“Beware the ides of March,” the soothsayer famously warned the namesake emperor in Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar." Before Caesar's assassination, the ides of March was just another day on the Roman calendar and wasn't considered bad luck or a day of dread. So, what is the ides of March, and why does it have such a dark reputation?
What is the Ides of March?
Long before Caesar or Shakespeare were born, the ides of March was celebrated as a part of the lunar calendar. Around 753 BCE, the calendar was broken up based on the phases of the moon. Kalends was the first phase or new moon, and was the first day of the month; Nones was the quarter moon and typically landed around the fifth or seventh day of the month; and Ides was the full moon that generally landed between the 13th and 17th day of the month.
Early Roman calendars consisted of 10 months, with the first month being Martius, which later became March. The ides of March (March 15) was the first full moon of the new year.
Ides of March celebrations
Since the ides of March was the first full moon of the new year, Romans celebrated it as a time of new beginnings, much like New Year's Day is celebrated today. They held festivals and feasts in honor of the goddess Anna Perenna, who symbolized the turning of the new year. Her name can even be seen today in the words “annual” and “perennial.”
Every year on the ides of March, people would picnic, feast, dance, and sing through the night, toasting to health and long life. They also offered sacrifices to the goddess. It was a common belief that Anna Perenna would grant you as many years of life as cups of wine you could drink during the Ides of March celebration. Needless to say, revelers got very drunk.
Assassination of Julius Caesar
The event that eventually changed the collective view about the ides of March happened in 44 BCE. On March 15, a group of conspirators brutally stabbed Emperor Julius Caesar 23 times in the middle of a senate meeting. His assassination plunged Rome into a period of bloody battles between aspiring rulers.
Although March 15, 44 BCE certainly wasn’t a good day for Caesar, the ides of March wasn’t considered unlucky until centuries later.
In the year 1599, the first productions of William Shakespeare's tragedy “Julius Caesar” were performed. While it might not have been a perfect historical representation of Caesar’s life, it was certainly popular. According to the play, a few days before his assassination, Caesar went to see a soothsayer who told him to “Beware the Ides of March.” Of course, when the ides came, Caesar didn't take adequate precautions, and the rest is history.
Because of Shakespeare's way with words, the ides of March has been forever linked with bad luck. Since then other plays, TV shows, and movies have used the ides of March as a shorthand for an ominous day, further perpetuating the idea that March 15 is unlucky.
Bad things happen on the Ides of March
Although the negativity surrounding the ides of March is entirely a Shakespearean fabrication, that doesn’t mean that bad things haven’t happened on that date. Of course, Julius Caesar's murder was a big one, but other significant, negative events have happened on the ides of March as well.
- In 1917, Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the Russian throne, marking the end of the Russian Empire.
- The Nazis began their occupation of Czechoslovakia on the Ides of March in 1939.
- After 23 years as one of the most popular shows on television, "The Ed Sullivan Show" was canceled on the ides of March in 1971.
Perhaps there was some truth to Shakespeare’s words after all.