Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Origins of the Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March!

So the soothsayer Spurrina warned Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

Julie’s reply:  He is a dreamer; let us leave him. Pass.

Caesar wasn’t the first or last Chief Executive to ignore sound advice and so was whacked on the Ides of March ----March 15th 44 B.C.

By the way there really was a Spurrina, but the dude was a lady, Shakespeare got it wrong. But since he wrote the play in the 1620's we'll cut him some slack.

What was this “Ides” thing he was supposed to watch out for?

The ides was a word that denoted the midpoint in a month.

The Latin word ides means “divides.”  The problem with ides is that all months don’t divide evenly, so the date of the ides moves around from month to month. Which is one reason why people stopped using them at about the time of the Renaissance.

Why were they used in the first place?

When Rome became a world power its calendar became the Western world’s timekeeper. Their calendar was like their numbers. You don’t have to be a Super Bowl fan to realize that there are only 7 Roman numerals I,V,X,L,C,D & M.  (I =one, V=5, X=10, L=50, C=100, D=500, M=1000) The Roman calendar only had designations for 3 of the days in a month: kalends, ides and nones.

Kalends –was the first of the month.
Kalendrium was Latin for “account book” So kalend, the first of the month, was the date on which bills were due. It became the root word for the word “calendar.”

The Nones were the 7th day of the month in March, May, July and October, and the 5th day of the month other months. 

The Ides were the 15th day of March, May, July and October and the 13th the other months.
You used the calendar the way you used Roman numerals. For example there was no word for the number eleven, you would write ten plus one or XI.  If you wanted to meet on the 16th of March you’d say: “Hail fellow Gothamites, let’s meet and discuss the acquisition of Gaul on the day after the Ides of March.”  If the client shifted the meeting to April 2nd the memo would go out. “Sack of Gaul Planning session moved to the day after the Nones of April.”

Nowadays people think there is some sort of superstitious attachment to the Ides of March. Fret not; unless your name is Caesar, you’re safe.  The other common misconception about the Ides of March is that Ides means the 15th.  Which is why next month you’ll hear some idiot newscaster saying “Beware the Ides of April” thinking they’ve just made a clever pun about Tax Day being April 15th. But you now know, my dear reader, that in fact, the Ides of April fall on April 13th.

The last question people seem to ask about the Ides of March is: why didn’t Julius Caesar just stay home in bed that day?

He may have intended to but was confused about exactly what day it was. And he had himself to blame. You see, a year before he was whacked he had ordered a complete redo of the calendar.  The lunar calendar was so far out of whack that every other year the Romans had to add a month called Mercedonius just to set it straight.  Caesar’s new calendar used one year that was 445 days long to fix the calculations. This calendar was precise for its time, just 11 ½ minutes longer than the actual solar year. It was called the Julian Calendar in his honor and is still used today by Eastern Orthodox churches. Most of the rest of the West adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582. It’s the calendar you use today –the day the Romans called the Ides of March.

Emperor Dano

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