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March Blog: In Like A Lion

March Blog: In Like A Lion

March is a month of significant dates.  In any month of March, there’s March 14 (Pi Day), which last year carried more significance because Pi, taken out longer, is 3.1415 — thus, March 14, 2015.  And this year, March 14 is, for Orthodox Christians, the first day of Lent.  March 15 is of course the Ides of March.  There’s March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.  And March 20 is the Vernal Equinox, the first day of Spring, falling this year on Palm Sunday.  The following Sunday – I suppose I should point out, only in the Western Church, not for Orthodox Christians – is Easter.  It would take me way too long to explain why Orthodox and Western churches don’t celebrate Easter on the same day.


Every month has an Ides, not just March.  The Roman calendar included months of 28 or 30 days, more or less like ours, but their months were timed to coincide with the phases of the moon.  The first day of the month coincided with the new moon, and was called calends.  The first quarter moon fell on the fifth or seventh day of the month, and was called nones. And the ides of the month fell on the 13th or 15th day, around the time of the full moon.  But the Ides of March was special (even before Julius Caesar’s problems), because March was, in the Roman calendar, the first month of the year, so the Ides of March was the first full moon of the year.  (Remember, that’s why they are called September, October, November, and December, the seventh through tenth months of the year by their names per the Roman calendar).  In fact, one of the things that prompted Caesar’s assassins was his decision to change the calendar, making January the first month of the year, and adding ten days to the 355-day calendar, in 46 BC, two years before he was assassinated. Caesar did that by proclamation, and it wasn’t a popular decision.


Around the Ides of February, in 44 BC, the soothsayer Spurinna told Caesar that he’d found a very bad omen, a bull without a heart.  Most believe that Spurinna was engaging in poetic license; a good soothsayer was essentially a good gossip, someone who had his ear to the ground, and there was plenty of grumbling about Caesar’s dictatorial ways.  Nor was it quite clear why a bull without a heart necessarily meant trouble for Caesar.  Spurinna didn’t warn Caesar about the Ides of March, he simply warned him that the next 30 days might be dangerous.  The date-specific “beware the Ides of March” prophecy was poetic invention, by William Shakespeare.


But Caesar was indeed assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC; the conspirators included Cassius (the fellow about whom Caesar says, in Shakespeare, “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look;/He thinks too much, such men are dangerous”), Brutus (“et tu, Brute!”), and Decimus.  According to Barry Strauss, author of The Death of Caesar, it wasn’t Brutus who betrayed Caesar, but Decimus.  Decimus was Caesar’s closest friend, had dined with him the night before his death, and it was Decimus who persuaded Caesar to leave his house that morning, against the wishes of Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia.  Brutus was central to the conspiracy, but it wasn’t his betrayal that was most surprising.  By the way, no, Caesar never did say, “Et tu, Brute!”  In fact, Strauss is pretty sure that Caesar fought back, fiercely, before succumbing.  More surprising, and more central to the murder, was Cassius; it was he who spoke to Brutus, early in Julius Caesar, encouraging Brutus to join him in the conspiracy to kill Caesar.  “Men at some time are masters of their fates/The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves/That we are underlings.”  Cassius was complaining about Caesar’s imperial actions, perhaps including that calendar revision business, and the lack of will to confront Caesar.  I guess we can be grateful that we don’t have friends like Brutus, Cassius, and Decimus.

February Blog: The Shortest Month

February Blog: The Shortest Month

T.S. Eliot might have felt that April was the cruelest month, but sometimes I wonder, did he ever experience, really experience, a New England February? Sure, he went to Harvard, but maybe winters in the early part of the 20th Century were milder? February may be only 28 days long, but in many years, it seems to go on well beyond 31. And this year, we are blessed(?) with an additional day. It’s Leap Year.

Originally, there wasn’t any February, nor a January, in the calendar. The Romans had a ten-month calendar, with an undifferentiated “winter” at the end of the year. Then, in the Eighth Century BC, Roman King Numa Pompilius added these two months to what had been a ten-month long calendar. And, according to, both January and February were originally 28 days; some time later, January grew, but February remained at 28. February is the most oddly named month; it’s named after a Roman festival called Februa, when citizens were ritually washed. Before we in the English-speaking world adopted February, this month was called Solmonath, meaning “mud month.”

Now, as for Leap Year: The problem we have, with our standard 365-day year, is that what we call a “day” isn’t quite 24 hours long. According to, it’s about four minutes short, and it therefore takes us 365.24 “days” to orbit the sun. That’s why we add a day every four years. But (yes, there is always another “but”) that’s just a bit too many days, because that one day every four years adds an extra 11 minutes to our year. So the rule is: Leap year occurs every year evenly divisible by four, except for any year divisible by 100, except for any year divisible by 400. Got it?

What February does give us is a day dedicated to love, Saint Valentine’s Day. Saint Valentine (the original one; there are two others in the Roman Catholic Church as well) lived in Rome in the late third century AD, during the reign of Emperor Claudius II, also known as Claudius the Cruel (you have to figure, if you’re brought before an emperor known as Claudius the Cruel, things aren’t going to end well). Claudius was having a problem recruiting men for the army; too many were becoming attached to their wives and children. Claudius’ answer was to ban marriage, which seems to me to be akin to confronting the problem of alcoholism by banning beer steins; we’ll find some other means to satisfy our thirst. Anyway, Valentine, a priest in Rome, defied the emperor and performed weddings. Claudius took offense, had Valentine imprisoned, and beheaded. The story goes that, prior to going to his execution, Valentine left a note for his jailer’s daughter that read, “From your Valentine,” thereby lending his name to the love notes that are exchanged on February 14. The tradition of sending Valentine cards goes back well into the Middle Ages; Chaucer, in his Parliament of Foules, wrote: “For this was seynt on Saint Valentyne’s Day/When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.” Unfortunately, the Catholic Church was somewhat less than impressed with Saint Valentine’s pedigree and authenticity, and dropped him from the ranks of official saints, in 1969. It hasn’t stopped the Valentine’s Day industry, though.

The Side Bar by Joseph McDonagh is a monthly blog of random topics on local interests. Joe is a writer posing as an independent insurance agent. His interests include the Red Sox, healthcare, etymology and linguistics, history, and the cultivation of democracy.