When it comes to the most famous date in ancient Rome, the Ides of March comes to mind.? In fact, for most it is the only date that comes to mind, thanks to Shakespeare?s Julius Caesar.? ?Beware the Ides of March,? the soothsayer tells the doomed Caesar in Act I Scene 2 of that play.? Of course, because of his ambition Caesar doesn?t, and the rest is history and a great play.? But what exactly was the Ides of March?
To answer that, first I must give an explanation of the Roman calendar.? The first one was called the calendar of Romulus (the legendary founder of Rome) and had ten months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December.? Most of the names are familiar if you change the ones with a first letter of ?I? to a ?J?? because there was no ?J? in the Latin alphabet.? The first three months were named after Roman deities, Mars, Maia and Juno.? The last six came from the Latin words for five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten.? Where Aprilis came from no one knows.? It supposedly had been created about 753 B.C.? Since six of them had 30 days and four had 31, the total number of days in the calendar was 304 and it had some problems coinciding with the solar year.? The next one, the Calendar of Numa, was claimed to have been created by the second of Rome?s legendary seven kings, Numa Pompilius.? It added three months (Ianuarius, Februarius, and Mercedonius, also known as Intercalaris).? In this calendar, 30 days hath September, Aprilis, Iunius, November, and December.? All the rest have 31, except Februarius which has 28 and Mercedonius which has none except on a leap year when it has 27.? Is that clear as mud?
When Julius (actually Iulius) Caesar came along, he decided to simplify things.? He axed Mercedonius and changed the number of days to thirty days hath September, Aprilis, Iunius, and November.? All the rest have 31, except Februarius, which has 28 unless it?s a leap year, then 29.? Sound familiar?? Once you change the names of Sextilis to Iulius and Quintilis to August (changed after the death of Julius and Augustus Caesars respectively), you pretty much have our modern calendar.? Each month has an Ides.? In Martius, it?s the 15th.? So why not just call it quindecim, the Latin word for 15?? Because it wasn?t one the fifteenth each month.? Get out a pad and pencil so you can keep track of what follows.? It is guaranteed to confound.
The Romans didn?t just number the days of their months from one to 28, 29, 30 or 31.? No, they had to be difficult.? After all, that?s Latin?s middle name.? Only three days are defined: Kalens, Nones and Ides.? Kalens (from whence we get the word calendar) is the first day of the month.? Easy.? Nones is the 5th day of short months and the 7th day of long months, while Ides is the 13th day of short months and the 15th day of long months (like March).? Hmm.? A little more difficult, but not too bad.? What about the other days of the month?? After the 1st (Kalens), the date is how many days before the Nones, until it reaches Nones.? You count nones itself in the counting.? So March 2nd would be ?six days before the Nones of March? (VI Nonis Martiis in Latin), while April 2nd would be ?four days before the Nones of April.?? A little more confusing.? Then you use the number of days before the Ides until you get to the Ides.?? March 11th would be ?five days before the Ides of March,? whereas the 11th of April would be ?three days before the Ides of April.?? What about after the Ides?? Those days become the number of days before the Kalens of the next month.?? March 29th would be ?four days before the Kalens of April,? while April 29th would be ?three days before the Kalens of May? (ante diem III Kalenis Maii).? Well, that works unless it?s the day before Kalens, Nones or Ides, then it?s “pridie.”? In Latin, March 31 would be ?pridie Kalenis Aprilibus.?? ? Got it?? If you do, what would February 28th be in a regular year and in a leap year?? I never said this would be easy.
So, was the Ides of March to the Romans like Friday the 13th to us, a day known for bad luck?? Not at all.? It was a festival day for Anna Perenna, who was either an old woman who gave food? to the plebeians (poor class) when they went on strike in the 5th century B.C. or Dido’s sister who fled Carthage after Queen Dido’s suicide (an interesting tale, but not for this post).? Nice to have a holiday for someone and not know who she really was.? So the soothsayer?s warning to Julius Caesar had nothing to do with the day itself, but what was going to happen to him on it.? In Latin, the date when he was killed is Idibus Martiis DCCIX Anno Urbis Conditae, abbreviated as Id. Mar. DCCIX AUC.? The year is 709 AUC, how long since the traditional founding of Rome (Anno Urbis Conditae) in 753 BC, instead of 44 BC.
After Caesar?s assassination, however, referring to the Ides of March did become synonymous to referring to the assassination.? Not long after that deed, the famous statesman Cicero, no fan of Julius Caesar, wrote, ?The Ides of March are encouraging.?? His meaning was obvious to any Roman.? Maybe that?s why Julius Caesar?s good buddy Mark Antony had him killed.? However, if not for Shakespeare most people today would have no idea even what the Ides of March is.
So, if you are at a cocktail party with boring people, you can now give a detailed explanation of the Ides of March to them.? By the time you finish, I can pretty much guarantee that you?ll be the only one left.? If the hors d?oeuvres are better than the company, it might be worth doing.