Like most of you, no doubt, I grew up assuming that the calendar we lived by was universal and had always been the same. If questioned about its origin, I might have speculated that it was ordained by God and enshrined in the Bible. So nowadays, if an occasion arises that illustrates how different calendars used to be, I want to know more.
A good example is the “Ides of March,” a day on the Roman calendar that corresponds to March 15. It was marked by several religious observances and became notorious as the date when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. The memorable expression “Beware the Ides of March,” comes from a line in Shakespeare’s play about Caesar that is spoken by a soothsayer to warn him of danger.
In contrast to ours the Roman calendar was quite complicated. In its oldest version, March was the first month of the year. The Romans did not number days of a month sequentially from the first through the last day. Instead, they counted back from three fixed points of the month: the Nones (5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st of the following month).
The Ides were supposed to be determined by the full moon, reflecting the lunar origin of the Roman calendar. On their earliest calendar, the Ides of March would have marked the first full moon of the new year. It’s not hard to see why our modern calendar differs from that one. I wouldn’t have a clue as to which day of the month it was.
For the Romans the Ides of each month was sacred to Jupiter, their supreme deity. On that day Jupiter’s high priest led the “Ides sheep” to an altar where it was sacrificed. In addition to the monthly sacrifice, the Ides of March was also the occasion of the Feast of Anna Perenna, a goddess of the year, whose festival originally concluded the ceremonies of the new year. The day was enthusiastically celebrated among the common people with picnics, drinking, and revelry. Maybe we should have kept that part.
There’s another observance on this occasion that I don’t care for. One source from late antiquity also places the Mamurlia on the Ides of March. This observance, which has aspects of a scapegoat ritual, involved beating an old man dressed in animal skins and driving him from the city. The ritual seems to have symbolized getting rid of the old year, but it sounds like a case of age discrimination to me.
In conclusion, let’s look at a less complicated holiday that also occurred last week. March 17, the traditional death date of Saint Patrick, commemorates the foremost patron saint of Ireland. It was made an official Christian feast day in the early 17th century, and celebrations generally involve public parades and festivals, as well as the wearing of green attire or shamrocks (clover). It’s a public holiday not only in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but also the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador. Since it is also widely celebrated by the Irish diaspora around the world, Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated in more countries than any other national festival. Now that’s one I heartily approve of.
Jerry Lincecum, a retired Austin College professor, now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any topic: firstname.lastname@example.org