Beware the Ides of March

The Soothsayer says, “Beware the Ides of March.” Suddenly a chill falls on Caesar’s festive procession to the forum to celebrate the Lupercalia at the opening of Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. The line is repeated three times—once by Brutus and twice by the Soothsayer—but is brushed aside by Caesar who responds, “He is a dreamer. Let us leave him.”

“Famous last words,” we might reply! Perhaps if Caesar had paid attention to the Soothsayer and to his wife Calpurnia’s premonitions, he might not have been killed—but that would be re-writing history.

The Ides fell on March 15, signifying the middle of a Roman month, where the first day was the Kalends (hence, “calendar”). “Ides” comes from a Latin word meaning “to divide,” and fell on the 13th or the 15th, depending on the length of the month.

England in Shakespeare’s day was still basically following the old Roman or Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar, who had introduced it in 45 B.C. The English differed, however, in beginning the new year for business purposes on March 25,  or “Lady Day,” named for the Feast of the Annunciation, rather than on January 1 as in the Julian calendar. Nevertheless, they still gave New Year’s presents around the first of the year.

But following the Julian calendar put the English at odds with most European countries, who by the time Julius Caesar was written around 1599 had already adopted the Gregorian calendar, revised by Pope Gregory in 1582. This meant that Protestant England was celebrating religious feasts on different days than Catholic Europe.

In 1598, the year before Julius Caesar was performed, there were five weeks’ difference between the celebration of Easter in England and on the continent, which people would have noticed because they could compare the two calendars side-by-side in one of the many almanacs printed at the time. A number of people were not happy with this disparity.

Dates and prognostications play an important role in Julius Caesar. David Daniell, who edited the play, suggests that Brutus’s confusion about the date—March 1 or 15—in Act 2 mirrors some of the problems Shakespeare’s audience would have had with their calendar. Confusion is also indicated in Shakespeare’s intentional combining of Caesar’s triumph, which actually took place in October, with the Lupercalia, a Roman festival celebrated in February, and the Ides of March.

In the ancient Roman calendar, the Ides marked the appearance of the full moon, which was generally viewed as a favorable omen. The death of Caesar on the Ides of March, however, came to make that day feel unlucky.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2010 issue of Folger Magazine. Listen to an NPR interview from 2009 with Georgianna Ziegler about the ides of March.

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