Famous Sayings #184 — ‘[Beware the] Ides of March’

March 15, 2020

Beware the ides of March.

Vincenzo Camuccini - La morte di Cesare
Vincenzo Camuccini / Public domain

As I was doing research for this famous phrase, I came across this quote in a subheading for one of my sources:

March 15 is known as the Ides of March, which may vaguely remind you of a high school English class.

Indeed, I first heard of this phrase while I was in high school — in the tenth grade to be exact — and after reading a certain play, the phrase has always stuck with me. Thus, when I realized that March 15 fell on a Sunday this year, I decided that this was the phrase I would be looking at on this date. (Note: As I’m typing this, March 16 is approaching …)


Why Do the Ides of Fall on March 15?

In ancient Rome, people used to mark the days by counting backward from three important days of the month:

  • The Kalends, which was the first of the month. Debts were due on the first of each month.
  • The Nones, the ninth day before the ides. For March, May, July, and October, the nones were equivalent to the seventh day of the month. The nones were the fifth day of every other month. The nones also corresponded to the first quarter of the moon.
  • The Ides, which marked the middle of the month. The Ides of March, May, July, and October was the fifteenth day of each month; for every other month, the Ides were the thirteenth day (“Why Do We Say”). The Ides referred to the first full moon of any given month, which was usually seen around the 13th and 15th day of that month. Before Caesar changed the first of the year to January, the Ides of March marked the beginning of the year (Stezano).

In a month like March, Days 2-6 were counted as “before the Nones.” Days 8-14 were counts as “x days before the Ides.” Days in March that came after the ides were counted as “x days before the Kalends of April” (Eldridge). For example, the 13th of October would be referred to as “three days before the ide” (Martin).


Who Coined the Phrase ‘Beware the Ides of March’?

Of course, this famous saying comes from William Shakespeare, who gave this line to a soothsayer in the play Julius Caesar, which dates to around 1601 (Martin). In the play, the soothsayer approached on Lupercalia, a religious holiday in ancient Rome, as Caesar made his appearance in front of the “press” (crowd) on the streets (“Beware”). The soothsayer came from the crowd to issue his warning (In Act I, scene 2, Lines 15-19):

Soothsayer: Caesar!

CAESAR: Ha! who calls

CASCA: Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

CAESAR: Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all music,
Cru ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR: What man is that?

BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

Of course, Caesar ignored this warning, although it weighed on him.

On the day of his death, Caesar even taunted the soothsayer by marking that is was the Ides of March (“The Ides of March have come”), to which the soothsayer said, “Aye, Caesar; but they have not gone.” The dictator was stabbed 23 times by senators during a meeting of the senate. Among the conspirators were Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus. Since Caesar considered Brutus a friend, Shakespeare has the dictator say, “Et Tu, Brute?” (“You, too, Brutus?”) (“Why Do We Say”).

This story was based on real events. Caesar was assassinated at the Curia of Pompey. Historians contend that about 60 Senators conspired to assassinate Caesar (Cox). Shakespeare borrowed numerous details about this warning and Caesar’s demise from Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar. At the time, an English translation was available. That translation notes that the soothsayer told Caesar to “take heed of the day of the Ides of March” (“Beware”).


What Led up to Julius Caesar’s Assassination?

In 45 B.C., Caesar became the rule of Rome. He had taken over parts of Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland and he became popular among many of his constituents, especially the poor. He had appointed several members of the Senate and he was named “dictator in perpetuity. Many members of the Roman Senate were afraid that Caesar’s popularity would allow him to take even more power for himself and do away with the Senate altogether (Dove).


Did You Know?

Here are a few extra facts about the Roman calendar:

  • As discussed in the post for Leap Year, the Julian calendar was adopted in 45 B.C. The Gregorian calendar was later adopted by most countries. Caesar’s changes not only moved the start of the year from March to January but when the Ides of March was moved, as well. In today’s time, the Ides of March would fall around March 27 (D’Costa).
  • We get the word “calendar” from Kalends (EarthSky).
  • The word “Ides” comes from the Latin verb iduare, which means “to divide” (D’Costa).

Works Cited

“Beware the ides of March.” eNotes.com. eNotes.com, Inc., https://www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/beware-Ides-march. Accessed 15 March 2020.

Cox Media Group National Content Desk. ‘Beware the Ides of March’ — What does that mean?” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Cox Enterprises, 13 March 2020, https://www.ajc.com/news/national/beware-the-ides-march-what-does-that-mean/qVcsE8g463mKgu2yHeTaaJ/. Retrieved 15 March 2020.

D’Costa, Krystal. “Beware: The Ides Have Come. No, Really. This Time It’s True.” Scientific American. Nature America, Inc., 27 March 2012, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/beware-the-ides-have-come-no-really-this-time-its-true/.

Dove, Laurie L. “No Need to Beware the Ides of March, Actually.” HowStuffWorks.com. InfoSpace Holdings, LLC, System1, 13 March 2020, https://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/ides-of-march.htm. Retrieved 15 March 2020.

Eldridge, Alison. “What Is the ‘Ides’ of March?” Enclyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/story/what-is-the-ides-of-march. Retrieved 15 March 2020.

“Ides of March.” HolidaysCalendar.com, http://www.holidayscalendar.com/event/ides-of-march/. Retrieved 15 March 2020.

“Julius Caesar: Entire Play.” The Complete Works of Julius Caesar. MIT, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/julius_caesar/full.html. Accessed 15 March 2020.

Martin, Gary. “Beware the Ides of March.” The Phrase Finder, https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/beware-the-ides-of-march.html. Accessed 15 March 2020.

Stezano, Martin. “Beware the Ides of March. But Why?” History.com. A+E Networks, Posted 13 March 2017, Updated 13 March 2020, https://www.history.com/news/beware-the-ides-of-march-but-why. Accessed 15 March 2020.

“Why beware the Ides of March?” EarthSky. EarthSky Communications Inc., https://earthsky.org/human-world/beware-the-ides-of-march.

“Why Do We Say ‘Beware The Ides Of March’? – Everything After Z.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, LLC, https://www.dictionary.com/e/ides-of-march/.

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