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.” ┬áIf 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But that outdated calendar was just one tradition that Julius Caesar intended to end.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:

    Having just returned from Washington, D.C., I am, as usual, struck with overt attempts of the founders of this nation to recreate Rome in the New World.

    While showing my son the Lincoln Memorial, I pointed out to him that the Romans had similar buildings, hosting similar statues, but that they at least openly admitted they were temples to deified personages. The Divine Augustus comes to mind. The Lincoln Memorial is little more than a temple to Olympian Zeus, with a dash of xtianity schmeered over it, just as our country is little more than an attempt at a New Rome with a VERY thin, peeling veneer of Enlightenment philosophy. If you consider the National Mall, it’s Rome at one end (the Captiol), Egypt in the middle (Washington’s monumental obelisk) and Greece at the other end (Lincoln’s Memorial Temple), the only difference being that the Romans didn’t put up a memorial to Crassus’ legions lost in a foolhardy adventure on the Euphrates. Perhaps they should have. Mesopotamia is apparently Greek for “Vietnam.”

    You brought all this to mind, Eugene, by noting that the rustic, provincial Romans put a veneer of Greek and Egyptian “culture” over their otherwise crassly commercial national enterprise. “Hi, I’m Crazy Scippy, and I’ve got BIG Carthaginian bargains! So come on down to North Africa and look at ALL these slaves! Why did I salt the earth? ‘Cuz I’m CRAAAAAZY!”

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      You give the Romans too much credit. In the Roman forum, you can still see the Arch of Septimus Severus, celebrating the emperor’s claims of triumph over the Parthians. Some 70 years earlier, Trajan could have made a similar claim. The Roman criterion for victory apparently was successfully retreating from Mesopotamia.

      The Parthians finally fell but to their Persian cousins–who would then be fighting the Romans and Byzantines for the 350 years.


  2. Kate says:

    …for the 350 years. And the beat goes on. In the meantime, on the other side of the world, my folks didn’t need no calendar by Julie, they planted and birthed and deathed by the moon and stars and sun.

    Yes, I’d say we give those boys way too much credit; however, we still use the moon phases for invasion of the Middle East, don’t we? “We will wait til the new moon to invade ______,” (pick the country)

    • Eugene Finerman says:


      Which other side of the world? Were your ancestors building a rather large wall for the Han dynasty or pyramids for the local Mayan lord?


  3. Kate says:

    Sorry I wasn’t specific. Cherokee, east of the Smokey Mts. They lazed around here just waiting for the Scot-Irish to rape and pillage their culture but they had beautiful babies .

    Then ol AJ as he’s known in E TN came along and decided they should move on over to OK. There may be some walls and pyramids back in the day, but I can find no record.


  4. I had a deviated Septimus Severious.

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