Beware the Ides of March

March 15, 44 BC

How Diarrhea Changed the World

On this day in 44 BC Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman Senate by a cadre of Senators who called themselves “the Liberators.”

During Caesar’s reign the Roman Empire achieved an unprecedented amount of power and land area, stretching from Britain to Africa to the Middle East. Caesar conquered Gaul and led the first Roman invasion of Britain.

The Roman Civil War of 50 BC divided the Romans between Caesar and Pompey. Caesar emerged victorious and became the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire.

It was theorized by Cassius Dio that the main reason behind the conspiracy to murder Caesar was that he refused to rise, as was the custom, when he met with a delegation of Senators who informed Caesar of the honors they had bestowed upon him. And that the reason he did not rise, was not out of a lack of appreciation for the Senate, but of a severe case of diarrhea.

The doom associated with the Ides of March acquired new potency in 1939 when Adolf Hitler strode into Czechoslovakia without firing a shot, thanks to Western leaders, and proclaimed “Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist.”

Are You Bissextile?

Answer: only during Leap Year…

The great-grand-daddy of our February 29th Leap Day goes back to the ancient Romans. I know what you’re thinking: Don’t we have anything that doesn’t go back to them? Uh, yes: numbers, and thank god for that, or taxes would be an even bigger drag. Also the dates of the month aren’t Roman—for which you’ll be grateful in a minute.

See, back in the day, when the Romans used a lunar calendar, the full moon fell directly in the middle of each month and was called the Ides. And the new moon at the beginning of the month was called the Kalends (from which we get the word calendar). And somewhere in between those two were the Nones. (From which we get the word nine. The nones were nine days before the Ides.)

Instead of saying it’s March 13th, the Romans would say It’s two days before the Ides of March. (Actually they’d say it’s three days before the Ides because they counted funny and that’s another reason you should be glad for Arabic numbers, but that’s neither here nor there.) Instead of saying it’s March 25th, they’d say it’s six days before the Kalends of April, or ante diem IV Kalends Aprilis.

March marked the beginning of the new year. To make up for the fact that the lunar calendar was only 355 days long, every few years a mensis intercalaris, or intercalary month, was tacked onto the end of February. February 23 was the annual Terminalia holiday, in which Romans celebrated Terminus—no, not the god of airports—the god of boundary stones and property disputes. Kind of like the ancient Judge Judy.

Whether a year would have a mensis intercalaris tacked on was determined by the Pontifex Maximus. The problem with this system is if Ponty’s friends were in office, he would have reason to extend the calendar year, whereas if an opposing party had power, he would have reason to shorten it. As a result of this friction and the chaos of the Punic Wars, the intercalary months were added or forgotten for decades at a time. Soon the calendar drifted into entirely different seasons.

Julius Caesar formalized the calendar. Each month was lengthened a certain number of days so the whole calendar would mirror the solar year, not the cycles of the moon—365 days. Instead of a whole month, a leap day was inserted after February 23 (or February 24) every four years.

Only they didn’t call it the 23rd or 24th. Remember we were talking about the Kalends and the Ides?

Since they were counting backwards from the beginning of March—excuse me—from the Kalends of March, they called it “doubling” the day six days prior to the Kalends of March. Or if you really want to get technical, “ante diem bis sextum Kalendas Martii.”

Bis sextum literally translated to doubling or splitting of the sixth day. Hence, leap years were known throughout the Middle Ages as “bissextile years.”

When Roman dating was replaced by the trusty 1-31 system, Leap Day was moved from February 25th to February 29th. Today, even though February is the 2nd month, we continue the 2000 year-old Roman tradition of placing the intercalaris at February’s end.

In simple English:

“When there is the double sixth day before the first day [of March], it matters not whether a person was born on the first or on the second day, and afterwards the sixth day before the first [of March] is his birthday; for those two days are regarded as one, but the second day is intercalated, not the first. And so he that was born on the sixth day before the first [of March] in a year in which there is no intercalation has the first day as his birthday in a leap year. Cato is of opinion that the intercalated month is an additional one, and he takes all its days for a moment of time, and Quintus Mucius assigns it to the last day of the month of February. But the intercalated month consists of twenty-eight days.”

