15 March – Wherein Fr Z rants about the #IdesOfMarch

ides of march groupsWe call today the Ides of March, made especially famous in the English speaking world by Shakespeare in his play Julius Caesar.

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Beware the ides of March.

What man is that?

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

If someone were to ask you today “What are Ides?”, could you give an explanation?

Romans had three special days each month which were supposed to relate to the cycles of the moon. The first days of the month were the Kalends. Kalends gives us our word “calendar”, of course. The origin of this strange Latin word, with a K, is fuzzy. K in Latin immediately makes us suspect that there is something very ancient going on or perhaps something Greek. In this case, some think that Kalends comes from an announcement about the New Moon made to Juno on the Capitoline Hill, “kalo Iuno Novella… I call you, New Juno”. Who knows. Going on, the Nones fell either on the 5th in short months or 7th in longer months. The Ides fell either on the 13th or the 15th, depending on the month. Romans thought even numbered days were unlucky, so they jumped over them and didn’t hold religious events on them. Romans counted dates of the month backwards from these three days. Today, 15 March, is the Ides of March, tomorrow will be “ante diem xvii Kalendas Apriles… 17 days before the Kalends of April”. Don’t worry that that doesn’t seem to add up. Romans counted days a little differently than we do.

Here is a mnemonic poem to help remember when the Ides and other days fall in a month. It varies. This is from Gildersleeve’s Latin Grammar reworked by Lodge or what we call “Gildersleeve & Lodge” (my preferred grammar – UK HERE):

“In March, July, October, May,
The Ides are on the fifteenth day,
The Nones the seventh; but all besides
Have two days less for Nones and Ides.”

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).

You students of Latin need to know that in Latin the names of months are actually adjectives.  In Latin we say that 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.  Caesar sure paid.

Anyway, we Catholics still pay attention to the ancient Roman way of calculating time.  In the Latin edition of the Liturgy of the Hours (not the pre-Conciliar Roman Breviary) in the calendar section we still see indications of the ancient Roman dates.

So, today is famously the day upon which Julius Caesar was assassinated.  Caesar had, apparently, been warned by various people, including his wife Calpurnia who had had a portentous dream, not to go to the Senate meeting that day.  He went.  He was killed with 23 stab wounds in the portico of the Theatre of Pompey.

Caesar was killed during a meeting of the Senate, but not in the Senate building.

Pompey the Great, when he returned to Rome from Spain, still held power of imperium (to lead troops, etc.) and he could not legally cross the City limits (pomerium) without losing that power.  So, in order to attend Senate meetings, he built a meeting hall for the Senate outside the pomerium.  It was part of the complex of the palace and stone theatre he built, Rome’s first permanent stone theatre.

At this point there was no Senate building in the Roman Forum.  The Senate had 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.  They went into the Senate and hauled out the wooden furniture to burn the body.  The Senate caught fire too and burned down. 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 (still today the technical name for a diocesan chancery) the Senate moved around, meeting in temples or often at the aforementioned hall built by Pompey.


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, the end of the square shaped portico of Pompey’s Theatre complex.

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.

Also, one of my favorite restaurants in Rome has visible traces of Pompey’s complex… no, not the “famous” restaurant.   The one I mean is far better.

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 pickled 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”.

For those of you who are interested in coins, there is a super rare ancient Roman coin that is marked with “the Ides of March”. 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. 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. Therefore, this lumpy cap is a symbol of freedom.

Coins are designed to communicate messages. The ancient Roman coin above 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, the Phrygian cap has 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.    Once you know what it is, you start seeing it – if not everywhere – all over the place.

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.  It’s the same Latin word but different idea… in most cases.  There are some bishops who are terrorist revolutionaries… but I digress.  The zucchetto is great for keeping one’s shaved tonsure or blad spot, take your pick, warm.

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 today you can see on ancient monuments where 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 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, avoid mention of some things – or websites – 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, onomancy, which could summon.   Names were sometimes considered influential in determining one’s destiny, a kind of nominative determinism: Nomen omen… 

Speaking of the “reverse” of the rarely-preserved 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.  The scene is depicted in the movie.  US HERE UK HERE

Not a Brutus EID MAR coin, however.

So, can you now explain something about the Ides of March?


Please share!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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17 Responses to 15 March – Wherein Fr Z rants about the #IdesOfMarch

  1. Paul says:

    Could you share the name of the restaurant?

  2. rcg says:

    Salad dressing?!?! Dip your robe in it and declare, “vini, vidi, vegan”.

