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The assassination of Julius Caesar on the 15th of March 44 BC was a turning point in Roman history. Since then, the Ides of March became notorious as being associated with death thanks to Shakespeare’s famous play “Julius Caesar”. However, long before the Ides of March became associated with Julius Caesar’s murder, it was a day of celebration for the ancient goddess Anna Perenna, a goddess beloved by the common people.
Who is Anna Perenna?
Anna Perenna’s two names both refer to the year: anna meaning ‘to live through a year’, while perenna means ‘last many years’ – the two words are still seen in the English words annual and perennial. As her concern seems to be cycles of renewal and connecting the past to the present, the festival of Anna Perenna was full of contradictions such as old and new as well as death and rebirth. The month of March itself was believed to be the first month of the year. It was a time when springtime was in full bloom and newness was all around. Therefore, the celebration would have marked the first full moon in the year in the old lunar Roman calendar.
Anna Perenna, a goddess of celebration
On the evening of the 15th of March, people would camp out at the first milestone on the Via Flaminia, Anna Perenna’s sacred grove of fruit trees by the banks of the Tiber. The people would picnic merrily into the night. They would feast, dance, sing and celebrate with wine, toasting to health and long life. As it was believed that one would live as many years as the cups of wine one could drink, it was of course traditional to get extremely drunk. Through her festival, Anna Perenna gave a sacred space for free and uninhibited speech.
Anna Perenna, a goddess of legends
In Fausti, Ovid reports a Roman legend that identifies Anna Perenna as the sister of Dido, the Carthaginian founder in Virgil’s Aeneid. To escape their brother Pygmalion after the death of Dido, Anna led a group of refugees to find refuge in the home of Battus, the king of Malta. After protecting them for three years, Battus counselled Anna to flee and find a new place of exile for her own safety and those of her people as her brother was seeking war against Malta to bring her back to Carthage. Once again forced to flee over the seas, Anna and her people were shipwrecked on the coasts of Latium where they were then saved and hosted in Aeneas’ settlement of Lavinium.
Anna Perenna, a non-violent deification
Anna Perenna brought cakes to the plebeians and kept them fed during their protest. This made her very popular among the common people who then considered her a goddess after her death. After old Anna had become a goddess, she impersonated Minerva to gain admission to the god Mars‘ bedchamber, leading to the coarse jokes and coarse songs used at Anna Perenna’s festivities. Mars and Anna Perenna were also associated as cult partners, as the festival of Anna Perenna falls in the month dedicated to Mars.
Beware the Ides of March?
Anna Perenna’s feast day was an occasion of great joy and celebration for the common people, and it wasn’t until centuries later that the Ides of March became associated with death. Instead, it was a day to honor a goddess who embodied renewal and connection to the past. So, rather than “Beware the Ides of March”, perhaps we should celebrate the day as the ancient Romans once did and raise a cup of wine to the goddess Anna Perenna and the cycles of renewal.