Beware the Ides of March!
From Anthony Peña,
If you've heard the warning, "Beware the Ides of March," then it's probably due to the works of William Shakespeare. The Roman ruler, Julius Caesar, was assassinated on the Ides of March - March 15, 44 B.C.E.
In Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, an unknown soothsayer tells Caesar, who is already on his way to the Senate (and his death), "Beware the ides of March." Caesar replies, "He is a dreamer; let us leave him. Pass."
The Astrologer Spurinna:
According to historical writer C.J.S. Thompson, Ph.D. in The Mystery and Romance of Astrology, 1929, the unidentified soothsayer from Shakespeare's play was a Roman astrologer by the name of Spurinna. According to Thompson - and confirmed in Plutarch's account of the story written in 75
and Suetonius in 110 A.D. - it was sometime prior to the fateful day of March 15 that Spurinna had first given Caesar the famous warning to "beware of the Ides of March."
The astrologer, Spurinna, had previously warned Caesar that on the Ides of March, he would be in great danger. If, however, Julius Caesar took care on that one day - then all would be well.
According to Plutarch's account, Caesar had previously made the wise decision to stay within the safety of his bedroom chambers on the 15th of March. However, Caesar's "friend" Decimus (Albinus) Brutus (not Marcus Brutus) managed to convince him that the astrologer's warnings were nothing more than superstitious foolishness.
So Julius Caesar decided to attend the Senate on the 15th of March. On his way to the Senate, Caesar "accidentally" met up with the astrologer. Upon seeing the Spurinna, Caesar confidently informed the astrologer: "The Ides of March are come."
Spurinna replied, "Yes, they are come, but they are not past."
Later that day - on March 15, 44 B.C.E - Caesar's enemies assassinated him in the Pompey theater, at the foot of Pompey's statue, where the Roman Senate was meeting that day in the temple of Venus.
What Are the Ides?
In the ancient Roman calendar, each of the 12 months of the year had an "ides." In March, May, July and October, the "ides" fell on the 15th day. In every other month, the "ides" fell on the 13th. The word "ides" was derived from the Latin "to divide." The "ides" were originally meant to mark the full moon - but since the solar calendar months and lunar months were of different lengths, the "ides" quickly lost their original intent and purpose.
So an alternative (albeit somewhat dubious) theory, as to why Caesar might have "seemingly" ignored the ominous warning of Spurinna, is that perhaps Julius Caesar got the dates of the warning mixed up. He may have been thinking that the Ides of March fell on the 13th.
Using this theory, forgetful Caesar would have been very careful and stayed home on the 13th of March, but on the 15th of March his guard was down.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I
Rome. Before the Capitol; the Senate sitting above.
A crowd of people; among them ARTEMIDORUS and the Soothsayer. Flourish. Enter CAESAR, BRUTUS, CASSIUS, CASCA, DECIUS BRUTUS, METELLUS CIMBER, TREBONIUS, CINNA, ANTONY, LEPIDUS, POPILIUS, PUBLIUS, and others
CAESAR [To the Soothsayer] “The ides of March are come”
SOOTHSAYER: “Ay, Caesar; but not gone.”
The Ides of March
Just one of a dozen Ides that occur every month of the year
by Borgna Brunner
As far as Caesar knew, the Ides were just another day.
The soothsayer's warning to Julius Caesar, "Beware the Ides of March," has forever imbued that date with a sense of foreboding. But in Roman times the expression "Ides of March" did not necessarily evoke a dark mood—it was simply the standard way of saying "March 15." Surely such a fanciful expression must signify something more than merely another day of the year? Not so. 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 organized 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).
Days in March
March 1: Kalends; March 2: VI Nones; March 3: V Nones; March 4: IV Nones; March 5: III Nones; March 6: Pridie Nones (Latin for "on the day before"); March 7: Nones; March 15: Ides
Used in the first Roman calendar as well as in the Julian calendar (established by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C.E.) the confusing system of Kalends, Nones, and Ides continued to be used to varying degrees throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.
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.
Ides of March Marked Murder of Julius Caesar
for National Geographic News
March 12, 2004
Julius Caesar's bloody assassination on March 15, 44 B.C., forever marked March 15, or the Ides of March, as a day of infamy. It has fascinated scholars and writers ever since.
