Sunday Nibble #8: Beware the what of when now?

Caesar’s wife Calpurnia may well have told him “Cave idibus martiis” — “Beware the Ides of March” — and history proved her to be right, whether or not her warning was made up later. In fact, the real warning may have come from a politically astute seer named Spurinna, who gave a general warning with no specifics.

There are a lot of myths around Caesar’s assassination, many of them attributable to Shakespeare taking dramatic license.

And the part that always gets left out is that Caesar was just about to declare himself dictator for life, so contrary to Shakespeare, perhaps the murderous Senators really were the heroes in this scenario.

Hm. Heroic Senators. What a concept… Except that they probably acted entirely in their own self-interest, since Caesar went more after their own corruption than after the common citizen or the slave.

But forget all that. The real question is “What exactly is an ‘ides’ that Caesar had to bewar?”

Well, for one, it’s a thing you’ve been pronouncing wrong since forever, and “ides” isn’t even the original Latin. It’s “idibus Martiis.” In this case, the endings of the words basically say that the first one belongs to the second. That’s how Latin works. No apostrophe stuff for them. They had an entire case, called the genitive, which could be read in shorthand as “thing of.”

It differs even more in English in that the owned object comes before the owner. I guess the most direct, yet cumbersome, rendering in English of idibus Martiis might be “the ides which belong to March.”

Oh yeah. Extra complication. More likely than not, the thing would have been rendered in classical Latin like this: “IDIBVSMARTIIS” or, to make it even more confusing, “IDBSMRTS.”

But what you’re probably really wondering about is that whole “ides” thing, which btw is pronounced “ee-dayce” and not “eyeds.”

First off, we need to look at the history of the Roman calendar and, like many calendars from that time and place, it was lunar, not solar. It was basically a hot mess and necessitated the addition of leap month every two or three years to keep things in synch. Q.V. the Jewish calendar, which adds a leap month every… it’s complicated.

Meanwhile, terms like the ides were basically meant to pin down the phases of the moon.

The Romans had three special words for days in their calendar, one of which gave us the name for the thing. That would be kalends, which indicated the day of the New Moon, i.e. no moon visible. The ides, then, indicated the day of the full moon, which would be two weeks after the kalends. Finally, the nones designated the 1st quarter moon.

What this meant to the Romans was that the kalends was always the first of the month, the nones could be on the 7th or 5th of the month — the former in March, May, July, and October, the latter in all others; and the ides would be on the 15th of the same months mentioned above, or the 13th of the others.

What this also tells us is that Caesar was assassinated under a full moon on the 15th of March.

When it came to time-keeping ancient cultures naturally latched onto the Moon. And, in fact, in many languages, the words for moon and month are very similar. This is pretty self-evident in English.

Judaism, the religion of Rome, and (later) Islam all came to settle on the same time-keeper, choosing the Moon over the Sun. At first glance, that might seem weird. After all, the Sun definitely creates our days and nights, so why shouldn’t it have been the primary calendar starter from the beginning?

Simple. The Sun seems to be constant. The Moon is not. In fact, Shakespeare even commented on it in Romeo & Juliet:

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,

That monthly changes in her circled orb,

Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

Ironically, it was the apparent inconstancy that led us to use the Moon to mark time. And why did the Moon seem the better choice? Because the Sun was the really inconstant one.

Let’s say that humans have already divided a day into 24 hours, but it can be any arbitrary number. Then they try to figure out another arbitrary measure, let’s call it an hour, based upon how long daylight lasts. “Okay,” they say. “Half of that day length will be light, and half dark.”

So they get about measuring, only to realize that it’s a moving target. If they use some physical constant to measure, like how long it takes X amount of water to drain from one bucket with a hole in it to another, then they may notice over time that while it’s daylight for sixteen buckets in June, it’s somehow only daylight for eight buckets in December.


Well, that’s not a great way to measure things. But, on the other hand, here’s this thing up there that changes in a regular and predictable pattern, and it shouldn’t have taken too much observation to realize that the regular change took about 28 days — regardless of how long day or night were relative to each other.

So we have a winner. Start with the day the Moon disappears, mark off a point when it has fully reappeared, then put a pin in a point between invisible and totally there. That’s your regular and easy cycle, and the source of your lunar calendar.

It wasn’t until people who were keeping track of the longer phenomena — basically, how the Sun’s position and the apparent angle of the Earth’s axis also changed consistently, but over years, not months — that we also finally realized, “Crap! A lunar calendar is going to throw us off of what time it ‘really’ is.”

But… is that a valid question or concern? Does anybody really know what time it is?

How many phases of the Moon have passed since your birth? How many years on the Jewish or Muslim calendar? Is your birthdate now still in the same month it was then?

Ultimately, does it matter? We’ve come to consider the number of times the Earth circles the Sun to be the important measure, hence birthdays based on solar time. But that is totally anthropocentric, meaning to measure everything about the world based on human terms.

But… what about all the dogs I’ve known and loved who have gone from infancy to advanced senior citizen and death in about as many orbits as it took me to go from birth to driver’s license? What about the few pet rats I’ve had and loved who lasted about as long as it took me from birth to say my first words?

And what about all those turtles that look at us humans and think, “You retire at 65? Lazy-ass bitches. Grow a shell!”

In physics, time really is just what a clock reads, nothing more nor less. After all, a clock here on Earth will read a quite different time from the same clock launched into space at a large fraction of the speed of light.

Here are the salient points: While the ides of March, 44 BCE, is the date on which Julius Caesar was assassinated, all we really need to remember for practical purposes is that this day was March 15th. His wife never predicted his doom on this day, and the one seer who gave warning only said that Caesar was moving into a politically dangerous month, and he did that back in February

The real heroes in the story were kinda sorta the Senators who stabbed him to death with daggers (not swords) in an antechamber off of the Senate (not on the floor), in order to save everyone, except that they were totally acting in their own self-interest in a way that only inadvertently benefited the Plebes, Soldiers, Citizens, and Slaves.

Finally, everything got distorted to turn a dude who was probably a power-hungry and dangerous asshole into a martyr. At least his first successor, Augustus, had it a bit more together.

Getting back to calendars, though, our Roman calendar got more modern when what was originally the fifth month was renamed in honor of Caesar after his assassination, and so we got July.

Meanwhile, August was renamed for Augustus Caesar in 8 BCE. In this case, the Senate decided to make it happen, and so the sixth month took on what wasn’t even his real name, just his title. And so September, October, November, and December made sense for a while, since they meant seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth.

It wasn’t until the winter months got names again and March was no longer new year’s month that the last four months of the year lost touch with the origin of their names.

And, finally, we had a calendar that aligned more closely with the more meaningful solar year, and only needed to be adjusted by stuffing an extra day into February every four years, and omitting that same stuffing if said leap year happened to occur on a century year (one ending in 00) that was not divisible by four.

So far, it’s worked out pretty well. And, in modern America, the only real warning we need to heed on the Ides of March is that it’s one month until tax day. Otherwise, carry on!

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