10 Intriguing Facts about the Ides of March

As the word ides refers to the middle of the month, the Ides of March is on March 15. But, is it? Contrary to popular belief surrounding its origins, ides simply marks the first day of the full moon in every month.

From 44 BC onward the Ides of March would be remembered as the day that Julius Caesar was assassinated. Here are a few facts you may not be aware of on this infamous day.

The Ides of March, (mid-March in the earliest Roman calendar) was forever set in history as the day Julius Caesar was murdered. In 44 BC, Brutus, Cassius, and over 60 members of the Senate led a mutiny against Caesar who they feared was gaining too much power on his quest for a permanent dictatorship.

As mid-March approaches, you’ll no doubt hear the oft-repeated saying “Beware the ides of March.” It’s a strangely archaic phrase that doesn’t make much sense to modern ears without knowing some important historical context and the ins and outs of ancient moon-based calendars —what are ides, anyway? Here are six interesting facts about this famous phrase and its relation to arguably one of the most important moments in ancient history.

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1. The phrase comes from William Shakespeare

In Act 1, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Roman politician (and future assassin) Marcus Junius Brutus and the play’s eponymous character are approached through a crowd by a soothsayer who has a warning—“Beware the ides of March.” The two Romans dismiss the fortuneteller as a dreamer and go about their business as usual. Of course, the warning proved deadly accurate; for the Romans, the ides was the middle of the month and Julius Caesar was famously assassinated on March 15, 44 BC.

Roman historians say that in reality (not just Shakespeare’s fictionalized version), the soothsayer’s name was Spurinna. He was Etruscan, an ancient people often associated with divination and served as a haruspex—someone who inspects the entrails of sacrificed animals for clues about the future.

However, there’s no record of Spurinna pinpointing the ides of March specifically; instead, he warned Caesar to be wary of the next month generally, a period that would end on March 15. Scholars believe this was likely just a calculated guess as Roman politicians were already turning against Caesar who had been named dictator for life and the famed military leader was leaving the capital for another military campaign on March 18. If Caesar was going to be assassinated, it would likely be in the month of March.

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2. The ides were part of Rome’s archaic Lunar Calendar

Although the phrase “the ides of March” carries with it a sinister connotation because of the bloody business done on that day two millennia ago, the ides—along with the nones and calends—are simply ancient markers of the moon’s phases that were part of Rome’s lunar calendar. Kalends referred to the new moon (or first of the month), ides meant the middle of the month (the 13th in some months and the 15th in others), and nones referred to the quarter moon. For a time, the ides of March was actually the beginning of the New Year in Rome.

3. March was time of rebirth and renewal

While the Ides of March are remembered as a tumultuous time during the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, it is also time of the year for rebirth and renewal. In early Roman times, March was actually the first month of the year and ides fell on a full moon and was the official New Year’s day of ancient Rome. It was a time to celebrate the coming of the new season and the official end of winter.

This was also likely an important time for planting. In fact, the deity who was honored during the ides celebrations was called Anna Perenna. The two names make linguistic reference to the year: anna means “to live through a year” while perenna means “to last many years.” This corresponds with the English words annual and perennial which are now associated with planting and gardening.

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4. Caesar himself got rid of ides entirely

Although the ides of March is closely related to Julius Caesar, the famous Roman leader was directly responsible for tossing out the old, lunar-based calendar entirely. In 45 BC, Caesar—after consulting top mathematicians and astronomers—instituted the solar-based Julian calendar, a timekeeping system remarkably similar to the calendar we use today.

To implement the new system, Caesar created what has since become known as the year of confusion in which the year 46 BC lasted for 445 days so the new Julian calendar could begin on January 1. One scholar even argues that this drastic change could’ve been seen by conspiratorial senators as an attack on Roman tradition and the assassins might’ve purposefully selected the ides of March as a symbolic gesture against Caesar and his reforms.

