You might be familiar with the term 'Beware the Ides of March', immortalized in the literary circle by none other than Shakespeare himself. But many people around the world are unfamiliar with the significance of the term or the day it refers to. The early Roman calendar was based on the lunar cycle. Therefore, ancient Romans used to track the phases of the moon with great diligence. The time required for the moon to complete one cycle is 29 to 30 days, and hence, a month was equated with a single phase of the moon. Months consisting of 30 days were believed to exert more power or influence on daily life. According to the Roman calendar, March, May, and October were the months with 30 days, and thus were considered more powerful than the others. March, which got its name from the Roman god of war, Mars, was considered especially powerful. Certain days in months had special importance in Roman culture, and were used as a reference for counting the other days. The 15th day of March, May, July, and October was called 'Ides'. Similarly, the first day of every month was called 'Kalends', and 'Nones' was the 7th day in March, May, July, October and the 5th day in the other months.
The word 'Ides' has its origin in Latin, and literally means 'halfway'. It marked the day of the full moon, which, in a powerful month like March, was considered an auspicious day. It was usually marked with festivities in the name of the god Mars, along with military parades. Ancient Romans elected their consuls, who used to take charge of the office on this day, heralding the new sessions of council.
Origin of the Term
The famous English playwright William Shakespeare immortalized the term in his tragic play, 'Julius Caesar'. The play, based on actual historic events, popularized the quote, 'Beware the Ides of March'. The actual event in history was the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. A group of conspirators stabbed him in the Roman Senate, because they were ostensibly fed up with his autocratic rule. The group positioned itself around Caesar as he was reading a petition in the Theater of Pompey. Around 60 people stabbed him all of a sudden, inflicting 23 stab wounds on his body. The death of Caesar initiated a civil war in Rome, to fill the consequent power vacuum.
Popularization of the Term
The play narrates the sequence of events as a betrayal by a loyal friend. According to the play, Caesar had a loyal friend named Brutus, who formed a part of the respectable citizenry of Rome. However, Brutus, along with a majority of the people were jealous of Caesar due to his power and the adulation he received from the masses, decided to kill him. A soothsayer is believed to have warned Caesar not to attend the Senate session that day, but he did not heed the advice. Unwillingly though, Brutus, along with a few trusted accomplices, stabbed him to end his tyranny. Caesar's dying words roughly translated to, "Brutus, you too!" The 15th of March is still approached with a sense of caution in many cultures. More recently, the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair had chosen March 15 as the day for a vote on a bill pertaining to educational reforms in the UK. The press was full of warnings by political observers, warning the prime minister about the ominous Ides of March.
The expression was originally simply a way of referring to the day of March 15, but the soothsayer's infamous warning to a literary interpretation of Caesar, left a sense of foreboding associated with the phrase and the day.