Beware the Ides of March: How a Shakespearean Tragedy Immortalized the Date

Mar 27, 2024 | Main Blog | 0 comments

Why do we say, “Beware the Ides of March?” What is an “ide?” What was Shakespeare so hyped up about when he wrote Julius Caesar? Read on and all will become clear.

Gloom and doom – that’s what is associated with the Ides of March. “Ides” derives from the Latin “iduare” meaning “to divide.” The assassination of Roman dictator Julius Caesar occurred on March 15, 44 Before Common Era (BCE). Shakespeare further immortalizes the date and Caesar’s death in his tragedy Julius Caesar when the prediction occurs advising Caesar to “beware the Ides of March.”

In the ancient Roman calendar, the months occurred around the full moon which was placed at the middle of the month and therefore the Latin “iduare.” The new moon would proclaim the beginning of the month entitled the “Kalends” while the “Nones” marked the quarter moon phases. The length of the month and the quarter moon phases arrived on the fifth or seventh day and the Ides at the full moon, usually around the 13th or 15th of the month. The new year began in March, thus the first full moon became extremely important.

A coin of the Ides of March was created by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43 or 42 BCE. One side features Julius Caesar in remembrance of this assassination and the reverse is inscribed with “EID MAR” meaning Eidibus Martiis which is Latin for “on the Ides of March.” Caesar was in the midst of social and political reforms in 44 BCE when Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus with a group of estimated 60 conspirators sought to halt Caesar’s monarchical regime (one that has a single leader) with his assassination by stabbing. This revolt led to a civil war after which Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, Octavian, became the first Roman emperor. The Roman biographer Suetonius wrote Lives of the Caesars where he explains 300 Perusine War prisoners were sacrificed on an altar by Octavian, commemorating Caesar on the Ides of March.

Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar has Caesar stating his famous line when Brutus stabs him – “Et tu, Brute?” and the English translation becomes “You too, Brutus?” This helps to establish the use of Ides of March in modern times in films, novels, and music. In 1948 Thornton Wilder entitled one of his novels The Ides of March.

Formerly, each month a sacrifice of a sheep was made to Jupiter, the Roman’s supreme deity. The Ides of March also marks the occasion of the Feast of Anna Perenna, the goddess of the new year. The celebration involved the common people with picnics, drinking, and revelry. Another custom includes the beating of an old man dressed in animal skins being driven from the city; the symbolism celebrates the expulsion of the old year.

Both in the Shakespearean play and in real life, Caesar’s death was on the 15th of March. Does the curse arise from the assassination or was it planned because Caesar changed the calendar with January as the first month two years before? Looking through history March 15th has been the date of many other tragedies. Is it the Ides of March that caused the curse or is it just coincidence?

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