–translation from Institutes and History of Roman Private Law with Catena of Texts, Salkowski & Whitfield

“Cum bissextum kalendas est, nihil refert utrum priore an posteriore die quis natus sit, et deinceps sextum kalendas eius natalis dies est, nam id biduum pro uno die habetur; sed posterior dies intercalatur non prior: ideo quo anno intercalatum non est sexto kalendas natus, cum bissextum kalendas est, priorem diem natalem habet. 1. Cato putat, mensem intercalarem additicium esse, omnesque eius dies pro momento temporis observat, extremoque diei mensis Februarii attribuit Quintus Mucius. 2. Mensis autem intercalaris constat ex diebus viginti octo.” –D. 50, 16, 98

[published Feb. 28, 2008]

Happy Death Day Julius Caesar

Osculating the Bissextile Way

Ladies First on Leap Day

Wikipedia: Leap Year

Wikipedia: Roman Calendar

Time and Date: Leap Day


February 13-15

She-wolf suckles Romulus & Remus

It’s Lupercalia time, baby.

On this day the ancient Romans remembered the She-wolf who suckled the baby Romulus—the future founder of Rome–and his brother Remus.

The priests of Rome, known as the Luperci, or ”Brotherhood of the Wolf,’ would commemorate this day by running around in loincloths smacking women on the back with an animal-skins.

What is immediately apparent in a comparison between the sacred rites of then and now is that then it was much more fun being a priest.

The ritual was intended to promote fertility, and the part about whipping girls legs is still practiced on Easter Monday in parts of Eastern Europe.

Over time this festival of the Romans was superseded by the Purification of the Virgin and the Festival of Saint Valentine.

Apollo’s Feast Day – Golf Balls on the Moon

February 9


February 9th is Showtime for Apollo, the sun god of the ancient Greeks, whose chariot rode across the heavens each day.

February 9 wasn’t the only feast for Apollo. The Spartans celebrated Apollo in August (Carneia). The Athenians celebrated his birthday in May (Thargelia) and held a harvest festival in his honor in October (Pyanepsia).

But according to Roman records, at some point the Festival of Apollo was celebrated on the Vth (5th) day before the Ides (13th) of February.

Unlike the Ides of March, the Ides of shorter months were observed on what we consider the 13th of the month, not the 15h.

Yes, the 9th is actually four days before the 13th, not five, but the Romans always included the dates they were counting from and to. In other words, by Roman calculations Wednesday would be three days before Friday, and the 9th would five days before the 13th. (Don’t think about it, just thank the Arabs.)

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In the Christian Era, February 9 became the Feast Day of St. Apollonia and the Martyrs of Alexandria. No they weren’t ancient Egypt’s pop fusion sensation, but a group of early Christians who were killed in 249 AD by angry pagan mobs. Among the Christians was Apollonia, whose teeth were beaten out. Then, when she was ordered to renounce Christ or be burned alive, she leapt into the fire to meet her death.

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In more recent times, a third Apollo milestone occurred on February 9:

Sixty-eight years after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, another charioteer of the heavens, Apollo 14, splashed into the Pacific Ocean on February 9, 1971, having completed a successful mission on the moon.

Though not the first trip to the moon, Apollo 14 was a much needed success after the disastrous Apollo 13 mission, in which man’s cutting-edge technology crashed down to Earth in Icarian defeat.

More important, Apollo 14 was the first time in history that anyone played golf on a planet other than Earth. (Okay, technically, a satellite, but still…)

Alan Shepard attached a six-iron head to a metal collection device, with which he hit two golf balls on the surface of the moon. Shepard was admittedly no Tiger Woods…

Actual transcript:

Shepard: Got more dirt than ball. Here we go again.

Mission Control: That looked like a slice to me, Al.

No, I’m not making that up. Fortunately, Shepard’s third swing went “miles and miles and miles” by his own calculation. Shepard’s estimate was later reduced to only a few hundred yards.

Either way, the drive was indisputably out of this world…


How Many Golf Balls are on the Moon?

Carmenta – Roman Sex Goddess

January 11

If you’re like everyone I know, you had a baby this Fall.

But if you (or your loved one) are still expecting, you might want to give a shout out to Carmenta today, the Roman Goddess of Prophecy, Protectress of women in childbirth, and an early symbol of women’s lib.

Today marks the first day of Carmentalia, the Roman festival in her honor, observed by the women of ancient Rome.

This corresponds in name to the Latin Carmenta or Carmentis, of whom Preller says: The Goddess of Birth, Carmenta, was so zealously worshipped near the Porta Carmentalis, which was named from her, that there was a Flamen Carmentalis, and two calendar days, the eleventh and fifteenth of January, called the Carmentalia, devoted to her worship. These were among the most distinguished festivals of the Roman matrons. Etruscan Roman Remains<

She also bears much in common with Themis (below), the Greek Goddess of divine law and wisdom.

