The Ides of March (More or Less)

julius-caesar-4I would like to say before I start this that for some reason I was assuming today, not yesterday, was March 15. It’s part of my calendar fluidity issues.

We know of the “Ides of March” probably mostly because of Shakespeare, who famously warns to “beware” them (or it, I suppose, even if it sounds plural), but Shakespeare knew to make it famous because “on this day in history” Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman senate. (I always thought it was on the steps outside, but this morning’s research, provided in a English-friendly translation, comes from people much closer to the source, and they say “inside.”) I don’t really know what “Ides” are or were, other than a way of marking time.

You know, Rome in its heyday was around for the better part of one thousand years, and so their numerology must have worked for them, but boy does it seem clunky to me.

We should all, thanks to movies, which for some reason feel the need to date themselves using the Roman method — well, and the Super Bowl, except for when “L” didn’t look dramatic enough — have a rough grasp of how the Romans counted. (Come to think of it, I’ll bet this is a number system that functions without zero, and here I was, wondering how anyone did so.)

So if you were making a movie this year, at the end of it you would note your copyright for MMXIX: 1,000 + 1,000 + 10 + 1 before 10. In 2021 we will count 1 after 10: MMXXI. In terms of actual numerals, the Romans counted 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, 1000. (I’m not expert enough to know if they counted beyond that.) Every other number is really just a “before” or “after.” “Four” is not “four” as much as “one before five.”

But we can all puzzle through that. Figuring out what day it is on their calendar turns out to be much trickier, except for one of three days in any given month.

Apparently the Romans initially tried a lunar calendar, which doesn’t really work (and is why Shrove Tuesday moves all over the place). Give a lunar calendar enough time, and your months that say “summer” are suddenly in winter. So then — and I’m cribbing from the internet — they added a couple of months. Just like that. Poof! Here’s January and February. Enjoy! I don’t think they still got to 365 days (and neither do we, really — there’s always that pesky quarter-day we still need to take care of), but they must have made it work.

But after all this, they only decided to mark three days of any given month: the Kalends, the Nones and the Ides. I have no idea what any of these words mean; you’ll have to look that up yourself. The only one of these three that was easy was (were?) the Kalends, the first day of the month.

Because their months, like ours, have different numbers of days, the Nones would either be the fifth or seventh day of the month. Don’t ask me why — I’m just telling you what I read. And in the short months the Ides fell on the 13th, but on the 15th in the long ones, which were March, May, Quinctilis and October. Does one of those look like it doesn’t belong? I’m going to go on a limb here and suggest that we know Quinctilis as July, which Caesar decided in a fit of humility to name for himself.

[Just to be clear, the man’s name was Gaius Julius, Julius being the family (or last) name, and the Caesar was essentially a modifier to tell the known world he was the overlord. All subsequent rulers of Rome became Caesar as well. My friend Mark the historian told me long ago that the Romans didn’t have a soft “C,” so really this should probably be pronounced “Kaiser” — see where the Germans got that? And those Russians mutated it to “Tsar.” Or Tzar. Or Csar. Or Czar. It’s a transliteration, and you feel free to choose which you like best.]

Now, while the Romans seemed to have no trouble adding or subtracting from their few numerals — 1 before 10 is 9, 2 after 10 is 12 — they only subtracted for their calendar: days only come before the Kalends, Nones or Ides. Let’s just stay in March to confuse ourselves as little as possible. If it’s what we like to think of as March 3, in Rome it would be (I’m reasonably sure) 5 Nones March, because you count the Nones itself (themselves?) as 1. The day before, the 6th, would be 2 Nones rather than 1. Do you think they could have made this any more confusing?

Well, yes, they could. Because if you get to the 16th of March, then you have to start subtracting from the Kalends of April, so instead of March 16, you are at 17 Kalends April. You’re no longer really in March, just before April. And if you want to write it in Roman, you are 2 after 5 after 10 (XVII) Kalends April.

This is just so simple!

So when I’m writing at check at Safeway (not at City Market, because their system won’t take checks unless you go through some lengthy approval process — have I digressed?) and I ask the checker what the date is, I get this nice, concise answer. “It’s March 16,” he or she would tell me. If I were writing this check in ancient Rome — let’s skip the technicality where they probably didn’t write checks or have grocery stores as we know them — the poor checker would first have to decide if it were a long month or a short month (is it before the Nones or after?), and then start adding while subtracting.

It was very convenient for history and the arts, then, that Caesar’s fellow senators chose to take him down in the most fatal way on March 15. If they had done this just one day earlier, Shakespeare would have had to try to make poetry with “Beware the 2 Ides of March,” and if they’d waited a day, it would have made Shakespeare’s job just that much harder:  “Beware the 2 after 5 after 10 Kalends of April.” (I don’t know that the Romans really inserted the “of,” but Shakespeare did.)

Now, we haven’t gotten to what year this happened in, and I don’t know that I can offer much guidance. Sitting here, in MMXIX, I can tell you it was 44 B.C., or BCE, take your pick.

[This was one month or less from the moment Caesar had declared himself “Dictator for Life.” His fellow citizens were okay, if not outright fine with him acting in dictatorial fashion, but not for life. He was supposed to share, and when he didn’t, they shared for him. This sharing was messy, both in the actual stabbing and in the leadership squabbles that ensued.]

But, back in 44 B.C. or BCE, they didn’t know they were “Before Christ” or “Before the Common Era.” So they were counting some other way, and I was going to tell you I don’t know what that was, but a 10-second internet research (this is so much faster than the Encyclopedia Brittanica) will learn us all:

“The Roman calendar was counted Ab urbe condita (“from the foundation of the city”), in 753 BC; and it continued in use until the Anno Domini calendar was introduced in AD 525.”

I am going to let you do your own math, in whatever counting system you like to use, to determine what year it was when Caesar’s wife begged him not to go to the Senate that day, because she’d had bad dreams.

The lesson, then, that we take away from the Ides of March? Always listen to your wife.

Whoever he is, Karl Hagen of was quite helpful in bringing you this blog post.

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