The Ides of March. Wherein Fr. Z rambles aimlessly and eventually comes full-circle.

Today has been known as the Ides of March for a very long time.

In the Roman way of keeping time with a calendar, days of the month were reckoned from fixed points… which weren’t completely fixed. Every Roman month had Kalends (whence “Calendar”) on the 1st day of the month, Nones and Ides, which, depending on the month, were respectively on the 5th and 13th or the 7th and 15th. The old mnemonic phrase is:

“In March, July, October, May
The Ides are on the fifteenth day”.

Days were counted from before (or on) the Kalends, Nones or Ides. Thus, the 1st of March is the Kalends of March while the 2 March is 6 days before Nones. Romans counted the reference day, by the way. Therefore, 30 March is considered 3 days before the Kalends of April.

This is all verrrrry important because Holy Church’s liturgical calendar in our missals and breviaries still has the Roman reckoning. Even in the 2001, 3rd edition of the Missale Romanum and in the Liturgia Horarum you see Roman dates along side the pedestrian modern notation.

English Ides is from Latin Idus (always plural feminine) comes probably from Etruscan iduo, “to divide”, and thus it indicates that we are roughly at mid-month.  However, there is a Sanskrit root indu which is “moon”, hence, the Idus are when the Roman thought the full moon ought to be (whether it was full or not, apparently).

Since in Latin the names of months are actually adjectives, in Latin we say today is “the March-ian (month’s) Ides” or Idus Martiae (mensis).  But in Latin we also conceive that the whole date is a single word or term.  Thus, if we were going to put off something until, exempli gratia, 18 March we would say “differimus aliquid in ante diem xv Kal. April.

Interesting, no?  Nisi fallor, Romans paid interest on loans on the Ides.

The main door of my seminary in Rome opened onto the street which corresponds, according to clever German archeologists, to the place Caesar was slain by Brutus and the other conspirators.

Caesar was killed during a meeting of the Senate, but not in the Senate building. The Senate burned down after the murder of one of Caesar’s thugs Publius Clodius Pulcher by a guy named Milo. Milo was a creature aligned with Cicero and the optimates.  Publius’s supporters brought his body to the Senate House (the Curia Cornelia which Lucius Cornelius Sulla had built to replace to old Curia Hostilia), and burned it there.  The Senate burned with it. Caesar started the construction of a new Senate House, the Curia Iulia which stands still in the Forum because in the 7th century it was turned into a church,  Sant’Adriano al Foro.

In the meantime, with the destruction of the curia – the technical name for a diocesan chancery – the Senate moved around, meeting in temples or often at the hall build by Pompeius Magnus by the huge palace and stone theatre he constructed outside the pomerium, the border no one with imperium (authority of military command) could legally cross. The senate was meeting at the late Pompey’s place when Caesar was killed.

In my first year in my Roman seminary, I could look out my window and see the curving facade of a large building constructed on the curved remains of Pompey’s theatre. Thus the Via del Monte della Farina, along the side of the Church Sant’Andrea della Valle, where the 1st Act of Pucinin’s Tosca takes place and where the fascinating humanist Pope Pius II is interred, runs just where Pompey’s senate meeting hall was. That’s where Caesar was killed.

So, the notion that Caesar was killed under a statue of Pompey, whom Caesar had double-crossed and effectively bumped off (he was killed in Egypt and his body sent back to rome in a butt of wine), isn’t far off the mark.  There is an inscription on a building on the Via del Monte della Farina to mark the spot of Caesar’s demise.

“Publius”, by the way, was the nom de plume used by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in The Federalist Papers.  In the rebuttals written to the Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers on the of the writers is… yes… you guessed it… “Brutus”.

In any event, I can finally ramble around to the verrrrry cool coin at the top of the entry.

This is one of the rarest and most interesting of all ancient coins.  There are only 75 of them known in the world right now.

On the reverse of the coin (the right in the picture) you see EID MAR, “the Ides of March”.  This coin was struck by Brutus and company when they fled with an army to Greece in 42 BC a couple months before they were defeated  at the Philippi.  The obverse of the coin (left) declares that Brutus, whose profile you see, was “IMP(ERATOR)” of his little freedom-fighter army.  The reverse has daggers, and you know what those are all about.  The lumpy thing is a pileus, an Eastern-style “Phrygian cap”, which was worn by freed slaves.

One of the things that a master did when he freed or  ”manumitted” a slave (“manus mittere” a symbolic placing of one’s hand on a slave as a sign of freeing him) is place this sort of cap on the slave’s shaved head. The cap signified freedom.

