Notes on the Roman Calendar-Part I: Years and Months

In my novel, Casting Lots, although the earliest drafts used the “proper Roman calendar dating” for the journal entries of Lucinius, the Greek slave, in the final version, I opted for the modern calendar, sacrificing authenticity for readability.

There are a number of issues with the Roman calendar which make it almost incomprehensible to the modern reader. This article will deal with the issues that would render the Roman calendar unintelligible to a modern reader.

  1. Dating By Years

The first problem we encounter is that the Romans dated their years from the traditional founding date of Rome which is traditionally 21 April 753 BC.  Thus, the Roman year one by this dating system would be 1 Anno Urbis Conditae (AUC), the term Anno Urbis Conditae coming from the Latin phrase “ab urbe condita”  meaning “from the founding of the City”. Therefore, if I were to write the year 750 AUC, the reader would have to compute when that was and would lose the flow of the story.  By the way, 750 AUC is 4BC, the year when it is likely that Jesus was born.

Unfortunately, this is not the only way by which Romans denoted the year.  A further method was to date events by the sequence of consuls.  Given how many Romans had the same name or very similar names, this is almost a thankless task.  Another method was dating events by years of eclipses.

The determination off the founding date was calculated by Marcus Terentius Varro, who lived from 116 BC  to 27 BC.  This prolific writer wrote some 620 works, of which only two exist in major fragments.  Varro tried to write a year-by-year timeline of Roman history.  To do so, he had to determine the dating of various events.  It has been demonstrated to be somewhat erroneous, but has become the widely accepted standard chronology, in large part because it was inscribed on the Arch of Augustus, which no longer stands.  Fragments of this chronology have survived under the name of Fasti Capitolini.

Varro is lucky to have survived to write his chronology, because he sided with Pompey before the battle of Pharsalus.  Gaius Julius Caesar pardoned him, only to have Varro rejoin Pompey and fight against Caesar at Pharsalus.  Caesar, who should be famous for his clemency, again pardoned Varro after the battle of  Pharsalus.   Caesar thought so much of Varro that he named Varro as the head of the public library which Caesar endowed in Rome.  After the assassination of Caesar,  Varro fell out of favor with Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius).  Fortunately for Varro,  he found favor with Octavian, who after the death of Mark Antony, allowed him to study and write.

II. The Months

The Roman calendar (pre-Julian) was supposedly instituted by Romulus.  This calendar had ten months:

  1. Martius – 31 Days
  2. Aprilis – 30 Days
  3. Maius – 31 Days
  4. Iunius – 30 Days
  5. Quintilis – 31 Days
  6. Sextilis – 30 Days
  7. September – 30 Days
  8. October – 31 Days
  9. November – 30 Days
  10. December – 30 Days

This calendar had only 304 days and began with the month Martius (March) and the spring season.  It ended with December thereby omitting the winte season and thus was 61 days short of our current calendar.

Did the Romans merely ignore those 61 days?

The second king of Rome, who reigned after the death of Romulus, was Numa Pompilius. Interestingly enough, he was supposedly born on the date of the founding of Rome. He was of Sabine descent.

According to tradition, among other things, he introduced the months of January (Ianuarius) and February (Februarius), which lengthened the year to 354, which while better, was still out of synchronicity with the seasons.

Of great interest is the tradition that King Numa Pompilius created the office of the pontifex maximus, to whom Numa bestowed all the sacred ceremonies, his books and seals, as well as the authority over the calendar:

…quibus hostiis, quibus diebus, ad quae templa sacra fierent atque unde in eos sumptus pecunia erogaretur.

…[showing] with what victims, upon what days, and at what temples the sacred rites were to be performed, and from what funds the money was to be taken to defray the expenses.

We will continue with our discussion of the months of the Roman calendar in the next part of this article.

New Year’s Roman Style

I wish you a very Happy New Year!

Better yet, on this Iani Kalendai, I present to you, my readers, a gift of dates and honey and I pray to the god Janus for a prosperous New Year!

Which, of course, brings us to the question, how did the Romans celebrate the New Year?

Their New Year, like ours, was celebrated on January 1st, which they called the Kalends of January or Iani Kalendai.  Actually, originally the Roman new year was in the spring, but as the Roman calendar got out of synchronicity with the  seasons, the New Year got associated with  the Kalends of January.  January was the month named for the two-faced god Janus and on January first, he was lord for a day.  Janus is the god of beginnings and endings and his name means “gate” or “door”.  In times of war, the gates of his temple were kept open and in peacetime they were barred.

Here are ten things the ancient Romans did on the first of January to celebrate the New Year:

1. Think good thoughts all day long
2. Greet each other cheerfully, avoiding gossip or negative speech
3. Sprinkle saffron on the hearth, as incense
4. Sacrifice to Janus before any other god in household shrine
5. Join or watch a procession to the Capitoline hill
6. Watch a priest sacrifice a heifer

7. Swear in the officials elected to serve in that year
8. Do a bit of business (it was unlucky not to work on this day and if one did not work, it was a bad omen for the entire new year and the person so not working might be consumed by idleness)
9. Give gifts of honey, dates, or coins to friends, family, patrons, and clients
10. Pray to the god Janus for peace

Ovid described the celebrations of the New Year in his work entitled Fasti.  The word Fasti means ‘list’ in Latin, but Ovid meant it in this context to be a list or schedule of public holidays.  In Fasti, he invoked “Two-headed Janus, the only one of the gods who can see your own back…”  Ponder that for a moment!

Ovid asks the god why he has two heads, to which the god replies “I sit at Heaven’s Gate and supervise the comings and goings of everybody including Jupiter himself. I need two faces or I’d get my neck in a twist.”  Taking the carrot and stick approach, the god first threatens that, because he is the gatekeeper, he might not open the door to the gods preventing one’s petition to the gods from reaching the gods; and then Janus dangles the carrot by  imploring the good Roman only to say  good things at the beginning of the year, because on the first day of the year, the ears of the gods are open and a petitioner’s prayer would carry more weight.

Ovid then has Janus explain that the new year begins with the death of the old sun and the birth of the new sun, that is the lengthening of the days during winter after the winter solstice. 

Roman honey – a good omen

While a gift of honey or dates is good, Janus warns the good Roman to know the era in which he lives and to recognize that, while honey and dates are sweet, money is all the more sweeter.

A Coin showing the god JanusHITH-NEW-YEARS-ROME1.

Janus was seen as symbolically reflecting upon the old, while looking ahead to the new.

Romans would celebrate January 1 by giving offerings to Janus in the hope of gaining good fortune for the New Year. This day was seen as setting the stage for the next twelve months, and it was common for friends and neighbors to make a positive start to the year by exchanging well wishes and gifts of figs and honey with one another.

The Romans would create stamps which would make impressions on loaves of bread.  For example, the one below.

Image source:

The stamp’s inscription, enclosed in a tabula ansata (the iconic ‘winged tablet’ of the Romans), reads as follows :

Accipio | annu(m) | novu(m) | felice(m).

I receive a happy new year.

Here is but one example for the same kind of inscription on a clay lamp:

Image source:$Campobasso-162.jpg.

It is inscribed as follows:

Annum | novum | faustum | felicem | mihi.

Happy, Auspicious New Year to me!

It should be noted in both of these cases that the wish for a happy New Year is not made to a friend, family member, or loved one, it is made to me!  So, in the end should we be like the Romans and wish ourselves a happy new year?  Yes, but I think the god Janus might prefer that we do not think only of ourselves but also of others too.  For otherwise, there would be no reason for the god to have two heads!