Shakespeare made it famous, of course, when he suggested that a soothsayer called out the warning to Julius Caesar in the year 44 B.C. But the term itself actually went back centuries before either Shakespeare or Caesar. For 700 years before Julius reformed the calendar during his reign–modestly naming it for himself and adding ten days along with an additional leap day every four years–the earliest way of reckoning time in the Roman world was likely fashioned by King Romulus in 753 B.C. who used the moon in order to count down the seasons.
Ten months constituted that original Roman year, beginning with one called Martius, dedicated, of course, to the Roman god of war, Mars. Specific dates were then expressed in relation to the lunar phase of the month using three markers: Kalends which came with the first phase or new moon, Nones, denoting the first quarter moon which usually fell on either the fifth or seventh day of the month, and Ides, which marked the full moon, falling either on the 13th or 15th day. The Ides of March was initially thus simply the first full moon of a new year, or March 15.
Romans knew how to party, of course, and so the day was generally celebrated down on the banks of the Tiber River with food, wine, and music. And in the era before the Empire in Rome, the Ides also marked the beginning of a new political year in which the two annually-elected consuls took office as the leaders of the duly constituted Republic.
Not long after changing the calendar, however, Julius Caesar also decided to change his own terms of office, becoming the Dictator Perpetuus, or “dictator for life.” And it was that monarchial grasp for power that led a group of Roman senators to try to take their Republic back (some might have said, “Make Rome Great Again”) by stabbing Julius Caesar to death at a meeting of the Senate itself on March 15, 44 B.C.
It’s said that he was stabbed some 23 times, in fact, by over sixty conspirators, but apparently only one of the wounds proved to be the fatal one, giving Caesar ample time to register his shock at the betrayal of even his friend Brute. And so forever after, that soothsayer’s warning has linked the day with the deed: “Beware the Ides of March.”
Fortunately the Ides this year will only see more partisan primaries, which may presage a political upheaval of sorts in the coming months, but will hopefully not plunge us in the kind of turmoil that the assassination of Caesar did in Rome long ago. It’s a timely reminder, though, that when it comes to power that the “consent of the governed” should involve far more than simply lip service in the stump speeches of our candidates.
After all, if you think the Ides of March is scary, just wait until we get to the 15th of April and it’s not the IDES but the IRS we have to worry about.