Since coins are designed to communicate messages, this coin says that Brutus, et alii, freed the Roman people from slavery by killing Caesar and that Brutus is a legitimate guy because his army acclaimed him to be their imperator, yadda yadda.

That pileus, Phrygian cap, by the way, has subsequently through the centuries become a symbol of freedom from tyranny and for revolution.  In the Terror commonly called the French Revolution (“revolution” in Latin in res novae, “new things”, which were always bad in the eyes of Romans… and Leo XIII’s famous encyclical begins, “Rerum novarum semel excitata cupidine…”), the Phygian cap was popular.  The cap appears on coats-of arms and flags of nations.  

Speaking of senates, the Phrygian cap is on the seal of the US Senate.

And let us not forget, or let us learn for the first, time, that a zucchetto, white for popes, porpora sacra for cardinals, paonazza for bishops and black for priests, is, in Latin, pileus.  Same word but different idea.  The zucchetto is great for keeping one’s shaved tonsure or blad spot, take your pick, warm.  You’ll see these beenie-caps in diocesan curias all over the world.

Back to the coin.

There so few of these Brutus EID MAR coins around because Marcus Antonius and Gaius Octavius (later called Augustus – born, by the way, in Velletri, a town I have a connection to and lived in for some time) had them all, with their bad message, melted down.  This was a kind of damnatio memoriae, an attempt to obliterate the even the memory of a person or thing.

Sometimes there was an official damnatio memoriae issued by the Senate.  In Rome you can see on ancient monuments were one guy’s name was carved out of the marble and another guy’s name was carved in its place.  A great example of this is on the Arch of Septimius Severus near the Curia Iulia in the Roman Forum. When Caracalla had Geta bumped of in 212 he had all references to Geta extirpated from the Arch.

In more modern times, still in Rome, the name of Mussolini was obliterate from nearly every building of his period.  Near the Mausoleum of Augustus, for example, there was a raised inscription of Latin dactylic hexameters (if memory serves) about the shades of the emperors flying about the place and the name of Mussolini (who had cleared the area and set up the Ara Pacis nearby) was covered over in concrete.  Over the years the concrete has eroded away and you can see il Duce’s name once again.   We need these reminders.

But one way to deal with a person or a thing you don’t care for is never to mention it by name. I, as a matter of fact, don’t mention some things all the time.

In ancient times, and even in more modern times, mentioning a thing or person’s name was thought to be an almost magical act which could summon.

Speaking of the “reverse” of the Brutus coin, in the Patrick O’Brien book Reverse of the Medal there is this exchange:

‘You may say what you like, Barret Bonden,’ said Plaice, ‘but I’m older than you, and I say this here barky’s got what we call a…’
‘Easy, Joe,’ said Killick. ‘Naming calls, you know.”
‘What?’ asked Joe Plaice, who was rather deaf.
‘Naming calls, Joe,’ said Killick, laying his finger to his lips.

Bonden was Capt. Aubrey’s coxswain (pronounced “coxson”) and Preserved Killick his steward.  Joe Plaice once obtained a depressed fracture of the skull during combat and Dr. Stephen Maturin, having trapanned him, covered the round hole with a hammered out coin.

Not a Brutus EID MAR coin, however.

By the by, there was never a more miscast, misinterpretation in modern film than the casting of the guy who played Pippin in the Lord of the Rings movies as Barrett Bonden.  Fail.

You may remember that in Reverse of the Medal a very interesting character shows up for the first time whose name is much like that of a cinematographic Kung Fu practitioner.  He – without Kung Fu – will later help Dr. Maturin incite revolution in South America – where many flags of nations depict the patriotic cap – and poor Jack winds up in the Marshalsea debtors prison in London, of which only a wall now remains.  The Marshalsea was also used to house naval officers who were in trouble.

I went to find the remains of the Marshalsea on 23 July 2009, while listening to the audiobook of Reverse of the Medal.  That same day I hunted down the church Magnus Martyr, mentioned by T.S Eliot in The Wasteland.

You will surely recall the Marshalsea from Dickens’ book Little Dorrit, which was turned into one BBC/Masterpiece Theater’s best ever series, though it was truncated.

Now that I think of it,  as an interesting twist, in Oliver Twist by Dickens for those of you in Columbia Heights), when Nancy goes to London Bridge to meet Mr. Brownlow Dickens writes that “the spire of Saint Magnus” was “visible in the gloom”.

And before you ask, yes, I went to St. Mary Woolnoth hoping to hear the bell.  All I found was some clock work and an inscription.

