The End of the Beginning

03 15 eid marToday it is the Ides of March. In 44 BC, a soothsayer warned Julius Caesar that harm would come to him before the Ides of March. When March 15th came, everything seemed fine and passing by the soothsayer he remarked “The Ides of March are come”. “Aye Caesar,” replied the soothsayer, “but not gone.” As you probably know, he was the victim of an assassination plot. He was attacked by as many as 60 people, was stabbed 23 times and died. It was one of the events that led the transition from Rome as a republic into Rome, the empire.

So today, I really wanted to have a look at the Ides of March, what is so significant about it and what it has to do with ends and beginnings. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the early Romans did not have their New Year celebrations in January, like we do. Their New Year was in March. Their year was divided up mainly into months of either 29 or 31 days as they considered even numbers unlucky. Only February had an even number of days, but as they believed that the final month of their year was beset by demons anyway, they perhaps thought the even number couldn’t make things much worse.

The Romans had an odd way of numbering their days. You’d think counting the days sequentially from the beginning of the month to the end would just be the obvious thing to do, but the Romans counted backwards from fixed points in the month. The first fixed point, the first day of the month was the Kalends, the next was the Nones at either the 5th or the 7th and the dates in between were numbered according to how many days it was before Nones. The second point was the Ides, the central point of the month at either the 13th or the 15th. So the days between Nones and Ides were numbered according to how many days it was until the Ides. All the days after that were a countdown to the next Kalends. It’s very confusing, but I suppose numbering the days that way means you’re always looking forward to something.

So at the beginning of March, the Romans were celebrating their New Year. The celebrations went on until the Ides of March and the feast of a goddess called Anna Perenna. Her name is related to our words ‘annual’ and ‘perennial’, so it represents both a thing that lasts a year and a thing that lasts for many years. We don’t know much about Anna Perenna, but the name probably says it all. A new year, lasts for twelve months, but there is always another one after that. Anna Perenna seems to have been presented sometimes as young and sometimes as very old. In one story, she is the sister of Dido. Aeneas invites her to stay with him much to the dismay of his wife Lavinia. Anna is warned of her jealousy, by her dead sister, in a dream. She runs away and either falls or deliberately jumps into the River Numicius and is drowned. But then she becomes a water nymph and is given the name Perenna.

In another story, she is a very old woman. The god Mars, who is in love with the goddess Minerva, enlists the help of Anna Perenna to persuade Minerva to marry him. Anna pretends to go along with this but, even up to the point when Mars thinks he has married Minerva, in fact, it has been Anna in disguise all along. When he lifts up her veil on their wedding night, he sees the old lady and she just laughs in his face. It might sound like a dangerous thing to do, upsetting the God of War, but that’s the thing with old ladies, they do what they want and they don’t care.

In the third story we have about Anna Perenna, she is again an old lady, but this time human and living in the town of Bollivae. It is set in the year 494 BC. The plebeians, the common people of Rome, were tired of paying taxes, of being drafted into the army and of having no say in government. So they just left the city and headed for the hills. There, they found themselves with no means of sustenance. Anna Perenna baked them cakes and kept them fed while they negotiated with the Senate back in Rome for a better deal. For this reason she became a bit of a hero for the ordinary and downtrodden people of Rome and her feast day was pretty popular.

So, in Anna Perenna, we seem to have a figure that provides both water and food for the Roman people so she’s probably some sort of nature goddess. But, to get back to 44 BC, On her feast day, the Ides of March, most of the common people of Rome would have left the city for a celebration beside the banks of the Tiber. They would have been lying about on the grass. They might have put a tent up, they might have built themselves a little hut out of branches and leaves. Also, they would all have been very drunk. In a toast to Anna Perenna they would drink one cup of wine for every year they hoped to live. In honour of the trick she played on Mars, they would also sing bawdy songs. I found lots of references to this but, disappointingly, could not find a single example. So, on that day, with the city relatively deserted, it would have been much easier for the conspirators to carry out their plan unopposed. Although I can’t approve of anyone’s life ending so violently, looking at the bigger picture, perhaps a time of New Year celebrations is the right time to end something and to begin something new. It worked out pretty well for the Romans in the end.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

I’m thinking about ends and beginnings today because I started writing this blog a year ago, over on tumblr. So  after 366 daily posts, my work there is done. Here on WordPress, I still have lots to tell you, so I’ll be back tomorrow to tell you all about another Roman festival Bacchanalia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s