La Morte di Cesare (“The Death of Caesar”), painted by Vincenzo Camuccini (1805). Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome, Italy.
Beware the Ides of March! Or should you? Well, for Julius Caesar, he certainly had reason to be wary of the arrival of March 15th. However, for most ancient Romans, there was nothing unlucky or ominous about this day. Far from it, actually. March 15 was a day of public celebration, often accompanied with friendly get-togethers, picnics, and parties. And sacrifices, don’t forget the sacrifices.
It’s no secret that the ancient Roman calendar was drenched with feasts which were either of a religious or social nature. Even if your knowledge of the Roman calendar is minimal, you can be confident that each month had at least one religious holiday, and you’d also be sure of when it took place too – right smack in the middle. The Ides was a day in the middle of each month, often on the 15th or thereabouts. The word “Ides” is related to the word “divide”, and it was a reference to the day which split the month in half. Originally, the Ides was celebrated on the day of the full moon. However, the lunar cycle was not synchronized with the Roman calendar, so they gradually fell out of time. It was therefore decided by some unknown authority that the middle of each month, regardless of the lunar phase, would be the date for the Ides celebration. Each of the Ides were dedicated to Jupiter, the king of the gods (“Ides of March: What Is It? Why Do We Still Observe It?”).
The day began with rituals meant to honor Jupiter, which occurred as follows. A white lamb known as the ovis idulis, which had been specifically set aside for this ritual, would be brought to the Temple of Jupiter to be sacrificed. The person who actually brought the lamb to the temple was none other than the flamen dialis, the high priest of the cult of Jupiter. The lamb was escorted down the Via Sacra, the route of holy rites, towards the temple, which stood on the Capitoline Hill (“Be Aware of the Ides of March – 4 Things to Know About the Infamous Day”).
As the poet Ovid explains, March 15 was a public holiday dedicated to fun and leisure, a day to get away from the rush and hubbub of day-to-day life and take a breath of fresh air. People would gather together in parks, fields, or along the banks of the Tiber River for picnics, sports, singing, dancing, and friendly company. It was also a day accompanied by some rather indulgent consumption of alcohol.
“The people come and drink there, scattered on the grass, and every man reclines there with his girl. Some tolerate the open sky, a few pitch tents, and some make leafy huts out of branches, while others set reeds up, to form rigid pillars, and hang their outspread robes from the reeds. But they’re warmed by sun and wine, and pray for as many years as cups, as many as they drink. There you’ll find a man who quaffs Nestor’s years, a woman who’d age as the Sibyl, in her cups. There they sing whatever they’ve learnt in the theatres, beating time to the words with ready hands, and setting the bowl down, dance coarsely, the trim girl leaping about with streaming hair. Homecoming they stagger, a sight for vulgar eyes, and the crowd meeting them call them ‘blessed’”. (Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 15)
Preparations for the Festivities, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1866). The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA.
However for some Romans, the arrival of March 15 was a day that was dreaded for the same reasons that many modern-day Americans dread the arrival of April 15. In ancient Rome, March 15 was the deadline for paying your debts. What happened if you if you were in ancient Rome and you didn’t pay your bills when your time ran out? I don’t even want to think about that (“Ides of March: What Is It? Why Do We Still Observe It?”).
- Ovid, Fasti, book 3, March 15. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/OvidFastiBkThree.php.
- The American Institute for Roman Culture. “Be Aware of the Ides of March – 4 Things to Know About the Infamous Day” (March 15, 2018). https://www.romanculture.org/journal/2018/3/14/be-aware-of-the-ides-of-march-4-things-to-know-about-the-infamous-day.
- National Geographic. “Ides of March: What Is It? Why Do We Still Observe It?”, by Brian Handwerk (March 15, 2011). https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/03/110315-ides-of-march-2011-facts-beware-caesar-what-when/.