What Is the Ides of March?

The Ides of March, which ancient Romans observed on March 15th, became (in)famous as the date of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, and a bad omen.

Mar 12, 2024By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

what is the ides of march roman caesar


The soothsayer warned, “Beware of the Ides of March!” But why do people fear this particular date? And what are the “Ides of March”? The answer lies in one of the most (in)famous historical events – the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15th, 44 BCE. Days before the attack, a soothsayer warned Caesar that he was in danger. The powerful general and politician had just been named “Dictator in Perpetuity”, and the number of his enemies was growing in Rome. However, while Caesar’s demise set in motion a chain of events that would topple the Roman Republic and usher in the Roman Empire, the “Ides of March” gained notoriety mainly due to William Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar”.


Thus, long after Caesar’s death, the “Ides of March,” a date originally marking several ancient Roman religious festivals, became synonymous with foreboding and a sense of impending doom, echoing through the centuries up to the present day. 


The Ides of March is a Date of Julius Caesar’s Assassination

The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1806. The Times


The “Ides of March”, or March 15th, is best known as the date of Julius Caesar’s assassination. On this day, in 44 BCE, the group of senators, including Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, close associates and friends of Caesar, assassinated the most powerful man in the Republic during a Senate meeting. The conspirators, who referred to themselves as the Liberatores, justified their act by trying to save the Republic. Instead, Julius Caesar’s murder led to one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the Republic, including the formation of a powerful alliance known as a Second Triumvirate, two bloody civil wars, and, eventually, the death of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman EmpireThus, the “Ides of March” became one of the most important events in Roman history, as well as the history of the world. 


The Ides of March Was Part of the Roman Calendar

Mosaic fragment depicting one of the religious festivals on the “Ides of March” – the Mamuralia, first half of 3rd century CE, El Djem, Tunisia, photo by Ad Meskens.


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Before becoming synonymous with the assassination of Julius Caesar (and with impending doom), the “Ides of March” was one of the fixed days in the Roman calendar. The “Ides”, a term that the ancient Romans borrowed from the Etruscans (to divide), marked a midpoint of every month, not just March. And being the halfway of a month, the “Ides” had religious significance. The “Ides of March” was linked to Jupiter, the chief deity of the Roman pantheon, and featured a sacrifice of the “Ides sheep.” It also coincided with the Feast of Anna Perenna, a goddess associated with the cycle of the Roman year, March being the first month. In an ironic twist, the “Ides of March” was quite a joyful time. The celebrations included picnics, drinking and public revelry. It was also the date of settling debts.


Beware: The Significance of the Ides of March

Julius Caesar’, Act III, Scene 1, the Assassination, William Holmes Sullivan, 1888, Royal Shakespeare Company Collection. Source: ArtUK


However, for all its positive connotations, the “Ides of March” became inextricably linked with Julius Caesar’s demise. The night before the fateful event, Caesar’s wife – Calpurnia – dreamt of her husband’s murder and warned him not to go to the Senate. According to Plutarch, Calpurnia was partly affected by a warning of a seer, haruspex Spurrina. Although not a superstitious man, Julius Caesar was a shrewd politician and knew there were plots against him. He was also busy preparing for the campaign against the Parthians.


Thus, Caesar sent his trusted ally and general, Mark Antony, to dismiss the senators. But at the last moment, he changed his mind and decided to go. On the way to the Senate, Caesar met Spurrina, saying that the “Ides of March” were here and nothing had happened. Spurrina calmly replied: “But they are not yet gone.” By the end of the day, Julius Caesar was dead, his body lying at the base of the Curia of Pompey in the Theatre of Pompey – his late rival.


The “Ides of March” Was Commemorated on a Rare Coin

Brutus “Eid Mar” Denarius, ca. 42 BC. Source: The British Museum, London


Nowadays, the names of conspiracy leaders – Brutus and Cassius – are synonymous with betrayal and murder. But in the days following the assassination, they were celebrated as heroes – the saviors of the Roman Republic. And, in a long Roman tradition, Brutus commemorated the act on a silver and golden coin – The “Ides of March” coin, also known as the “EID MAR” denarius.


Brutus’ bust on the obverse is an ironic touch, as Caesar made a scandal by placing his likeness on the coin – the first time that the head of a living Roman had been displayed on Roman coinage. On the reverse, we can see a pileus cap (a symbol of freedom, often worn by free slaves) and the two daggers (representing the assassination). The coin, with which conspirators legitimized assassination, was withdrawn from circulation by Mark Antony, and is thus incredibly rare, with only a few known examples.


The “Ides of March” Marked a Turning Point in Roman History

Detail from the larger-than-life statue of Augustus of Prima Porta, early 1st century CE. Source: Musei Vaticani, Rome


Brutus and Cassius could hardly know that the Republic they fought to save would cease to exist in the following years, being replaced by the rule of one man. But this is exactly what had happened. The Second Triumvirate, an alliance of the three most powerful men in the Republic – Octavian, Marc Antony and Lepidus, defeated conspirators and carved the Roman world, only for another civil war to break out between Octavian and Antony. In the end, only one man remained, Octavian, who soon declared himself Emperor Augustus. This act toppled the Republic, replacing it with the Roman Empire, which would continue in one form or another until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453


A century and a half later, William Shakespeare immortalized the “Ides of March” in his “Julius Caesar” with the now-famous phrase “Beware the Ides of March.” To this day, the phrase symbolizes a warning of betrayal, and misfortune – a bad omen.



Gaius Julius Cäsar, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1619. Source: The Brandenburg Museum


What were the specific religious festivals and rituals associated with the Ides of March before it became notorious for Julius Caesar’s assassination?

The Ides of March was celebrated with religious observances, notably the feast of Anna Perenna, which involved communal festivities like picnics and drinking. It also included sacrifices to Jupiter, reflecting its significance in the Roman religious calendar.


How did the public and the Roman Senate react immediately following Caesar’s assassination?

Following Julius Caesar’s assassination, Rome was engulfed in chaos and uncertainty. The Senate was thrown into disarray, and the public reaction was mixed, with some mourning Caesar’s death and others seeing an opportunity to restore the Republic. This led to a tumultuous period of political maneuvering.


What were the specific reasons and motivations behind Brutus and Cassius’s decision to assassinate Caesar, beyond the general desire to save the Republic?

Brutus and Cassius were motivated to assassinate Caesar due to their belief that his consolidation of power threatened the Republic’s foundations. They aimed to restore traditional Roman governance, underestimating the consequences of their actions, which eventually led to the end of the Republic.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.