Beware the Ides of March

Everyone in the English-speaking world has likely heard that phrase – Beware the Ides of March! – but many likely don’t know what it means. The phrase famously comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Many of our expressions actually originate in Shakespeare, from To be or not to be to What the dickens. When I was in university, one of my professors told a story about taking an old woman, who’d never been to a play or read any Shakespeare, to see Hamlet. Afterward he asked her how she liked it, and she replied that it was good, but what an awful lot of cliches.

Near the beginning of the play (Act 1, Scene 2), as Caesar is walking through the forum, a soothsayer warns him, vaguely, about his pending assassination, which will occur on the Ides of the month. (Ides, for those who don’t know Latin, is the Roman term for the middle of the month. In most months in the Roman calendar, that was the 13th. In March (and May, July – named after Caesar – and October) it fell on the 15th. The date that history/legend has it that Caesar was, in fact, assassinated.) Most of Shakespeare’s audience would have known this, and their knowledge infused the scene with dramatic irony.

In Shakespeare’s play, Caesar disregards the soothsayer’s warning and is assassinated by a group of senators, among them his erstwhile friend Brutus, which causes him to utter some of the most famous dying words in English literature: Et tu, Brute? (“You too, Brutus?” – Brute, by the way, should be pronounced brew-tay.)

When you tell someone to beware the Ides of March, you’re not really suggesting they’ll run into bad luck on March 15, but suggesting they’re not listening to warnings and are heading for a foreseeable fall. If you say, Et tu, Brute! you’re expressing surprise at a betrayal.

Other useless bits of trivia you may or may not know, and likely don’t care about:

March is named after the Roman god of war, Mars. July is named for Julius Caesar, while August is named for his replacement, Octavian, aka Augustus.

Before July and August were added to the Roman calendar, it only had ten months. Hence September (seventh month), October (eighth), November (ninth) and December (tenth).

 

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