Why beware the Ides of March | Daily News


 

Why beware the Ides of March

March has come, and yet to be gone. “The ides of March are come,” to be more precise quoting William Shakespeare’s celebrated play Julius Caesar, where the title character encounters and challenges a certain soothsayer. And to that challenge, the soothsayer responds: “Ay, Caesar; but not gone.”

If you’ve heard of the Ides of March, you might as well know that it’s something to be concerned about. In ancient Rome, the Ides of March were equivalent to our March 15. In the Roman calendar, this date corresponded to several religious observances. The Romans considered the Ides of March as a deadline for settling debts. But – for our modern world – if you’ve heard of the Ides of March, it’s probably thanks to William Shakespeare.

In his play Julius Caesar, a soothsayer attracts Caesar’s attention and tells him:

Beware the ides of March.

Caesar demands:

What man is that? Set him before me, let me see his face.

The soothsayer renews his warning. But the emperor gives the axe:

He is a dreamer; let us leave him. Pass.

Two acts later, Caesar is murdered.

In the play – and in reality – Julius Caesar was indeed assassinated on the ides of March – March 15 – in the year 44 BC.

In the ancient Roman calendar, each month had Ides. In March, May, July, and October, the Ides fell on the 15th instant. In every other month, the Ides fell on the 13th day.

The word Ides derives from a Latin word, meaning to divide. The Ides were originally meant to mark the full moons, but because calendar months and lunar months were different lengths, they quickly got out of step.

The Romans also had a name for the first day of every month. It was known as the Kalends. It is from this word that our word calendar is derived.

The Ides of March comes from the ides, a term the Romans used to note the middle of a month. Every month has an ides around the middle (as well as a calends at the beginning of the month and nones eight days before the ides). The Ides of March feels special for a couple of reasons: it’s the day Caesar was murdered, and it’s the subject of a soothsayer’s spooky prophecy in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The truth is, in fact, more interesting.

For one, we know who the soothsayer was and what he really said: he was named Spurinna, and he was from Etruria. That’s important because Etruscans were known to specialize in divination. Cicero’s letters, Plutarch, and Suetonius all confirm his high status. As notably, Spurinna’s warning to Caesar was more complex — and more accurate — than the type of prophecy most modern sceptics would dismiss.

“They have a lot of contacts,” Strauss says, “and they’re people who know what’s going on.” That would have made Spurinna’s prophecy a more frightening bellwether of the anti-Caesar sentiment in Rome. Soothsayers could poll the elites, and the elites did not like Caesar.

On February 15, Spurinna said he found a bad omen: a bull without a heart (it’s unclear if the bull was a genetic abnormality, a shocking sign, or a soothsayer’s poetic license). After that, Spurinna told Caesar to beware for the next 30 days, not just on the Ides of March. It wasn’t a lucky prediction but rather a calculated assessment of Rome’s political climate.

The end date of the prophecy wasn’t a coincidence, either — on March 18, Caesar was going to embark on a multiyear military campaign that would take him away from Rome. The assassins had to kill him before he left.

Our modern calendar is very much like the one that Julius Caesar enacted the year before his death. It had 365 days and 12 months each year. It even took into account the fact that Earth’s orbit around the sun isn’t a whole number of days, by adding a leap day every few years.

There was idealism involved: Caesar was turning the Roman republic into a dictatorship and making himself a king. But there were also deeply personal motives.

Before Caesar, Roman nobility and military were free to plunder the provinces they ruled. But under Caesar, Rome controlled the process and sent inspectors to check up on everything, so they could only exploit their provinces under Caesar’s supervision.

That slight was compounded by Caesar’s rebranding of political real estate in his name — he built statues in his image and renamed monuments for himself. He brought power to his family by giving them political appointments and honorifics, and drew allies outside the charmed circle of Roman nobility, like his soldiers and leaders in the provinces. “People in the old nobility feel cut out,” Strauss says. In addition to concern for the average Roman, self-interest drove the conspirators to kill Caesar.

There weren’t just political and financial grudges, either. Brutus’ mother, Servilia, had once had an affair with Caesar, and there were even rumours that Brutus was Caesar’s son (for the record, Strauss thinks that’s highly unlikely). Servilia was also co-conspirator Cassius’ mother-in-law.

Caesar’s death on March 15 led to a civil war in Rome, which ultimately led to the execution of 300 senators and knights to avenge Caesar’s death, as Rome was thrown into a period of upheaval.

Caesar was well received by the lower class people of Rome. His death came forth as an unwelcome decision made by the aristocratic class. With no Caesar any longer to lead, the potential leaders waged war to fill the power vacuum.

The civil wars achieve one thing. It ensured the end of the Roman Republic. The end of the republic meant the birth of an empire.

That inspired Shakespeare to syringe the lines that bridged the connection between the soothsayer and Caesar. The ruler chose to ignore the mystic probably because his was a doomed fate.

It may come as a surprise to know the well-known phrase was inspired by real events.

According to Greek historian Plutarch, a seer did warn Caesar that he would be at the very least injured by the Ides of March.

Caesar did not heed the warning there either.

On the day of his death, he saw the oracle and joked that he had made it to the Ides of March, only to be reminded by the seer that the day had not yet ended.

So to say, beware! The month of March is come, and yet to be gone.


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