Why Exactly Do We “Beware of the Ides of March”?
Don’t open your umbrellas indoors! March 15th is the Ides of March—a day a lot of people think is as unlucky day as Friday the 13th. What’s the deal? Why do people say “Beware the Ides of March”? What does “ides” even mean?
“Ides” means a different thing depending on the month.
Since the Ides of March falls on the 15th, I’ve allowed myself to believe that “ides” meant fifteen. But that’s actually not the case! (You learn something new every day.) Instead of numbering every day, the Roman calendar labeled three points in the month. The “kalends” marked the first day of the month, the fifth or seventh day was called the “nones,” and the thirteenth or fifteenth was called the “ides.”
What the Roman calendar determined whether the nones and ides fell on the seventh and fifteenth or the fifth and thirteenth, respectfully, was whether the month was a “full” month with 31 days or a “hollow” month with 29 days. March, May, July, and October were full months and the rest were hollow months. Our modern calendar has changed a little bit (shout out to Leap Year) so that no longer reflects the number of days in each month, but we kept the ides in those places, loosely corresponding to the month’s midpoint.
The historical, and Shakespearean, significance of the Ides of March
March 15 is the anniversary of Julius Caesar’s assassination. But that’s not why it is unlucky. In the Philosopher Plutarch’s book Parallel Lives, a collection of biographies that includes Caesar’s, he says that a fortune teller (called a soothsayer) warned him about the day. As he walked towards the very amphitheater, he made a passing joke to the soothsayer that the day was harmless to him so far. The soothsayer basically said it ain’t over yet, and they were correct! He died in that amphitheater, assassinated by a group of senators.
According to National Geographic, the Romans observed the Ides of March as a deadline for settling your debts (kind of vaguely like Tax Day, I imagine). The conspiracy to kill Caesar took that rather literally, it turns out. The debt they settled was, in their opinion, to society.
William Shakespeare penned the soothsayer as saying “Beware the Ides of March” in his tragedy Julius Caesar, which turned it into an incredibly popular phrase. So there you have it! March 15 is basically just a superstition since Caesar fatally failed to heed a pretty clear warning.
(featured image: Paramount)
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