The Roman Calendar: Part III

As noted before, the Romans did not have days of the week. Yet every day of the month was denoted by a complex system, which revealed a multiplicity of aspects of each day.

As also mentioned before, each day of the Roman calendar was marked with a letter that designated both its religious and legal character. These were:

  1. F (fastus), days when it was legal to initiate action in the courts of civil law (dies fasti);
  2. C (comitialis), a day on which the Roman people could hold assemblies (dies comitalis);
  3. N (nefastus), when these political activities and the administration of justice were prohibited (dies nefasti);
  4. But in addition to these denotations, there were several others:
  5. NP of elusive meaning, but marking feriae, public holidays (sometimes thought to mean nefastus priore, “unlawful before noon”, along with FP, fastus priore, “lawful before noon”);
  6. QRCF (perhaps for quando rex comitiavit fas[, a day when it was religiously permissible for the rex (probably the priest known as the rex sacrorum) to call for an assembly;
  7. EN (endotercissus, an archaic form of intercissus, “cut in half”), for days that were nefasti in the morning, when sacrifices were being prepared, as well as in the evening, while sacrifices were being offered, but were fasti in the middle of the day.

This again demonstrates how extremely complex the Roman calendar would have been for a modern person to read and comprehend.

Additional thoughts on the calendar, the months, the order of the months, and the number of days in a year are as follows:

The Roman king Numa Pompilius (c. 715-673 BC, although his historicity is disputed) allegedly introduced February and January (in that order) between December and March, increasing the length of the year to 354 or 355 days. In 450 BC, February was moved to its current position between January and March.

Plutarch, writing in The Life of Numa Pompilius, explains how the calendar had fallen into complete disarray, to be reformed by Pompilius. Plutarch wrote at length about the calendar:

“(Pompilius) attempted, also, the formation of a calendar, not with absolute exactness, yet not without some scientific knowledge. During the reign of Romulus, they had let their months run on without any certain or equal term; some of them contained twenty days, others thirty-five, others more; they had no sort of knowledge of the inequality in the motions of the sun and moon; they only kept to the one rule that the whole course of the year contained three hundred and sixty days. Numa, calculating the difference between the lunar and the solar year at eleven days, for that the moon completed her anniversary course in three hundred and fifty-four days, and the sun in three hundred and sixty-five, to remedy this incongruity doubled the eleven days, and every other year added an intercalary month, to follow February, consisting of twenty-two days, and called by the Romans the month Mercedinus. This amendment, however, itself, in course of time, came to need other amendments. He also altered the order of the months; for March, which was reckoned the first he put into the third place; and January, which was the eleventh, he made the first; and February, which was the twelfth and last, the second. Many will have it, that it was Numa, also, who added the two months of January and February…”

As to the naming of the months, Plutarch continued:

“That the Romans, at first, comprehended the whole year within ten, and not twelve months, plainly appears by the name of the last, December, meaning the tenth month; and that March was the first is likewise evident, for the fifth month after it was called Quintilis, and the sixth Sextilis, and so the rest; whereas, if January and February had, in this account, preceded March, Quintilis would have been fifth in name and seventh in reckoning. It was also natural that March, dedicated to Mars, should be Romulus’s first and April, named from Venus, or Aphrodite, his second month; in it they sacrifice to Venus, and the women bathe on the calends, or first day of it, with myrtle garlands on their heads. But others, because of its being p and not ph, will not allow of the derivation of this word from Aphrodite, but say it is called April from aperio, Latin for to open, because that this month is high spring, and opens and discloses the buds and flowers. The next is called May, from Maia, the mother of Mercury, to whom it is sacred; then June follows, so called from Juno; some, however, derive them from the two ages, old and young, majores, being their name for older, and juniores for younger men. To the other months they gave denominations according to their order; so the fifth was called Quintilis, Sextilis the sixth, and the rest, September, October, November, and December. Afterwards Quintilis received the name of Julius, from Caesar, who defeated Pompey; as also Sextilis that of Augustus, from the second Caesar, who had that title. Domitian, also, in imitation, gave the two other following months his own names, of Germanicus and Domitianus; but, on his being slain, they recovered their ancient denominations of September and October. The two last are the only ones that have kept their names throughout without any alteration. Of the months which were added or transposed in their order by Numa, February comes from februa; and is as much a Purification month; in it they make offerings to the dead, and celebrate the Lupercalia, which, in most points, resembles a purification. January was also called from janus, and precedence given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred before those of war.”

The Romans tried a system of eight years with each year being of a different length in order to try to reconcile the length of a year to the revolution of the earth around the sun.

 The first year had 255 days; the second 377; the third like the first 355; the fourth 378 (containing 13 months!); the fifth 355; the sixth 377 (again containing 13 months!); the seventh 355 days; and the 8th 378 (yet once again containing 13 months!).

This system thus had 2930 days in 8 years or an average of 366.25 days per year.  This was still too many days.  The remedy was to drop 7 days from the 8th year, which then yield an average of 365.375 days per year.

Unfortunately, this system was under the supervision of the priests who tinkered with it for religious reasons.  For example, leap years were considered unlucky and so were often skipped, particularly during the Punic Wars.

All of this laid the basis for Gaius Julius Caesar to reform the calendar in 45 BC.  In order to reform the calendar, it was necessary to bring it in line with the seasons.  This was done in 46 BC by using a year of 15 months consisting of 445 days.  For this reason, the year 46 BC was known as “the year of confusion”.


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