Beware the Ides of March…Why?

Beware the Ides of March…Why?

Event / Language & Editing

If you haven't looked at a calendar yet today, you might not know that today, March 15, is actually the Ides of March. I'm sure you've heard of it before, but what exactly is this special day all about?



History of the Ides of March


In the old Roman tradition, the “Ides” was simply the name given to the first full moon of a given month, which usually fell between the 13th and the 15th. It was one of three ancient markers used to reference dates in relation to the lunar phases, the others being the Kalends (the 1st of the month, corresponding to the first sighting of the crescent moon) and the Nones (the 8th or 9th, corresponding to the first-quarter moon).


The Ides of March, specifically, was considered a time of renewal and rebirth, marking the departure of winter and the advent of spring.  Even before the events of 44 BC, this was a very important day for the ancient Romans, as March was actually the first month of their calendar year, and the Ides fell on a full moon, marking the official “new year’s day.” March 15th would thus be a day of rest, feasting, and celebration before the beginning of the planting season.


As part of this day of celebration and rebirth, the Romans honoured the goddess Anna Perenna. A few lines from Ovid’s Fasti paint us a picture:


On the Ides is the merry feast of Anna Perenna

            Not far from your banks, alien Tiber.

The plebs arrive and scatter over the green grass

            Drinking, and all recline beside their mates.

Some rough it under Jupiter’s sky, a few pitch tents,

            Or fashion leafy cabins from branches.

Others erect poles to serve as rigid columns

            And then stretch their togas over them.

They heat up with sun and wine, and pray for years

            To match their cups and count all their drinks. (3.23–32)



The names “Anna,” meaning “to live through a year,” and “Perenna,” meaning “to last many years,” form the roots of the modern English words “annual” and “perennial,” which we used to describe the life cycles of plants.



The Ides in Literature


But certainly the Ides of March is most well-known as the date of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. Caesar was killed by Brutus, Cassius, and over 60 other members of the Roman senate, over fears that Caesar was becoming too powerful and had designs to establish himself as rex, or “king.”


This event was famously dramatized by Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar, in which a prophet warned Caesar to “beware the Ides of March.” The following day, as Caesar was walking to the Senate (where he would meet his doom), he saw the prophet and said, “The Ides of March are come,” to which the prophet replies, “Aye, Caesar; but not gone” (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1).


Although many details of Shakespeare’s version of events were embellished or downright invented to make for compelling theatre — Caesar’s infamous last words, “et tu, Brute?” for example — this detail about the prophet’s warning comes directly from one of our most detailed ancient accounts of Caesar’s death, Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar. Plutarch, a Greek moral philosopher and prolific writer living in the Roman Empire about 100 years after Caesar’s assassination, relates the following:


There was another story too, told by many sources, to the effect that a diviner warned [Caesar] to beware the great danger on the day in the month of March which the Romans call the Ides, and that when this day arrived Caesar called out to the diviner as he was on his way to the senate and said sarcastically, “Well the Ides of March have come!” And the diviner quietly replied: “Yes, they have come, but they have not yet gone.” (Plutarch, Caesar 63.3–4)



Unfortunate Series of Ides Events


The Ides of March wasn’t a bad (well, the worst) day just for Julius Caesar. Unfortunately, lots of unpleasant things have happened on this date over the years.


On March 15, 1889, a Samoan cyclone destroyed six warships (three US, three German), leaving more than 200 sailors dead (but also likely averting a war, since both countries were competing to annex the Samoan Islands).


On March 15, 1917, Czar Nicholas II signed his abdication papers, thus ending a royal dynasty that had lasted 304 years and ushering in Bolshevik rule, which eventually led to the deaths of himself and his family.


In 2003, the Ides of March was the day that the World Health Organization issued its heightened global alert for the SARS virus.


In 2017, Britain very nearly hosted its own unfortunate Ides-related event when the Prime Minister’s Office picked March 15 as the date to trigger Brexit. Thankfully, they heeded the calls to “beware the Ides of March,” and after considering the symbolism, opted to choose another date instead. 



Celebrate with Your Own Traditions


If you want to celebrate the Ides of March this year, we can offer a few ideas. You could watch the movie The Ides of March (starring George Clooney and Ryan Gosling), in which an idealistic presidential campaign worker (Gosling) gets caught up in scandal after the integrity of the candidate (Clooney) is threatened in one of the presidential primaries.


You could also watch one of the many episodes of television shows with Ides of March­–related titles: Party of FiveThe Simpsons, and Xena: Warrior Princess all have Ides episodes (all of which feature rather unpleasant plot points).


You could, of course, read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Thornton Wilder’s novel The Ides of March. Or, if you don’t mind a little blood and violence, you might watch the season 1 finale of HBO’s Rome, which covers this historic day in 44 BC. (Spoiler: You won’t get to hear Ciarán Hinds’s Caesar utter those three words made famous by Shakespeare, but you’ll be haunted by how much he says with just his eyes.)


Or, for something a little less sword-and-sandal, you could simply recline with a nice glass of Italian wine and, as the plebs once did, “pray for years to match your cups” (that is, drink as many cups as the number of years you wish to live).





Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The two sides of the coin above show the image of Brutus on the left, and the two daggers with the “liberty cap” in the centre on the right. The coin was minted in 42 BC, two years following the assassination, and was created by Brutus as a means to protect his name and status. The daggers symbolize the assassination, and the cap, given to Roman slaves when they were freed, symbolizes liberty. The message that Brutus was trying to get out was that by killing Caesar, he and his co-conspirators had freed Rome from tyranny and slavery.




“Beware the Ides of March,” Wine Folly

Ovid. Fasti. Translated and edited by A.J. Boyle and R.D. Woodard. Penguin Books, 2004.

Plutarch. Roman Lives. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press, 1999.

“Top Ten Reasons to Beware the Ides of March,” Smithsonian




Want a great editing tip in your inbox each month? Sign up for our enewsletter today!