Beware the Ides of March March 15th

shows an image of Brutus stabbing Caesar with 'funny'  bubbles:
Caesar says 'Brutus, whats that loud pelting noise on the roof' and Brutus replies,  about to stab Julius Caesar 'Hail, Caesar'
With Apologies. From Facebook

SOOTHSAYER: Caesar!
CAESAR: Ha! Who calls?
CASCA: Bid every noise be still; peace yet again!
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 turned to hear.
SOOTHSAYER: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: What man is that?
BRUTUS: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: Set him before me; let me see his face.
CASSIUS: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.
CAESAR: What sayst thou to me now? Speak once again.
SOOTHSAYER: Beware the ides of March.
CAESAR: He is a dreamer. Let us leave him. Pass.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

This year there are many vital elections around the world; often involving populists like Julius Caesar. I rank Caesar with Napoleon as one of the Dictators who was, personally, an intelligent, reasonable man, who, in some ways, ruled ‘wisely’ but who was nonetheless willing to sacrifice millions of people for his personal ambition. Today, the world is faced with the more run-of-the-mill populists who are geniuses only in their own, often, deranged minds. I know, we as humans, might think, if only X would drop dead, how much better it would be? Brutus, being an honourable man, took action upon his thought. But, as often is the case, what seemed the ‘right thing’ to do, turned out to be a disaster for the Roman Republic which the plotters were trying to save. So, perhaps, still those assassinary thoughts, read this article in ‘History Today’ about the impact of Julius Caesar’s murder and do everything you can do to use democratic means to defeat egotists to whom truth means nothing.

Now, what the heck are or indeed is the Ides of March?

A Roman month was divided into three, first the Kalends, then the Nones and finally the Ides. These three days were the important days of the year. The Kalends is the 1st of the Month, the Nones the 7th of the Month and the Ides the Fifteenth of the Month. It is said to go back to the early days of Rome and a lunar calendar, The Kalends being the first tiny sliver of a crescent moon a couple of days after the New Moon; the Nones the first quarter of the Moon and the Ides was the full moon. But of course, it doesn’t really make that much sense as the full moon is 28 days after the new Moon not 15, and the three divisions, divide up the first half of the month, and leave the second half undivided.

How did you use it? When talking about a day in the future month you might say I’ll meet you on the 5th day before the Kalends. Debts were supposed to be paid on the Kalends and that is where we get our word calendar from. These public calendars were called Fasti, and this is the name of Ovid’s great Almanac Poem, the Fasti, which I often quote from.

This is a very bad photograph of a drawing by Herbert E Duncan Jr of a 1st Century Calendar
This is a very bad photograph of a drawing by Herbert E Duncan Jr of a 1st Century Calendar

I’ve never really understood this system, despite a few attempts, until I saw this drawing of a Roman Calendar. The first column, on the left, with the letters from D downwards represent the letters A – H which is a recurring cycle of 8 market days, running in tandem with Kalends, Nones etc. The second column begins with the Letter K for Kalends, (reading across then MART for March, then NP which means the Kalends is a day for public festivals). Back to the second column, below the K for Kalends, the days are counted down to the upcoming Nones, so the next one after Kalends is VI, meaning the 6th day before the March Nones. Then V, IIII, III, and PR means the day before Nones. Below and to the right of the PR are the letters NON which is, as you might hope, short for Nones.

In the second column below this is the number VIII which means the next day is the 8th day before the Ides of March. The fragment of stone from which this drawing comes does not continue down to the Ides, unfortunately.

Complicated, huh? It gets worse. The third column has a series of letters in it: F C C C NP NON F C C. We already know that the NON is short for Nones, The F means it’s a fastus, a permissible day when legal action can be taken. The C means C comitialis which on fasti days the Roman people could hold assemblies. We have already seen that NP marks days for public festivals. An N would mean days when political and judicial actions were prohibited, although there is not one here. The small unreadable text to the right is information, I believe, about holidays and historic events to be marked in the calendar. This is, in fact, a Roman Stone Almanac.

This confusing system survived Caesar’s major calendrical reforms when he transformed the Roman system, which was rotten at the core, to align it with an almost accurate calculation of the time the Sun takes to circle the earth (or the other way around!) to create the almost correct Julian Calendar.

But the Kalends, Nones, and Ides did not survive because, in the Imperial period, this strange division of time was replaced by the familiar 4 fold division of the month into our 7 days of a week. So, for the first time, you could work 24/7.

