Answer Man

What did the Romans do for a calendar before Julius Caesar?


Q: What did the Romans do for a calendar before Caesar instituted his Julian standard? What did they call their months and days? Could they say, for example, TJIF — Thank Jupiter, it’s Friday?

Emerson Gillespie, of Bellevile

A: Let’s put it this way: If Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield had tried to write “Calendar Girl” 2,500 years ago, they probably would have thrown up their hands in despair. Yet, the Beatles would have felt right at home. Allow me to explain:

After Rome was — by some calculations — founded on April 21, 753 B.C., it would take more than seven centuries for this supposedly enlightened society to develop a calendar that worked halfway decently. (Even then, of course, it would take Pope Gregory XIII to put his blessing on a calendar that ironed out the final bugs in October 1582.) Until then, the Romans tried numerous convoluted schemes, all of which produced systems that quickly fell out of sync with the seasons.

According to some ancient historians, Romans at first may have tried the old Greek method of dividing the year into 12 months based on the moon. Unfortunately, this lunar cycle is only about 29.5 days from new moon to new moon, so an entire year would have fallen roughly a dozen days short of a complete trip by Earth around the sun. I can’t find any monthly names, but in just a few years it would have been the dead of summer in a month that should have heralded the start of spring. As a result, early Romans likely would have had to add a few days here and there or simply suspend the calendar until it and the seasons matched up again.

It was not terribly satisfactory, so the new republic quickly devised its own equally unworkable system — a calendar of 10 months, four with 31 and six with 30 for a total of 304 days in keeping with a system of 38 eight-day weeks. (See, I told you the Beatles would fit in more literally than they ever imagined.)

The months also gained names, most of which are easy to recognize. The year started with the spring month of Martius (probably named after Mars, the Roman god of war), followed by Aprilis (which may have honored the love god Venus, but taken from her Greek counterpart, Aphrodite), Maius (perhaps named after Maia, one of the Pleiades) and Junius (named after Juno, the wife of Jupiter and counterpart of Hera, the Greek queen of the gods). After that, the Romans seemed to lose their creativity, wrapping up the year with names that reflected the month’s number. Hence, Quintilis, Sextilis, and, yes, apparently September, October, November and December.

Obviously, with only 304 days, this calendar without some fancy finagling would have fallen out of sync with the real world even faster than the lunar system. Enter Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, whose reign started some 38 years after Rome’s founding. Although historians argue over the exact details, some say he fitted in the final pieces of the puzzle, adding a 29-day Januarius at the beginning of the year and Februarius at the end.

Januarius was named for Janus, usually a two-faced god who could look back at the old year and see in the new, while February may have come from a Roman word for purification to denote its addition to purify — or perfect — the calendar. (According to some, Februarius was moved in between Januarius and Martius in 452 B.C.) But this calendar, too, was far from perfect as it came to about 355 days. So to confuse the subject even more, the Romans had to cram in an extra month of Mercedonius every two or three years to make everything work out.

Naming the days of the week, however, was a task that would be left to future generations. Instead of Monday, Tuesday, etc., the Romans concentrated on three important days of the month: the kalends, which was the first day of the month; the nones, which was the seventh day of 31-day months and the fifth day of 30-day months; and, as Caesar would learn all too well, the ides, which was the middle of the month. The others apparently were expressed like this: 6th day before the December kalends. Even in Roman times, kalends was the day for paying bills, and the account books used to record them were called kalendaria, which over centuries evolved into the English word “calendar.”

By the time Julius Caesar started his rise to power in 60 B.C., the Roman calendar was pretty much in total chaos. So in 46 B.C., he made the year 445 days long to realign the calendar and henceforth keep it in sync with the actual seasons. As a result, 46 B.C. was referred to as the “last year of confusion,” with the new calendar taking effect in 45 B.C.

The very next year he would be asking “Et tu, Brute?” while being stabbed two dozen times amidst a mob of roughly 60 assassins. Eventually, Quintilis and Sextilis would be renamed July and August in honor of Julius Caesar and Augustus.

Today’s trivia

What shocking non-sports event would precede the final 3rd-place game ever played during an NCAA Basketball Tournament?

Answer to Monday’s trivia: People have been preening themselves in front of mirrors for a long, long time. Manufactured mirrors made from pieces of polished obsidian have been found in modern-day Turkey and date back to about 6,000 B.C. In Egypt, polished copper mirrors have been dated to 3,000 while the Chinese made bronze mirrors about 2,000 B.C. The modern process of coating glass with metallic silver is credited to German chemist Justus von Liebig in 1835. This soon led to the ready availability of the affordable mirror.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer