Beware the Ides of March: A History of March 15 and Julius Caesar

Beware the Ides of March!

The Ides of March! What are the Ides of March? How did the Ides become famous? 

Julius Caesar is one of the most enduring plays by William Shakespeare. The Ides of March, the day Caesar is assassinated, is made famous in the play by a soothsayer. 

The first production of Julius Caesar was probably in 1599, based on anecdotal comments from a few sources. The first publication of the play in full text was as part of the First Folio, which was published much later in 1623. The Folio collected Julius Caesar and thirty five other works. 

The Ides of March originated as just an ordinary term used by the Romans to mark time on the calendar. Rather than numbering and counting each day of a month, they instead marked three occasions: the Nones, Ides, and Kalends. Being a lunar calendar originally, these dates could fall at varied occurrences: the Nones was on the 5th or 7th of a month, the Ides on the 13th or 15th of that month, and the Kalends are the first day of the succeeding month.

That's not to mention that the Roman calendar differed significantly from the modern calendar, but that is another topic. In any case, it was Julius Caesar who introduced the Egyptian solar calendar to Rome, what we now call the Julian calendar. We also named the month July after him!

In the time of the Roman Republic, the New Year began roughly at the onset of Spring, which was usually in early March. Many cultures, including the Romans, hosted annual festivals and religious ceremonies to coincide with the lunar new year; in Rome, that was Lupercalia, which began with the New Year in early February and ended with the Feast of Anna Perenna on the Ides of March. The Ides of March was also always the day of the first full moon of the new year.

Where does Julius Caesar fit into all of this? The most notable and perhaps oldest written account of the life and death of Julius Caesar was by Suetonius, a historian from Rome's early Imperial period who famously wrote The Twelve Caesars

The Twelve Caesars

Twelve Caesars?! That's right, Julius Caesar was just one of many caesars. Julius was the origin on the title, which is based on his name. After him, his adopted son Octavian became Emperor of Rome, and took the title of Augustus Caesar. Every emperor, and many of the Imperial heirs, also took the title, which became synonymous with the empire. The Russian word czar is based on Caesar in fact!

In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius mentions Caesar's death by 'unmistakable signs'. Supposedly, a tomb was uncovered and demolished in Capua, by colonists sent there by Julius Caesar. It was said that whoever disturbed the tomb of Capys, founder of Capua, his descendant would pay. 

Whenever the bones of Capys shall be discovered, it will come to pass that a descendant of his shall be slain at the hands of his kindred, and presently avenged at heavy cost to Italy.

No further elaboration is given by Suetonius, other than that the curse was vouched for by a friend of Caesar's, Cornelius Balbus.

At the end of the Republic, Rome faced a variety of political and military crises which thrust Caesar into leadership. For over a decade, Julius Caesar helped lead Rome in war and politics. At the height of his career, he was assassinated in the Roman Senate by several of his colleagues. Prior to his death, Julius Caesar supposedly met a soothsayer or fortune-teller who foretold Caesar's death on the Ides of March.

The assassination is remembered throughout history for the huge transformation it brought forth. As the play relates and historians recorded, Caesar's death sparked a civil war throughout the Roman Republic, which ended with the deaths of all the conspirators involved in the plot, and ultimately the crowning of Julius' heir, Octavian, as the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. After his death, Julius was deified, an honor which drew immediate wonder when, at an event honoring the fallen dictator, a comet appeared overhead. Coincidence or divine praise?

Caesar's death was remembered for centuries, and received new attention with Shakespeare's play. Julius Caesar has been performed ever since, with notable performances throughout the years. There have been traditional presentations with classic Roman garb, as well as more modern presentations featuring modern attire, or even an all-female cast by The Donmar Warehouse.opens a new window 

Julius Caesar has been in-print since 1599 under various edits and collections. There have also been several movies and audiobooks.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

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