Ides Coin

This ancient Roman coin was minted by the assassins of Julius Caesar, who killed him on the Ides of March outside the Roman Forum in 44 B.C. Believing they had freed Rome from the tyranny of Caesar, the coin shows a hat that is worn by freed slaves, surrounded by daggers.

Beware? The Ides of March is Coming

March 5, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – Beware! March 15 is right around the bend, and with it the infamous Ides of March. We all have heard the phrase “Beware the Ides of March,” but is the date really that threatening?

“Historically, the Ides of March was a day to settle accounts, a day when bills were due,” said Jason Moralee, assistant professor of history at Illinois Wesleyan University, who noted we usually associate the day with a settling of another kind of account – the assassination of Roman emperor Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.

According to Moralee, whose focus is ancient Rome, Caesar was the last in a line of generals who ruled the late Roman republic. “These men had used their glorious victories to carve out political power, and many thought Caesar went too far.” After squelching a civil war, Caesar had been declared Dictator Perpetuus, or perpetual dictator, and renamed monuments in honor of himself, said Moralee. “This was just too much, and those who conspired against him took up the motto libertas! or liberty.”

The fact that the assassination took place on the 15th of March could have been a symbolic “settling” of Caesar’s acts of tyranny, or it could have simply been a matter of timing. Caesar was planning on leaving for a military campaign shortly after the Ides. Moralee thinks both explanations are right – the day had symbolic and practical significance. “I always like the really practical explanations. Even historical figures generally thought in practical ways,” he said.

For Illinois Wesleyan, the Ides of March is not a portent of doom, but a chance for the University to come together. Illinois Wesleyan’s Greek and Roman Studies brings in a speaker to celebrate the Ides each year. “We like the speakers to reach across campus and disciplines,” said Greek and Roman Studies Director Nancy Sultan. “It really speaks to the influence the Greeks and Romans have had on so many aspects of our lives, and how they continue to influence us.” The 2008 Ides of March Series will feature speaker Professor Sheramy Bundrick, author of Music and Image in Classical Athens, who will speak as part of the Ides Lecture and Performance Series on March 27.

The phrase “Beware the Ides of March” became famous with William Shakespeare. The Bard recounted an ominous warning to the ruler in his play, Julius Caesar, which was a retelling of the biography by the Roman author Suetonius. “In the biography, Suetonius talks of Caesar ignoring unmistakable signs of danger, even laughing at a soothsayer’s warning to beware the Ides of March,” said Moralee. Today we might dismiss the idea of a soothsayer as a simple fortune-teller, but in ancient times they were serious business. “Official soothsayers would tell if the will of the gods divined a war to commence or a vote to take place,” said Moralee. “There were times when emperors would clear the city of the soothsayers. What could be more dangerous than someone who can tell the future, especially to an emperor?”

Since the Ides of March that spelled the end of Julius Caesar, very few disasters have occurred on the March 15th. Every month, in fact, has an Ides. In the calendar created by Julius Caesar (another thing Caesar revamped and named after himself), the Ides falls on the 13th of most months. It only hits the 15th in March, May, July and October.

So perhaps there is little reason to beware the Ides of March. Moralee actually sees it as a rebirth of sorts. “If you go to Rome on March 15, you will see people laying flowers at the altar where Caesar was burned,” he said. “I have no idea why or who does it, but it is rather romantic that people walk to the ancient, dusty Forum to lay flowers at the altar.”

Contact: Rachel Hatch (309) 556-3960