March 13, 2008

#01-084: Beware the Ides of March

detail of an oil painting; in the center a man is fallen, and around him are several more with knives raised; all are wearing colorful Roman-style togas
Detail from The Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini

Note: March 15 (like the 15th of every month) was meant to be a "lucky day" for Romans--but it sure wasn't for Julius Caesar! Learn some Shakespeare quotes from his play, Julius Caesar, as well as some Roman calendrics.

Get Ready: Do you know what phase the moon is in as you read this? Is it nearer to full, or to new? Is it waxing or waning?

"Beware the ides of March!" Thus a fortune teller warned Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play named after the Roman emperor.

The play tells of the assassination of Caesar by his colleagues. It has given us many famous sayings:

  • "But, for my own part, it was Greek to me": We use this when we don't understand something; even the Greek alphabet is slightly different from the Roman one we use. "Can you read this?" "Nope! It's Greek to me!"
  • "A dish fit for the gods": This describes delicious foods.
  • "Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once." Often quoted as, "A coward dies a thousand deaths, a brave man only one." The coward constantly imagines his death, suffering repeatedly; the brave man only suffers at the actual moment of his death.
  • "Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!" Brutus was Caesar's best friend. When Caesar saw that even Brutus was attacking him, he gave up. The first three words are Latin, meaning, "And you [or 'even you'], Brutus?" We sometimes say this when a friend "betrays" us, usually jokingly.
  • "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...." The beginning of Marc Antony's "eulogy" after Caesar's death. People sometimes say this jokingly, like when they're testing a microphone.

So the play has given us some famous expressions, known to most native English speakers. But what is "The ides of March"?

Months were originally lunar periods ("moonths"). At some point the Romans separated their calendar from the moon to create a solar calendar, but they kept vestiges of the original system.

Here are several old Roman calendar dates:

  • the kalends: The first day of the month, from which we get our word calendar. On a lunar calendar, this would have been the new moon. It became the first day of every month in the Roman solar calendar.
  • the nones: This was the fifth or seventh day of the solar month, depending on the month. In the lunar system, it would have been the first quarter (actually half) moon, about one week after the new moon.
  • the ides: In the old lunar calendar, this would have been the full moon. In the Roman solar calendar, it was the fifteenth day of March, May, July, and October; and the thirteenth day of the other months.

A modern poem in English helps people remember the Roman system:

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

That means that, in the four months named, the nones were the seventh and the ides the fifteenth; but in all of the other months, they came two days earlier, that is, the nones were the fifth and the ides the thirteenth.

Just as the full moon is lucky in China, so the ides was generally considered an auspicious day. But not for Julius Caesar! Ever since his murder, people have used "the ides of March" as a symbol of impending doom.


Read more:


A. Match the expression you might say in response to each situation below.

  1. A dish fit for the gods!
  2. Beware the ides of March!
  3. Sorry! It's Greek to me!
  4. A coward dies a thousand deaths.
  5. Et tu, Brute?
  6. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...

  1. Your friend is afraid to tell his boss that he's working too hard.
  2. You are asked to make a speech to your team, but no one is listening.
  3. Your friend asks you to read something, but you can't understand it.
  4. Your friend serves you a fine meal.
  5. Your friend is planning to go out on a date on March 15th.
  6. Your friend goes out with a girl/boy you like before you had a chance to ask for a date.

B. Now match the Roman date to its day (be careful!); one answer will be used twice:

  1. March 7th
  2. September 7th
  3. July 15th
  4. June 5th
  5. April 1st

  1. kalends
  2. nones
  3. ides
  4. none of these

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for March 12, 2008 (a few days before the ides of March)

This lesson received 262 visits on my old site between March, 2012, and July, 2021.

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice:
    A. 1. d; 2. e; 3. c; 4. a; 5. f; 6. b
    B. 1. b; 2. d; 3. c; 4. b; 5. a