Your RDA of Irony

The Ides of March

Imagine yourself a tourist in ancient Rome and you wanted to buy 15 postcards (the ones using mosaics were impressive but the postage was exorbitant). Of course, you would tell the shopkeeper, I’d like Ides, please. If he were obliging, he would lift his tunic. Otherwise, he would think you a babbling idiot.

You see, Ides does not mean 15. It rather refers to the full moon by which the old Roman calendar divided the month. The similarity between month and moon is not a coincidence.

Ancient Rome was built on seven hills and an absurd lunar calendar. The Roman year had ten months as well another sixty days in winter that didn’t count. Be fair: if you were stuck using Roman numerals, you’d resort to any short cut, too. Such a slovenly, lackadaisical calendar might suit a small Tiber village or modern Italy, but not a growing empire. The government decided to organize the dead time into two new months: Ianuarius and Februarius.

That improved the bookkeeping but not the accuracy of the calendar. The Roman year was 355 days. As Rome expanded, it was coming into contact with more sophisticated systems. The Greeks had realized that a sun-based calendar was more accurate. Yet, out of self-reverence, for six centuries Rome adhered to its ridiculous calendar.

But that outdated calendar was just one tradition that Julius Caesar intended to end. While in Alexandria, Caesar was seduced by more than just Cleopatra. The city was the think tank of the ancient world. Greek science and Babylonian mathematics had produced a calendar of unequaled precision. Caesar was so impressed that he decided to impose it on the Roman world. And for some reason, people called it the Julian calendar.

(Alexandria’s scientific community also successfully promoted a chronological concept called the “week.” The seven-day period once had been dismissed as just another Jewish idiosyncrasy. But when Alexandria adopted the idea, everyone loved it.)

The Julian calendar went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C. If the Roman traditionalists had any objections, they certainly expressed them on March 15, 44 B.C.

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    And all this time I thought it was the “hides” of March! Y’know: the way Brutus and Cassius would hide their daggers in the folds of their togae.

    Then again, I also thought Steveie Nicks was singing “Just like a one-winged dove makes a sound like saying ‘Oo, Baby, Oo.”

    Never mind!

    /Emile Litella

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