Guest Author - Christa Mackey
In Ancient Rome, the calendar days were based on the first three phases of the moon, rather than on the concept of a week. In fact, the days were counted backwards from the lunar phases. The first day of every month was the new moon, so the period leading up to and including that phase was the kalends period. The first quarter marked the second moon phase and was known as the nones; the third phase was the full moon, known as the ides.
As the study of ancient astronomy continued, the Romans set the calendar months with a fixed number of days—still based on the moon’s cycle. The kalends remained on the first of every month; the nones became the 5th of most months, excepting March, May, July, and October in which it’s the 7th; and the ides rested on the 13th day of the month, except for March, May, July, and October. The reason for the shift of two days in those months was simple: Those months had 31 days. One of those months—March—claimed a festival to the God of War on the 15th. Perhaps it was Mars’ guidance that lead to the bloody assassination of one of Rome’s greatest political leaders, Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar’s political life was a series of bold moves that contradicted all established tradition. At the age of 18, Julius married Cornelia, the daughter of a prominent “popular faction” member. When the Optimate faction took over, its leader, Sulla, ordered Julius to divorce Cornelia. He refused and was marked for execution. Eventually, and with the aid of influential friends and family, Julius received a pardon. After Sulla’s death, he returned to Rome and embarked in a career as an orator and lawyer.
At the funerals of both his aunt and his wife, Julius noted his lineage—descendant of kings on his mother’s side and gods on his father’s. Establishing his credibility as a demi-god early on his political career was a smart move. He was elected quaestor and served in the Senate. Pompey and Crassus—two men that would continue to play important roles in Julius’ life—were elected as the consuls in 70BC—two years after Julius’ election as quaestor. Roughly ten years after Julius assisted Pompey in securing a prestigious general’s position, Julius defeated Cato of the Optimate faction in a race for consul. Pompey and Crassus assisted Julius in his election and, as a result, Julius helped them get what they wanted for their conquests. He also secured himself a position as proconsul in Gaul—governor of what is now France—after his term as consul in Rome ended. His strong-arm techniques, however, incited members of the Optimate faction. While he remained in a political position, he could not be prosecuted for his actions—an important note.
In Gaul, Julius conquered more land and extended the reach of Rome’s governing empire. He became the first Roman to cross the English Channel and enter Britain, though he did not establish a permanent base. Pompey and Crassus were re-elected as consuls and Julius returned to renew their “triumvirate” in 56 BC. His term in Gaul was extended til 49 BC. During the intervening years, however, many things happened that caused a split between Julius and Pompey. One such event was the death of Julia, Julius’ daughter and Pompey’s wife. There was nothing left to bind Pompey to Julius, so Pompey moved to the Optimate faction—in direct opposition with Julius. The Optimate faction told Julius he could not return to Rome unless he wanted to be prosecuted for his “crimes” while he was governor of Gaul. Finally, in 49 BC, Julius fought back. He’d tried to run for consul in absentia to avoid prosecution and the government in Rome continually tried to manipulate and deny him his army. Finally, he made an irreversible decision—he marched himself and his army across the Rubicon River, automatically instigating a civil war.
Pompey and the rest of the Senate fled. They had no way to defend themselves against him—their greatest fear had become reality: Julius Caesar had come into full power. He established himself as dictator of Rome and the people rallied behind him. Meanwhile, Pompey had established a rather impressive amount of support in Greece. Caesar and his general, Mark Antony, led their men into battle. Pompey’s army numbered approximately 46,000; Caesar’s, a mere 21,000. Through brilliant leadership and shrewd generalship, Caesar was victorious in the battle.
His conquests continued, extending to the South in Egypt. Ptolemy XII had died and had passed his throne to his two heirs—Ptolemy XIII, about 12, and Cleopatra VII, about 20. Caesar noted that Cleopatra would be an excellent ally—her intelligence and shrewd political techniques intrigued him—and found her to be a captivating woman. She was, of course, of Greek descent, which put her under Roman rule, by proxy. By the time Caesar returned to Rome in 47 BC, he had victories over the Gauls, Egyptians, Pharnaces, and Juba. The coinage began to bear his likeness—the first living Roman Emperor to be commemorated in such a way—and the Senate began bestowing titles upon him, such as “the unconquerable god.”
In February of 46 BC, at the Feast of Lupercalia (held on February 15), he was proclaimed dictator perpetuus, or dictator for life. He denied the title of king, stating that Jupiter alone was king of the Romans. He was preparing to lead a military campaign against the Parthians for their treacherous murder of Crassus and would leave March 18. His personal astrologer warned him of personal danger, but Caesar laughed it off. March 15, sixty of the Senate members, lead by Marcus Brutus—a personal friend of Caesar’s—brought daggers to their meeting. Caesar was stabbed at least 23 times as he stood at the base of Pomepy’s statue. Afterwards, the Senators fled and made the mistake of not killing Mark Antony, as well. It was Antony who had the keys to Caesar’s kingdom—literally. He had in his possession Caesar’s army, the keys to Caesar’s money boxes, and Caesar’s will.
William Shakespeare wrote a play based on the life of Julius Caesar. His Soothsayer warns Caesar of personal danger with the cryptic phrase: “Beware the Ides of March!” After Caesar’s assassination, the political leaders used the Ides of March as a reminder of what could happen, should they rock the boat too much.
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National Geographic Article