It's about that time of year when people start wondering things like "hey, why isn't DECEMber the tenth month of the year?"

So it's time for my little lecture on Romans, calendars, and our friend Gaius Julius Caesar.

I'll be posting it as a tootchain replying to this one, but if you're impatient, here's the whole thing:

So: “Why isn’t the new year on winter solstice?”

The answer, honestly, is that the Romans had no fucking idea how to run a calendar.

Like, seriously, people notice "OCTOber" and "DECEMber" and say, "hey, those mean 'eight' and 'ten', but they're the 10th and 12th months, what's up with that?".

If you've got a little more history, you'll know that July and August are named after Julius and Augustus Caesar, and think, "oh, they added those two months and bumped the rest of the months back."

Nope. The Romans were way, way worse at calendars than that.

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July and August were actually originally Quintilis and Sextilis - the fifth month and the sixth month, because the year traditionally started in March. So they had Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December.

Martius was named for Mars; Junius was named for Juno. We have no idea what Aprilis and Maius were named after. (No, really. We have some clues but beyond that it's just guesswork.) Then they got lazy and just numbered the months.

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"But wait," you ask, "what about January and February?" Hold onto your butts, because calling the months by their numbers? Not even close to the laziest the Roman calendar got.

Between the end of December and the beginning of Martius were 50-odd intercalary days. They didn't have months associated with them. They were just sort of there.

I swear I am not making this up.

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In addition, each month had either 30 or 31 days. I was going to say "alternated between" but I looked it up and nope, the Romans decided that was too easy, so it actually went:

Martius 31
Aprilis 30
Maius 31
Junius 30
Quintilis 31
Sextilis 30
September 30
October 31
November 30
December 30
intercalary 51

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Okay. This is where we are at the beginning of the Roman Republic.

Look at that. Remember it. You will look back on this and say "actually, that makes sense" after what comes next.

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At the beginning of the Roman Republic, the Senate decided to fix the calendar. This was for two reasons:

1) The Romans thought the Greeks kicked ass, and wanted to emulate their calendar.

2) Count those days. You will notice that they add up to 355, which means that each year is actually ten (and change) days shorter than an actual solar year - which meant that by the time of the Republic, March was somewhere in the autumn.

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So the Senate decided to do some reforming. They added two brand-new months to the calendar, Januarius and Februarius. Januarius was named after Janus, because his holiday fell about a week into the new month. (Janus was the god of doorways. We'll come back to him.) February was named after the Februa, a feast that fell in the middle of the new month and that had, in fact, long since been replaced by Lupercalia, an identical feast on the same date with a different name For Reasons.

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The Senate also added an intercalary month, Mercedonius, the Month of Wages.

Yes, an intercalary month. I want to make sure that's clear.

They also changed the lengths of the months to better fit the Greek system. The Greeks had largely lunar months, so they alternated between 29-day and 30-day months. Once again, the Romans said, "you know, we like this, but it's too easy".

Look, the next part is going to go into "what the hell was wrong with them?" territory, just warning you.

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This is the calendar the Roman Senate ended up with:

Januarius 29
Februarius 23
Mercedonius 23
Martius 31
Aprilis 29
Maius 31
Junius 29
Quintilis 31
Sextilis 29
September 29
October 31
November 29
December 29

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See what I meant about Mercedonius being an intercalary month? It's literally in the middle of February. Like, they got 3/4 of the way through February, got bored, and decided to do something else for a month and come back later.

Also, the Romans had caught on to leap years by this point, so every fourth year, Februarius had an extra day on the end, bringing its total to 29.

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I want to be clear, though, that while they'd caught on to leap days, they still had not caught on to the length of the damn year. Count those days again: it's 378. By the time of poor Gaius Julius Caesar in 46 BC, the calendar was so fucked up that he needed three intercalary months to right it again.

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Bonus: as @troubleMoney mentioned in the original thread, the priesthood - who until not long before Julius controlled the release of the calendar, meaning that people paid attention to them to know when the months started - would extend or contract years to keep politicians (who were on yearly terms) they liked in power or force politicians they didn't like out early.

