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World & Nation

Ides of March: Beware it, yes, but what is it?

If he could have, William Shakespeare would have tweeted it himself: Beware the Ides of March.

Instead, others are handling that duty for him today on Twitter. The Bard actually issued his warning in “Julius Caesar,” Act 1, Scene 2. The phrase refers to a dark day that turned Rome on its ear and whose repercussions were felt widely and for a long time.

Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 BC.  But “Ides,” says About.com, refers to a lunar phase rather than to the 15th specifically. The Roman calendar, back in the day, was based on “the first three phases of the moon, with days counted ... backward from lunar phases.” The Ides was the day of the full moon.

So, adding one more slightly eerie note to a day still remembered with a sense of dread, the tumult surrounding Caesar’s bloody killing came complete with the light of the full moon.

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Looking back, Caesar really should have seen it coming. In the month before his death, he had been pushing his luck with the Roman nobles by agreeing to be “dictator for life,” and he’d put his face on coins -- an honor that had been reserved for deities.

The conspirators plotting his death were said to number from 60 to 80. There was disagreement about where to kill him.

Caesar biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus says in “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” that the conspirators thought of dividing into two groups at the Field of Mars, “so that while some hurled him from the bridge as he summoned the tribes to vote, the rest might wait below and slay him.” They also thought they might “set upon him in the Sacred Way or at the entrance to the theater.”

The gang finally agreed: The hall next to the Theatre of Pompey was the place and the Ides of March the day. Among those conspirators was Caesar protege Marcus Junius Brutus. (Et tu, Brute?)

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But, as history shows, they got theirs. Caesar’s assassins were beaten in the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC by the forces of Mark Antony and Octavian. It was a civil war declared to avenge Caesar’s murder.

In the Shakespearean version of Caesar’s betrayal and assassination, all this might have been avoided if Caesar hadn’t pooh-poohed the warning from the guy in the crowd.

CAESAR:

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry “Caesar.” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

SOOTHSAYER:

Beware the ides of March.

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