If you’re noticing an existential gloom hanging over all of humanity today, rest assured: It’s not because today is “The Ides of March.”
In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, first produced in 1599, a soothsayer repeatedly warns the titular character to “Beware the Ides of March,” and the phrase has resonated throughout Western culture since as a dire warning about a dark day. But what does it mean? And why, exactly, should we beware?
What are ‘ides?’
On the Roman lunar calendar, “ides” refers to the first new moon of a month, which usually falls between the thirteenth and fifteens. The “Ides of March,” though, refers specifically to March 15, no matter when the new moon rises.
What’s the deal about March’s ides?
Shakespeare’s play is based on political intrigue within the Roman Republic — Julius Caesar really was assassinated by a group of senators on March 15, 44 BC, setting off the a civil war that ultimately resulted in the formation of the Roman Empire. A fortune-teller warned Julius to watch out on the 15th (at least, if you believe the account of Roman historian Plutarch).
The prescient warning from the seer was specifically directed to Julius Caesar, though, not to everyone, so even if a seer really could see the future, there is no reason for us to be more wary of The Ides of March than any other day.
How do we celebrate the Ides of March?
In the modern world, we don’t do a lot to mark March 15 — it’s National Shoe the World Day and International Day of Action Against Canadian Seal Slaughter as well as a bunch of other “days,” but nothing widely marked.
In ancient Rome, though, March 15 was an important day. It marked the first ides of the New Year on the Roman Calendar, and was deadline day for settling debts, a little like an ancient Roman version of April 15. The murderous senators knew Caesar would be in the senate on that day, and stabbing him to death on a day dedicated to settling debts and ringing in a new year is powerful symbolism.
Is the Ides of March actually unlucky?
If you search through history for bad things that happened on March 15, you’ll come up with some — in 1360, there was a particularly brutal raid on England by the French, Germany occupied Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, SARS was first reported in 2003 — but on the other side of the ledger, March 15 was the release date on The Godfather in 1972, in 1965 Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act, and in 1933, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born. So, it’s ultimately a wash — we only say “Beware the Ides of March” because of Shakespeare’s play.
Other supernatural warnings of Julius Caesar’s assassination
The seer’s warning detailed by Shakespeare wasn’t the only psychic prediction of Julius Caesar’s assassination. Virgil’s poem The Georgics reports that the following warnings of doom also preceded the political murder:
- Ill-boding dogs and birds that spell mischief sent signs which heralded disaster.
- Germany heard the noise of battle sweep across the sky.
- Phantoms of unearthly pallor were seen in the falling darkness.
- Beasts uttered human speech.
- Rivers stood still.
- In the temples ivory images wept for grief, and beads of sweat covered bronze statues.
- Never fell more lightning from a cloudless sky; never was comet’s alarming glare so often seen.