Okay I admit it. I had Caesar Salad dressing on my greens last night. Was that a good choice on the night before the ides of March? Aha! Time will tell. As many good schoolboys and schoolgirls might know, the ides of March was not a great time for the ancient Roman named Julius Caesar, because things got a bit sticky for him on the ides of March – specifically a sticky end on the sharp point of a very sharp dagger. Make that many daggers.
It was very much a ‘dividing’ point for Caesar in that his assassination divided him from life to death on the steps of the Capitol in Rome. His assassins were Brutus and Cassius (not to mention the 60 or so others who stabbed him according to some ancient sources) many who had earlier professed to have been his friend. The English playwright, William Shakespeare, immortalised the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar in his play ‘Julius Caesar’ and forever thrust the phrase ‘Beware the ides of March’ into the public domain. Many people can quote nothing else of that play but they just might remember the ‘ides’ phrase. However, they may have no idea what ‘ides’ refers to.
I confess to having absolutely no idea what the ‘ides’ were until I became 15 years of age. I was in my High School English class when it reared its amazing head. In my day, it was usual for every school in Glasgow, Scotland, to study the works of the English playwright William Shakespeare. It was also usual in Glasgow at that time, during the mid 1960s, that every single school followed strictly laid down programmes of work for all pupils. The Shakespeare plays we studied were selected particularly for levels of maturity of the students. In the first year of study it was the comedy -‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, since that was considered to be a nice little fairy tale suitable for 12 going on 13 year olds (actually it isn’t really but it was an easy work to study). In second year, it was ‘The Merchant of Venice’- also a comedy. By third year we were deemed old enough to tackle the tragedies- the ones with NO happy ever after endings. One of the third year plays was Julius Caesar.
The play made an impact on me for one reason only…
Zoom back with me to 1967. I’m sitting in my English classroom, some thirtyish pupils in the room. By third year, the English class was a mix of boys and girls, my first two high school years having had all classes segregated into girls only, and boys only classes. (Archaic? Probably but that’s how it was ) My English teacher of the time was the head of the department and a ‘classicist’. That means he had not only a qualification in English from University, but he was ‘of the old school’ who also had Latin and Greek qualifications. The man seemed as ancient as the old plays and books he taught us about, he was incredibly strict, but was also very knowledgeable.
I can’t remember exactly, but I imagine that the week set aside to study ‘Julius Caesar by good old Willie S’ was probably the middle of March. I remember a cold dread as the soothsayer warns Julius Caesar ‘Beware the ides of March’ early on in the play. As we carried on reading-some pupils chosen to read the dialogue out loud to the others-the tension in the room escalated. Julius Caesar chooses to ignore the soothsayer who told his fortune and quips: “He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.”And Caesar carries on that night as normal.
But boys will be boys and are bloody with it (deny it if you will those males out there). My male classmates liked the idea of Julius Caesar having his comeuppance for being too much of a dictator in Ancient Rome and enthusiastically, if quietly, rejoiced in class when Julius Caesar is assassinated on the day following the soothsayers warning, on the steps of the Capitol in Rome, the forum below full of onlookers.
Now why on earth should that be memorable to me? One of my lovely friends, probably one of the five I still keep occasional contact with, ratted on me. Someone made it public that the ‘ides’ of March, specifically the fifteenth, was my birthday. For some days, the corridors of my secondary school were not safe for me. I’m thinking you can imagine the amount of times I was metaphorically stabbed (and very noisily too) for the duration of reading that wonderful play by those enthusiastic boys whose maturity wasn’t actually all that well honed. There was no such thing in those days as harassment, or bodily harm-it was all great fun and any bruises encountered by me were not on show since they were hidden below my school uniform. It was called camaraderie!
So, what does the ‘ides’ actually mean? It doesn’t mean anything awful will happen but simply means the ‘dividing point’ of the month- the half-way mark. And the amazing thing is that every single month has one! *insert a very smiley face here* Nonetheless, I have never forgotten what the ‘ides of March’ means and the fifteenth has been a pretty good day for me for a long time… *wink, wink*
My historical romantic adventure series is set in Celtic Roman Britain but not in the time of Julius Caesar. Julius Caesar was the first Roman to venture onto the soil of the island the Romans named Britannia, but his very partial conquest was in 55 B.C. and his assassination in 44 B.C.
The era I write about is a bit later – the end of the first century AD 71-84. In only 10 days, the 3rd book of my series After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks will be officially launched. I’m not sure if I love writing about Celtic /Roman Britain because of my reading of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’, or because I was already loving my history classes at school, but I like to think it was probably a bit of both!
What do you think?
Nancy Jardine: TOPAZ EYES-A finalist for THE PEOPLE’S BOOK PRIZE FICTION 2014 – Results end May 2014. AFTER WHORL: BRAN REBORN Book 2 of Celtic Fervour series has been accepted for THE WALTER SCOTT PRIZE FOR HISTORICAL FICTION 2014- further updates in April 2014
Have a lovely weekend!