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Astronomy, Shakespeare, and the Ides of March

The assassination of Julius Caesar

The assassination of Julius Caesar, led by Brutus, by the Senate. Painted by Vincenzo Camuccini. Wikimedia Commons

At this time of year, many of us will hear, if not ourselves utter, the phrase, “Beware the Ides of March.” And it will come with some level of disquietude. While any phrase that begins with the word “beware” is likely to engender such an emotion, this one famously derives a forebodingness from the creative mind of Stratford-upon-Avon’s (England) favorite son, William Shakespeare. In actuality, the Ides of March trace back to innocuous, common astronomical phenomena, but their bad rap persists thanks to the Bard of Avon.

The “Beware the Ides of March” phrase appears in Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, first performed in 1599. It centers around the assassination of Roman statesman Julius Caesar, who in real life died on March 15, 44 BC.

In Caesar’s time, certain terms were used in the calendar then followed; a kalend, for instance, was the first day of each month (and the word itself gave rise to the modern expression “calendar”). Another common term, Ides, originally marked the time of the full Moon. This concept was used in early lunar calendars, which were based on the Moon’s monthly orbit about Earth (our modern Gregorian calendar, on the other hand, is a solar calendar, which is based on Earth’s yearly orbit about the Sun.) The term Ides, even though not tied anymore with the Moon, was still used in Caesar’s time and fell on the 15th day of the month for March, May, July, and October. For the other months, the Ides landed on the 13th.

Caesar was thus assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC. But the Ides were not anything to fear in Caesar’s time. He just happened to be killed on that day. It wasn’t until Shakespeare dramatized Caesar’s death more than 16 ½ centuries later that the Ides of March assumed a negative connotation.

In Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, a voice in a crowd of people—a seer (soothsayer) as it turns out—calls out to Caesar. Caesar commands him to speak, and a brief conversation ensues:

SOOTHSAYER: Beware the Ides of March.
CAESAR: What man is that?
BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware the Ides of March.
CAESAR: Set him before me. Let me see his face.
CASSIUS: Fellow, come from the throng. Look upon Caesar.
CAESAR: What sayst thou to me now? Speak once again.
SOOTHSAYER: Beware the Ides of March.
CAESAR: He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.

With Caesar’s dismissal of the soothsayer and his warning, he thinks nothing else of the matter. When March 15 arrives, Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, has a bad feeling and encourages Caesar to stay home. Caesar agrees to do so, but is later convinced into leaving anyway by Decius Brutus, a conspirator who will later take part in Caesar’s assassination.

Caesar heads to a senate meeting, and again runs into the soothsayer and mocks, “The Ides of March are come.” The soothsayer answers, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.” Ah, if only Caesar had heeded the warnings of the soothsayer. Or his own wife.

Still feeling confident, Caesar refuses a petition at the meeting, asserting his steadfastness by conjuring astronomical symbolism in comparing himself to the North Star (Act 3, Scene 1):

I could be well moved, if I were as you.
If I could pray to move, prayers would move me.
But I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks;
They are all fire, and everyone doth shine.
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.

Moments later, Caesar is unmercifully stabbed to death by the conspirators.

The play itself became—and remains—globally popular, and “Beware the Ides of March” has become immortalized, like so many other Shakespeare phrases such as “To be or not to be, that is the question”, “All’s well that ends well”, “The world is my oyster”, and so many others. In the end, the modern, foreboding aura of the Ides of March seems like a nice example of life imitating art.

*This story was originally published in the March 4, 2023 edition of the Arizona Daily Sun.