The Ides of March, better known as March 15th, marks an inauspicious anniversary associated with treachery and ill fortune. But, how did a day that was once celebrated by the Romans become so heavily steeped in superstition?
Where did the phrase Ides of March come from?
First, let’s talk calendars. Unlike today, the ancient Romans didn’t number their calendar days chronologically from the first of the month to the last. Instead, they would count forward or back from fixed calendar points–the Nones (the 5th or 7th day depending on the month), the Ides (13th or 15th day), and the Kalends (the first day of the next month).
So instead of saying “On July 6th,” an ancient Roman would say the slightly less straight-forward, “On the 8th day before the July Ides.”
The ides marks the halfway point of the month—most likely alluding to the day of the full moon, although historically the ides also corresponded to when bills became payable. Of course, such an infamous day would fall on payday.
How did the Ides of March become superstitious?
The Ides of March were at one point a celebratory day dedicated to the Roman god of war, Mars, complete with a military parade. So, when did an otherwise humdrum day of the year turn into the superstitious harbinger of ill omen we know it as today?
On this foreboding day in 44 BC, the Roman Senate conspired to kill Julius Caesar, who was at the time seen to be consolidating power to make himself emperor. After ignoring numerous warnings–including those of a seer, who cautioned him to “beware the Ides of March”–Caesar was lured into an ambush set by members of the Roman Senate, who proceeded to stab the dictator 23 times before he died.
Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, written around 1599, immortalized this dark moment and gave us the classic line of dismayed betrayal, “Et tu, Brute?”