Beware the Ides of March

It’s a saying we’ve heard thrown around for years beware the Ides of March. But what are the Ides? And why should we beware?

William Shakespeare

When it comes to the English language, William Shakespeare has his signature all over it. There’s some debate to exactly how many words he invented, but there is no denying he penned the saying.

In his famous play Julius Caesar, a soothsayer says to Caesar “beware the Ides of March.” The warning forebodes Caesar’s death later in the play. Today the saying is used as a general phrase of caution and warning. People will often use it to remind others to watch out for dangers in their tasks and act safely.

What are the Ides?

Despite what many may believe, the Ides are not actually people, but rather dates.

The Romans used Ides to divide months in half. Every Roman calendar month was arranged around three key days, the Kalends, the Nones and the Ides. From these three key days, the month was able to be arranged and understood.

Kalends were the first day of the month, while Nones were the 5th or 7th day. Finally, the Ides was the 15th or 13th day, depending on the month in question.

So, what the phrase is actually saying, is beware of March 15th. Shakespeare wasn’t trying to be wordy or clever, he was just using the language that was the norm for his time. There was nothing inherently bad about the day prior to the play.

Today, beware the Ides of March has become a popular reference in pop culture, generally used as a way to denote something bad is coming. Television shows have been known to title episodes Beware the Ides of March when something bad is coming. George Clooney directed and starred in the film Ides of March and an American rock band has also taken the same name.

There are many modern references to this eerie prophecy which have since lost its original meaning. Let’s be honest though, a film called Ides of March does sound much more dramatic than March 15th.

Ides in the Roman calendar

The Ides were a religiously important day in the Roman calendar. They were set aside as days to honour the supreme deity Jupiter. Each ide the Flamen Dialis would lead a procession along the main street to the citadel where they would sacrifice a sheep.

In addition to this monthly sacrifice, the Ides of March was also the Feast of Anna Perenna. March was the first month in the Roman calendar, and this feast signified the end of the new year celebrations. People would celebrate with picnics, parties and drinking.

It’s also been suggested that the Mamuralia occurred on this day. The tradition involved a man dressed in animal skin being chased out of the city, perhaps to symbolise the expulsion of the old year.

Assassination of Caesar

Undoubtedly the most famously known event of the Ides of March is the assassination of Caesar.

In January 44, the Senate named Caesar dictator for life. This move angered some 60 senators concerned he would restore the monarchy in order to become king. In order to ensure he could not do this, they set out to kill him and save the Roman Republic.

It’s believed that a total of 60 senators were involved in the assassination. Caesar received a total of 23 stab wounds. However only one of them was fatal.

In his autopsy, the first recorded post-mortem in report in history, the physician noted that only one wound would have been fatal. The second stab Caesar received to the chest stabbed his aorta. The reported noted that his death was mostly the result of significant blood loss from the multiple stab wounds.

Ides of March today

Today we remember the Ides of March because of Caesar and Shakespeare, not as a religious holiday.

There are very little celebrations on Ides of March today, though there are some events scattered across Rome in commemoration of Caesar’s death.

Head to the Roman Forum and find the statue of Caesar, on the anniversary of his death many people lay flowers around his feet. There is also a yearly tradition of re-enacting his death. The show is free and held by a local historical society each year. Head to Largo di Torre Argentina in the afternoon to watch the 4pm performance.

So there you have it, now you know where Beware the Ides of March came from!

Related article: When Did the Roman Empire Start and End?

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