Saturday, March 15, 2008

This Week in Reading - March 16 - 22

This week gives us some modern writers of note, John Updike, and Phillip Roth, as well as the first modern dramatist, Henrik Ibsen. But the Roman poet Ovid is worth remembering for his Metamorphosis, especially as it is related to both mythology and the history of Shakespeare, which ultimately gave rise to last week's question and which takes most of this space to answer.

This week's question: Have you filled out the survey about using the library, either in person or online, that is on the library home page? Please do.

Answer to last week's question: What are 'ides'? Ask a simple question; get a complicated answer: "Beware the Ides of March" is spoken by a soothsayer to the title character in Shakespeare's tragedy, Julius Caesar, in the second scene of the first act. It will be the day on which Caesar is assassinated by senators claiming that they do it to keep Rome a republic rather than the monarchy that Caesar's continued existence would make it. The 'ides of March' referred to March 15 specifically as a single day and it sounds to modern ears as if it should be several days, but the word is not plural.

In Latin it was 'idus' and the Elizabethans probably pronounced it with two syllables when the English spelling became "ides'. It was likely derived from the Latin word 'ides,' 'to divide,' and that is, in fact, how the month was divided in Latin parlance - from and after the fifteenth day, (in March, May, July, and October, while it was the thirteenth in the others.) There were also 'nones' in addition to ides. They were the day in each month which was nine (see the similarity?) days before the ides. (But unlike the way we count, the day you started from got counted in Rome, so the nones was usually the fifth or seventh day of the month for them, while we would think they'd be the fourth or sixth day.)

The ides was also, in the Roman calendar, the peak of the full moon, as that was easy enough for them to see by the size of the moon or lack of it. The 'calends' (hence the word 'calendar',) was the thirteenth or fifteenth day before the ides, or, as we know it, is the first day of a month. Also thirteen or fifteen days after the ides would be the darkest of the moon and then, they'd start over and count toward the 13th or 15th day of the next month. There were two calends in leap years, on February 24 and 25, to try to keep up with the cycles of the moon and sun.

Confused, yet? The Roman calendar really did things differently than you would expect a calendar to do. For one thing they didn't number the years like we do, they named each one instead. Imagine remembering the names of all the years you've been alive -- you were born in the year of "what's his name" and started your education in "the year of the emperor's wife" -- and imagine your parents telling you stories of what happened back then in the year of old so and so. (But this is probably why legal and religious forms still say, by tradition, ".. in the year of our ..")

Lastly, they had only ten months with eight days in each week; until two months were added to honor Julius Caesar (July) and Emperor Augustus (August). But they put the two new months in the middle instead of adding them to the end. This is why our tenth month is called October (octo = eighth), our eleventh is November (nove = ninth) and our twelfth is December (deca = tenth.) And, on top of that, there were twelve hours in each day and in each night so the duration of each hour varied throughout the year according to how long one-twelfth of a day or night would be in that segment of a year. Without a watch to wear you looked at the sky and moon, but it changed everyday.

Now stop complaining about having to change your clocks only twice a year. We've got it easy!

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