The Ides of March and the Italian Language

Mar 10, 2018


Le idi di marzo 

In the oldest Roman calendar March (marzo) was the first month (il primo mese) of the year, named for Mars (Marte), the fierce god of war (dio della guerra), and the time when Rome’s legions (le legioni), after a winter’s break, prepared for new conquests and battle.

The ancient Romans (gli antichi romani) did not number the days of the month sequentially as we do from first to last. Instead they counted back from three fixed points: the Nones (5th or 7th, depending on the month’s length),  the Ides (13th or 15th) and the Kalends (1st) of the month.

The Ides (the plural form of the Latin idus) occurred near mid-month—on the 13th for most months but on the 15th in March, May, July and October. On the earliest Roman calendar (calendario romano),  the Ides of March marked the first full moon (luna piena) of the new year.

The Ides of each month were dedicated to Jupiter (Giove), the supreme Roman deity. In his honor a high priest would lead the “Ides sheep” (ovis Idulius, in Latin) in  procession along the Via Sacra to the altar for sacrifice.  

By March 15, 44 B.C., Julius Caesar, Rome’s most victorious general (generale vittorioso), had gained great power and popularity. After he called for reforms, including a reduction in the power of the old families in the Roman Senate, his opponents decided to act before he left on a prolonged military campaign.  A Greek tutor overheard the assassination plot in the home of Brutus and wrote a warning to Caesar. He handed it to him on a scroll as he walked to the Senate, but Caesar never opened the scroll.  

According to Shakespeare’s play, an Etruscan soothsayer also warned Caesar to beware  the Ides of March (fare attenzione alle idi di marzo). When he passed the seer, Caesar joked, “The Ides of March have come” (Le idi di marzo sono arrivate). To which the prophet replied, “Yes, but not yet gone." (Sì, ma non sono ancora passate).

As many as 60 conspirators gathered around the dictator (dittatore)  At first, Caesar attempted to defend himself against their knives.  But when Brutus, the son of his former mistress, raised his blade to strike, Caesar cried out, “Tu quoque, Brute, fili mi!" ("Anche tu, Bruto, figlio mio!"—You too, Brutus, my son)  and gave up the fight.

Or so Shakespeare has us believe.  The real story, according to The Death of Caesar by historian Barry Strauss, “was even dirtier and more devious.”  As he reports, Caesar cried out in Greek, not Latin, saying, “You too, my child?”   Gossip had long claimed that Caesar was Brutus’ biological father—even though he was only fifteen when Brutus was born.

The Roman historian Ovid portrayed the killing as the sacriligious  murder (omicidio) of Rome’s highest pontiff. Others characterized the assassination as a religious sacrifice, a ritual offering that transformed Caesar into a god.  In his Divine Comedy, Dante placed the conspirators in the deepest part of hell (nella parte più profonda dell’inferno) reserved for traitors (traditori) like Judas Iscariot.

The Italian language pays tribute to the fallen emperor with a word that exists in no other tongue: cesaricidio (the murder of Caesar). “Caesar” became the title of emperors down to Hadrian in the second century A.D. and served as the root for  German’s “Kaiser” and Russian’s “czar.”  According to one of my etymological dictionaries, “Caesar” also inspired an American slang word used around the turn of the twentieth century: the  ironic nickname “Great Seizer” for a small town sheriff.

Words and Expressions

L’assassinio — assassination 

La congiura — plot, conspiracy

Parto cesareo –- C-section (for the method of Caesar's delivery)

Veni, vidi, vici” –-  Venni, Vidi, Vinsi. I came, I saw, I conquered. (Caesar’s famous summary of his conquest of Gaul)

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

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