(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
The Ides of March is a date in the ancient Roman calendar equivalent to our modern day 15 March. The word ‘ides’ is Latin for ‘half division’, from the Etruscan word for ‘divide’, and it came to refer to the middle day of the month. There was no particular importance attached to this date, except that initially it was the day of the full moon. It became famous because Julius Caesar was warned that he would come to grief on this March day in 44 BCE, and indeed, he was assassinated by fellow senators on the Ides of March.
The origin of the word ‘ides’ probably goes back to the time of the first two ancient Roman calendars in the eighth century BCE, and perhaps earlier. The first Roman calendar was supposedly set down by Romulus, legendary founder of Rome, around 738 BCE. The new calendar was very different from the old Etruscan calendar, which had months ranging from 20 or less to 35 or more days, possibly based on crop and animal cycles. Romulus’ new calendar had 10 months of 30 or 31 days (Martius, or March, to December), and about 60 days that were in the middle of winter and not part of any month.
Rome’s second ruler, Numa Pompilius, redesigned the calendar in about 713 BCE, adding Januarius and Februarius, and deducting a day from each of the months with 30 days, probably due to a Roman suspicion of even numbers. Thus the original 10 months were now either 29 or 31 days in length. Januarius was set at 29 days and Februarius 28 days, the even number not mattering as this month had associations with the infernal gods.
Thus it was not quite a lunar calendar, although the length of the 12 months totalled 355 days, which is quite close to a dozen lunar cycles. A leap month of 22 or 23 days, Mercedinus, was supposed to be used about every second year to bring the calendar in line with the solar year. But the pontiffs didn’t add the intercalary month often enough, resulting in seasonal chaos. They also added or deleted days, or even months, to the calendar, to keep or remove politicians from office as they saw fit. In any case, March remained as the first month of the year and the Ides of March was regarded as the start of the New Year.
The set month lengths were not always followed. The priests and the general population often preferred the more observable month lengths of the lunar cycle, which also had religious significance, with Luna being their moon god. When an assigned pontiff first sighted the thin crescent of a new moon, he would call out the start of a new month. The Romans called this first day of the month ‘Kalendae’ or ‘Kalends’, from the Latin word ‘calare’, meaning to announce or call out. This is where our word ‘calendar’ comes from. The other two days of the month with names were the ‘Nones’, at the time of the half moon, and the ‘Ides’, at the full moon.
Strictly, Ides was a period of a week or so between the half moon and the full moon. The Day of Ides was the actual day when the moon was full. Similarly, Nones was the lead-up to the half moon and also lasted about a week, before the Day of Nones at the half moon. Kalends was the period of around two weeks from the full moon to the new moon, whereas the Day of Kalends coincided with the new moon. Other days were called by the number of days before these three dates, for example, the fifth day before Nones, or the third day before Ides.
Later, the Day of Nones and the Day of Ides became set days of the month, regardless of the moon phase. Nones was either the fifth or the seventh day of the month, and Ides was the 13th or 15th day. The later days were used in 31 day months, and the earlier days in the other, shorter months. Note that an even numbered date was never used. Thus the Ides of March was locked into the 15th day of March.
March was a month of festivals in ancient Rome. Martius, or March, was named after Mars, the Roman god of fertility and agriculture, and later their god of war. The Ides of March, the first full moon of the year, was a holiday. The festival of Anna Perenna was held on this day and offerings and sacrifices were made to her. Based on a real person who became a goddess, she was supposed to convince Minerva to marry Mars but she stood in as the bride herself and Mars wasn’t happy.
The Ides of March became famous for the death of Julius Caesar. Rival leaders Caesar and Pompey had fought a civil war, from which Caesar emerged as undisputed leader. Pompey was later assassinated by betrayers in Egypt. Caesar became dictator and initiated many reforms, including the Julian calendar. Some of the senators wanted Caesar out of the way so they could restore democracy. Military leader Mark Antony had heard of a possible plot, led by senators Brutus and Longinus, to kill Caesar on the Ides of March in the year 44 BCE. Antony tried to prevent his leader from entering the Senate on the Ides of March. But a number of senators forced Caesar into a room where they proceeded to stab and hit him until he was dead.
The incident was dramatised by William Shakespeare in a play called ‘Julius Caesar’. A soothsayer said to Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March”, which became one of the best known of Shakespeare’s lines. In reality, the soothsayer is thought to be Roman astrologer Spurinna. He is believed to have given this actual warning to Caesar. The dictator had planned to spend the Ides of March in his quarters but a ‘friend’, actually one of the conspirators, had urged him not to worry about superstitions, and Caesar had entered the Senate.