Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Friday, 12 March 2010

March 2010

(Tell Me Why) Ides Don't Like Mondays

Apart from "Et tu, Brute?", "Beware the Ides of March" is the most famous catch-phrase bequeathed to us by Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The Ides of March is the Ancient Roman name for 15 March, and the date had no intrinsically gloomy associations until Shakespeare immortalized it in 1599. Since then, beware the Ides of March has become a common way to indicate that some great misfortune, some tragic fall from grace, is about to occur (though it is less common now than it once was). In the US, the phrase was used facetiously to complain about taxes, back when Tax Day was 15 March (from 1918 until 1955 – ask your grandparents). Now Americans have to say "April is the cruellest month", quoting a more modern, though no less respected poet.

But why is the 15th called Ides of March in the first place? Well, in Roman times, they didn't number the days of the month, at least not the way we do. Instead, they had three special named days. The Kalends were the first day of the month (yes, it was plural). The Nones were usually the fifth day of the month (four months had the Nones on the seventh). Because the most famous Ides are those of March, many internet sources will tell you the Ides are the 15th day of a month. In fact, they were usually the 13th day, but four months (including March, of course) had their Ides two days later. Back when grammar school children were made to learn Latin, there was even a mnemonic rhyme to help them remember this:

In March, July, October, May
The Ides are on the fifteenth day

Sometimes the rhyme goes

In March, July, October, May
The Nones are on the seventh day

Both versions amount to the same hint, as whenever the Nones are the seventh, the Ides are the 15th.

To identify a day, the Romans counted how many days it was before the next named day. So 8 April was ante diem sextum Idus Apriles or "the sixth day before the Ides of April; 5 May was ante diem tertium nonas Maias or "the third day before the Nones of May", and 26 September was actually ante diem sextum kalendas Octobres or "the sixth day before the Kalends of October". No one can say the Romans weren't forward-thinking.

March, named after Mars, the god of War, was once the first month of the Roman year. The Ides of March was the day when one of the two Consuls began his term of office; the other began his on the Kalends of May. (The pronoun "his" in the preceding sentence is not meant to be sexist, by the way; it is simply a historical fact that all Roman Consuls were men.) If not for Caesar's death, the Ides not only of March, but of every month, would by now have fallen into obscurity. Caesar's famous assassination and Shakespeare's famous line have ensured they will live on in infamy, much like the anniversaries of other great disasters. This year, the Ides of March fall on a Monday, which is reason enough to fear them.

As for Shakespeare's other line, some contemporary sources claim Caesar's last were actually Greek: kai su teknon? ("And you, my son?"), showing off his education to the last (knowing Greek in Roman times was a bit like knowing Latin today). However, it's far more likely Caesar's dying word was "Aaaaah!"


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