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The Ides of March

The Ides of March is many things to many people. For me, it’s a reminder that it is my best friend’s birthday (Happy Birthday!). For Caesar it was a more ominous date. To help us sort out this sort-of holiday we turn to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The editors have provided some historical tidbits about this date in their new online magazine (check out the whole magazine here).

In Plutarch’s account, Julius Caesar was warned to ‘beware the Ides of March’ by a soothsayer.

According to Nicolaus of Damascus, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia also predicted her husband’s death in a dream on the night on 14 March 44BC. On the following day Caesar was murdered at the Curia Pompei, Rome, by senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus.

They saw it coming …

Caesar’s murder is one of history’s best-known instances of premonition. To mark the Ides of March the dictionary’s editors had the foresight to offer several more examples.

  • Mother Shipton was a supposed Tudor prophetess whose reputation derived from The Prophesie of Mother Shipton in the Raigne of King Henry the Eighth and its claim that Cardinal Wolsey would see, but not reach, the city of York—an accurate prediction that apparently brought her national fame. Other supposed predictions include the Fire of London and, in Victorian elaborations, the coming of the railways and the end of the world (in 1881).
  • On 2 or 3 May 1812 the mining entrepreneur John Williams had a dream in which he saw a man shot in the lobby of the House of Commons, whom he was told was the prime minister Spencer Perceval. Williams intended to go to London to warn Perceval but was dissuaded by friends, should he be thought a fanatic.
    • On 11 May Perceval was shot and killed in the Commons’ lobby by John Bellingham—the only British prime minister to have been assassinated.
  • The astrologer John Harries had a premonition that he would die in an accident on 11 May 1839 and so remained in bed throughout the day.
    • During the night he was woken to find the house on fire. In his haste to dowse the flames he slipped from the ladder and was killed.
But did they listen?

The Oxford DNB also includes plenty of advice ignored, to good and bad effect:

  • No example is better known than Francis Drake‘s decision in July 1588 to disregard news of the Armada until he finished his game of bowls. Drake is supposed to have remarked that there was plenty of time to finish the game and then to finish the Spaniards. Whether the story is true is unknown. It first appeared in print in 1624 and it was not until the eighteenth century that Drake was named among the players.
  • As a young woman Dorothy Richards refused to listen to her family’s warnings about the dangers of mountaineering. She spent her last new year at the climbers’ hut at Glen Brittle, Skye, drinking whisky with a party of Scottish climbers … aged ninety-one.
  • For 30 years the journalist William Connor led a double life as ‘Cassandra’ the vitriolic Daily Mirror columnist, named after Priam’s daughter whose gift for premonition goes unheeded. Cassandra’s Mirror column became ‘the whipping post, stocks and ducking stool for jacks-in-office, muddling magistrates, indiscreet politicians and erring judges’ (The Times, 7 April 1967)
  • In 1965 the actor Eric Thompson was asked to narrate a French children’s television series, Le manège enchantée, for broadcast in Britain. Unable to read French, Thompson ignored the original scripts and recreated the programme based on his own interpretation of the pictures. The result was The Magic Roundabout, enjoyed by 8 million viewers of all ages.
And what is an Ide anyway?

In the ancient Roman calendar, the eighth day after the nones, i.e. the 15th of March, May, July, October, and the 13th of the other months. (OED)

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