Monday, January 6, 2014

What Have The Romans Ever Done For Us? The Calendar

If you haven’t actually watched the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, then you will not have seen their interpretation of Roman life in ancient Judea. Of course, I would recommend that you go out and view this film as soon as possible, not only because it is very funny, but also because it offers some interesting insights into Roman culture. For those of you who want to discover their answer to the above question, then you can check out this scene on YouTube, but I strongly recommend watching the whole film. The Romans were marvelously inventive and practical people and their advances still influence our culture a great deal, influencing so much of our lives that the real answer to the question is much, much longer. Today, I will start by looking at the calendar, which seems appropriate at the beginning of the year.

Let us start at the very beginning. Even the word calendar is derived from Latin: the first day of each month was named the Kalends. This probably derives from the verb kalare, meaning to ‘announce solemnly’, because the pontiffs on the Capitoline Hill in Rome would make an announcement on each Kalends defining the fixed points of each month: the Kalends, Nones and Ides. These days were used to calculate all other dates within the month. That’s right, the usually logical and sensible Romans had the most bizarre way of giving dates: each day would either be a Kalends, Nones or Ides or ‘x days before’ one of these fixed dates. So, a Roman diary would be headed: Kalends; 4 days before Nones; 3 days before Nones; etc. . . . oh, and they counted inclusively so it then went 2 days before Nones; Nones . . . it seems unnecessarily complicated to me, but it worked for them!

As if this was not difficult enough, there were other problems. The original Roman Calendar was based upon the lunar cycle, with the Kalends falling on the day of the new moon, the Nones on the half-moon and the Ides on the full moon. However, a lunar cycle does not last for a whole number of days, so pretty early in their history they realized that they had to stuff extra days into some months so that the Kalends would continue to fall on the new moon.

Romulus, the founder of Rome, is credited with formulating a ten-month calendar, with months of 30 or 31 days each, sometime around 753 BCE. Three of the first four months were named for the deities Mars, Maia and Iuno, whilst one was probably derived from the verb aperire, meaning ‘to open’, because the new year fell at the spring equinox. The other months were simply named by number, so the list of months was: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December.

Unfortunately, the lunar cycle is roughly 29.5 days, so Romulus’ calendar went wrong very quickly and King Numa corrected it in around 713 BCE by creating two extra months at the beginning of the year and reducing the number of days in most of the months, which now ranged from 28 to 31 days in length. Ianuarius was named after the god Ianus, who has two faces and watches over transitions and doorways, probably chosen because this month fell close to the winter solstice. Februarius was a time for ritual purification at the end of the old year and its name comes from Februa festival of purification that was traditionally held in this rainy time of year and is possibly the equivalent of our modern spring-cleaning. Unfortunately, even this calendar did not really work, mainly because it was ten days shorter than a solar year, so every few years an extra month was added to keep the traditional festivals in the correct seasons.

Oversight of the calendar was the responsibility of the Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the College of Pontiffs. In 46 BC, a certain Julius Caesar used his position as Pontifex Maximus to overhaul the calendar, which had become hopelessly out of step with seasons. The Julian calendar contained 365 days, with twelve months of either 30 or 31 days, except for Februarius, which had 28, or 29 in leap years. The month of Quiltilis was renamed Iulius in his honor, and his heir and successor, Augustus, was commemorated by the change from Sextilis to Augustus. Interestingly, these months were chosen because they were the respective birth months of the two men. It was basically the very same calendar that we use today:

The Julian calendar was remarkably consistent with the mechanics of the solar system and remained in use until the sixteenth century, when Pope Gregory XIII made a slight adjustment to the way in which leap years were calculated in order to keep Easter in line with the March equinox. However, even as the new Gregorian calendar was adopted by Catholic countries, many Protestant and non-Christian countries retained the Julian Calendar until much later, with Russia not converting until 1918, whilst many Orthodox Churches still to use it today to derive the dates of the major festivals.

The two-faced god, Ianus

BCE = Before the Common Era, which is a non-denominational alternative to BC (Before Christ), is now the usual term used in academic publications although the dates remain numerically the same.

The Latin alphabet does not include letter ‘j’. Instead ‘i’ can be used as either a consonant or a vowel. Thus, the man we know as Julius Caesar would actually have written his name Iulius.

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