This week marks the day that Shakespearean scholars,
practitioners of precognition, and ancient-Republic-abolishing Roman dictators
fear and revere with equal abandon: The Ides of March. On March 15 in 44 B.C., conspirators
stabbed Julius Caesar to death on the floor of the Roman Senate.
It was a historical event so profound that it moved such
varied and accomplished luminaries as Plutarch, Thornton Wilder, and William
Shakespeare (among countless others) to recount the tale of Caesar’s demise.
Appropriately, each of the above features the Ides of March quite prominently
in his story.
And you thought the Ides were just another funky Elizabethan
term that your English teacher used to make Shakespeare more insufferable.
(Disclaimer: The Trivia Geek is a former English major who loves Shakespeare,
but the Geek recognizes this as a minority position—Philistines, the lot of
The Ides did arguably gain their contemporary notoriety due
to The Bard, who included the famous line “Beware the Ides of March”
in his play Julius Caesar, Act I,
Scene 2, line 33. A soothsayer spoke the line, warning Caesar that tragedy
awaited on this date and cluing the titular character in (albeit obliquely) to
the murderous conspiracy to which the audience is openly privy. While
Shakespeare may have used this dramatic device in his play in any
circumstance—the man had a gift for plot construction—he also had some
historical basis for the scene.
From the account of Nicolaus of Damascus, an Augustan-age (the
reign of Caesar Augustus, the emperor who assumed control of Rome after the
civil wars following Julius Caesar’s death) historian, Caesar performed a
traditional animal sacrifice to supplicate the gods before entering the Senate
chamber on the Ides of March. The omens foretold by the sacrifice were
reputedly ominous. In addition, Nicolaus suggests that Caesar’s wife dreamt of
his fate the night before his murder.
So, Shakespeare had some non-fiction backup for his
soothsayer scene, even if he moved the event around in the play’s timeline
(it’s what we call dramatic license,
people). And by doing so, The Bard ensured that the Ides of March would become
one of the most literarily notorious dates in history—even if most folks who
observe the Ides don’t know that the Romans recognized Ides in months besides
March or that Ides were one of three categories of days observed in the ancient
BESIDES THE IDES, WHAT WERE THE OTHER TWO SPECIFICALLY NAMED
DAYS IN THE ROMAN CALENDAR?
What were the other two specifically named days in the
ancient Roman calendars besides the literarily famous Ides, which earned
notoriety thanks to Shakespeare’s famous line “Beware the Ides of
March” in his play Julius Caesar?
The Romans used three named days as reference points in
their calendar: the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides. What these days
represented varied by the month; the lunar-based Roman calendar was a little
obtuse. (Then again, I defy anyone to look at the modern Gregorian calendar and
not say the same thing.)
The Kalends was always the first day of the month (and it’s where
the word calendar comes from). The
Nones was the day of the first half moon, which fell either on the 5th or 7th
day, depending on the month. The Ides was the day of the first full moon, which
fell either on the 13th or 15th day, depending on the month.
In true Roman numeric fashion, these days served as base
positions, with the current day counted backward from the Kalends, Nones, and
Ides. Thus, just as IV would mean one before five (or four), adding numbers before the Kalends, Nones, or Ides signified
a specific day of the month.
The term pridie
meant the day before. Thus, if a
Roman said pridie Ides Martius, it
would mean the day before the Ides of March, or March 14.
The term ante diem
could enumerate additional days before a named day, but the Romans counted
inclusively. The phrase ante diem V Ides
Martius would mean literally the
fifth day before the Ides of March. However, instead of denoting March 10,
it would mean March 11, because the five-day count included the Ides. Confused
Moreover, after the Ides of a given month, the date would become
a countdown to the following Kalends. So, the last day of March would be pridie Kalends Aprilis, or the day
before the first of April.
As you might suspect, this convoluted complexity is what led
to the adoption of a more conventional seven-day week in the third century A.D.
However, informal references to the Kalends, Nones, and Ides survived for
centuries, well into even Shakespeare’s days, making for some lovely dramatic
poetry—and some not-so-dated Geek Trivia.
Check out the Trivia Geek’s blog!
Keep in touch
with Trivial Pursuits, the
Trivia Geek’s online journal of rants, opinions, crazy ideas, half-baked
notions, bizarre concepts, wild schemes, and trivial observations unfit even
for Geek Trivia.
The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.
This week’s quibble comes from the February 22 edition of
Geek Trivia, “The
math behind the myth.” TechRepublic member Don Christner took a shot at my language skills.
“[You wrote] ‘. . . subsequently solves the
mathematically insoluble.’ Shouldn’t that be unsolvable? Although, I suppose that a math problem can’t dissolve
in a solution.”
Luckily, member LeeWin
had my back.
“Insoluble: Difficult or impossible to solve or
explain; insolvable: insoluble riddles.”
Thanks for trying to sneak in the chemistry reference, but
for once, the Geek is triumphant. Keep trying, and keep those quibbles coming!
Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?
Check out the Geek Trivia Archive,
and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.
Test your command of
useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic’s Geek Trivia newsletter. Automatically
sign up today!
The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.