Beware The Ides Of March

The Romans did not count days in the month as a simple number, like we do now, as they counted backwards from one of three fixed points in the month, being the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides.  Kalends, Nones and Ides were ancient markers used to reference dates in relation to lunar phases.  The Kalends are always the first of the month.  The Nones fell on the 7th day of the long months, and the 5th of the others.  The word Ides in Latin means ‘to divide’.  Ides simply refers to the first full moon of a given month, which usually fell between the 13th and 15th.  The Ides of March signified the new year, which meant celebrations and rejoicing.  The Ides of March was a day that was marked by several religious observances and it was notable for the Romans as a deadline for settling debts.  Today the ides of March is the fifteenth, but day of the month that the ides fell on in Caesar’s time depended on a complicated system of calculation which Caesar actually established when he instituted the Julian calendar, a precursor of the Gregorian calendar which we now use.

In 44 BC, conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar the all-powerful ruler of Rome and dictator-for-life to death before the Roman senate.  In his speech to the Romans after Caesar was slain, Brutus explains that he loved Caesar, but he betrayed him because he loved Rome more.  A month before the assassination, at the great festival of Lupercalia, Caesar visited Titus Vestricius Spurinna who was a haruspex (a religious official who interpreted omens by inspecting the entrails of sacrificial animals) among other omens.  As per the ritual, Caesar sacrificed a bull, and Spurinna made the chilling announcement that the beast had no heart.  The following day, the haruspex oversaw another sacrifice in the hope it would give cause for optimism, but it was just as bad, as this animal had a malformed liver.  There would be no good news for Caesar.  Caesar seemed unconcerned, but Spurinna told Caesar that this omen indicated that his life might come to a bad end, and this danger would last for the next 30 days, which would expire on the 15th of March.

As the 30 days passed, nothing whatsoever happened.  Yet when the 15th of March dawned, Caesar’s wife awoke distressed after dreaming she held his bloodied body.  Fearing for his life, she begged him not to leave the house.  His dreams, too, had also been unsettling.  He had been flying through the air, and shaken hands with Jupiter.  But he pushed any concerns aside. The day was an important annual celebration in Rome’s religious calendar, and he had called a special meeting of the Senate.  Despite all of these numerous and improbable portents Caesar ventured out on the ides to meet his doom.

He started out this day by going over to a friend’s house for a quick sacrifice where he saw Spurinna.  Caesar joked that his prophecies must be off as nothing had happened, however Spurinna muttered that the day was not over yet.  The sacrifices proceeded, but the animals’ innards were blemished and the day was plainly inauspicious.  Caesar decided to postpone the meeting of the Senate and go home.  A protégé stopped by to urge Caesar to come to the Senate so his absence would not be seen as mocking or insulting, and Caesar agreed to go in person to announce the meeting would be postponed.  Just after Caesar left his home, a slave arrived at Caesar’s house to warn him of the plot against his life, but he was too late.  A short while later, a man named Artemidorus of Cnidus pushed through the jostling crowds and handed Caesar a roll setting out details of the plot.  But the crowds were so thick that Caesar did not have a chance to read it.  Caesar’s end came quickly, as a group of Senators approached him with daggers drawn.  In a frenzied attack, the most powerful man in Rome was stabbed 23 times.  He fell, still clutching the unread scroll warning him to stay away.

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