What Is the Ides of March…and Why Do We Need to Beware It?

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You’ve probably heard the old (and wildly cryptic) saying to “beware the Ides of March.” But you’d be forgiven if you didn’t know why we have to keep our guard up on this mid-month date. As history would have it, the meaning behind the mysterious warning lies in a true tale of Ancient Rome — and a fictionalized tale from England’s Elizabethan era.

But just what is an Ides, and why does it become particularly perilous every March? To answer this question, we need only to turn to historical figures William Shakespeare and Julius Caesar — and do a little digging. Join us on a trip through history as we define what the Ides of March is and how it earned such an unpleasant reputation.

What’s the Ides of March — Technically Speaking?

In ancient Rome, the term “ides” was used as a marker of time on the monthly calendar. Back when the use of lunar calendars was still popular, the moon and its phases were essential in denoting the passage of time; months often began around the time of the new moon. As a result, several terms sprang up as ways to mark different parts of the month:

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  • Kalends: Kalends (or calends) was the first day of the month. It’s also, incidentally, where we get the word “calendar.”
  • Nones: Nones initially corresponded with the moon’s first quarter and usually fell around the seventh days of March, May, July and October and the fifth days of the other months.
  • Ides: The Ides of a month was initially supposed to correspond with the full moon. This date fell on the 15th day of March, May, July and October and on the 13th day for most other months.

So, technically speaking, when we refer to the “Ides of March,” we’re referring to one specific day: March 15. But there’s a lot more history behind this date, and it isn’t just a spot on a calendar.

March Used to Mark the New Year

Aside from the implications of — spoiler alert — Caesar’s untimely doom, which we’ll get into in just a bit, the Ides of March was significant to ancient Romans for a variety of reasons. Multiple holidays were celebrated in March, but to understand why, it’s important to remember that the ancient world’s calendars were quite different from the ones we use today.

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For much of ancient history, March was considered the first month of the new year — until January took the lead around 153 BCE. Back in 2000 BCE, however, ancient Mesopotamians kicked off each year in March because it was around the time that a brand new planting cycle began after pausing for winter. Other ancient cultures followed suit, which is why many ancient new year festivals took place in March, even after it was eventually demoted to the third month of the year.

Calendars as we know them today were still undergoing a lot of revisions — especially during Julius Caesar’s time. The famed Roman statesman oversaw many of those changes himself, eventually designing the Julian calendar, which was named for him and enjoyed widespread use. For help, Caesar turned to an astronomer named Sosigenes, who advised him that it was time to do away with the lunar cycle and instead base the calendar on the solar year.

This was the route the ancient Egyptians had taken, and it proved to work out well by designating that each year would consist of 365 1/4 days. After a bit of editing and reconfiguring, Caesar’s calendar was implemented. It ushered in the first time that the new year was officially celebrated on January 1st in 45 BCE.

What’s the Significance of the Ides of March in Ancient Rome?

The Ides of March was traditionally a sacred day on which Romans celebrated and honored an ancient goddess named Anna Perenna. She was mentioned in both Ovid and Virgil’s ancient works and was associated with life, health, spring and the new year. Her name, Perenna, stemmed from the Latin “per annum,” meaning “for each year.” She represented the circular or cyclical nature of the year and of its new beginning, hence her association with the pre-Julian first of the year. Given that each new year had traditionally been celebrated in March, Anna Perenna’s feast day was celebrated every March 15 with a joyous festival.

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Each month’s Ides was also purportedly sacred to Jupiter, who was the supreme deity of ancient Rome and the Roman equivalent of the ancient Greeks’ Zeus. Each Ides, the Flamen Dialis, the high priest of Jupiter and a highly regarded figure in Roman society, would lead an “Ides sheep” through the streets before it was sacrificed.

According to some sources, the Ides of March also marked the celebration of Mamuralia, or Sacrum Mamurio, which was a festival connected to a craftsman who made shields. This ancient new year’s festival symbolized the idea of “out with the old, in with the new” in a particularly scapegoat kind of fashion. The observance involved dressing an old man in animal skins, beating him and possibly driving him from the city to symbolize the old year’s death.

Some sources indicate that March 15 was also known as a day for settling old debts, sort of like April 15 is known for being the day when our taxes are due.

William’s Warning: “Beware the Ides of March”

This famous line comes from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. In the play, a mysterious soothsayer tells Caesar to “beware the Ides of March” as a warning about his impending assassination, which did indeed take place on March 15 — in real life.

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But is there any historical basis for Shakespeare’s tale? Well, sort of. Multiple Roman sources, including Suetonius, Plutarch, Cicero and Valerius Maximus, all reveal that an Etruscan soothsayer by the name of Spurinna did warn Caesar about impending danger. That said, he wasn’t quite as specific as Shakespeare’s famous line might have us believe. He actually warned Caesar of danger during the days either on or leading up to the Ides, which is still pretty impressive.

Caesar was assassinated on March 15 of 44 BCE by up to 60 senators who all took turns stabbing him to death in the Largo di Torre Argentina. The assassins acted based on tensions that had been simmering between Caesar and the Senate; the Senate had been afraid that Caesar was about to overthrow them, crown himself king and turn the republic into an empire run solely by himself. That’s why the date of Caesar’s assassination, to those of us who are relatively supersitious, is still regarded as an unlucky day when it rolls around each year.

The Effects of Caesar’s Assassination

While the idea behind Caesar’s assassination was to safeguard the powers of the Roman Republic, it ironically ended up doing just the opposite. It backfired in the form of two civil wars, as some sided with the would-be liberators and others sided with new potential rulers Mark Anthony and Octavian (a.k.a. Augustus), who was Caesar’s grand-nephew and heir.

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Ultimately, the liberators who favored the old republic system were defeated at the Battle of Philippi, which more or less marked the end of the Roman Republic. In the end, rather than fight it out, Mark Anthony and Augustus decided to split the kingdom between themselves, which would mark Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire.

Of the two, Augustus undoubtedly became the Roman Empire’s central power and ultimately crowned himself its emperor. He was widely considered among the greatest Roman Emperors of all time, and the imperial system of government he developed would last until 476 AD.

Four years after Caesar’s death, the assassinated ruler got the last laugh when Augustus executed 300 Senators — some of whom, like Decimus Brutus, had participated in the statesman’s betrayal and stabbing. To this day, the Ides of March is still considered unlucky due to Caesar’s death and the sinister allure that Shakespeare undoubtedly infused into it — but at least it’ll never fall on a Friday the 13th.