Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Ides of March

“Beware the Ides of March.”

Historically in Ancient Rome, March 15 was the deadline for settling debts, so if you owed someone and were not able to pay, there were potential consequences coming your way. The Ides were actually just the midpoint of the month, typically the 15th or the 13th, depending on the number of days in the months.

“Ides” translates as “to divide,” and it was originally used to designate the Full Moon after the Romans moved to the solar calendar in 43 BCE. March was the first month of the year until January and February were added years later. So, March 15th was the midpoint of the first month of the year and the time to settle your annual debts. Sacred to Jupiter, the Chief God of the Roman Pantheon, the Ides of March occurred during the New Year festivities, and many folk customs involved dressing an old man in animal skins and driving him from the city, sometimes violently, to represent driving out the old year.

Most of us are familiar with this turn of phrase because of the Shakespearean play, Julius Caesar. In the play, a soothsayer (e.g., an Oracle) warns Caesar to “Beware the Ides of March.” The Soothsayer warns him a second time, and Caesar dismisses the man as a “dreamer.” Two Acts later, Caesar was assassinated on the steps of the Senate on March 15, the Ides of March.

What does this have to do with us in a modern context? Mostly, nothing. Ides is a word no longer in use in modern language, and when faced with a word we don’t know, particularly when the context is negative, we are likely to assume it means something bad. The phrase has been quoted often during the month of March whenever anything less-than-awesome happens, but there is no folk custom declaring it an unfavorable time of year. Something bad happened to one person, and we have internalized the potential for something bad to happen to us during that same time.

We are left with the idea of luck as we know it today. In Ancient times, fortune was based on individual destiny and the whims of the gods. But the idea that random bad things can happen, without sentient purpose, means that good things are equally as likely to randomly occur. And the notion of luck brings us hope, for when we are out of things we can do, something lucky may happen to alleviate our suffering.

Ides means divide. When something unlucky happens, the potential to divide us is as strong as the potential for us to come together. We have no control over what happens to us, but we do get to control how we react to it. I know it is hard to tap into my own compassion when in crisis mode, and it is a gift to see where I have room yet to grow.

Instead of “bewaring” the ides of march, my hope is that we be aware of what has the potential to divide us. May we all find room to grow together when faced with unlucky circumstances.