for National Geographic News
Caesar: The ides of March are come.
Soothsayer: Aye, Caesar, but not gone.
—Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1
Thanks to the Bard, the bloody events of 44 B.C. forever linked March 15—also called the Ides of March—with fulfilled prophecies of doom.
"That line of the soothsayer, 'Beware the ides of March,' is a pithy line and people remember it, even if they don't know why," said Georgianna Ziegler, head of reference at Washington, D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Library.
Until that day Julius Caesar ruled Rome. The traditional Republican government had been supplanted by a temporary dictatorship, one that the famous leader very much wished to make permanent.
But Caesar's quest for power spawned a conspiracy to have him killed, and on March 15 a group of prominent Romans brought him to an untimely end in the Senate House.
Aside from its historical connection, the concept of the ides would have resonated with English citizens in 1599, the year Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar was probably performed, Ziegler said.
"This whole business of the Ides of March and timekeeping in the play would have had a strong impact on audiences," she said.
"They were really struck by the differences between their Julian calendar [a revision of the Roman calendar created by Caesar] and the Gregorian calendar kept in Catholic countries on the continent."
Because the two calendars featured years of slightly different lengths, they had diverged significantly and were several days apart.
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