Tomorrow, March 15, is the Ides of March. It is most famous for being the day on which Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44BCE. “Beware the Ides of March,” the seer said to Caesar on his way to the Theater of Pompey where he would be killed. Or at least that’s how Shakespeare portrayed it.
I’m more interested in the ancient pagan rituals associated with the Ides of March. Those practices existed before Caesar – long before him in some cases. To truly understand them, you have to go all the way back to about 750BCE when the circle of the year was marked by a lunar calendar in the newly founded city of Rome.
Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome and its first king, is credited with developing that calendar. It consisted of 304 days divided into 10 lunar months. Each month had either 30 or 31 days. The first month of the year was Martius, presumably named in honor of Mars, the god of war. Now known as March, Martius had 31 days and was the first month of the year because it contained the spring equinox. You might be thinking that 304 days is well short of a full calendar. Back then, those 51 missing days fell during the winter, after December and before March, and were not on the calendar at all. This is apparently one way to avoid the season altogether.
Each of the 10 lunar months contained three important days – the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides. The Kalends was the first day of the month. It occurred when the lunar crescent was first observed in the west after sunset. To keep everyone on track, the Kalends was determined by priests, and the day was announced to the people. The Nones was the day of the half-moon, and the Ides was the day of the full moon. All of this meant a couple of things. First, at one point in time, the Kalends of March was actually New Year’s Day. Second, the Ides of March was always a full moon.
After Romulus disappeared, Numa Pompilius became king in about 715BCE. Within a couple of years, he had offered his own reforms to the Roman calendar. For a variety of possible reasons, Romans considered odd numbers to be lucky, so Numa assigned an odd number of days to each month. All the months containing 31 days remained unchanged. All the months that had 30 days were reduced to 29 days. Now every month was lucky, but Numa had created 6 additional days (in addition to the already-existing 51) that were not part of the calendar. To rectify this growing problem, Numa Pomilius took those 57 days and created two new months – January and February. January was given 29 days, and February was given the unlucky, even number of 28 days. February became the month of purification and the time when a “leap month” was inserted, as needed, to keep the lunar calendar roughly aligned with the solar year. The Kalends of January now became New Year’s Day, but the Ides of each month still fell, more or less, on the full moon.
Two deities were associated with these full moons. Jupiter was honored at each Ides. Anna Perenna was celebrated specifically on the Ides of March.
Jupiter was the god of the sky and thunder. He represented 1/3 of the divine triumvirate. Jupiter ruled the heavens; his brother, Neptune, ruled the seas; and his other brother, Pluto, ruled over the afterlife. When the Romans wanted rain, they solicited the help of Jupiter. When a military campaign was successful, thanks was given to Jupiter. When people sought answers regarding the intentions of the most powerful god in the universe, they looked for clues in Jupiter’s signs – the birds. He was the guardian of justice, protector of treaties, and caretaker of oaths. He was worshipped on the highest points in and around the city, and his temple was the most important one in ancient Rome.
Remaining on good terms with this powerful god was important to all Romans, and sacrificing an animal on the Ides of every month seemed a small price to pay. It was the Flamen Dialis, Jupiter’s high priest, who was charged with overseeing this important ritual. The duties of the Flamen Dialis were initially laid out by none other than Numa Pompilius. You see, Numa and Jupiter had a bit of a relationship. Before Numa became king, he requested that an augur determine the will of the gods on this political matter. Augurs studied the flight of birds, implying that they were accessing the wishes of Jupiter. The omens were favorable, and Numa became king with the clear consent of the thunder god. Legend has it that Numa also engaged in a tȇte-à-tȇte with Jupiter. Numa wanted protection from thunder and lightening; Jupiter wanted a blood sacrifice. Numa supposedly won the battle of wits by convincing Jupiter to accept a sacrifice of leeks and a fish instead.
While Jupiter was honored on the Ides of every month, the Ides of March marked a special feast day for Anna Perenna, a very ancient Roman deity. No one is exactly sure of her origins, but at least three legends speak of her.
In one tale, Anna is the sister of Dido from Virgil’s Aeneid. In that story, Anna is forced to flee her home of Carthage after it comes under attack by the Numidians. Anna ends up in Aeneas’ land. He is cordial, but his wife, Lavinia, is jealous. Anna eventually drowns while trying to flee Lavinia’s treachery. When Anna is finally found, she informs the people that she is now a nymph of the perennial stream in the river Numicus, rendering her name Anna Perenna. The people rejoiced in her discovery and made her the deity of renewal and survival into the next year. For this reason, her feast day fell on the full moon of the first month of the lunar New Year – the Ides of Martius/March.
In another tale, Anna is a goddess in the form of an old woman. Mars, the god of war, was in love with Minerva, daughter of Jupiter and goddess of wisdom and the arts. Unfortunately, Minerva was also a sworn virgin. Mars enlisted the help of Anna Perenna in securing Minerva’s love. Anna convinces Mars that Minerva has acquiesced, and the wedding is planned. When Mars finally removes the bridal veil, he realizes that he has been tricked into marrying old Anna herself. The story offers yet another take on why Anna Perenna’s feast day falls in Martuis/March. In this case, it is because of her relationship to Mars.
The third legend also depicts Anna as an old woman, but it is grounded in a real event. In 494BCE, the plebeians (commoners) in Rome attempted to secede by setting up camp on Mons Sacer, a hill that was outside of Rome at the time. It was an ancient sit-in that resulted in the working class gaining governmental representation in the form of elected tribunes. While the settlement was being reached, the demonstrators were fed by an old woman who brought cakes. The old woman, of course, was Anna Perenna. As a result, Anna was always popular with the common people and eventually became revered as a goddess. Some say that the commoners built a temple in her honor upon their return to Rome.
Many of Anna Perenna’s March 15th festival traditions involve merrymaking and ringing in the new year – or spring, as the case may be. Some have suggested that, long ago, Anna Perenna’s festival began by chasing away old man winter, represented by Marmurius Veturius, the mythical blacksmith. Role reversal and/or sexual freedom may also have been a part of the festivities à la Saturnalia. In more modern times, revelers set up tents or makeshift shelters the night before and enjoy an evening of singing, dancing, picnicking, and drinking. Supposedly, the number of cups of wine one drinks is indicative of how many years one will live a healthy a life, so celebrations often involve getting quite drunk. Various sources also mention that sacrifices are still made to Anna Perenna, although I have yet to figure out what they sacrifice. All in all, it sounds like a party holiday for those who still remember it.
Over time, as Roman calendars became less lunar and more solar, the Ides for any given month corresponded to a date rather than a moon phase. For the longer, 31-day months, the Ides fell on the 15th. For the shorter, 29-day months, the Ides fell on the 13th. The move to a solar calendar was completed by Julius Caesar who instituted his calendrical reforms shortly after becoming Emperor in 46BCE. His calendar contained 365 days divided into 12 months, with a leap day added to February every four years. It’s basically the calendar we still use today. And that’s why the anniversary of Caesar’s death is on March 15th and not on the full moon of March.
But every once in a while, we are privileged to hear the echoes of the ancient world. This year, March 1, the old Kalends of Martius, is, in fact, the new moon – which makes the Ides of March a full moon day. Feel free to remember the death of Julius Caesar. You can even give a nod to Shakespeare if you like. But it might be more fun to sacrifice a fish to Jupiter or tip your glass to Anna Perenna.