“Beware the Ides of March,” quoth the soothsayer. This well-known saying, penned by Shakespeare in his play about the original Mr. July, has transformed March 15th into a day of historical infamy, the literary equivalent of Friday 13th. Superstitions abound, foreboding looms.
But the expression “Ides of March” doesn’t actually mean anything particularly malevolent. To the contrary, it was just the Roman way of saying March 15. You see, the ancient Roman calendar organized each of its months around three days, each of which in turn served as a reference point for counting the rest of the days of the month.
- The Kalends was the first day of each month
- The Nones was the 7th day in March, May, July, and October, the 5th day in the remaining months.
- The Ides was the 15th day in March, May, July, and October, the 13th day in the remaining months.
So April 5 would be the Nones of April, June 13 would be the Ides of June, and so forth. If the day wasn’t a Kalends, Nones or Ides, it had no name of its own. Instead, it would be identified by counting backwards from the next following day that did have a name. So March 13 would be III Ides of March. April 15 would be XV Kalends of May (I think). Just imagine if we had no word for Thursday, and had to call it "three days before Sunday," instead.
To tell you the truth, I can’t believe how complicated this system was. Just trying to figure out what to call tax day gave me as big a headache as figuring out the taxes themselves. It’s a wonder the Romans conquered anything.
Nonetheless, a Roman citizen saying "four ides" (meaning four days before the Ides) would be just as easily understood by other Romans as someone saying March 11 today. Despite its ungainly complexity, this calendar lasted 2,000 years, and was widely known in Renaissance Europe. Thus, it was well within reason for Shakespeare to expect his audience to know what he meant when he included the famous line in his play.
There was one small, yet significant, way in which the Ides of March was special in ancient Rome. It happened to be the first day of the Roman calendar, the day on which debts were to be settled. That is why Gaius Julius Caesar called the Senate to meet that day, and that is how the would-be dictator found himself alone and vulnerable amongst Marcus Brutus and the other patrician plotters on March 15, 44 B.C..
After the assassination, of course, the Ides of March took on a symbolic significance in Rome as great as December 7th or September 11th carry in the United States today. As Cicero wrote months later, “the Ides changed everything.” And they did.
On a practical level, the assassination opened the door for Rome’s Second Triumvirate, the subsequent demise of the Roman Republic, and the ascendance of Rome’s First Emperor, Octavian, also known as Augustus Caesar. The far-reaching impact of this event can even be seen in the minutae of modern life, from the Russian “Czars” and German “Kaisers” our children learn about in school to all the babies who are “from their mothers' wombs untimely ripped” in what we, to this day, call a Caesarian section.
Hundreds of years after the fact, superstitious Romans would put off launching new businesses, getting married, or starting other important ventures on the Ides of March. With Shakespeare's help a millennium later, the date became a virtual metaphor for impending catastrophe. But in the end, it's just a number.