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The meaning and origin of the expression: The Ides of March

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The Ides of March

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What are 'the Ides of March'?

The Ides of March is just the 15th of March.

The Ides was the name of the marker days used by the Romans to divide each month.

Months of the Roman calendar were arranged around three named marker days - the Kalends, the Nones and the Ides - and these were reference points from which the other (unnamed) days were calculated:

Kalends (1st day of the month).
Nones (the 7th day in March, May, July, and October; the 5th in the other months).
Ides (the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; the 13th in the other months).

What's the origin of the phrase 'Beware the Ides of March'?

The expression 'Beware the Ides of March' derives from the historical fact that Julius Caesar was murdered by a group of Roman senators on the Ides of March (the 15th), 44 BC.

Exactly a month earlier Caesar had visited a soothsayer named Spurinna. who had predicted that his life would be in danger for the next 30 days. These events were recorded by the Roman poet Publius Terentius Afer, who is now usually called Terence.

That's the Roman history, now back to the English-speaking world.

The origin of 'Beware the Ides of March'Between 1533 and 1541 the English playwright and cleric Nicholas Udall was a Latin teacher and later headmaster at Eton College.

In 1533 he published a textbook as a teaching aid for his scholars - Floures for Latine Spekynge Selected and Gathered oute of Terence. As the title suggests Udall took example texts from the works of Terence and translated them into English. One such text is:

For Spurinna beinge a southsayer hadde warned Cesar before to beware of the Ides of Marche, for he shulde be slayne as that daye, and soo he was.

It seems very likely that Udall coined the expression 'beware the Ides of March'. It doesn't appear in Terence's original text and it pre-dates the celebrated use by Shakespeare by the best part of a century.

Udall is well-known as an creative coiner of words and phrases. He invented terms like 'acknowledge', 'wedding-day', 'tomboy' and 'Christian name', amongst hundreds of others.

The origin of 'Beware the Ides of March'Of course, Shakespeare used the line in Julius Caesar, 1601. In fact, he pretty much lifts Udall's original text:

Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: What man is that?
Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

Shakespeare was taught Latin at school and, although it's quite possible that he came up with the line independently of Udall, it seems more likely that he just copied it. Either way, Udall was first and Shakespeare a distant second.

The only time we are likely to hear 'the Ides' being used today is when we see Shakespeare's play performed. However, in the Middle Ages, the Ides was in common usage to depict the date. There are many pre-Udall references in Middle English to the Ides other months. An example is found in John Capgrave's Life St. Gilbert, circa 1451:

Her lith Seynt Gilbert... whech was translate in-to this schrine... the thirde yde of October.
[Here lies Saint Gilbert, interred in this shrine on the third Ide of October]

Note that the method of reckoning of dates then was to name an Ide and then work back from it. So, St. Gilbert's date above would be three days before the Ide, that is, the 12th October.

[My thanks to Peter Lukacs, ElizabethanDrama.org for discovering the Udall text.]

See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.

See also, Et tu, Brute.

See also: the List of Proverbs.