15 March 2009

Beware the Ides of March

From Shakespeare's play, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II (a public place)

Soothsayer: Caesar!

CAESAR: Ha! who calls?

CASCA: Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

CAESAR: Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry 'Caesar!' Speak; Caesar is turn'd to hear.

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR: What man is that?

BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

CAESAR: Set him before me; let me see his face.

CASSIUS: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

CAESAR: What say'st thou to me now? speak once again.

Beware the ides of March.

The soothsayer was right. On the Ides of this month in 44 BC Julius Caesar met his death by assassination. So began our modern association of the expectation of gloom, doom and death with the Ides of March.

However in Ancient Rome, saying the Ides of March was just another way of saying the 15th of March. Every month had an Ides. In the Julian calendar months were arranged around three named days. These three days were reference points from which the other (unnamed) days were calculated:

Kalends (1st day of the month).
Nones (the 7th day in March, May, July, and October; the 5th in the other months).
Ides (the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; the 13th in the other months).

The unnamed days were identified by counting backwards from the Kalends, the Nones, or the Ides. For example, 5 March would be III Nones - 3 days before the Nones (the Roman method of counting days was inclusive, so the Nones would be counted as one of the 3 days). 6 March would have been Pridie Nones (In Latin, Pridie means "on the day before").

Thus, in the Julian Calendar, the first seven days of March were:
VI Nones
V Nones
IV Nones
III Nones
Pridie Nones

This somewhat confusing system of keeping track of the days continued to be used through the Middle Ages and up into the Renaissance. It wasn't until 24 February 1582 that the Gregorian Calendar (the civil calendar we use today) was decreed by Pope Gregory XIII to replace the Julian Calendar. Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar around 1600 so using the term, "the Ides of March", would have been perfectly understandable to the audience.

A couple of interesting notes:
Kalends is the word from which our word calendar is derived. Kalendrium, in Latin, means accounting book. Kalend, the first of the month, was back then as it is often now, the date on which accounts/bills were due.

I love history and trivia.
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Martha said...

In school, we learned about the Ides of March (although not about any other monthly "Ides" -- because of Cesear) -- but to us it was always Daddy's birthday. And it still is, to me!

Becky said...

Such a birthday is a much happier memory for the Ides of March.