Arts & Humanities

How the Ides of March got its infamous reputation

The faculty of the department of dramatic art explain why no one should beware the Ides of March.

PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of
PlayMakers Repertory Company's production of "Julius Caesar" (Courtesy of PlayMakers Repertory Company)

“Beware the Ides of March,” Shakespeare famously wrote.  

March 15 has a notorious reputation: Julius Caesar was assassinated on that date in 44 B.C., the last Czar of Russia, Nicholas the II, abdicated the throne on the Ides of March in 1917 and the World Health Organization announced the deadly SARS outbreak on March 15, 2003.  

But it wasn’t always that way, according to the cast of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of Julius Caesar. The date only gained its negative reputation after Caesar’s assassination. Previously, March 15 had simply been a day that marked the start of a new lunar cycle.  

“The Romans divided their calendar up according to the phases of the moon, and each month would have three phases, the Ides of March being the last one when the moon was full,” says Adam Versenyi, chair of the department for dramatic art. “It would indicate not only the phase of the moon, but particularly March 15 would launch a new year as well.” 

The new year was ushered in on the Ides of March with a celebration meant to purify the city, according to Versenyi 

“There was a big festival that would take place on the Ides of March along the Tiber River, but this all changes with Julius Caesar when he changes the calendar,” he says. “Shakespeare uses the Ides of March to indicate the way Caesar’s Rome is a society in transition. “ 

Jeffrey Blair Cornell, teaching professor in the department of dramatic art, plays Brutus in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of “Julius Caesar”. He points out that even in the play, the characters are unsure of when the Ides of March will occur.  

“Julius Caesar had changed the calendar, so there is a perception in the play that the characters aren’t sure what time they’re in,” he says. “Interestingly, during Shakespeare’s time they had just switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, so even in Shakespeare’s time there was a feeling of lack of time and place.” 

Changing the date that the Ides of March fell on was an unpopular choice in Caesar’s Rome, according to Cornell.  

 “There was some resentment about this change to the Julian calendar,” says Cornell. “One of the Roman conservatives was quoted as saying it was a ‘Tyrannical interference with the laws of nature’.  

Caesar’s meddling with the calendar may or may not have contributed to his bad luck on March 15, but his assassination is certainly what gave the day its infamous connotation.  

 “The Ides of March was previously a time for celebration, so Caesar being assassinated on the Ides of March then gives the date this correlation with bad luck or terrible things happening we have today,” says Versenyi 

While March 15 is often overlooked in modern times, the day remains an ominous reminder of what can happen when you ignore warnings. Consequently, PlayMakers Repertory Company has decided to cancel all performances of “Julius Caesar” for the near future, including the performance on March 15, as a caution against the spread of coronavirus. Perhaps the Ides of March really are cursed.