5. Every year Romans reenact Caesar’s assassination on March 15

Every year (barring worldwide pandemics) Romans reenact the murderous drama that unfolded near the Curia of Pompey two millennia ago. (A curia is a structure where Roman senate members would meet.) However, it wasn’t until 2015 when members of the Roman Historical Group got the chance to recreate Caesar’s final moments on the exact spot where it happened after finally getting access to the ruins of the curia itself.

The reenactment generally unfolds in three parts—first with the senators’ accusations, followed by Caesar’s actual assassination, and then concluding with speeches from both Brutus and Mark Antony justifying their actions. In an interview with NBC News, the Caesar impersonator said this annual bit of theater is about honoring the ancient leader because “Rome wouldn’t have been as great without him.”

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6. Caesar was deified as a Roman god

Although the Roman pantheon was largely borrowed from ancient Greece, Rome added a few deified originals of its own. One of the most important was the two-headed Janus, the god of doorways and transitions and the namesake of the month of January.

But Rome also deified many of its most important leaders and named months after some of them. After Caesar’s death on the ides of March, a Roman cult known as divus Julius pushed for Caesar’s official divinity. Caesar’s adopted heir, Octavian (known to history as Augustus), later became Rome’s first emperor and similarly received the divinity treatment. The effects of this Roman imperial cult can be seen in today’s calendar as July and August are named for the two ancient rulers.

7. The location of Caesar’s murder is now a cat sanctuary

The ancient Largo di Torre Argentina square used to be home to the hustle and bustle of toga-wearing senators going about the business of empire but it’s now the domain of cats. Largo di Torre Argentina was excavated during Mussolini’s rebuilding attempts in 1929 and consisted of four Republican victory temples located 20 feet below street level. Moreover, there is also part of the portico of Pompey upon whose steps Julius Caesar was killed in 44 BC.

In 1993, Silvia Viviani and Lia Dequel founded the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary (in Italian, Colonia Felinia Torre Argentina or Torre Argentina Feline Colony). Today, volunteers at Largo di Torre Atgentina care for about 100 cats at the cat sanctuary.

After the site’s excavation, cats started moving to these ruins and locals fed them. Despite the city being full of cats, Torre Argentina is a trendy place for them.

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8. Ancient traditions of the day

Historically, this day was originally the date on which Romans settled their debts. Other ancient traditions on this day included the slaughter of a sheep, the ides sheep by Jupiter’s high priest; the feats of Anna Perenna, the goddess of the year to celebrate the first full moon of the year with drinking, picnics, and lively festivities; and in the holy week of festivals during the Imperial Period which celebrated the goddess Cybele and the god Attis.

9. How to observe Ides of March

Repay a debt: In honor of the ancient Roman tradition of paying debts on the Ides of March or of any month, repay a debt. You’ll get some feel-good mo-jo in return from the friend who loaned you money that you somehow have managed to not yet repay.

Plan a Roman holiday: Turn the Ides of March into a living history lesson. Plan a trip to Italy to explore ancient Roman ruins of the city where Julius Caesar once ruled as the Emperor of the Roman Empire and perished at the hands of his trusted advisors.

Toga Party: When it comes down to it, the Ides of March was basically a huge argument about politics. Is there any political issue that you feel extremely passionate about? Contact your local government official. In honor of Julius Caesar exercise your right to participate in politics.

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10. By the numbers

  • 15: Date on which the Ides fall in the months of March, May, July, and October
  • 2003: Year that actress Thora Hird died on the Ides of March
  • 1970: Year the song Vehicle was released by rock band The Ides of March
  • 2001: Year the movie The Ides of March was released
  • 60: Number of senators present at the time of Caesar’s assassination
  • 1913: Year that Woodrow Wilson held the first presidential press conference in the Ides of March
  • 1493: Year that Christopher Columbus arrived back in Spain after his first New World voyage on the Ides of March
  • 23: Number of stab wounds on Julius Caesar
  • 1917: Year that Nicholas II, the last Russian Tsar abdicated on the Ides of March
  • 1971: Year that the Ed Sullivan Show was canceled on Ides of March

Worth Pondering…

“The Ides of March are come.” The prophet said, “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”

Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1