The Ides of March: more than the Shakespeare play you read in school

I first heard the phrase “the ides of March” in ninth grade, when we were assigned Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. It’s a great play for your average teen, full of intrigue, deceit, betrayal, prophecy, political power, and murder. The soothsayer’s prognostication in the play is now legendary:

Beware the ides of March.

That’s it: short and sweet. Ever notice that most soothsayers in these stories are cryptic old men? A little more information would have been handy for Julius, who was assassinated on the ides of March in 44 B.C.

Death of Caesar, by Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865. Image via wikimedia commons.

Death of Caesar, by Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1865. Image via wikimedia commons.

How did the old man know? Shakespeare doesn’t say. There were all sorts of divination techniques back then, from ooh to eww. Check out this wikipedia article for the complete list. I like to think it was owl entrails. Just call me old-fashioned. *wink*

Even though we don’t examine entrails (known as extispicy) or watch the peckings of roosters (known as alectromancy) anymore, we continue to look for patterns to make sense of our world. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into us by evolution and has saved us many times in our early survival days. But it’s also tricky. Some patterns are significant, and some are purely coincidental.

I doubt I would have given the ides of March another thought in my lifetime if not for a klutzy mishap in eleventh grade. I broke my ankle on March 15th of that year, slipping on the wet floor in the pool locker room. Even then I didn’t get it, until my mom pointed it out and wrote Beware the Ides of March on my cast. Everyone got a chuckle out of that. I got off easy compared to Caesar, right?

Me and my prom date, 3 months later. I was glad to be out of a cast!

Me and my prom date, less than 3 months later. I was glad to be out of a cast!

In the decades since, I have managed to get through the ides of March unscathed, and those locker rooms got non-slip mats for the floor, so we’re all good.

A few interesting facts about the Ides of March (Idus Martii):

  • The term “ides” referred to the middle of the month, at the time of the full moon. Based on the Romans’ lunar calendar, the ides were on the 13th for most months of the year and on the 15th in March, May, July, and October.
  • The ides, no matter what the month, were considered a holy day dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter, and commemorated by animal sacrifices.
  • By the oldest Roman calendar, March was the first month of the year; therefore, the ides of March was the new year’s first full moon.
  • In Rome, the ides of March was when one settled debts. Kind of like an IRS tax deadline.

You can see that Caesar’s assassins picked a significant day to do the deed. Here we have the death of Caesar linked to sacrifice, the settling of a debt, starting a new year, and a celebration of the Romans’ most important god. Patterns yet again.

The unluckiness of the ides of March doesn’t end with Caesar’s assassination. Here are some ominous things that have happened in history on March 15th:

  • 1889: cyclone in Samoa destroys six U.S. and German warships docked in the harbor at Apia, killing over 200 sailors.
  • 1917: Czar Nicholas II signs the papers to abdicate his throne, turning over his rule to the Bolsheviks. He and his family are imprisoned and executed.
  • 1939: the Nazis seize Czechoslavakia
  • 1952: record rainfall hits La Reunion (an island in the Indian Ocean), dumping over 73 inches in a 24-hour period.
  • 2003: the World Health Organization issues a world-wide health alert for the emerging SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus. Panicked populations across the globe don surgical masks and close schools.

For the rest of the list, check out this Smithsonian Magazine article.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that March 15th is more unlucky than any other day of the year. At least, I hope not. Crutches are a pain in the neck on the stairs.

Happy Ides,


Posted by Kathy Owen (aka K.B. Owen).

K.B. Owen signing books at Prospero’s Books (Manassas, VA)

K.B. Owen taught college English for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature.

A mystery lover ever since she can remember, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells.

Unlike the fictional Miss Wells, K.B. did not have to conduct lectures in a bustle and full skirts. Thankfully. No doubt, many folks are grateful for that little fact.

There are now six books in the Concordia Wells mystery series thus far, with book 6 released a few months ago.

We blog here at misterio press twice a month (sometimes more often),  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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10 thoughts on “The Ides of March: more than the Shakespeare play you read in school

  1. Gilian Baker

    Since the Ides of March are connected to a full moon, what does it mean when there are 2 full moons in March like we have this year? Eek! Does it mean there’s going to be a double whammy? AND mercury goes into retrograde for 4 months starting in the middle of March. Maybe when the 15th arrives, we should all stay in bed & cover our heads. 🙂 Great post! Thanks for sharing!

    1. K.B. Owen Post author

      Yes, they absolutely were. From what I understand, Romans deeply believed in such signs and the interference of the gods (sometimes through men) in their lives. Thanks, Vinnie!

  2. Kassandra Lamb

    Love this post! So many fascinating tidbits. And boy, can I empathize with the crutches on stairs. Definitely a pain!

    1. K.B. Owen Post author

      Fortunately, the crutches were just for the temporary cast. Once the pain went down, I had a walking cast. I got so used to that cast that by the time it came off, I was limping so badly without it. Then everyone was saying: “What happened to you?” DUH, I broke my ankle, remember? Teenagers. *smh*


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