearing that he was on the verge of assuming the powers of a king, stabbed Caesar with daggers.
What Are “Ides”?
Prior to Caesar’s assassination, saying “Ides of March” – Idus Martiae in Latin – didn’t have the sinister ring, though they were a special date in the ancient Roman calendar.
The Romans used a rather complicated system of dating. There were twelve months but no weeks as we know them. Dates were determined by counting backwards from three fixed points, the Nones (the 5th or 7th), the Ides (the 13th or 15th) and the Kalends (the first day of the following month). In eight months, the Ides fall on the 13th; besides March, the Ides are on the 15th in May, July and October. For instance, St. Patrick’s Day would be, in the Roman calendar system, “16 days before the Kalends of April” (a.d. xvi Kalendis Aprilis).
The Ides of each month were sacred to the supreme Roman god, Jupiter, with the chief priest leading the “Ides sheep” up the Sacred Way in Rome to be sacrificed. The Roman calendar was a lunar calendar and the timing of the Ides was determined by the full moon. As March was originally the first month in the Roman calendar, the Ides would have been the first full month of a new year.
How the Ides of March Came To Mean “Assassination”
After Caesar’s death, the “Ides of March” indeed came to have the meaning of “assassination.” According to the 1st century C.E. Greek historian Plutarch, at the religious festival of the Lupercalia (February 13-15), Caesar had made a public show of refusing a diadem of kingship presented by Mark Antony. Many were suspicious of this gesture as Caesar was already dictator, a special position giving someone absolute authority. It was the case that, three days after the Ides, Caesar was to leave for Parthia (in modern day Afghanistan and Pakistan) to revenge the death of his fellow politician Crassus nine years before. Had he been successful, he would have gained more popularity and more power.
Fearing for the libertas (freedom) of the Roman Republic, Brutus (who was said to be descended from another Brutus, who had helped to expel the hated last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, in 509 B.C.E.) and the other conspirators killed Caesar before a statue of Pompey, his late political and military rival. Brutus had been trusted by Caesar and some report that his last words were kai su, teknon, ancient Greek for “you too, child” — the last word indicating their former close connections. (Shakespeare’s famous et tu, Brute, is a Latin version of the Greek that Caesar and Brutus likely, as educated Romans, spoke in).
According to Plutarch, the soothsayer had told Caesar before March 15, 44 B.C.E., that he would be in great danger until the Ides of March had passed. He passed the same soothsayer on his way to the Curia Pompeii and noted that the Ides had come. “Yes,” was the response, “but they have not yet gone.” Other portents — asked the night of March 14 what he thought the best death for a man was, Caesar responded that this would be one that was sudden and unexpected; his wife, Calpurnia, dreamed of him with blood streaming from his body — are reported by ancient historians.
Killing Caesar by no means saved the Roman Republic, which had been torn by political conflict and civil war for the past hundred years. Caesar (who was from an aristocratic family) was not popular with the Senators, but he had wide popular support and civil war continued for 13 more years. At the end of this, Caesar’s own adopted son, Octavian, had become the Emperor Augustus and Rome was once, in effect if not in name, under the rule of an absolute leader — a king.
A Few Other Things That Have Happened on the Ides of March
Since most of us are more in the position of the plebs, the Latin word for the “99 percent,” we’ve most likely no reason to fear 60 conspirators attacking us on March 15. The Smithsonian magazine does note a few other events that have happened on that date in history: the abdication of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, ending a 304-year-old royal dynasty; a record 73.62 inches of rain falling in one day on the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion in 1952; a 1988 report from NASA that the ozone layer was disappearing at three times the rate predicted; a 2003 announcement from the World Health Organization of a “mysterious respiratory disease” that would become known as SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome).
It has to just be a coincidence that more than 6,000 dead pigs were found in a river in Shanghai?!
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