Opinion: Beware the Ides of March?

Monday will be the Ides of March. What exactly does that mean? Historically, the “ides” was the day each month when a “new moon” could be observed. Usually, that occurred somewhere around the middle of the month. However, whatever the exact date might have been, it had little significance until Shakespeare wrote about it. At the beginning of his play, “Julius Caesar,” a soothsayer confronts Caesar (who by that time was essentially dictator-for-life of the Roman Empire) and warns him, “Beware the ides of March.”

When Caesar returned to his home, he told his wife Calpurnia about the seer’s comment and made light of it. Calpurnia did not. She worried that something terrible would happen to her husband on that day.

As it turned out (in real life as well as in Shakespeare’s play), a meeting of the Roman Senate was scheduled for March 15, 44 B.C., which happened to be the ides. Although Calpurnia pleaded with Caesar not to attend the meeting, Caesar decided to go. On his way to the Senate, he met the soothsayer, telling him in a mocking way, “The ides have come.” “Ah,” said the seer, “but they have not gone.”

As Caesar entered the Senate, a group of aristocrats led by Brutus and Cassius (about whom Caesar once commented: He has a “lean and hungry look, he thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.”) attacked him, stabbing him at least 20 times. With his dying breath, Caesar uttered, “Et tu Brute,” meaning “And you, Brutus.” Some historians believe that Brutus was Caesar’s son.

Since the performance of the play, the ides of March have taken on ominous connotations. Some people fear that bad things will happen on that day, just as they fear the consequences of any “Friday the Thirteenth.”

Terrible things

Certainly, if we search through history, we can find some terrible things that have happened on March 15. For example, on March 15, 1917, Czar Nicholas II of Russia abdicated his throne to the Bolshevik rebels, ending a three-century royal dynasty and opening the door to eventual communist rule. Nicholas and his entire family were then executed by firing squad (although there has been some speculation that his daughter Anastasia may have escaped that fate and fled Russia).

In 1952, there was a record and deadly rainfall on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion. Over a 24-hour period, more than 73 inches of rain was recorded. No incidence of rain has approached that record over the past 70 years.

The “Ed Sullivan Show” was cancelled by CBS on March 15, 1971, after 23 years of bringing a variety of entertainment into American homes, including the first televised appearance of Elvis Presley (shot only from above the waist because “Elvis the Pelvis” was considered to be too “sexy” for that era).

NASA reported on March 15, 1988, that the ozone layer that protects the earth from harmful solar radiation was depleting three times faster than was previously expected. That was one problem that we eliminated by banning the use of chlorofluorocarbons.

SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was identified by the World Health Organization as a potential global pandemic on March 15, 2003. It had already affected people in China (surprise!), Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Canada,

Wonderful things

If we set superstition aside and do a different review of history, we can also find good things that have occurred on the ides of March. For example, in 1493, March 15 was the day that Columbus returned to Spain after his first trip to America. However, in keeping with our current notion of political correctness, a significant proportion of Americans may not view this “victory” as a “good thing.”

Maine became the 23rd state on March 15, 1820. This may not seem to be such a wonderful thing in 2021, but the admission of Maine put an end to a two-year battle within the U.S. Senate. Two years earlier, Missouri applied for statehood, and it was denied. Here’s why: At the time, there were eleven slave states (that is, states that allowed slavery) and eleven free states (states that did not allow slavery). Because each state gets two senators, the Senate was balanced with 22 members from slave states and 22 members from free states. Granting statehood to Missouri would give a two-vote advantage in favor of slavery, which was strongly opposed by senators from the northern states. However, Maine did not allow slavery, so when it applied for statehood, Missouri was also admitted, giving pro-slavery states 24 senators and bringing the Senate back into balance by increasing the number of senators from anti-slavery states to 24, as well.

While responding to a civil-rights crisis in Selma, Alabama, on March 15, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson told the U.S. Congress that “We shall overcome,” advocating the Voting Rights Act. This was part of the more inclusive Civil Rights Act, which went into effect later that year.

On March 15, 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected President of the Soviet Union. Among his first acts were the introduction of “glasnost,” or a new openness and candor about the inner workings of government and “perestroika,” a restructuring of the Soviet economy in the direction of a free-market model. He also assisted with the reunification of Germany, and many of his policies lead either directly or indirectly to the demise of the Soviet Union.

The Ides of March, 2021

Given this thumbnail review of history, we can conclude that there is nothing inherently good or bad about March 15. We should treat Monday as just another day on our 2021 calendar. The sooner we rid ourselves of silly superstitions, the better off we’ll be. As I searched the Internet for significant things that happened on the Ides of March, I found that it was just an average day. Enjoy it.

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.