By John Copeland

Contributing Writer

March 15 is the Ides of March and my big brother’s birthday. I think some of you may even know that it was on this was the day 2,065 years ago that Julius Caesar was assassinated. What happened to Caesar on the Ides of March became a permanent part of our western culture when William Shakespeare, in his play “Julius Caesar,” framed it as a day of infamy. 

In the play, Shakespeare stretched the truth a bit. He has an anonymous soothsayer warn Caesar “beware the Ides of March.” It is, perhaps, one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and, as a direct result, “The Ides” has come to mean a date of doom.

But to Romans, before Caesar’s murder, the expression “the Ides of March” was not ominous. It was simply their way of saying March 15. The Romans of Caesar’s time didn’t count days in the month as simple numbers like we do today, and they didn’t count from the beginning of the month. Instead, they counted backwards from one of three fixed points in the month: the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides. 

The very earliest Roman calendar remains a bit of a mystery. Legend has it that the calendar was devised by Romulus, who along with his twin Remus were the mythical founders of Rome. Whether it was Romulus or not, the inventor of the ancient Roman calendar had a penchant for complexity.

We do know the calendar was based on the first three phases of the moon. Romans counted the days of the month, not like we do in weeks, but backwards from the phases of the moon. I know, this sounds confusing and probably we should all give thanks that we aren’t ancient Romans.

In Rome, a month began when a priest observed the sky and announced the new moon. They referred to the first day of each month as Kalends, from the Latin calare, which means “to proclaim.” Kalends is also the root of our word calendar. It is also the root of another exotic-sounding word, Kalendrium, which in Latin means account book and the first of the month. Back in Roman times, just as it is still now, this was the date that rents and bills were due.

The Nones are thought to have originally been the day of the month when the moon appeared in its first quarter. The Nones fell on the seventh day of the long months; March, May, Quinctilis (July to us today) and October, and the fifth day of the other months.

The Ides are thought to have originally been the day of the full moon. The word ides comes from Latin, meaning half division of a month. So the Ides of March were just the 15th of March. But that doesn’t mean the Ides of a month was always on the 15th. The Ides fell on the 15th if the month was long, and the 13th if the month was short. The Ides of March was just one of a dozen Ides that occur every month of the year.

The Ides of March assumed a whole new identity after the events of 44 BCE. The phrase came to represent a specific day of abrupt change that set off a ripple of repercussions throughout Roman society and beyond.

You can read in Cicero’s letters from the months after Caesar’s murder. Cicero even says “the Ides changed everything.”

In Gaius Julius Caesar’s day, Rome had a long-established republican government headed by two consuls with joint powers. Then there were the Praetors, one step below consuls in the power chain, who handled judicial matters. Finally, a body of citizens formed the Senate, who proposed legislation, that were then approved by vote. A special temporary office, that of dictator, was also part of the Republic, where a single person took control of Rome’s affairs during times of extreme civil unrest.

Caesar and Pompey had been consuls but had a falling out that resulted in a war between their factions. Julius and his side were finally victorious and Caesar remained head of Roman government as a single consul. 

Romans had no love for kings. While Caesar had made pointed and public displays of turning down offers of kingship, he showed no reluctance to accept the office of “dictator for life” in February 44 BCE. This sealed his fate in the minds of his enemies and was what led to his murder.

Caesar had pushed the envelope for some time before his death. He was the first living Roman ever to appear on the coinage. Normally, the honor was reserved for deities. Some historians suspect that Caesar may have been attempting to establish a cult in his honor as part of a move towards deification.

In the end, the legacy of power Caesar established lived on through his heir Octavian, who became Rome’s first emperor. Most of us know Octavian as Caesar Augustus. Octavian was aware of the problems of presenting himself as Caesar had, so the Ides became a lesson in political self-presentation.

But political expression aside, enjoy the Ides of March and the fact that we have a much simpler way to counting the days of our months today than the ancient Romans. And all of us can take heart because the start of spring is only five days away.