“If March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb.” The all familiar phrase is heard around town this time of year. There is truth and history to this phrase that is used by meteorologists to introduce the month that is often characterized by wild weather. Winter’s persistent cold and snow is dwindling, but the warm temperatures and sunshine of full-fledged spring are not quite in sync just yet.
Many scholars trace the phrase back to the early U.S. settlers. Without fancy radar equipment, these hunters and farmers relied on keen weather observations to forecast the weather. Often early March was marked by biting cold and winter storms. The month begins with a lion’s roar. But, by the end of the month, the weather can often be warm, spring-like and docile as a lamb.
As it turns out, the origins of this phrase relate more to astrology rather than meteorology. The lions and lambs of March come from the constellations, Leo the Lion and Aries the ram or lamb. Leo is more prominent in the night sky toward the start of March, while Aries is at the tail end of the month.
When I was a child, my father often greeted March with a doleful warning. Shortly after the month came in like a lion or a lamb, he began to say, as he left for work each morning, “Beware the Ides of March!” The repetition of the warning caused it to be remembered. It was his way of teaching what he considered to be an important history lesson.
The Ides of March is a day on the ancient Roman calendar that corresponds to March 15 which became notorious as the date on which Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Caesar was stabbed to death at a meeting of the senate. As many as 60 conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, were involved.
History records that long before the 15th day of March, Caesar was repeatedly accosted by a ragged, wretched-looking soothsayer (one who predicts the future) with shouts of “Beware the Ides of March!” Caesar paid no attention, but his wife, Calpurnia, was troubled by the repeated warnings. When the 15th finally arrived, she pleaded with her husband not to go to the Forum, but his fellow senators chided him, practically calling him a coward and laughing at him for allowing a mere woman to keep him from his civic duties.
On his way to the Forum, where he would be assassinated, Caesar passed the soothsayer and joked, “The Ides of March have come,” meaning to say that the prophecy had not been fulfilled, to which the seer replied “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.” And indeed, before the day had passed, Caesar lay dead in the Forum, stabbed to death by his fellow senators. The “cruelest cut of all” was that of his bosom friend, Brutus, to whom he spoke the famous words of heartbreaking recognition and astonishment, “Et tu, Brute?” (You too, Brutus?)
The death of Caesar made the Ides of March a turning point in Roman history. That is why my father repeated the phrase as the month rolled around each year. He wanted his children to understand the historical significance of the day, to be familiar with the characters surrounding it and to quote the words Caesar spoke to Brutus. He taught us well. Every year I recognize March 15 as not just another ordinary day, but the anniversary of an infamous event in history.