The Ides of March isn't exactly tops when it comes to well-known dates on the calendar, but thanks to a murder in ancient Rome and a play written by William Shakespeare, people are still proclaiming "Beware the Ides of March." This infamous day has become synonymous with betrayal, lost loyalty and unwelcome surprises. So, what is the Ides of March, and should it really make us wary?
A Day of Division and Debt
Ancient Romans, those clever folks who brought us aqueducts and amphitheaters, also developed the predecessor to our modern calendar. The name they developed for the first day of each month, Kalends, eventually led to the modern word "calendar." Ancient Romans also determined that one day each month would be known as "Ides," a day that often corresponded with religious observances.
According to this calendar, the Ides fell on the 13th day of the month, with the exception of October, July, May and March, when the Ides occurred on the 15th. It was the Ides of March that became a real stickler: It presented a deadline on which citizens were expected to settle all of their debts. It became a day of celebration for those who received payment and a day of woe for those who paid. For some, it was probably both.
The concept of Ides was closely tied to the way the people of ancient Rome tracked the passage of time. The Latin roots of "ide" mean "to divide," and in keeping with this sentiment, the Ides took place about midway through each month. The Ides also corresponded with the rise of the full moon. This worked well for a while, as the lunar cycle and the calendar months matched up as expected. Eventually, however, this notion of tracking time based on lunar events created a mismatch between the calendar dates and the full moon.
A solution was presented in about 45 B.C.E., when days were added or removed so the calendar would stay in sync with astronomical seasons, such as solstices and equinoxes. The resulting Julian calendar, named posthumously for the military general and politician Julius Caesar who declared himself ruler of the Roman Republic in 43 B.C.E., was based on Earth's revolutions around the sun. It was a 365-day year divided into 12 months with an additional day added every four years to resync the calendar — an event now known as a Leap Year.
"What is interesting is that the change came about after Caesar had spent some time in Egypt, specifically in the city of Alexandria," says Kelly-Anne Diamond, Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor in the history department at Villanova University, in an email. "The Egyptians had developed previously a calendar of 365 days. However, they did not add that extra 1/4 day, so the Egyptian calendar drifted one day every four years."
Through ancient writings, including those of the philosopher Plutarch, it was recorded that Caesar sought help from expert mathematicians — such as the astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria — in adjusting the calendar.
"This is important to note, because ancient Egypt does not always receive the credit it deserves as part of the foundation of western culture," Diamond says. "Usually the story begins and ends with Julius Caesar, and relegated to the footnotes is the fact that the Egyptians were technologically savvy and passed on their wisdom to the Roman world."
For a time, this Julian calendar seemed to propose an ideal solution — until people realized that an extra day every four years was too many, and a modified Gregorian calendar was developed in 1582. The Gregorian calendar is now used as the official civilian time-tracker in most parts of the world. Even so, the Ides of March from the Julian calendar are still part of our collective consciousness, thanks in large part to Caesar's untimely death and a Shakespeare play that immortalized it. Since Caesar’s assassination, the middle of March has become synonymous with bad tidings, unwelcome omens and disaster.
A Day to Beware
In 44 B.C.E., about one year into Julius Caesar's rule of Rome, things seemed to be going well. Caesar had a number of military victories under his belt after taking over parts of Belgium, France, Germany, Spain and Switzerland, and he was generally quite popular among his constituents. Caesar had appointed several political leaders that comprised Rome's senate, but tensions were building. Members of the Senate worried that with Caesar's mounting popularity and his recent self-appointment of "dictator in perpetuity" would lead to a disastrous political outcome for Rome. Members of the Senate feared Caesar would disband the Senate and rule of his own accord without their input.
The brewing opposition to Caesar's rule came to a head on the Ides of March — March 15 — in 44 B.C.E. when about 40 Roman senators stabbed Caesar to death as the group was on its way to a sporting event at the Theatre of Pompey in Rome. The conspiracy, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, was kept under wraps by the dozens of senators involved.
"Julius Caesar ... managed to anger enough people that he was taken out by his own Senate for the greater good," says Kate Wiswell, historical hobbyist and author, in an email interview. "Sadly, his removal did not usher in the revolution people had hoped for, because they fought so much about how to replace him that they ended up with yet another empirical Caesar just like him."
After a period of public outrage and a series of civil wars, Caesar's nephew Octavian began calling himself Caesar Augustus and claimed rule of what would become the Roman Empire, ending ancient Rome's brush with a government ruled by representatives of the people.