“Beware the Ides of March!” The term, which refers to March 15 of the year 44 B.C., when Julius Caesar was betrayed and murdered, was penned by William Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar. But while many know the line and its significance for Caesar, some have developed a superstition about the date. Is March 15 actually an unlucky day for anyone besides Caesar? Was it regarded that way by the Romans? And why was it significant for Shakespeare’s audience members?
Consider looking into the history behind that famous line, Julius Caesar’s death, or modern references to the Ides of March as potential research paper topics for your Shakespeare or ancient history class.
The Roman Calendar
The Roman Republican calendar was vastly different from the one that Julius Caesar instituted. While the Romans had months, rather than numbering each day, there were three fixed points in the month, and they counted backwards from those dates rather than forward from the last one. According to Denis Feeney’s Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History (2007):
Each month is split in half by the Ides (Idus), a name that the Romans thought came from the Etruscan word meaning “to divide.” In the Republican calendar, four months are long months of 31 days, in which case the Ides split them in the middle on the fifteenth day; the rest are short months of 29 days, or 28 in the case of February, in which case the Ides split them in the middle on the 13th day. Nine days before the Ides comes another marker day. The Latin word for “ninth” is nonus, so the ninth day before the Ides is called the Nones (Nonae). … The third of the three fixed points in the month is the first day, the Kalends (Kalendae).
The backwards counting means that rather than saying “today is the 14th of March,” the Romans would have said the day was pridie Idus, or the day before the Ides.
Why did the Roman calendar resonate with the English citizens in Shakespeare’s audiences? According to National Geographic contributor Brian Handwerk in his March 16, 2012, article “Ides of March: What Is It? Why Do We Still Observe It?,” the countdown to the Ides in the play impacted audiences because they were preoccupied with time. “They were really struck by the differences between their Julian calendar [a revision of the Roman calendar created by Caesar] and the Gregorian calendar kept in Catholic countries on the continent,” head reference librarian Georgianna Ziegler of Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. told Handwerk. Handwerk pointed out that by the late 16th century, the two calendars, which had slightly different lengths, were several days off from each other.
Is the Ides of March unlucky?
Prior to Julius Caesar’s assassination, and quite possibly prior to Shakespeare making the date more infamous in his play, there was little luck associated with the Ides of March: it was simply a marker date on the calendar. Indeed, some Romans at the time who opposed Caesar’s growing power and his assumption of a dictatorship over the Republic, felt the date was quite lucky. Yet unlucky for them, Caesar’s murder ushered in an era that left the Republic far behind: instead, they were ruled by a succession of Emperors, who replaced Julius Caesar’s dictatorship.
Shakespeare’s famous line, however, has given rise to many associations with being wary. Even NASDAQ has embraced using the term, such as in the February 10, 2017, post “US GOVTS: Money Market Update: Beware of the Ides of March… or not?” Traditionally for Romans, as Handwerk pointed out, the Ides of March was a date for settling accounts. Similarly, according to the NASDAQ article, on March 15, 2017, the U.S. Treasury will hit the deadline for the debt ceiling extension, which has some investors nervous. The article writer reassured readers however: “Hopefully the impact on investors and repo levels will be minimal.” Invoking Shakespeare, however, seems like a hint that investors should stay on their toes.
Why do you think the Ides of March still resonate to modern audiences? Tell us in the comments.