According to Ovid, she traveled from Greece to Italy with her son Evander, where Evander founded the city of Pallantium. Pallantium was named after their Greek hometown of Pallantium, Aracadia, and was one of the 7 hills that later became Rome.
Carmenta was famous for chanting her prophecies in verse. Her Greek name was Nicostrate, but when she arrived in Italy, the locals called the singing woman Carmenta, for the Latin ‘carmina’, or ‘song’.

Another explanation holds the opposite: Carmenta predated the Latin word for song, and ‘carmina’ derived from the prophetess’s name.
‘Mente’ meant ‘wise’ or ‘mind’. Car-menta could have meant ‘Car the Wise’. Or as Plutarch suggests, ‘Out of the Mind’, because she acted crazy.
She was associated with artistic and technological innovation and is co-credited for inventing the Latin alphabet (with Al Gore and her son Evander.) There is little evidence to support this, but Latin was indeed based on a Greek variant.

According to Virgil she used her powers of prophesy to choose the best site of the future Rome on which to establish her son. Once she even foretold Hercules the fate that awaited him.

How she came to be the Goddess of Childbirth is unclear. The women’s cult that grew around her was said to have predated Rome. However, Plutarch’s and Ovid’s description of the origin of her temple is more about contraception (and possibly abortion) than fertility.

During the Second Punic War (215 BC) the Roman Senate restricted the rights of women to ride in carriages or to wear certain clothing. This was an attempt to save resources such as horses, fabrics, and gold for the war effort.

But when the war ended, these rights were not reinstated.
The women of Rome banded together and protested, the Lysistrata way. They refused to conceive children. (You can work out the details.) According to Plutrach they:

“kept their husbands at a distance until the husbands changed their minds and made the concession to them.”

After the laws were revoked, the women had numerous prodigy, and built the Temple of Carmenta in her honor.

At the temple the Goddess Carmenta could be invoked with one of two carmentes, lesser goddesses of childbirth, and Porrima–literally, “feet first” and “head first”. Possibly referring to which way the baby was delivered. It can also be read as “looking backward” and “looking forward,” citing Carmenta’s ability to tell the future.

View from Palatine Hill
View from Palatine Hill

All forms of animal skin were banned in her temple. This meant no shoes, no leather, and no animal sacrifice:

For on the day they had received life, they did not want to deprive another life.” –Varro, Cens. 2.2

The Carmentalia festival was unique in that it was celebrated on two separate dates, four days apart. (The second date was on January 15th.)

[The reason for this is uncertain. One theory is that it was originally on the 11th and 13th, but the 13th was the Ides of January. Or, as mentioned earlier, the Romans didn’t have anything better to do in the middle of January.]


Wiccan Spell-a-Day book


Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

[originally written January 2008]

Why the Fuss of January First?

January 1

Today is the Granddaddy of all holidays. Celebrated around the world, New Year’s Day transcends culture, language and religion.

The strange thing is, how of all days did this arbitrary night–December 31 to January 1–come to represent the changing of the solar calendar? It is neither a solstice nor equinox, nor the anniversary of any momentous event.

  • Russia once celebrated the New Year on September 1.
  • The Chinese New Year falls in late January through early February.
  • The French chose September 22, the autumnal equinox, during the French Revolution.
  • Iran celebrated (celebrates?) on or around March 21, the spring equinox.
  • The Hebrew calendar celebrates in early Fall.
  • The Cambodian, Thai, and some Indian provinces in mid-April.

So what gives with January 1?

In fact the Roman calendar, on which ours in based, began with March. Which makes sense if you think about the names of the months:

  • September: 7th month
  • October: 8th month
  • November: 9th month…

I was told in elementary school another reason why the months were off: it was because July and August, the months named after Julius Caesar and Augustus, were inserted after June.

Good theory. Wrong, but good theory.

The months of July and August were not “added” to the calendar but replaced the already existing months Quintilis and Sextilis. (Quintilis meant 5th and Sextilis 6th.)

So even in the time of Julius Caesar (45 BC) were 6 of the months of the year out of whack?


The original Roman calendar, supposedly created by Romulus, the founder of Rome, began in March and ended in December. March signified the beginning of the planting year and December marked the end of harvest. The remaining 60 or so days, when crops were neither sowed nor reaped, weren’t counted as months, but an amorphous winter period. As Cecil Adams puts it:

“…3,000 years ago not a helluva lot happened between December and March. The Romans at the time were an agricultural people, and the main purpose of the calendar was to govern the cycle of planting and harvesting.” – How Come February Has Only 28 Days?

