Mythursday: Be Aware of the Ides of March

Okay, so:

I know I said I was going to twice weekly updates to cover the story of Theseus, but I was away from home all day Tuesday this week, and I suddenly find myself short on time today, and worse, I find myself forced to make the decision to do something topical rather than the obviously timeless story of Theseus.

Today is March 15, which, as many of you may know, is the Ides of March, the day on which Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. But what ARE the Ides of March? This is what I thought I would answer today. Admittedly, this is not a mythology topic, but Romanhistoryandcultursday isn’t quite as snappy.

Here is what you need to know:

Romans didn’t think of dates the same way we do. They would never say, “Oh, we’ll go down to Brundisium on April 7th. Can’t wait!” Every date was named based on its relation to a particular landmark day in the month. The three landmarks were the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides.

How were these days determined? Most likely by the lunar cycle. No one can say for sure, but it is incredibly likely that the original Roman calendar was lunar in nature. The Kalends, then, as the first day of every month, were the day of the new moon. (The name Kalends most likely derives from the Greek “kaleo,” meaning to announce, as in “to announce the new moon.” It is, as you may have guessed, the source of our word calendar.)

And so the Nones are the day of the half moon and the Ides the day of the full moon (Macrobius states that the name Ides comes from an Estruscan word meaning to divide, as in to divide the month in half, but more likely it is related to a Sanskrit word meaning to shine, as the full moon). Originally the dates of these days would vary, being determined by someone who is looking super closely at the moon, but eventually they were regulated so that the Nones fell on the fifth of each month (except for March, May, July and October, when they fell on the seventh) and the Ides fell on the thirteenth of each month (except for March, May, July and October, when they fell on the fifteenth).

Why do they change? It has to do with the lunar cycle and how it doesn’t complete itself in full days. Moving the Ides had more or less the same purpose as leap years, except for the moon, rather than the sun. When the Ides move, the Nones move, because the Nones (from the word for “ninth”) are the ninth day before the Ides.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “I don’t know much about math learnin’, but I know thirteen minus five is eight, not nine!” Yes, well, here is the next trick: Roman counting was inclusive, meaning if you’re counting backwards from today, you include today. So Tuesday would be considered the third day before Thursday, not two days before as we would count it today.

With me so far?

The other thing you have to understand is that Roman dates always looked forward, never backwards, as they were always looking forward to the next phase of the moon (presumably). So you would never say, “Meet me the day after the Ides,” but rather, “Meet me the Nth day before the Kalends.”

So while today is the Ides of March, tomorrow wouldn’t be reckoned the day after the Ides, it instead would be called ante diem XVII Kalendas Apriles, or the seventeenth day before the Kalends of April. (It would not, in fact, be called this, as in the Roman calendar, March did not have thirty-one days, but don’t worry about that part.)

Surprising no one, it is actually a little more complicated than this once you account for intercalary months, but that is something you can look up on your own if you are interested. Needless to say, there is a reason there have been a couple of major calendar reforms since the original Roman calendar.

(One of these major reforms was made by Julius Caesar himself: it’s called the Julian calendar. Since he began it and his heir Augustus finished instituting it, the months of July and August were renamed after those dudes.)

(Also! Ironically, due to the reforms of Julius Caesar himself, we are commemorating his death on the wrong day. While the Ides of March by pre-Julian reckoning would in fact have been March 15, the day on which Caesar was actually assassinated would be March 14 by our current method. THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMMM.)

It is worth noting that the Ides were the days on which teachers were paid each month. Just, you know, just pointing that out.

Also, it’s a good day for stabbing your friend in the groin until he dies, but only if he has just been named dictator-for-life and your other friends really egg you on about it, playing on your sense of honor and the fact that you are the descendant of your culture’s most famous tyrannicide. ONLY IF YOU MEET ALL THOSE CONDITIONS.

Otherwise, don’t stab any groins.

In anticipation of tomorrow, a post outlining the proper celebration of Groin Stabbing Day


So in the Roman calendar, each day of the year was marked by a special sign: N (nefastus: wrong in the sight of god), F (fastus: right in the sight of god), and C (comitialis, from comitia, meaning assemblies). To keep a lunar calendar correct, you have to add days to bring the year in harmony with the sun. And by the second century, the college of pontifices (priests, basically) had the right to sling these days in when they wanted—there’s a lot to be said about the process but tl;dr, they had complete control over if and when extra comitial days would occur.

WHICH WAS THE TOTAL WORST, because centuriate and tribal assemblies for voting and elections could only be held on comitial days. In practical terms, this would basically be like… imagine if Pelosi went on on vacation. If Boehner was a pontifex (and a lot of Roman magistrates held dual religious roles), he could casually wait until she boarded her plane, then make sure the comitial days would fall when she’s catching rays in the Bahamas. This would effectively block her from having any say in political proceedings because according to Roman law, she’s required to physically be in the city for her vote to count.

If that sounds like some grade A shittiness IT WAS, and Caesar dropped the hammer. He rounded up a bunch of mathematicians and astronomers to transition everything to solar and permanently standardized the calendar, probably flipping the Senate the double bird as he slowrode by. The Senate recognized it as the deballsing move it was; Cicero in particular got his panties in a twist. When someone dropped a comment about the constellation Lyra rising the next day—because I guess that’s the kind of thing they small talked about back then—he dryly responded “Yes, on order,” implying that everyone was being forced to accept the change. And displaying exactly the kind of shitty little attitude that got Augustus to shrug and say “Eh” when Marc Antony slammed CICERO in all caps on the top of the kill list.


Apparently I’m reblogging this on the wrong day.  Sorry, Julius.  

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