Ides of March

ides of march

The Ides of March is a day on the Roman calendar that corresponds to March 15th. It was marked by several religious observances, and became notorious as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. In Canada, the day is commemorated with the drinking of Bloody Caesar (a Bloody Mary made with Clamato). In the original Roman calendar, March was the first month of the year. The holidays observed by the Romans from the first through the Ides often reflect their origin as new year celebrations. The Romans did not number days of a month sequentially from the first through the last day.

Instead, they counted back from three fixed points of the month: the Nones (5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st) of the following month. The Ides occurred near the midpoint, on the 13th for most months, but on the 15th for March, May, July, and October. The Ides were supposed to be determined by the full moon, reflecting the lunar origin of the Roman calendar. On the earliest calendar, the Ides of March would have been the first full moon of the new year.

The Ides of each month was sacred to Jupiter, the supreme deity of the Romans. The Flamen Dialis, Jupiter’s high priest, led the ‘Ides sheep’ (ovis Idulius) in procession along the Via Sacra to the arx, where it was sacrificed. In addition to the monthly sacrifice, the Ides of March was also the occasion of the Feast of Anna Perenna, a goddess of the year whose festival originally concluded the ceremonies of the new year. The day was enthusiastically celebrated among the common people with picnics, drinking, and revelry. One source from late antiquity also places the Mamuralia (in which an old man wearing animal skins was beaten ritually with sticks) on the Ides of March. This observance, which has aspects of scapegoat or ancient Greek ‘pharmakos’ ritual. Such practices may have been part of a new year festival representing the expulsion of the old year.

Caesar was stabbed to death at a meeting of the senate. As many as 60 conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, were involved. According to Plutarch, a seer had warned that harm would come to Caesar no later than the Ides of March. On his way to the Theatre of Pompey, where he would be assassinated, Caesar passed the seer and joked, ‘The ides of March have come,’ meaning to say that the prophecy had not been fulfilled, to which the seer replied ‘Aye, Caesar; but not gone.’ This meeting is famously dramatized in William Shakespeare’s play ‘Julius Caesar,’ when Caesar is warned by the soothsayer to ‘beware the Ides of March.’

On the fourth anniversary of Caesar’s death, after achieving a victory at the siege of Perugia, Octavian (later known as Augustus) executed 300 senators and knights who had fought against him under Lucius Antonius, the brother of Mark Antony. The executions were one of a series of actions taken by Octavian as Caesar’s adopted heir to avenge his death. The Roman historians Suetonius and Cassius Dio characterize the slaughter as like a religious sacrifice, noting that it occurred on the Ides of March at the new altar to the deified Julius.

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