This amorphous period allowed farmers to based their months on lunar cycles, not on the solar calendar. Hence the unoriginal names:

  • Quinctilis, 5th month, ie. 5th moon
  • Sextilis, 6th month, ie. 6th moon
  • September, 7th month, ie. 7th moon
  • October, 8th month, ie. 8th moon…

Farmer Ted (or Theodocus in ancient Roman) knew he had to plant such and such during the first or second moon and harvest such and such during the 8th or 9th moon.

They didn’t number the dates of the month like we do (1-31), but counted forward or backward based on the different stages of the moon each month:

The Kalends: first day of the month, or new moon
The Ides: middle of the month, or full moon
The Nones: the quartermoons

As in:

Beware the Ides of March. (Shakespeare) ie. Beware the full moon of March, ie. March 15th.


Damn, I’ve got to renew my driver’s license by the fourth day before the Kalends of Quinctilis. (Nestor the Chronicler) ie. four days before new moon of July, ie. June 27th. (The Romans included the day they were counting from as day 1.)

If you’re not confused yet, wait. It just gets better.

So sometime around 713 BC Roman King Numa Pompilius decided to name and fix this no-man’s land between December and March. He named January after the god Janus, and February after the Latin word Februum, meaning purification. It was the end of the year and marked a time of atonement. (Maybe that’s why it’s the shortest month!)

Years at this time were not numbered, but were referred to by the names of the two consuls elected that year. So this year might be Bush-Pelosi, except consuls were elected yearly.

In the third century BC the date officials took office was fixed on the Ides of March (March 15).

A law in 153 BC arbitrarily moved that date up two and a half months to January 1st.

The Cambridge Ancient History states that this was done to hasten the appointment of Quintus Fulvius Nobilior, so he could quell uprisings in Northern Spain. (Liv. Per. XLVII, Cassiod. Chron.) [More on this here.] My theory is that, as stated earlier, Romans had nothing better to do in January and February.

The date stuck and January 1st marked the beginning of the Roman legal calendar, though it was not yet considered to be the start of the new year by the general Roman populace.

Below: Caesar celebrating New Year

[Oops, wrong picture]

By the time Julius Caesar came to town a couple of problems were apparent with the Roman consular calendar.

The most important being that it was 355 days, roughly twelve lunar cycles. That worked fine for a few years but after enough years March would fall in the dead of Winter and September would mark the beginning of Summer, leading to very confused farmers, not to mention cows.

The Roman Head Honchos (Honchos Headus Romanus) tried to fix this problem by periodically inserting an extra month called Intercalaris after February. (Think Leap Month.) However, with the lack of DSL and decent cell phone service among ancient Romans, it took a while for an Intercalaris to make its way to the average farmer in the countryside, causing citizens to be in different months.

Also, the government could neglect to declare an Intercalaris for an extended time, as with the Punic Wars, leading to the “Years of Confusion” when the seasons went completely askew.

By the time Julius Caesar took power the calendar was off by approximately 100 days. He fixed this problem by extending the year 45 BC to 455 days. Then he changed the number of days in each month to create a 365-day solar calendar, rather than a lunar calendar. (Thank you Juli!)

Afterward, the calendar was also changed to refer to the year by the Emperor. So instead of being the year of Bush-Pelosi, for example, 2007 would be the 7th Year of the Reign of the Bush.

But wait there’s more!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the calendar, the Roman Church in the 6th century AD chose March 25, the date of the Annunciation, as the official start of its New Year.

The March 25th date also explains why December 25th, exactly nine months after the Annunciation, was chosen as the birth of Jesus.

However, the centuries-old Roman tradition of celebrating January 1 as the New Year could not be suppressed. January 1 was declared a Church holiday by Pope Boniface IX in 615 AD and called “Octave of the Lord.” The Pope’s mass was conducted at Rome’s Church of St. Mary. Hence the celebration became connected with the Virgin Mary and became known as “The Feast of St. Mary.”

The Gregorian calendar, proposed by Aloysius Lilius and approved by Pope Gregory in 1582, fixed the inaccuracies of the Julian calendar and set January as the 1st month yet again.

By this time many countries had already reverted back to the January 1st New Year:

  • 1544 Holy Roman Empire
  • 1556 Spain and Portugal
  • 1559 Prussia, Denmark/Norway, and Sweden
  • 1564 France
  • 1576 Southern Netherlands

Other governments followed suit:

  • 1583 Northern Netherlands
  • 1600 Scotland
  • 1700 Russia
  • 1721 Tuscany
  • 1752 Britain and colonies

It should be noted that the people of many of the above countries celebrated the Roman New Year’s Day on January 1st long before their governments recognized it. Britain for example considered March 25th as the beginning of the legal year, like a tax year, while the general populace celebrated on December 31st as the year’s end.

