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Ides of March: Not just a Stab Fest
Turns out... It’s not Unlucky at all!
Dear Classical Wisdom Reader
We don’t always send out a mailing on Wednesday, dear reader, but truth be told it’s just TOO important a day for us Classics lovers. Indeed, it’s that divine moment when something ancient has clearly permeated all the way to modern culture. It’s a phrase almost everyone knows of thanks to Joan Shakespeare’s brother... but yet, often misunderstood.
So today, we celebrate the ancient festival that became a horrible omen: The Ides of March. We also discuss whether the date deserves its ‘bad rap’... or not!
But before you delve into the history that led up to that fateful day (and more fateful murder), a quick announcement for our Classical Wisdom Members.
Please remember that tomorrow is our Roundtable discussion! Myke Cole has generously offered a chapter of his book, The Bronze Lie, for members to read (if you are a subscriber, you can access it here), for us to discuss at 5:30pm Eastern Time.
On the table, the Myth of the Spartan Warrior Supremacy. Was it a lie? What purpose did it serve? And is it still employed today for political purposes?
If you aren’t yet a member, you can choose any of our plans here and join us! And fortunately, I just realized Daylight Savings time changed over in America this last weekend, so I’ll be able to join in the discussion, too.
Also, to celebrate the significance of the Ides of March, we have released an Ebook for our Members dedicated to one of the under appreciated accomplishments of the stabee, something that is often overlooked.
Julius Caesar wasn’t just a brilliant military leader, you see, but also an extremely talented writer and historian. Make sure to enjoy Caesar’s renowned account of the Gallic Wars... which has incidentally become one of the best and most reliable records of the mysterious Druid and Celtic cultures.
Discover both the man who changed history… and the history he changed!
Members can access it here:
Now, onto our ancient heyday: The Ides of March, below
All the best,
Founder and Director
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The Ides of March
by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The 15th of March may just seem like just another day to the modern world. Yet in ancient Rome, the day was extremely important. It was the Ides of March, when several religious festivals were celebrated, but it became infamous as the day that Julius Caesar was assassinated. Considering this ‘later’ development, it’s not surprising that the day has become associated with ill-omens and bad luck in modern times... however, it didn’t start off that way.
But what were the Ides of March in the first place?
The Romans had a very unusual way of counting dates. The dates were calculated based on the distance from specific days that occurred every month: the Kalends, the Nones and the Ides. The Kalends were at the start of every month, and the Nones happened on day 5 or 7 of a month. The Ides fell on the 13th or 15th and was determined by the full moon.
The Ides were sacred to Jupiter, the supreme deity in the Roman pantheon. It was also associated with the festival of Anna Perenna, who was the mythical daughter of Belus and sister of Dido. This Italian deity was the embodiment of the cycle of the year and was celebrated by the Romans with great joy and merriment. The Anna Perenna festival was marked by feasting, drinking, games, and gladiatorial games.
Like many Roman carnivals, the Anna Perenna festival was a time when celebrants could subvert traditional power relations between social classes and gender roles; people were allowed to speak freely about sex and politics. The Ides of March was also the first day of a week-long celebration of the Anatolian Mother Goddess Cybele and her consort Attis.
Other sources state that the Ides of March was when the Rites of Mamuralia were held. This was a day when an old man, dressed in animal skins, was beaten. It is possible that this was related to some ancient scapegoating ceremony, or some forgotten New Year ceremony.
As you can see, Roman religion was very dynamic; it evolved, especially during the Imperial era, when foreign customs and gods became popular.
It wasn’t until the Empire was Christianized that the Ides lost their religious significance.
Despite all these significant festivals (both strange and celebratory), the Ides of March is almost entirely remembered for one of the most infamous political assassinations of all time.
Gaius Julius Caesar was a Roman general, Consul, statesman, and notable author of Latin prose. He was both a conquering hero and a dictator. He played an essential role in the history of Ancient Rome, acting out pivotal parts in events that led to the demise of the Republic and the rise of the Empire.
Caesar started off as an accomplished military man, fighting for the glory of Rome. He was able to extend Roman territory to the English channel and the Rhine in his conquest of Gaul, completed by 51 BC. Indeed, he became the first Roman general to invade Britain.
His achievements awarded him the position of unmatched military prowess, but also threatened to eclipse the role of Pompey, the military and political leader of the late Roman Republic. Pompey, who had previously held an alliance with Caesar and Crassus, had realigned himself with the senate after Crassus’ death in 53 BC.
When the Gallic Wars had finished, the Senate ordered Caesar to lay down his weapons and commanded him to return to Rome. Caesar, however, refused. In 49 BC he crossed the Rubicon with a legion. This was the moment that marked his defiance; he had left his province and illegally entered Roman territory, bearing arms. A civil war ensued, but Caesar emerged as the unrivaled leader of Rome.
Caesar assumed control of the government and then proceeded to install a program of social and governmental reforms, such as the creation of the Julian Calendar. He centralized the bureaucracy of the Republic and eventually was proclaimed “dictator in perpetuity”.
Caesar, however, was not popular with everyone – especially the politicos he had ignored.
On March 15th, 44 BC, the Ides of March, Caesar was stabbed to death at a senate meeting.
According to Plutarch, Caesar had been told that this would come to pass. A seer had warned Caesar that harm would come to him, no later than the Ides on March. Then on that fateful day, Caesar passed the prophesier on his walk to the Theatre of Pompey, the place where he would be murdered. He quipped, “The ides of March have come”, thinking that the morbid prophecy had not been fulfilled.
To this the seer replied, “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.”
It is thought that as many as 60 conspirators were involved in the assassination, led by Brutus and Cassius. This scene, as dramatized by William Shakespeare, has given us the famous lines, “Beware the Ides of March” and “Et tu, Brute?”
They stabbed him multiple times, and Caesar died before a statue of his great rival and enemy, Pompey.
The conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius may have selected the Ides of March because it was an auspicious day, and they knew that many poor people, who were sympathetic to Caesar, were outside the city at gladiatorial games. The assassination of the dictator set the stage for a civil war and the collapse of the Roman Republic.
Whether the date was, in fact, the 15th of March is up to debate, as the Roman calendar was structured differently from our modern calendars. For one thing, they only had 10 months. Additionally, as mentioned above, the Romans did not number the days of the month sequentially from the first to the last...
Whether it was truly the 15th of March or not...for many centuries the Ides of March has been seen as unlucky and even dangerous. Indeed, it has become a by-word for ominous events, with Mr. Shakespeare’s epic lines still resounding in our collective consciousness. However, it’s important to remember that in the ancient world, the day was not seen as inauspicious; people looked forward to it as a day of rituals and fun.
Turns out, it’s only unlucky if you happen to be an aspiring Tyrant.
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