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.

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