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What are The Ides of March?

The Ides of March, occurring on March 15th, is a date deeply embedded in Roman history and collective memory.

What are The Ides of March?
La morte di Cesare. The Death of Julius Caesar (1806) by Vincenzo Camuccini. Public domain

The Ides of March, occurring on March 15th, is a date deeply embedded in Roman history and collective memory, primarily due to the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. This day marked a turning point, symbolizing the end of the Roman Republic and the dawn of the Empire.

A seer told Caesar, "Beware of the Ides of March!". But what instills dread about this date, and what exactly are the "Ides of March"? The intrigue surrounding this day traces back to a pivotal moment in history – the murder of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE.

A forewarning of imminent peril was given to Caesar, who had recently been declared Dictator perpetuo (English: "dictator in perpetuity"), also called dictator in perpetuum, and found himself amidst increasing hostility in Rome. Although Caesar's fall precipitated the decline of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire, the term "Ides of March" is famously linked to its depiction in William Shakespeare's drama "Julius Caesar."

Mosaic with the months of the year
Mosaic with the months of the year, starting with the Roman first month March. Credits: © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Understanding the Roman Calendar

Rather than sequentially numbering the days from the beginning to the end of the month, the Romans used a system of counting backwards from three critical points within the month: the Nones - Nonae (either the 5th or 7th, depending on the month, and occurring eight days prior to the Ides), the Ides - Idus (falling on the 13th for most months but on the 15th for March, May, July, and October), and the Kalends - Kalendae (which marked the start of the following month).

The Significance of the Ides of March

The Ides were intended to align with the full moon, underscoring the Roman calendar's lunar origins. March, or Martius, served as the initial month of the Roman year up until the mid-2nd century BC. This is evident in the names of the months from September to December, which originally aligned as the seventh to tenth months, respectively, but now occupy different positions in the modern Gregorian calendar. In the oldest Roman calendar system, the Ides of March marked the year's first full moon. Positioned as a significant day within the month, the Ides became associated with various monthly obligations, including the due date for debts and rent payments.

The month of March, named after Mars, the god of war, began with celebrations for Mars but the Ides of March were dedicated to Jupiter, the chief deity of the Romans. During the Ides, a specific ritual involving the sacrifice of a sheep, known as the "Ides sheep," by Jupiter's high priest took place.

A portrait of Brutus. Illustration: DALL-E

This procession and sacrifice occurred along the Via Sacra to the arx. (Arx is a Latin word meaning "citadel". In the ancient city of Rome, the arx was located on the northern spur of the Capitoline Hill, and is sometimes specified as the Arx Capitolina.)

Despite the introduction of January and February as the first months of the year, March retained its significance with several ceremonies, one being the Feast of Anna Perenna. Anna Perenna was an old Roman deity of the circle or "ring" of the year, as indicated by the name (per annum). This feast marked the conclusion of the new year's celebrations, characterized by public festivities such as picnics, drinking, and general merriment. Additionally, the Ides of March included the Mamuralia - Sacrum Mamurio a ritual possibly related to the theme of expelling the old year, symbolized by beating an old man dressed in animal skins.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar's assassination was the culmination of a conspiracy by Roman senators who feared his rising power and the potential end of the Republic. Led by Marcus Brutus and Gaius Cassius, the plot saw Caesar fatally stabbed at a Senate meeting. Contrary to the conspirators' hopes, this act did not restore the Republic but plunged Rome into civil wars, leading to the establishment of the Roman Empire under Augustus, Caesar's adopted heir.

William Shakespeare in his study writing Julius Caesar
William Shakespeare in his study writing "Julius Caesar". Illustration by Canva

Legacy and Cultural Impact

Brutus and Cassius, champions of the Republic, could not foresee its imminent transformation into an autocracy. Their struggle, aimed at preserving the Republic, ironically led to its dissolution. The Second Triumvirate, a powerful alliance formed by Octavian, Marc Antony, and Lepidus, initially united to suppress the conspirators but eventually fractured, igniting another civil conflict between Octavian and Antony. The resolution of this war left Octavian as the sole power, who then assumed the title of Emperor Augustus, marking the Republic's end and heralding the inception of the Roman Empire. This empire would persist in various forms up to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.

William Shakespeare, about 150 years later, cemented the "Ides of March" into the cultural lexicon with his play "Julius Caesar," specifically through the phrase "Beware the Ides of March." This phrase has since come to symbolize forewarnings of treachery and calamity, encapsulating the notion of an ominous harbinger.

The assassination on the Ides of March has since permeated culture, education, and literature, where the event is remembered as a lesson in power, betrayal, and the irreversible march of history towards the Roman Empire.

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