Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

24.5 The Ides of March

If it wasn’t for William Shakespeare and his Julius Caesar, we probably would have no idea today of this ancient Roman calendar marker. I suppose that’s a credit to the power of the cultural arts – to imbed memes in the societal landscape.

Even so, I hazard to guess most people, if they know anything at all about the Ides of March, know only that it portends foreboding.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar by William Holmes Sullivan, c. 1888

But before we get to foreboding, (or should that be too foreboding?) it ought to be mentioned that it isn’t just March that has an Ides, or at least, had. The old Roman/Etruscan calendar – before Julius Caesar sorted things out, mostly, with the Julian Calendar – was sort of a hybrid lunar/solar calculus. It had ten months, essentially lunar months, beginning with March (spring equinox) and ending with December (deca, ten, got it?); each had 30 or 31 days and totalled 304 days, including 38 market days. The ancient Romans had eight days a week (some 2000 years before The Beatles!), the eighth day being market day; 38 8-day weeks totalled 304. These ten months were significant to the Etruscans because, as essentially an agrarian society, for them everything turned on the seasons. They didn’t worry, much, about when the rent was due, but when they should be getting those seeds sown, fertilized, reaped. The Roman/Etruscans knew there were 365 days in the year so they used the ‘Winter’ (such as it was, being a Mediterranean climate) fallow season for rest; for all intents and purposes, the ‘calendar’ was ignored, except by the priests; they used the last 60 days of the year, January and February, for adjustments. (Damned inconvenient that the Earth and sun and moon don’t cooperate much with the machinations of men. I mean, it was easy enough to determine that the earth rotated on its axis once every 24 hours (or if you prefer, the sun revolved around the earth once every 24 hours), but it was rather annoying that god made the moon wax and wane every 29.5 days and the earth circumnavigate the sun every 365.25 days. Why didn’t she see the sense in making it 7 days a week, 4 weeks a month, 13 months (364 days) a year; very neat. Instead we need a priestly class (now we call them scientists) to figure all out all the adjustments need to keep our clocks and calendars aligned. I could go on, but the risk is high that you will get stuck in thick mire trying to sort out uncooperative non-aligned behaviour of the sun and the moon.

But we digress. We’re talking about the Ides, not the tides.

Originally, the ides of the ten lunar months were the most important days in the calendar, marked by the occasion of the full moon, nominally on the 15th day of the month, but more often the 13th. The Romans didn’t really pay attention to the first day of the month but instead counted backwards from the ides or forward from the ides to the kalends – the first day of the next month. 

When Julius Caesar’s calendar was adopted in 45 BCE, the lunar periodicity for calendar purposes was largely ignored. Well of course not entirely ignored since lunar phenomena were still observed in many societies across the Empire. And when Constantine adopted Christianity in AD 325 he had to accommodate the Hebrew lunar calendar to determine when Easter should be observed. (Perhaps more on that next blog post.) The Julian Calendar, sensibly, marked the beginning of each month as the 1st (rather than counting backwards and forwards from the ides), and adopted the notion of a seven-day week. Market days became Saturdays and the observation of the ides became less relevant. If it hadn’t been for Caesar’s assassination (not because of the calendar!), and William Shakespeare, the ides might have been forgotten altogether.

Besides his calendar, and the Ides of March, Gaius Julius Caesar is well remembered for his military and political exploits, and largely because he was also a prolific writer. (I suppose if you want to leave a legacy you need to do two things – do something significant, and have somebody write about it (and I suppose, hope people coming after don’t forget, rewrite or erase your history). (The problem for mere writers hoping for a legacy is, they often confuse writing with actually doing something.) Regardless, JC had compelling leadership abilities, a powerful army, and, one has to suppose, a big ego – hence his many conquests (Gaul, Germanica, Britannica – veni, vidi, vici – Cleopatra (or did she seduce Juli?)). He left a substantial cultural meme: ‘he crossed the Rubicon’, which has become an idiom for taking a momentous decision and a propitious step (just as George Washington crossing the Potomac). He was proclaimed Dictator in 49 BCE, instituted a massive building program, set the stage for the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Imperial system. He was never Emperor, only Dictator, but his name became a symbol for ‘ruler’ (even entering the language in derivatives, Kaiser and Czar). Wow. His legacy also is captured in the idioms for treachery and betrayal – though some of the credit should go to Will Shakespeare: ‘stabbed in the back’, and “Et tu, Brute?” (you too, Brutus?).

But despite naming himself dictator perpetuo, he never got around to developing a succession plan – maybe he just ran out of time – nor had a legitimate son as heir. His ultimate successor, Octavian, was his great-nephew and adopted son, and he eventually, after yet another round of internecine conflict, became Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.

In Shakespeare’s play, fate and foreboding is the dominant theme. Written in 1599 it may have been a metaphor for the preoccupation of Elizabethan Society of the concern that the aging monarch would die without a direct heir, leaving the monarchial succession in a state of uncertainty.  (And they were right. It took a century of bloody Stuarts and Cromwell to settle things down.)

Julius Caesar was warned by a soothsayer not to go to a meeting of the Senate at the Curia Pompeia theatre on March the 15th but Caesar, perhaps presuming himself invincible, defied fate and went anyway. But on the steps of the theatre he was swarmed by some 60 disgruntled rivals, the last of whom was his friend Brutus, and stabbed to death. These were more than paper cuts.

(And here’s a less well-remembered memory, certainly by Gen Xs, Ys and Zs – the Canadian comic duo, Wayne and Shuster did a frantic mock-up of the Ides of March scene on the theatre steps (Wipe the Blood off my Toga) with Johnny Wayne as a private Roman eye interviewing Caesar’s wife lamenting: “I said, ‘Juli, don’t go; Juli! – don’t go!'”) And for amusement, check out this Youtube video: Wipe the Blood off my Toga:

(And here’s a bit of irony: John Wilkes Booth was an actor and performed Marc Anthony in Julius Caesar in November 1864. Booth was also a Confederate spy and as the American Civil War was nearing its end, shot Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head at Ford’s Theatre April 14, 1865, but not the Ides. I don’t think Abe was forewarned.)

But in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare gives JC some revenge, appearing to Brutus as an apparition and foreshadowing his fate of defeat and death at the Battle of Philippi. (And for true trivia fans, ‘Great Caesar’s Ghost’ became a favourite expression of Perry White, editor of the Metropolis Daily Planet newspaper, expressing shock and foreboding.)

Besides Shakespeare and Perry White, do we have any other examples of March 15 as a symbol of foreboding. Well, my research doesn’t reveal much of significance beyond JC’s march to the theatre but here are three others: the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the first successful spacewalk, and the registration of the first internet domain name. I suppose that last is about as foreboding as it gets.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

© Douglas Jordan & AFS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

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