The Ides of March – a quick lesson on the Roman calendar

“Beware the Ides of March” – these prophetic words spoken by a soothsayer to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play, are often brought to mind each time the 15th March rolls around. But what actually are the Ides? And is there actually any reason for US to “beware”? Read on to find out…

Julius Caesar was famously assassinated on this day in 44BC, stabbed to death at a meeting of the Senate by a group of conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius. Today, and largely thanks to Shakespeare, the Ides of March now sticks in our minds as an inauspicious date.

What are Ides?

The word ‘Ides’ derives from a Latin word to divide, and was originally used in the Roman calendar to mark the full moon. For the Romans, the Ides was a day that came about every month, not just in March, but the ‘Ides of March’ marked the first full moon of the Roman year (you may recall from our previous blog post on ‘time’ that the Roman calendar originally began with March, with January and February added later).

Reverse side of a coin issued by Caesar’s assassin Brutus in the autumn of 42 BC, with the abbreviation EID MAR (Eidibus Martiis – on the Ides of March)

The Roman calendar month was originally based on the first three phases of the moon cycle, with days marked by counting backward from each lunar phase. The Roman month began with the new moon, on the day known as ‘Kalends’, and the following days (usually 2-6) were simply known as “X number of days” before the ‘Nones’ – the moon’s first quarter. The ‘Nones’ fell between the 5th-7th of each month, with the following days (8–14) being counted as “before the Ides” (the full moon), which fell between the 13th-15th of each month (still with me?) Afterward, the days were then counted as “X number of days” before the ‘Kalends’ of the next month, and so on.

As the lunar months were different lengths, there was a fair amount of variation on when the ‘Kalends’, ‘Nones’ and ‘Ides’ fell each month, and things quickly got out of whack. So, the Romans decided to fix the length of their months, and in doing so fixed the dates of these calendar days. In the months of 31 days, like March, the ‘Ides’ then always fell was on the 15th, and on the 13th for the remaining months.

Significance of the Ides

The ‘Ides’ were sacred to Jupiter, chief god of the Roman pantheon. On this day the “Flamen Dialis” (Jupiter’s high priest) would lead the “Ides Sheep” along the Via Sacra to, you guessed it, sacrifice. The ‘Ides of March’ specifically, also marked the festival of Anna Perenna, a goddess of the year whose feast originally concluded the Roman new year celebrations (remembering again that March used to be the first month of the year before the calendar reshuffle!)

A panel thought to depict the Mamuralia, from a mosaic of the months, El Djem, Tunisia

According to John the Lydian (a 6th century Byzantine writer) in his work De Mensibus (a history of the different pagan festivals of the year), the Mamuralia also took place on the ‘Ides of March’. This less joyful calendar observance involved beating an old man dressed in animal skins and driving him from the city. It’s thought that the ritual may have represented the expulsion of the old year.

Any reasons to “beware”?..

Should we beware the Ides of March more so than any other day? Well, the short answer is no. As with ANY date in history, you can find a number of grisly events that have also taken place on this day – in 1360 the French attacked the English south coast and commenced a 48-hour spree of rape, pillage and murder; and in 1939 Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia – but the date in itself heralds no more portents of doom than any other day.

So, unless your name is Julius Caesar, or you’ve been specifically warned by a Roman soothsayer, you can be pretty confident to approach the 15th March just like any other day…