The Language Room, Translation & Interpretation, Edinburgh, Scotland, London, UK

Beware the Ides of March – origin and different meanings

We all know the phrase from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. An ominous-sounding line from the soothsayer, warning the emperor of his impending demise. With such theatrical connotations, you would think that these ‘Ides’ were something of extreme importance. Whereas in Shakespeare’s day, it was just their way of saying it’s the 15th of March! Today, you might as well bellow out “the tax man cometh”. It would have the same meaning for some, now we are nearing the end of the tax year.

WHY did they call it the Ides of March, you ask?

The phrase stems from a bit of Roman logic, or rather, the lack thereof. The Ides was the 13th for the majority of the months of the year – but the 15th in March, May, July and October. It referred to the first full moon of the given month. The Ides were preceded by the Nones (the 5th or 7th, nine days inclusive before the Ides), and followed by the Kalends, which was the 1st of the following month. As you can tell, the Romans would count back from these three fixed points of the month, instead of giving the days numbers from the first to the last.

In religion, this date would mark the end of the celebrations of the new year. It would also mark the beginning of a series of festivals, celebrating the start of a new season.

Ever since Roman times, the Ides of March has been a significant phrase. But it would only take the death of a fearsome leader for it to go down in history as an ominous one. The phrase is still being used in modern popular culture. For example in the animated TV series The Simpsons and 90’s cult series Party of Five. More recently, in the 2011 Ryan Gosling movie bearing the very same name.

Image details: Reverse side of a coin issued by Caesar’s assassin Brutus in the autumn of 42 BC, with the abbreviation EID MAR (Eidibus Martiis – on the Ides of March) under a “cap of freedom” between two daggers. Thank you to https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4374104