I will deal with Julius Caesar’s reforms in great depth on another occasion.

Leap Day & and the Roman Calendar February 29th

Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower
Druids at All Hallows, by the Tower

I have just come back from my very first Leap Year Walk, which I gave tonight for London Walks. It was one of a series of my walks, which are about the year through London’s History. So far, I have done, a New Year Walk, an Imbolc Walk (1 February, St Brigid’s Day), a Spring Equinox Walk, a May Day Walk, a Summer Solstice Walk, an Autumn Equinox Walk, a Halloween Walk, and a Winter Solstice Walk. All, at their core, have the subject of the year, how it is arranged, and celebrated in different cultures and different times in London.

I hoped to get this post done, today, but on arrival at home my burglar alarm was ringing, so had to get an emergency electrician out to pacify my neighbours, and tracking down the fault meant turning my house upside down. I rushed it out, with many bad proof reading errors and ommissions, And have now, on the dawn of a new month, and a new Season, updated it. Probably, knowing me, it still has a far few errors! Now, I am rushing to look after my Grandson!

So, the reason there is a leap year, is that the Sun and the Moon have different cycles, which cannot be easily aligned. And secondly, the solar year is not a fixed number, it is not 365 days, but 365 days and a bit.

Originally though, probably, most cultures lived their lives with time keeping controlled by time markers from their everyday environment, days and nights, the waning and waxing of the moon, the seasons, and the changes in the rising and setting of the Sun. Budding nature would have provided other markers as to when to sow, to harvest, to prune, to slaughter, to worship and marry.

The months were given by the cycle of the Moon, which also gave us tides and menstrual cycles. The months were given names, which were often associated with the weather. The trouble was that the Solar year did not align with the Moon, soon the months would get out of kilter with the seasons. So over time, the society would find it was winter in June, or summer in December. (which is OK if you live in Australia).

Society dealt with this in a number of ways. It could be ignored, why shouldn’t it be cold in June, why should June always be in Summer? Another way was to add in extra days, or months, every so often to make sure June remained in the Summer. This is what Egypt, the early Romans and the Celts did. They kept their months aligned to the actual movements of the Moon, and aligned their Solar Year with it by the addition of extra days or a month or two. or a combination of both.

I reported on this in my post on the Terminalia for February 23rd. As I wrote:

Terminus was an old ancient God who was the God of the boundary, the border, the edge, the liminal God. February was the last month of the original Roman year, but the rulers of Rome added an intercalary month every so often, called Mercedonius in an attempt to keep the Solar year in tune with the seasons. And when the intercalary month was added, the last five days of February were given to Mercedonius and the resulting leap year was either 377 or 378 days long.. So, in those years, the 23rd of February was the Terminus of the year. (For more on Terminalia look at my post for February 23rd on Terminalia-god-of-the-boundary)

Now, as the Roman Republic became more sophisticated, the intercalary months were added at the direction of the Pontiffs, supposedly every two and sometimes every three years. But the Pontiffs were often swayed by political advantage, and by the time of Julius Caesar the seasons had got wildly out of sync with the calendar year. The Dictator, therefore, instituted ‘the Year of Confusion’ which was over 400 days long and brought in the Julian Calendar which realigned the calendar back in line with the seasons.

Caesar spent time with Egyptian Astronomers, trying to understand their solution to the problem. They identified that the year was not 365 days long but 356.25 days, so JC ‘fixed’the issue with a leap day every four years. Based on the almost correct calculation of a solar year being 365.25 days. The new calendar was inaugurated on the Kalends of Januarius 709 AUC, or as we would call it I January 45 BC. It became, in time, something the Romans were very proud of – rationalising, measuring, time itself. Romans counted their dates from the time their City was founded by Romulus in what we call 753 BC or 753 BCE. So, 45 BCE in our reckoning is 709 ab urbe condita (AUC ‘from the founding of the City) as the Romans saw it.

I prefer not to use BCE because it seems ‘dishonest’ to me. The idea of AD BC was made up based on a guess as to when Jesus was born. Changing BC to BCE may rid the date of an explicit Christian identification but masks the fact that there is no such thing as the ‘Common Era. What the Common Era is, is the idea made up in the Late Roman period guessing when Jesus was born/ So I think call a spade a spade, even if it’s a broken meaningless spade that is not fit for purpose, either replace it with something rational, or real or call it what it is.

