Happy New Ancient Year!

Happy new year!

Wait – isn’t it March 1st today? Surely the new year started two months ago?

Well yes, it did. But that was the start of the year according to our modern, Gregorian calendar. A long time in the past, things were different. The year started on March 1st.

The calendar we use today comes to us from the Romans. Various civilisations in different places have all had their own versions, and even for our linguistic forebears, the speakers of Old English, there may have been some struggle to reconcile  Hāligmōnað and Hærfestmōnað in our modern calendar.

So let’s have a look at the history of our calendar. Up to around 700 BC, the Romans used a calendar consisting of 10 months, followed by 51 days before the start of the new year. You might be wondering what on earth they needed those 51 days for. Was this a time of festival and celebration before one year and the next? No. It was, in fact, part of superstition about winter. The whole period covered the deep cold season, and these days were considered monthless, as though to allocate them would somehow render winter more powerful.

What happened? The king, Numa Pompilius, the second of the seven traditional kings of Rome, is said to have decided to break the winter period into two parts and create another two months, adding to them a few days taken from the other months for the sake of balance. He named them Ianuarius and Februarius and added them to the start of the year. This complicated matters, as the names of some of the later months were numbers related to their position in the calendar. The old calendar was like this: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. Quintilis means “fifth”, sextilis is “sixth”, and so on, but now those months were seventh and eighth.

This version of the calendar remained in place until the Julian reform – around 43 BC when Julius Caesar renamed the months Quintilis and Sextilis. He called Quintilis after himself – Julius, while Sextilis became Augustus, after his designated successor. This meant that the remaining four months of the year which were known by numbers were still not correctly numbered according to the order of months, but the names have stuck. Despite now being the ninth month, September comes from septem, meaning seven. October is eighth, November is ninth and December is tenth. This calendar is known as the Julian calendar, and remained in common use until 1582 when it was superseded by the Gregorian calendar, a subject worthy of a post all of its own.

So March, whose name comes from the ancient god of war, Mars, has lost its place of honour as the first month of the year. But happy new ancient calendar year nonetheless!


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