What Are The Ides Of March?

Delving into the meaning and mystery of one of history’s most notorious dates… “Beware the Ides of March!” Thrust into popular consciousness by William Shakespeare, this warning has long been synonymous with the assassination of Julius Caesar. But there’s more to the phrase than you might think…

The statue of Julius Caesar, in Turin, Italy

The statue of Julius Caesar, in Turin, Italy

WHAT ARE "IDES" ANYWAY?

"Ides" is that rare thing: an incredibly well-known word whose meaning is nevertheless a mystery to most people. This is possibly because it stems from a forehead-clutchingly complex calendar system which has long since fallen into obscurity. When it came to keeping track of dates, the Romans didn't do things the easy way. In Caesar's time, the days of the month weren't numbered in the logical way we're used to. Instead, they were tracked according to three markers.

The "Kalends" were one of the markers, referring to the first day of each month. Then there were the "Nones", which corresponded to either the 5th or 7th day depending on the month in question. And finally, the now-infamous "Ides", which corresponded to either the 13th or 15th day of the month (with the Ides of March always falling on the 15th). According to this system, you'd refer to a certain day of the month in relation to one of the markers - for example, "three before the Nones of March".

WAS THE DATE SPECIAL?

The Ides of March had some significance even before the murder of Caesar. It was on this date that citizens celebrated the feast of Anna Perenna, who was the goddess of long life, prosperity and renewal - rather ironically, in light of how the date is now remembered in blood-soaked terms. Historical records indicate this was an occasion for wine drinking and general merriment among Romans. The Ides of March would also become associated with festivals celebrating another goddess, Cybele.

THE IDES AND CAESAR

But what about Julius Caesar? Well, in Shakespeare's account of the assassination, which drew on writings from Ancient Rome, the iconic leader was given a dire warning by a seemingly insane soothsayer, who tells him to "beware the Ides of March". Caesar arrogantly ignores the prophecy of doom, only to be viciously stabbed to death by hordes of his most trusted colleagues on that very date in 44 BC. However, there's a bit more to the story than that, and the real facts are even more fascinating.

THE SOOTHSAYER

Far from being some anonymous mystic oddball, the soothsayer was indeed a real historical figure whose identity is actually known to us today. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, the soothsayer's name was named Spurinna, and he was a haruspex, which meant a religious figure who was able to divine the future by examining the dissected innards of sacrificial animals. A haruspex would literally "read" the liver, heart and other organs for signs of good or bad events to come.

According to Roman historians, Spurinna saw an ominous omen in the entrails of one such animal in February, leading him to warn Caesar that sinister things were afoot. Interestingly, the account by Suetonius has Spurinna making a rather more vague prediction than Shakespeare's soothsayer. According to this version of events, Spurinna warned of a danger that would "not come later than the Ides of March" - not necessarily on the Ides of March itself. This indicates that Spurinna was a political mover and shaker who was reading the prevailing mood of the time, and knew that certain people were making plans to topple the increasingly power-hungry Caesar. Not so much a mystic, then, as a savvy insider Caesar really should have listened to.