Speaking of Dickens, whose 200th birthday (a.d. vii Idib. Feb. MDCCCXII – the year of the war) is being celebrated this year, in a Tale of Two Cities, about the French Revolution, Dickens mentions Brutus!

“Having purchased a few small articles of grocery, and a measure of oil for the lamp, Miss Pross bethought herself of the wine they wanted. After peeping into several wine-shops, she stopped at the sign of the Good Republican Brutus of Antiquity, not far from the National Palace, once (and twice) the Tuileries, where the aspect of things rather took her fancy. It had a quieter look than any other place of the same description they had passed, and, though red with patriotic caps, was not so red as the rest. Sounding Mr. Cruncher, and finding him of her opinion, Miss Pross resorted to the Good Republican Brutus of Antiquity, attended by her cavalier.

And so we have come full-circle and I can stop.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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13 Responses to The Ides of March. Wherein Fr. Z rambles aimlessly and eventually comes full-circle.

  1. Legisperitus says:

    I know someone who has that coin! :)

  2. Clinton says:

    One of my favorite examples of Patrick O’Brian’s sly humor occurs in The Reverse of the
    Medal
    . Dr. Maturin is rushing to visit Captain Aubrey, who is confined in the Marshalsea
    prison. Along the way he gets lost. he asks a local for the way, and is told “that he certainly
    wanted to get back to his kip before lock-up, and he had best be led there the quickest way,
    rather than be left to wander in the dusk ‘for there were a great many … thieves about in those
    parts, and a single gent might never be seen again: pork pies were assured of a ready sale in the
    Marshalsea and the King’s Bench prison, no great way off…”.

    Later, Stephen reaches the Captain and his lovely wife in the prison, where they offer him what
    hospitality they can: “(Jack Aubrey) had also a good deal of experience of French and American
    prisons, to say nothing of English sponging houses, and it would have been a hard goal indeed
    that found him at a loss. “These are from a local man,” he said, turning the sausages on a fork,
    “and they are famous. So are his pork pies: should you like a slice? It is already cut”.

    “I believe not, thank you,” said Stephen, looking intently at the contents of the pie …

  3. Robertus Pittsburghensis says:

    If I recall correctly, my fairly mediocre dictionary of ecclesiastical Latin calls the biretta a pileus, while the zuchetto is a pileolus.

  4. pfreddys says:

    The 15th of March is my Bichon’s birthday…..may his of all people refecact Our Father Love for Us and may he be united to me int God’s Kingdom!!!!!

  5. The Cobbler says:

    Big dumb question–

    I had heard once that one of the things Caesar did that got a lot of people in the Senate worried about him was mandate the minting of coins with his image while he’s still alive, which… oh, I don’t know, signified that he’s as good as any of the dead heroes, or maybe just signified that he’s already beyond judgement. But if his killers turned around and pretty much did the same thing…?

    Okay, I’m not even sure what exactly the question is — is the “Caesar’s coin was an aggravation among those signs of ambition that led to his assassination” thing a myth? Were Brutus and company just a little too tone deaf to tell how not to make themselves look just like the guy they’d just “freed” the Roman republic from? Or what?

  6. thefeds says:

    This post is, dare I say it, somewhat Ulyssesian in its stream of consciousness!

  7. thefeds says:

    By the way, it truly is a fascinating read.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    You mentioned so many of my favorite things in this post, I do not know where to begin. The Ara Pacis is one of my favorite places in Rome, as it is mentioned in my favorite poet, David Jones. As to Little Dorrit, sigh, my favorite book and the coins, a new revelation to me, as I did not know those had been minted with the daggers, etc.

    This is the stuff of Classical Education, which should be taught to our children, even pre-adolescence. What boy or even girl would not be thrilled with these stories, plots, symbols, etc.?

  9. NoraLee9 says:

    Father, you have missed your calling. If I hit the Mega-Millions tonight, I will recruit you to teach at the Traditional Catholic School I intend to endow. (I will also buy you that townhouse).

  10. Suburbanbanshee says:

    So that’s why woodpeckers are “pileated”?

    [Here is a shot at my feeder from a year ago tomorrow!]

    Pileated Woodpecker

  11. B Haley says:

    Fr. Z.,

    I think your title “rant” does a disservice to this post. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Rolling It is posts like these that I think are some of your finest.

  12. B Haley says:

    Fr. Z.,

    I think your title “rant” does a disservice to this post. It is posts like these that I think are some of your finest. I certainly have benefited greatly from them.

    Oremus pro invicem

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