“Beware the ides of March,” a soothsayer tells Caesar in Act I of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. By Act III, Shakespeare confidently tells the soothsayer, “The ides of March are come,” to which the soothsayer replies, “Aye Caesar, but not gone.”
Spoiler alert: Soon, Caesar is dead, stabbed by 60 conspirators in the Roman senate—and even by the hand of his most trusted friend, Brutus (memorialized by Shakespeare in the phrase, “Et tu, Brute?”).
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Believe it or not, Shakespeare vividly captured this scene more than four centuries ago, and in just over a month, the world will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on April 23, 1616. In commemoration, Course Hero has published an infographic examining both Shakespeare’s play—and the historical Julius Caesar, who was killed on the ides of March in 44 BCE.
But what exactly are the ides of March?
Good question. The word ides itself in Latin means “to divide,” and the ides literally divided a month. Aligned with the timing of the first day of a full moon, ides were a regular fixture of the Roman calendar, generally falling on the 15th of March, May, July, and October (or on the 13th of other months).
These ides had a specific meaning in Roman times: they were days for settling debts, but as Anna Matteo wrote, “this connection was quickly lost because of different timing between calendar months and changes in the moon’s appearance.”
Georgianna Ziegler, head of reference for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, told NPR in 2009 that in 1599-1600, when the play was likely first performed, the timing of the ides and the assassination of a political leader would have resonated with those who desired “some new blood on the [British] throne.” The English, she said, “were really struck by the differences between their Julian calendar [which was introduced by Caesar in 46 BCE] and the Gregorian calendar kept in Catholic countries on the continent.” Indeed, just over two weeks ago we celebrated Leap Day, which was introduced in Caesar’s calendar reforms and prompts many to consider him “the Father of Leap Year”—a fact highlighted in our new infographic.
Although the ides of March didn’t portend doom before Caesar’s time, the Smithsonian compiled a list of infamous historic events such as a cyclone in the 19th century and a deadly blizzard in the 20th that have coincided with the ides of March.
The ides of March are come, but they have not yet gone. Beware!