No relation to the salad

The Ides of March — March 15 — arrived last Monday. It’s a date made forever notable by William Shakespeare in his historical drama “Julius Caesar.”

Caesar, dictator of the Roman Republic, was assassinated by members of the Roman Senate on that date in 44 B.C. In Shakespeare’s play, a soothsayer warns Caesar shortly before the assassination: “Beware the Ides of March.” The prophecy proved accurate, sadly for Caesar.

I knew the Ides of March was March 15, and I knew that date marked the death of the Roman dictator. But I sure didn’t know what an “Ides” was. So I looked it up.

In ancient Rome, the Ides, along with the Kalends and the Nones, were ancient markers that referenced dates in relation to phases of the moon. The Ides referred to the first new moon of a given month, usually falling between the 13th and 15th of the month. The Nones was the ninth day before the Ides, pegging it around the sixth of the month. The Kalends was the first day of the month.

Besides their significance in relation to lunar phases, the three terms bore religious significance for the Romans.

The Ides of March, the 79th day in the Roman calendar, was also observed as the traditional deadline for paying debts.

So possibly Caesar’s murderers chose the Ides of March as the appropriate date to collect what they thought Caesar owed them. They certainly considered that debt to be large.

Ancient Rome, like most governments since then, was split among varying political cabals. Today we call them political parties, and ours are sharply divided too. Back then, though, they played for keeps.

Julius Caesar, born in 100 B.C., rose to power through military success, borrowed money, partisan intrigue and outright murder. Born to an aristocratic family of modest means, he proved himself to be one of history’s most skillful generals. His victories on battlefields throughout Europe earned him considerable popularity among the people of Rome. They also earned him equal resentment among the powerful aristocratic families from whom the Roman Senate was chosen.

Caesar learned how to play politics with cunning and timing. After a string of military victories in Gaul (modern France) and Britain, his Senate rivals ordered him to step down from his command and return to Rome. 

But because he knew to abandon his military legions would leave him open to various prosecutions, in 49 B.C. he led his army back south across the Rubicon (the river that marked the northern boundary of Italy) and toward Rome. 

Civil war with his Senate enemies erupted, and Caesar proved victorious. He assumed control of the Roman government, erased rules that had provided checks and balances for the Roman Republic, and became Rome’s first all-powerful dictator for life, where he reigned for the next five years.

During the civil war, Caesar and his enemies shifted alliances among themselves at almost dizzying speed. He chased some of his opponents throughout the Mediterranean world. At one point he pursued Pompey, a Senate rival, into Egypt, where he became enamored of Queen Cleopatra and remained her lover for several years while still married to his final wife.

Caesar introduced a number of reforms into Roman life. He created the Julian calendar, based on the seasons of the sun rather than the old method derived from phases of the moon, and the Julian calendar remains with us today nearly intact.

He also granted citizenship to many residents of far-flung nations of the Roman Republic; initiated land reforms, especially through granting landed estates to military veterans; centralized the vast Roman bureaucracy; and greatly enlarged the membership of the Senate so he could appoint senators loyal to him. The Roman elites, many of them holding seats in the Senate, resented such changes and began to conspire against him.

Thus it came to pass that on March 15, 44 B.C., Caesar was to appear at a session of the Senate. 

As he arrived, one of the senators presented him with a petition. Other conspirators crowded around to offer support. One senator grabbed his shoulders and pulled down his tunic, while another drew a dagger and grazed his neck with it. About 60 more swiftly closed in and stabbed him at will, leaving Caesar dead on the lower steps of the Senate portico with 23 wounds.

Sources differ as to whether the dictator actually cried out, “Et tu, Brute?” when he spotted Brutus, a supposed friend, in the deadly crowd.

News of what had transpired spread swiftly, and citizens locked themselves in their houses. The dictator’s dead body lay where it fell for nearly three hours before officials arrived to remove it. At his cremation, the enraged Roman mob started another fire that badly damaged the Forum and neighboring buildings.

After the assassination, several leaders started jockeying for power immediately, bringing to an end the Roman Republic. 

Antony, Octavian, Brutus and Cassius fought each other in a series of civil wars over the next 13 years, with Octavian emerging victorious. Octavian, whom Caesar had named as his heir in his will, assumed the name Caesar Augustus and became the first Roman emperor.

As for Julius Caesar, he was officially labeled a god by decree of the Roman Senate in 42 B.C. and was honored with the erection of a temple in his name.

His name came down through history to mean “ruler.” The terms Kaiser, Czar and Tsar all derive from “Caesar.”

(By the way, until 1955, the deadline for filing federal income taxes in the United States was — you guessed it — March 15. Since then it’s been April 15.)

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