Friday, March 15, 2013

The Ides of March

One of the most oft used and overly simplified phrases in the English language comes from “Julius Caesar”, the play by William Shakespeare. There has never, in my memory, been a March 15th that has passed without someone making reference to the phrase “Beware the Ides of March!” We all know, or should know, that on this date in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar, the Emperor of the not yet “Holy” Roman Empire was assassinated by a group of Senators, including his trusted friend Brutus. But that’s about as far as the average person can tell you about the date, or the event; including me. So, I decided to google around a bit and see if I could come up with a more satisfactory explanation of the date and the phrase. Here is what I have found;

In Rome, before the advent of Christianity, there was a festival held each March 15th to celebrate a woman named Anna Perenna. Just who she was, and whether she really existed is a bit of conjecture involving mythology and also the Roman poet Ovid. He wrote a book of Greek myths which he called “Metamorphoses.” She was also written about by the poet Virgil. In Ovid’s he tells 2 stories about her, which to my un-classically educated mind will require further study to fully comprehend. In his book there was a woman by that name who gave cakes to the Plebeians, who were driven from Carthage in 494 B.C. The Plebeians were the working class, subject to the whims of the more successful Patricians, who comprised the Ruling Class in Rome. Her act of mercy caused her to flee as well after the suicide of her sister Dido. Who Dido was and why she committed suicide is still a nystery to me, but something I will likely look into in the future.

According to Ovid, once Anna arrived in Latium, she ticked off the wife of Aeneas, and then fled, afterward being carried off by someone named Numicus, who was the god of a stream. When Aeneas' servants went to find her, they were able to track her as far as the river, where they found that she had been turned into a water nymph.

It is believed by some historians, that Caesar was killed on the Ides of March because on that day he would have been alone with his leading Senators, while the general populace was off celebrating the holiday. Ovid even wrote about this theory, opining "On the Ides of March the plebs celebrated the Annae festum geniale Perennae near the banks of the Tiber. Rome was, therefore, empty of the lower classes. Is this why the nobles chose the day for the assassination of Julius Caesar?" (Ovid, Fasti iii. 523-42, 675-96).

And then, of course, is the now famous exchange between Caesar and a soothsayer in Shakespeare's immortal play as he left the theater, bound for the Senate, where he was warned not to go;

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.
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: What man is that?
Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
(Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 15-19)

All of this has left me with more question than answers, and in the process, has left me doubly beware of the Ides of March!

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