Saturday, March 10, 2012

Beware the Ides of March

What are the Ides?

When I was in Mrs. Welch's sophomore honors English class, way back in 1992, I remember reading
Shakespeare's tragic play Julius Ceasar.  Now, unlike most sophomores, I actually liked it.  I will never forget her telling us the meaning of the famous quote, "Beware the Ides of March."  Every year as we approach March 15, I think about that quote, and I wonder if March 15 is really supposed to be an unlucky day.  So, like last week, I will be exploring something that interests me.  I promise, next week I will be back to answering questions for other people. 

If, like me, you had to read Julius Ceasar in high school, then you probably remember the soothsayer telling Ceasar to, "Beware the Ides of March."  You may also remember that this was the date that Julius was betrayed and assassinated.  This event was recorded by Plutarch.  He wrote that 62 men, including Brutus and Cassius, were part of the conspiracy to assassinate Ceasar.  He also wrote that Ceasar had been warned by a seer that he would be harmed by the Ides of March.  Plutarch says that Ceasar joked that day that nothing had happened yet. 

Shakespeare dramatized Plutarch's comments in his famous play.  Most versions of the play have a side note or footnote that explains that the Ides of March was the 15th day of the month in the Roman calendar.  In a previous post, I explained some of the history of the Roman calendar, and that March, May, July, and October all had 30 days.  Ides, from Idus which means half division in Latin, were the middle point of each month, so for those four months, the Ides fell on the 15th.  The other months were shorter, and the Ides fell on the 13th. 

The ancient Romans said their calendar was created by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome.  While no one knows if he actually existed, much less created the calendar, what we do know is that the Roman calendar was complex.  The first day of each month was named a Kalend (where we get the word for calendar!).  The seventh day of March, May, July, and October were called Nones.  The 5th day of the other months were Nones.  And of course, the Ides fell in the middle. Just like Roman numbers, which use I, V, X, C, and M and then count forward or backward from those, the days of the months worked the same way.  So just like VIII is three forwards from 5 to make 8, May 3 would be V Nones, or 5 days before the Nones. 

This system was confusing, and as we learned before, easily corrupted.  When the Julian calendar was adopted, this system remained, and was used well into the Middle Ages, and in some places until the Renaissance.  People in Shakespeare's time would have known about the Ides of March.

But did the Romans think the day was unlucky?  Not especially.  Actually, the 15th day of March was dedicated to the god Mars.  Mars was the god of war, and the day was celebrated with festivities and military parades.  So in reality, it seems to have only been unlucky for Julius Ceasar.  A quick look over the historic events occurring on March 15 shows that there isn't a lot of support for the day being any more unlucky than any other day of the year.  I also checked births and deaths for the day.  Nothing amazing stands out to me.  In short, March 15 is just a regular day.  Audiences in Shakespeare's time would have known it wasn't a day to fear as well.  He was only writing about one event, not suggesting that the day in general was unlucky.

On the other hand, the ancient Romans might have felt the Kalend of March was unlucky.  Just like today, bills were due to be paid on the first of the month.  I'm sure no one looked forward to that except the bill collectors!

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