For ancient Romans living before that event, however, an ides was merely one of several common calendar terms (see sidebar) used to mark monthly lunar events. The ides simply marked the appearance of the full moon.
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But the Ides of March assumed a whole new identity after the events of 44 B.C. The phrase came to represent a specific day of abrupt change that set off a ripple of repercussions throughout Roman society and beyond.
Josiah Osgood, an assistant professor of classics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said: "You can read in Cicero's letters from the months after the Ides of March. … He even says, 'The Ides changed everything.'"
By the time of Caesar, Rome had a long-established republican government headed by two consuls with joint powers. Praetors were one step below consuls in the power chain and handled judicial matters. A body of citizens forming the Senate proposed legislation, which general people's assemblies then approved by vote. A special temporary office, that of dictator, was established for use only during times of extreme civil unrest.
The Romans had no love for kings. According to legend, they expelled their last one in 509 B.C. While Caesar had made pointed and public displays of turning down offers of kingship, he showed no reluctance to accept the office of "dictator for life" in February 44 B.C. According to Osgood, this action may have sealed his fate in the minds of his enemies. "We can see [now] that that was enough to get him killed," Osgood said.
Caesar had pushed the envelope for some time before his death. "Caesar was the first living Roman ever to appear on the coinage," Osgood said. Normally, the honor was reserved for deities. He notes that some historians suspect that Caesar might have been attempting to establish a cult in his honor in a move towards deification.
It is unclear if Caesar was aware of the plot to kill him on March 15 in 44 B.C. But Caesar was not oblivious to the mounting danger of a backlash, noted Charles McNelis, an assistant professor of classics and Osgood's colleague at Georgetown University.
The plot's conspirators, who termed themselves "the liberators," had to move quickly. "Caesar had plans to leave Rome on March 18th for a military campaign in Parthia, the region around modern-day Iraq. So the conspirators did not have much time," McNelis said. Whether or not Caesar was a true tyrant is debated still to this day. It is safe to say, however, that in the mind of Marcus Brutus, who helped mastermind the attack, the threat Caesar posed to the republican system was clear.
Brutus's involvement in the murder is made tragic given his close affiliations with Caesar. His mother, Servilia, was one of Caesar's lovers. And although Brutus had fought against Caesar during Rome's recent civil war, he was spared from death and later promoted by Caesar to the office of praetor.
"Caesar had always … tried to cultivate talent that he saw in younger people," Osgood said. "And Brutus was no exception."
Brutus, however, was torn in his allegiance to Caesar, Osgood noted. Brutus's family had a tradition of rejecting authoritarian powers. Ancestor Junius Brutus was credited with throwing out the last king of Rome, Tarquin Superbus, in 509 B.C. Ahala, An ancestor of Marcus Brutus's mother, had killed another tyrant, Spurius Maelius. This lineage, coupled with a strong interest in the Greek idea of tyranicide, disposed Brutus to have little patience with perceived power grabbers.
The final blow came when his uncle Cato, a father figure to Brutus, killed himself after losing in a battle against Caesar in 46 B.C. Brutus may have felt shame over accepting Caesar's clemency and obligation to do Cato honor by continuing his quest to "save" the republic from Caesar, Osgood speculated.
It is this moral dilemma that has caused debate over whether or not Brutus should be branded a villain. Plutarch's Life of Brutus, Osgood noted, is quite sympathetic in comparison to surviving documents naming other enemies of Caesar and his successors.
Shakespeare later used Plutarch's Brutus as one of the bases for his play Julius Caesar, where Brutus is portrayed as a tragic hero and Caesar as an unequivocal tyrant. The poet Dante, however, took a different stance: Brutus, in killing the man who spared him, was doomed to the lowest levels of hell. "He's perceived not as a liberator but [as] somebody who threatened the stability of the political system," McNelis said.
Scholars disagree on just who was the on the side of "good." McNelis believes neither side is entirely in the clear. "We need to realize that we're dealing with very brutal and ruthless men on both sides."
In the end, the legacy of power Caesar established lived on through his heir Octavian, who later became Rome's first emperor, also known as Imperator Caesar Augustus. The Ides of March remained a pithy reminder to future rulers, according to McNelis. "Octavian seems to have been aware of the problems of presenting himself as Caesar had. … The Ides became a lesson in political self-presentation," he said.