My co-workers couldn’t wait to tell me to be wary today, it being the Ides of March. It’s probably the most well-known calendar date associated with Shakespeare. But other than knowing that March 15 = Ides of March, and that’s when Brutus and the gang went all stabby stabby on their boy Julius, do people really know anything else about it?
I admit that I didn’t know much myself, so I went looking last night in preparation. I consulted my Asimov’s Guide, which is always guaranteed to have enough detail on every possible digression you might make from the play’s main action. Seriously, I tried to read what Asimov has to say on Merchant of Venice and came away knowing how much the human liver weighs.
Once again, Asimov does not disappoint. Ides is one of three reference dates in the Roman calendar:
- The Kalends, or first day of the month, also obviously where the word calendar comes from :). It is believed that originally it was supposed to coincide with a new moon.
- Nones, meaning “ninth” and representing the half moon. Ninth because it was literally nine days(*) before the Ides.
- Ides, the day of the full moon. Although we naturally think the fifteenth for Ides, that’s only true for some of the months with thirty-one days. It falls on the thirteenth for the others.
So basically their calendar wasn’t just a matter of counting from one up to thirty-ish and starting over. You counted relative to the different days, such as “two days before Ides”. I just keep thinking of that old rhyme “Thirty days hath September, April June and November” and wondering what in the world Roman school children must have had to learn instead.
If you’re confused already, definitely don’t visit the Wikipedia page (linked above) that goes on to describe how you would refer to dates for each month. Just be thankful Shakespeare (and Brutus?) picked an easy one to remember.
(*) It’s not just Roman numerals that give computer programmers stress, apparently. When counting relative to these reference days, you would use the day itself as one, rather than zero. So the “ninth” day actually comes eight days before the Ides. Got that? If today is Wednesday, and I say, “How many days is it until Friday?” and you said, “Three days. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.”