The interesting thing is that Caesar put the leap year in on the 24th February. Why? Because February, being the month of death, was the end of the year. March 25th was originally the beginning of the Roman year (Caesar moved it to January 1st). Why March 25th? Because it was the Spring Equinox. If you look at my post for March 25th you will find out it is the date of the creation of Humanity, the Birthday of Adam, the conception of Jesus, and until 1752, the day the year number changed in Britain.

The other strange thing about the new leap day was that it was not called February 25th. It was not given a number. Rather, February 24th was two days long. This continued in Britain until the date February 29th started appearing in calendars in the 15th Century, although the legendary Lawyer, Edward Coke (1552 – 1634), refers to the two days of February 24th, but the two day 24th was completely replaced by February 29th in the 16th Century.

One slight complication to the story of February 29th was that February 29th did exist before the Julian reforms. When February was not interrupted by the intercalary month, as described above, it was 29 days long. Julius Caesar made the months alternate 30 and 31 except for February which was 29 days long. When the Senate gave Julius the honour of having the 7th Month named after him, things were OK, but then Augustus wanted the same thing. The Senate duly gave him the next month, which became known as August, but it only had 30 days. This could not be allowed! So they made it up to 31 and stole the 29th from February and made February only 28 days long. This change also meant that there were now three 31 days months in a row, so they reduced September from 31 to 30, boosted October to 31, reduced November to 30 and boosted December to 31,

Hence, we can no longer remember Caesar rational allotment of days in the month, and we need to hum to ourselves:

Thirty days have September
April, June, and November
February has twenty-eight alone.
All the rest have thirty-one.
Excepting leap year – that’s the time
When February’s days are twenty-nine.

But Caesar had not solved the problem of the shifting year, he had just minimised it. By the Council of Nicea in the early 4th Century (and not yet called AD!) the small error had changed the date of the Spring Equinox, from March 25th to March 21st. So, when Constantine convened the Council to bang the heads together of the Church leaders to unify their religion, particularly in regard to the date of Easter, and whether Jesus was equal to God. They fudged the complex issue of the date of Christ’s death, and used March 21st as the foundation of their calculation on the moon-based festival of Easter (more of which at Easter!)

It wasn’t until the 16th Century that Pope Gregory, solved the problem of the inaccuracy of Caesar’s solution. They resynced the days to the seasons by removing days from the Calendar. And they stopped the drift by fine-tuning the leap year system, by not having a leap year in those centurial years which were not divisible by 400. So 2000 was a leap year, but 2100 is not. This allowed the systems to align correctly to this day. (although there is of course a little more to it than this). But for that level of detail, you will love ‘The Calendar’ by David Ewing Duncan, or just look it up on Wikipedia or wait for me to compile various references to the Gregorian Calendar into a unified post on the subject.

Of course, Britain refused to join a Catholic innovation for nearly 200 years but, religious prejudice at last gave way to reason, when we adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. In the process we lost 11 days, much to the horror of the London mob, who rioted against their loss.

See the following posts for the Roman Year:

Romulus’s 10 month year here

Roman Months here and more on the Ides of March here

Roman Months

photo of november calendar
Photo by Manasvita S on Unsplash

My correspondent, Morcus Porcus, pointed out the error of my opening statement for my post on November November- the month of immolations:

The 9th Month of the Roman Calendar 9 being ‘novem’. Now its the 11th because they needed to add months to glorify Julius Caesar and Augustus.

In fact, the pre-existing months were simply renamed. Romans talk of a ‘legendary’ calendar being set up by Romulus which consisted of 10 months of 30 and 31 days followed by a winter period which brought the year towards the number of days in the celestial cycle. Apparently, it was not well regulated and the months eventually began to lose their integration with the seasons.

The year began in March, suitable names were given to March, April, May and June but the next 6 months were given numbers as below.

Table from Wikipedia

The Calendar was reformed several times; January and February added but the major reform was instigated by Julius Caesar in 46BC with the so-called ‘Year of Confusion’. This first year of the introduction of the Julian calendar was 445 days long to realign the seasons, and began on January 1st, with 365 days, 12 months and a 4 year leap year cycle. This held sway until the 16th Century when a further reform was ordered by Pope Gregory as the year is not exactly 365.25 days long. It was not adopted in the UK until the 18th Century when we lost 11 days to align ourselves with Europe.

My walk at New Year called ‘Ring in the New Year’ deals with issue of calendars through the ages.

More on the Ides and the Kalendes of the month