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.