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The Julian reform (which was ordered by our friend G.Jiddy but not, as far as we know, actually created by him) did three important things.

First, it added those three intercalary months to put the year back where it was supposed to be (March had slid around to the dead of winter).

Second, it got rid of Mercedonius, putting the year back at 355 days.

Third, it scattered ten new days throughout the year, which gave us the calendar we know today.

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Julius's reforms still weren't quite right - the length of a year is just a fraction shorter than 365.25 days, which forced the Gregorian reform of 1582 (and hey, I remembered that year right on the first try). But it was good enough for government work, as they say.

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(Incidentally, the Senate voted after Gaius Julius Caesar's death to rename Quintilis after him because he was born then, and likewise Sextilis after Augustus Caesar. The Caesars themselves had little to do with it. I mean, obviously G.Jiddy couldn't possibly have; he was dead at the time.)

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So remember how we were talking about why the year doesn't start on the winter solstice?

A couple reasons. First, it never did (in the Roman tradition, anyway). It originally started in March, which contained the spring equinox but didn't start on it.

The start of the year was moved back to January for political reasons. Remember Janus, the god of doorways? It was considered auspicious for consuls to change out near his festival.

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His festival was nearest the kalends of January. So consuls wanted to start on the kalends of Januarius so they could start their term with an offering to the god of doorways, who would then grant an auspicious transition between consuls.

So why didn't the kalends of Januarius get moved back to the winter solstice? Because of Yule.

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Not because the Romans celebrated Yule - it was a pagan holiday. (I use "pagan" here as the Romans would have; "paganus" meant someone who lived outside the city and practiced a non-Roman religion.)

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia. Saturnalia was originally on the 18th of December (or, as the Romans would have measured it, the 13th/12th/14th day before the kalends of Januarius), but it expanded, becoming a week-long event.

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This was partly because, well, people liked a party at the end of the calendar year, and partly because it was, consciously or not, taking over Yule.

Moving the kalends of Januarius back to the winter solstice would have necessarily moved Saturnalia away from it - and the people who'd been celebrating Yule and were now celebrating Saturnalia didn't want that. So Saturnalia stayed where it was, Januarius stayed where it was, and that's why the new year doesn't start on the winter solstice.

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@noelle Aaaaaah, the Romans. The first civilization to got the leap year before getting the year itself.


This got me in the original thread and it got me again this time. 😂

@noelle I was impatient and read the whole thing. I knew the roman calendar was bad but I didn't realize it was THAT bad before the Julian reforms.

I'm gonna defend intercalary days though as kind of neat. But please not that many of them and definitely not in the middle of the month. And February 29th is probably the worst (pseudo) intercalary day ever conceived.

Thank you for posting!

@noelle Plus I thought there weren't originally twelve months, right? Did December used to be the 10th month?

@micrackbiron The rest of the thread answers your question. :)

@noelle Thanks for this! The Roman calendar was indeed pretty strange, and is especially different from ours since it's based on lunar months like the Greek one. The Greek word μείς (meís) means both "month" and "(crescent) moon," actually.

Ovid's didactic epic poem Fasti is a tongue-in-cheek, fun look at the Roman calendar and its holidays, too.


Our friend Caesar, poor Caesar, "G. Jiddy".

You know that he was responsible for a genocide, right?

@feli I am trying my level best to not be as obnoxious to you as you have just been to me, so I will simply say that yes, given my formal degree is in Classical Studies, I am fairly well aware of Gaius Julius Caesar's body, such as it is, of work.

@noelle I think it is inappropriate how lightheartedly you talk about someone with as much blood on his hands as G.I. Caesar, especially if you know what he did.

@noelle i knew the outline of this mess, but thank you for sharing the details!

thanks for sharing. That's both interesting and completely bonkers ;)

@noelle Thanks! I thought I'd never find this amazing thread again, but now I can *bookmark* it! \o/

@noelle i recently had to research this in order to figure out how the fuck the Hylians would adapt the Roman calendar to the names of their saints and deities and i thought of you


is about a week before the equinox of spring, the ides of march, probably you all know that, and im not even sure im right, roman calendars were revised so many times that depends when ...

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