Happy Ides of March, gentle readers! Yes, it’s that magical time that comes but once a year. Sure, there may be ides of other months, but today’s ides are the special ones. Why so special, you may ask? Because today is the day made famous by the death of Gaius Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. (or 709 AUC if you happen to be Roman)
While this is perhaps not the happiest of occasions, I just enjoy the fact that people still know that March has an ides.
But what, you may ask again, IS an ides? Why are they even in a month? What’s the deal? It’s quite simple. The ides were one of three fixed points in each month of the Roman calendar that the Romans would then count backwards from to denote the particular day of the month. The other two were the Nones and the Kalends. For example, a date would be x days until the Nones/Ides/Kalends as opposed to day # of that month. Wikipedia gives a good example with the date of a.d. III Kal. Oct., or ‘on the third day before the October ‘, which would then be September 28th. A little odd but then again, so were the Romans 😛
Originally thought to be a lunar-based calendar, the Romans held that their particular calendar was invented by Romulus, but his calendar wasn’t actually lunar. It did have 10 months and the vernal equinox was during the first month of the year. It did have some familiar names, as the months were were named based on their position in the calendar: Quintilis comes from quinque (five), Sextilis from sex (six), September from septem (seven), October from octo (eight), November from novem (nine) and December from decem (ten). Around 713 BC, the calendar was modified and 2 months, January and February, were added at the beginning of the year by Numa Pompilius. This was a bit of a problem because it meant all the other months were scootched out of position and the days didn’t work right anymore! To fix this, Numa added 51 days to the 304 days in the calendar of Romulus and took one day from each of the six 30-day months giving a total of 57 days to share between January and February. January was given 29 days leaving February with the unlucky number of 28 days, suitable for the month of purification. Of the eleven months with an odd number of days, four had 31 days each and seven had 29 days each. Oy vey! Each month still had its three fixed points: The Kalendae (or Kalends) was the first day of the month. All interest and debts were due on this day. The Nonae (Nones) were around the time of the half moon. The Idūs (Ides) were the half-way point of the month, thought to be for the day of the full moon but it means ‘half’ so it fell on the 15th day of the 30 day month and on the 13th in the other shorter months.
Other important dates were known by their festival, such as the Lupercalia, Terminalia, Quirinalia or Feralia.
Before he got quite thoroughly assassinated, Julius Caesar made some changes to the calendar as well, creating what was thenceforth (word power!) known as the Julian Calendar. He added a day to September and effectively scooted the dates yet again so they lined up better with the seasons and religious festivals, creating dates as such: a.d. XVIII Kal. Oct. = 18 days before the Kalends of October = 14 September.
Another important calendar-related fact is that Romans didn’t count their years sequentially but instead labeled them in reference to the year of consulship for whoever was in charge. For example, on the front of the Pantheon it tells us (in very big letters) that the place was made in the 3rd year of Marcus Agrippa’s consulship. Later on people began to count years from the founding of the city and that’s where that AUC from the beginning of this post comes from!
sic semper tyrannosaurus.