The Strange, Sinister History of the Ides of March

A lot of it is fake news.

Wikimedia / Hohum

The Ides of March takes place every year on Thursday, March 15, a date that is imagined as equal parts strange, sordid, and sinister in the public consciousness. But is there a good reason the Ides gives off such bad vibes? Turns out the answer is no, and you can blame its PR problem on the Bard.

What Does “Ides” Mean?

Before Julius Caesar established the first version of the modern calendar in 46 B.C., the Romans organized their year around lunar cycles. Instead of having a specific number of days in each month, they based the length of each month on the appearance of the full moon. The Ides, which occurred monthly, was the day when the first full moon surfaced in the month. Usually, this was somewhere between 13 and 15 days into the month. Our calendar no longer matches up with the moon like this, so we recognize the Ides of March on March 15 regardless of lunar cycles.

On early calendars, the Ides of March was also the start of the new year, but that honor shifted to January 1 when the Romans switched to a solar calendar.

How Did the Ides of March Get a Bad Reputation?

The Ides of March first gained notoriety after Shakespeare name-dropped the previously benign moniker in his play Julius Caesar. In the story, Caesar visits a soothsayer who predicts his murder at the hands of the Roman Senate in 44 B.C.

“Beware the ides of March,” the soothsayer tells Caesar. It’s a snappy line — and certainly one you wouldn’t want to hear from a fortune-teller.

Shakespeare definitely dramatized the death of Julius Caesar.

Wikimedia / Bob Burkhardt

But just because the Bard wrote it doesn’t make it true; Julius Caesar is more of a stylized telling of Caesar’s demise than a historical account. According to historian Barry Strauss, Caesar did visit a soothsayer to inquire about his future but wasn’t given such specific advice.

Caesar spoke to the fortune-teller on February 15 and received a far more vague warning: His life would be in danger for 30 days. But where’s the drama in that? Leave it to Shakespeare to add some poetic license and forever tarnish the reputation of the Ides of March.

Are People Really Afraid of the Ides?

Despite its humble origins, the Ides of March has taken on a grim miasma. There have been episodes of television shows ranging from The Simpsons to Xena: Warrior Princess about nefarious happenings on the Ides of March. In 2011, Ryan Gosling and George Clooney starred in a political thriller eponymously named The Ides of March that parallels the rise and unfortunate demise of Julius Caesar in a modern context.

La Reunión was hit with more than six feet of rain in a single day.

Wikimedia Commons

To be fair, some strange and tragic things have occurred on the Ides of March. On the Ides in 1952, the Indian Ocean island La Reunión was the site of the most rainfall ever recorded in a 24-hour period: 73.62 inches. That’s a bit ominous. More recently, the World Health Organization announced a global health alert because of the spread of SARS on the Ides of March in 2003.

Of course, given two thousand years of history, you can find unfortunate events for just about every day of the year. Still, if you happen to be a powerful emperor with unchecked power surrounded by a Senate full of bitter Romans, it may be best to follow the Bard’s advice and take the day off.

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