How Real Were the “Ides of March?”

“Beware the Ides of March,” came the words of the Greek soothsayer in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  But while this simple phrase may seem more the domain of those involved in literature and theater, the strange utterance still holds much meaning to many who observe the superstitions and customs surrounding it.  Does this warning surrounding March 15th hold as much meaning today as it did when Caesar first heard it in 44 BC?

Unfortunately, there is a problem with the traditional keeping of the ides of March today – namely the calendar used at the time of Julius Caesar when he first turned and saw Brutus standing there holding dagger in hand was completely different than the one we use today.  Julius Caesar observed, as most did at the time, the Roman Calendar (later to be known as the Julian Calendar) while today we use the Gregorian calendar.  In other words, while March 15th falls on one day for us in the west, it fell on a completely different day when Caesar famously was described uttering the phrase “Et tu Brute?” meaning, “And you, Brutus?”

Additionally, 2012 is a leap year, further complicating the annual observation of the ides of March as the annual celebration of Caesar’s assassination.  But passing by these technicalities for a moment, let’s take a look at the significance of the soothsayer’s promise that something would happen to the Roman Emperor and his response as described by William Shakespeare.

Soothsayers were seen in Rome as oracles who used the power of the gods to make predictions about the future.  While these professional prognosticators were not in direct contact with the gods such as Zeus, they were known to interpret the intentions of the divine by interpreting signs known as portents.  Some of these portents were well established by custom, while others were simply improvised or even – in the case of less reputable soothsayers – made up.

The most famous oracle, that of Delphi used a far different method, inhaling the bitter air from a cavern in which it was said Apollo had slain the legendary Python.  From this state, Pythia as she was known would fall into a state of ecstatic trance, feverishly relating her visions in a language not entirely understood, but rather interpreted by a cadre of trained priests.  Pythia’s counsel was often sought by generals and political movers and shakers.

Was the tale of the soothsayer warning Caesar that the ides of March would ultimately spell his doom true or a mere figment of fiction?  The story, as related by the Roman historian Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, told the story a bit differently.  After warning that the Emperor would be slain no later than the Ides of March, Caesar once again called the soothsayer to him and said jokingly that the ides had already come, but then was stricken with fear when the soothsayer enigmatically called back with, “Ay, Caesar; but not gone.”