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The Ides of March: What the heck is it anyway?

Updated on March 15, 2012

Beware the Ides of March

"Beware the Ides of March," is great information, especially if you happen to be an ancient Roman dictator. But exactly what are ides anyway, and how do you avoid them?

The word "ides," which rhymes with "hides," is in fact singular. According to the Roman calendar, the ides was the day of the full moon. It corresponded to the 13th day in many months, but the 15th of March, May, July, and October.

The ancient Romans didn't think there was nearly anything particularly inauspicious regarding the Ides of March, or the ides of any additional month for that matter. The day was generally a celebration for honoring the divine being of the month, Mars, by having a military parade. Yet in 44 BC, March 15 stood out as a specifically bad day for a minimum of one ancient Roman: Julius Caesar.

According to Plutarch's Parallel Lives, Caesar watched a soothsayer who had foretold that great peril might fall on him no later on than the Ides of March. As the dictator was en route to the Senate-House, where this individual would meet his unfortunate end, the man watched the soothsayer and stated, "Well, the Ides of March are come."

"Aye, they are come," reacted the seer, "yet they are not gone."

The scene is famously repeated in Act 3, scene 1 of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar."

Yet was Caesar truly assassinated on this day? The traditional record acknowledges that the poor guy perished on the 15th day of Martius, yet, in the last years of his life Caesar set about screwing around with the Roman calendar, which, since politicians had the authority to add days by fiat, had actually fallen out of sync with the earth's actual orbit around the sun.

The Julian Calendar was first carried out in 45 BC and went on to be in extensive use until the 18th century, when it was supplanted by the Gregorian Calendar. However in the very early days of the Julian Calendar, the leap year cycle was not yet stabilized. Therefore most scholars think that the actual date of Caesar's assassination is most likely March 14, 44 BC.

The Julian Calendar assumed that the solar year lasted just 365.25 days, providing a leap year every 4 years. This was very close, yet it was in fact too long by just 11 minutes. This included about 3 days every four centuries, gradually pushing Western civilization from the natural sun cycle. The Gregorian Calendar, first proposed in 1582, sought to balance out the drift. As nations adopted it, they had to advance their calendars 10 or 11 days.

But back in 44 BC, the Julian Calendar was most likely 3 whole days behind the Gregorian Calendar. So, if you're inclined to commemorate the anniversary of Caesar's assassination, and if you get tangled up in these kinds of details, you'll need to hang around until March 11 of next year.


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