In essence, as late as the 1700’s the English-speaking world was continuing the 3,000 year-old Roman tradition–a year starting in March and ending in December.

Ludi Romani – Roman Games

September 13


The Romans knew how to party. So much so that their toga ensemble has become the symbol of a decadent good time, especially in the “Greek” system in colleges across North America. Of course the Greeks didn’t wear togas—the Romans got it from the Etruscans—but we’ll let that slide.

Thanks to writers like Ovid and Cicero, we know that every month of the Roman calendar was flooded with festivals and sacred days for the pantheon of gods and goddesses. With one exception:


There were only two notable holidays in the seventh month. (September didn’t become the 9th month until the second century BC.)

On September 13th, Romans observed the Ides, the day honoring the Roman king of the gods, Jupiter.

But the Romans honored Jupiter every month on the Ides. The 15th of March, May, July, October, and December; the 13th of all other months.

The other September event was known as Ludi Romani, or the “Roman Games“.

Ludi Romani was one of the most anticipated and biggest events of the year, and in its heyday stretched for over two full weeks, from September 4 to September 19.

According to tradition, the first games were instituted by King Tarquinius Pricscus (Tarquin the Elder) in the 6th century BC, after a Roman military conquest. He created the Circus Maximus to hold such an event.

recreation of Circus Maximus
How the Circus Maximus would have looked

The Circus Maximus was constructed between two of Rome’s seven hills, Aventine Hill and Palatine Hill. At over 2,000 feet long, the Circus could seat upwards of 150,000 spectators, and more could view the Games from the surrounding hillsides.

The main event of the Games was chariot racing, or ludi circenses. These races could be far bloodier than any Ben Hur movie. Other attractions included boxing, battles with wild animals, and gladiator bouts, though these were all later moved to other venues designed for such events. (The lack of a barrier between the stands and the track didn’t protect spectators too well from wild animals.)

Originally the Games were only one day, then two: September 12th and 14th.

The Games were celebrated intermittently until 366 BC when they became “the first set of Ludi to receive annual sponsorship by the Roman state…” (The Roman Games: a Sourcebook, by Alison Futrell)

Three years later, ludi scaenici, or theater plays inspired by the Greek, premiered at the Games.

By the time of Julius Caesar the Games lasted two full weeks. After his assassination, Rome honored him…by adding another day.

Lemuralia: Malicious Girls Marry in May

May 13

When midnight comes and drops silence for sleep,
and dogs and dappled birds are hushed,
The man who remembers the ancient rite
and fears the gods, rises up (barefoot)
And makes a thumb sign between his closed fingers
to avoid some ghostly wraith in the quiet.
When he has washed his hands clean with fountain water,
he turns around after taking black beans,
Glances away and throws, saying: ‘These I release;
I redeem me and mine with these beans.’

— Ovid’s Fasti

The head of the Roman household would, according to Ovid, perform this rite nine times and then, after rinsing his hands, would shout, “Leave, ancestral spirits!” another nine times, purifying his house of those departed whose souls refuse to rest. (The Japanese still observe a similar bean-throwing tradition during the Shinto lunar new year, Setsubun.)

The Roman superstition that Ovid describes was once a public festival known as the Feast of Lemuria, or Lemuralia, decreed by Rome’s co-founder Romulus.

She-wolf suckles Romulus & Remus

Romulus and Remus were twin sons of Mars, god of war, who were nursed by a she-wolf in the wild. They wanted to build a great city, but couldn’t agree on the location. Romulus preferred Palatine Hill, Remus preferred Aventine Hill. They each built their own city. When Remus mocked Romulus by jumping over the wall meant to protect his, Romulus slew Remus in a fit of rage.

Guilt-ridden, Romulus was haunted by Remus’s ghost, who asked to be remembered on this day.

Lemuralia, says Ovid, is a corruption of Remus (Maybe Remuralia was too hard to pronounce?):

Over a long time the rough letter became smooth
at the beginning of the whole name.
Soon they also called the silent souls lemures…
The ancients shut temples on those days, as you now
see them closed in the season of the dead.
The same times are unfit for a widow’s marriage
or virgin’s. No girls who wed then live long…
Folk say: “Malicious girls marry in May.”

Around 610, Pope Boniface IV declared May 13 “All Saints Day”, in honor of all martyred. All Saints Day was later moved to November 1, coinciding with regional harvest festivals remembering the spirits of the dead.