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  3. MitisVis says:

    That photo is “classic”, almost blew coffee on my screen

  4. WVC says:

    Just be aware – that collected Patrick O’Brien set has received some poor reviews because of some bad editing.[It’s fine.] Because of the language, there are often a lot of either unusual words (nautical) or unusual spellings (the vernacular of the seamen), and whatever quick edit job was done to slap the collection together bungled a great deal of them. At least, that’s what the reviews say. I personally have the individual books, [YAY!] which I encourage all to buy through Fr. Z’s links. Or, better yet, the audio book versions read by Patrick Tull (also through Fr. Z’s Amazon links). His voice was simply made for the series – marvelous reading!

    [Simon Vance’s recordings are superior.]

  5. Imrahil says:

    I find it rather interesting that Brutus, well into the second half of the first century BC, would struck a coin and spell the Ides (Idûs) as “Eides” (Eidûs).

    That is obviously old Latin, but not even Sallust with his preference for older forms would have thought about reviving the old ei’s and oi’s.

  6. Poor Yorek says:

    There is, of course, the opinion of Plautus:

    “The gods confound the man who first found out
    How to distinguish hours! Confound him, too,
    Who in this place set up a sundial,
    To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
    Into small portions! When I was a boy,
    My belly was my sundial — one surer,
    Truer, and more exact than any of them.
    This dial told me when ’twas proper time
    To go to dinner, when I had aught to eat;
    But nowadays, why even when I have,
    I can’t fall to unless the sun gives leave.
    The town’s so full of these confounded dials
    The greatest part of the inhabitants,
    Shrunk up with hunger, crawl along the street.”

    One can only imagine his spittle-flecked-nutty regarding a smart-phone. ::cough::

  7. WesleyD says:

    I thought that the Ides and Nones were on the later days if the month had 31 days, and they were on the earlier days if the month had 30. Was this the general rule?

    Also, I was taught in high school that in the early Roman calendar, there were ten months — March through December; what later became January and February were just 60-ish days that didn’t belong to any month. If that’s true, then there was no kalends, nones, or ides during this 60-day gap, correct?

  8. acardnal says:

    Wow!! Great post, Father. VERY informative.

    “Et tu, Zed?”

  9. Jack in NH says:

    Neat! I learned all kinds of cool tidbits in this post.
    BTW, the ‘cap’ in prominent on our own Liberty Seated coinage of the mid/late 1800’s.

  10. Titus says:

    Could you share the name of the restaurant?

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen Fr. Z give up his gastronomical secrets. But I’d very much love to hear this one; we’ll be in Rome for Easter—staying right near there—and are trying to sift through the mountain of dining options to find somewhere for Easter dinner. Because this is downtown Rome, there are, of course, about fifteen restaurants within the outline of Pompey’s complex.


  11. Semper Gumby says:

    Great post Fr. Z. In the U.S. Congress, fixed to the wall behind the Speaker’s podium I think, are two large fasces.

    “Et tu, Zed?” Excellent, acardnal. If Lucky Strikes were available at the Emporium this would be a case for Tracerus Bulletus- resplendent in fedora and sandals.

    Poor Yorek: Good poem.

  12. Titus says:

    Could you share the name of the restaurant?

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen Fr. Z give up his gastronomical secrets. But I’d very much love to hear this one; we’ll be in Rome for Easter—staying right near there—and are trying to sift through the mountain of dining options to find somewhere for Easter dinner. Because this is downtown Rome, there are, of course, about fifteen restaurants within the outline of Pompey’s complex.



  13. JonPatrick says:

    Can someone recommend a good history of Rome, to read about such things?

  14. Semper Gumby says:

    JonPatrick: Someone could no doubt improve on my suggestion here, but I’ve found three books useful. Thomas Madden’s Empires of Trust (his useful book about how and why Rome became an empire), Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, and Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome that covers several key gaps in Heather’s book. Hope this helps.

  15. introibo says:

    My understanding is that the Phrygian cap, as worn by the goddess Liberty and the French Revolutionaries, is a symbol of Freemasonry.

  16. un-ionized says:

    Introibo, why would it be a symbol of Freemasonry? They have symbols enough of their own.

  17. Matt Robare says:

    My favorite thing about Roman time-keeping is that between them the consuls regulated the length of the year and, since they could veto each other’s actions, occassionally worked together to extend their time in office. As a result, some years in the later Republic have over 400 and even over 500 days.

    And speaking of people’s bodies being preserved in wine, when Nelson was killed at Trafalgar it was decided to take him back to England for burial instead of burying him at sea, so they put him in brandy. But sailors are sailors and they drank him.