"The Ides of March"
This has become one of the best-known phrases of all time in all languages. It carries with it a sinister and awesome connotation. One can imagine all sorts of calamities or ill fortune. Friday the 13th is a wimpy competitor. Breaking mirrors or stepping on cracks pale in comparison. Walking under a ladder? Child's play. "The Ides of March" is menacing and mysterious.
This simple phrase brings terror to our minds and shivers to our spines. It bespeaks evil beyond our ken. An uncontrollable force is unleashed; an insatiable monster is loosed. We are helpless in its wake. It is the Unknown with which we struggle and therefore that which causes us the most terror. Echoing down through the halls of history comes the warning: "Beware the Ides of March." The words are seemingly charmed and loaded.
Except, like most myths, this one had an origin somewhat different than its general understanding. It referred to a specific date on the calendar when something of interest was to occur. "Ides" simply means (or meant) the Middle Point, (in this case the fifteenth of the month.) It might just as easily have been uttered as, "Beware the Ides of July." What makes it significant is the act with which it is associated.
If not for Shakespeare's play, "Julius Caesar" and the assassination of its franchised character, we most likely would never have heard of this phrase or have given it a moment's consideration. This particular stage play was so powerful and memorable that every line and scene was subsequently considered somewhat sacred. It is, most likely, the most studied document in the English language other than The Bible. "Hamlet" gets more media interest, but scholars dissect "Julius Caesar" with literary scalpels. A soothsayer tells Caesar to beware March 15, and the words become immortal. A small indication of Shakespeare's genius is that he used the accurate Roman term for the date.
The Roman calendar had each month divided into three sections, designated by specific days, each of which served as a reference point for counting the other days:
Kalends (1st day of the month) (From this word we later get "calendar.")
Nones (the 7th day in March, May, July, and October; the 5th in the other months)
Ides (the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; the 13th in the other months)
Days in the month were noted by counting between these designations.
Romans had a lot of time on their hands to contemplate such calculations. You can just imagine a casual conversation: "Remember that great party we attended, dear? Was it the six days before Nones or the third day after Ides? I can never remember."
Now, we can all relax. If a mysterious soothsayer rushes up, chanting "Beware the Ides of March!" the probability is that he will have no idea which day he is talking about. Ask him if he means the true Ides or if he is counting from Nones or Kalends. You could also show him some ID or your library card. The odds are that your name isn't Caesar, and you can shoo him away by saying, "Sorry old pal, you have mistaken me for someone else." This is offered merely as a suggestion. You may think of some other response.
Incidentally, Kalends (the first day of the month) was designated as the day when bills were due to be paid. We can all thank the Romans for that. How the U.S. Treasury decided upon two days after the Ides of April for tax collection day is anybody's guess.
Remember, Ides was only applied to the fifteenth of certain months, and April wasn't one.
"Let's make sure them taxes is in no later than two days after the Ides of April, Jethro."
"Right on, Luther, them slackers have been waiting until Nones plus ten or fifteen days.
"We can't give ‘em ‘til Kalends of the next month."
You may recall that toward the end of the great Roman Empire, some of the rulers and members of the hoi polloi went absolutely nuts, feeding Christians to lions and such. The period is characterized by Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned. True or not, it becomes more understandable when we consider how complicated their lives had become trying to keep appointments and remember birthdays and anniversaries.
"Happy anniversary, Darlin', I brung you some sweets."
"You Dolt! Our anniversary was two days ago."
"It's my story, and I'm sticking to it."
This "Julian" calendar (named for Julius Caesar) remained in effect until 1582, when Pope Gregory XIII decreed that it be updated to match the solar year. The "new" calendar, known as Gregorian, is the one most of the world uses today. "The Ides" lost favor a long time ago.
There is no longer a reason to "Beware!"