Roman omen: An Irishman’s Diary about the Ides of March

‘The lingering infamy of March 15th 44 BC may have been a factor in the UK amending its schedule for triggering article 50, which was originally planned for today’

‘This has earned him the gratitude of political headline writers, renewed each time a two-faced politician with a B-name – this time last year it was “Et tu, Boris?” – makes the news.’ Photograph:  Will Oliver/EPA

‘This has earned him the gratitude of political headline writers, renewed each time a two-faced politician with a B-name – this time last year it was “Et tu, Boris?” – makes the news.’ Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

 

I read in another newspaper a while ago that a comment by Boris Johnson did not “auger” well for negotiations on Brexit. Of course what the writer meant there was “augur”, auger-with-an-e being a carpenter’s tool, for making holes in wood, rather than a verb meaning to forebode.

It’s a common mistake, even though – despite appearances – the words are unrelated. I suppose, in certain circumstances, careless use of an auger might also augur badly for something: the buoyancy of a small boat, say. But such overlaps are rare.

Frequent misspelling apart, auguring remains an important feature of modern political life, just as it was in Rome 2,061 years ago on this date. As recently as last week, the lingering infamy of March 15th 44 BC may have been a factor in the UK amending its schedule for triggering article 50, which was originally planned for today.

According to the Daily Telegraph, at least one government minister was appalled by the symbolism of Brexit beginning “on the Ides of March”. So instead, now, it will happen later in the month.

The ever-rational Dutch, by contrast, were sufficiently relaxed about the date to have a general election today. Let’s hope they don’t live to regret it.

Rome’s original augur were religious officials who studied the behaviour of birds and other animals, seeking signs (or “auspices”) of how the gods felt about any course of action. They were arguably the forerunners of today’s political consultants, albeit that the latter now have the benefit of opinion polls, which are at least presumed to be more scientific.

Wing of augury

In 44BC, concerns about Julius Caesar’s fate began a month before his assassination, when the haruspices – a specialist wing of augury, whose members interpreted the entrails of sacrificed animals – noticed some disturbing trends.

First, a bull Caesar had sacrificed was found to have no heart. Even by the standards of the time, this must have been well outside the plus-or-minus three per cent margin for error. But in case it was an “outlier”, they carried out another sacrifice, and the second animal was found to have a defective liver.

Caesar’s life was therefore deemed to be in danger for the following 30 days, although he himself was not too worried. In any case, he was almost in the clear by the fatal morning. Then, Shakespeare has him mocking a soothsayer, viz: Caesar – “The Ides of March are come.” Soothsayer - “Ay, Caesar, but not gone”.

Twenty-three stab wounds later, the victim was uttering another now-famous phrase “Et tu, Brute?” And ever since, this has earned him the gratitude of political headline writers, renewed each time a two-faced politician with a B-name – this time last year it was “Et tu, Boris?” – makes the news.

A little disappointingly, it’s unlikely such a line was uttered in real life – that was Shakespeare again. Historians suggest Caesar said nothing intelligible, and was more preoccupied at the end adjusting his toga.

The Romans’ calendar is still very much with us, in modified form, but the Ides of March is now the only vestige of a strange and uncharacteristically inefficient system by which they used to keep track of days.

For reasons best known to themselves, they identified three key dates in every month: the first (kalends, from which we get calendar), the one in the middle (ides), and a day in between those two (nones). Then they counted back and forth from each to get the date.

So every month had an ides, more usually on the 13th than the 15th. But one never hears now of the Ides of January, for example: even though, for added portent, that was a Friday 13th this year.

Auspicious

If augur is constantly confused with the unrelated auger, meanwhile, it’s odd how other, closely linked Roman words have drifted apart. Consider the adjective “auspicious”, which still means much the same as it once did, minus the avian input (although the most recent mention in the Irish Times archive had even that, thanks to the Chinese Year of the Rooster).

Contrast this with “auspices”, the root noun. Now invariably used in the phrase “under the auspices of”, it has become a word beloved of bureaucrats and administrators. Whatever about the thing under the auspices, the auspices themselves are always located in the headquarters of an organisation: the HSE, for example, or the Department of Finance. And the word somehow implies sensible management, not (we hope) people who base their decisions on the behaviour of birds.