The Calendar

The Roman calendar originally had ten months, beginning in March. Their names were all masculine adjectives, agreeing with mensis, mensis masc. 3 “month”: Martius “[the month] of Mars”, Aprīlis “of opening” (it was thought to be derived from aperiō, aperīre, aperuī, apertum 4 “open”, i.e. when nature opens up again; Aprīlis was also associated with Aphrodite [= Venus]), Maius “of Maia, the mother of the messenger-god, Mercury”, Iūnius “of Juno”, and then the less imaginatively named Quinctīlis, Sextīlis, September, Octōber, November, December.

Augustus renamed Quinctīlis in honor of Julius Caesar, and subsequently Sextīlis in his own honor. (Quinctīlis to December, as well as Aprīlis, are 3rd decl. adjectives.) Commodus (ruled 177-192) not only renamed Rome as Commodiāna, but also renamed each month with one of his own titles: Amazonius (he took this title because he liked his mistress Marcia to dress as an Amazon), Invictus, Fēlix, Pius, Lūcius, Aelius, Aurēlius, Commodus, Augustus (thus moving Augustus’ month to September), Herculeus, Rōmānus, and Exsuperātōrius.

Since the original ten months were lunar months (mensis, mensis masc. 3 “month” and the English word “moon” are cognate), the seasons will quickly have fallen out of harmony with the calendar, a disturbing state of affairs for an agricultural people, who needed to observe their religious festivals connected with sowing, harvesting etc. at the appropriate time. Presumably months were liberally intercalated as necessary. Intercalated months were added in February, before the start of agricultural and military activity, and before magistrates took up their posts in March. Spring, with the onset of a new year’s undertakings, is a more natural beginning than mid-winter. Astrology is still today based on a cycle beginning in spring; the sequence of horoscopes given in a newspaper, for example, starts with Aries (March 21st – April 19th) because the sun is in or about to enter Aries at the vernal equinox (March 19th – March 21st).

At the end of the regal period, in the 6th century, two further months were added: Iānuārius and Februārius. As the name Iānuārius, i.e. “of Janus”, the god of doors, suggests, the beginning of the year was to be moved to January, but this did not happen till 153 BC. The derivation of Februārius is less clear (but it seems to have no connection with febris, febris f. 3 “fever”). The Romans linked it with februō 1 “purify” or with Februus, the father of Dis, the god of the Underworld. (Other than in discussions of this etymology, the verb and the god are scarcely known.) Associations with purification or the Underworld might well be appropriate to the final month of the year.

The calendar continued to be reckoned on 355 days. As pontifex maximus, leader of the priestly college in charge of the calendar as part of the Roman religious year, Julius Caesar added ten days per year, with an extra day at the end of February every fourth year. The reform came into effect on January 1st 45, after a year with 445 days. This system loses touch with the seasons much more slowly, and remained in force until the reforms of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. The most frequent derivation of the term pontifex in antiquity was from pons, pontis masc. 3 “bridge” and facere, but the pontificēs had no particular link with bridge-building. An alternative derivation was from posse and (sacra) facere, i.e. the pontificēs had authority over religion observations. Like Julius Caesar, Pope Gregory was the chief pontiff, the pontifex maximus (a title not used of the popes till the 6th century). The Gregorian reforms were only gradually adopted by the various European countries, not being used in Greece till 1923. The Russian Orthodox Church and, to some extent, the Greek Orthodox Church still adhere to the Julian system.

Years were reckoned either AUC (ab urbe conditā), i.e. from the putative founding of Rome in 753 BC or, more usually, by reference to the consuls. For example, the birth of the poet Ovid in 43 BC took place AUC 711 (note the inclusive reckoning) or in the consulship of Hirtius and Pansa, consulibus Aulō Hirtiō et Gaiō Vibiō Pansā. The First Triumvirate (Pompey, Crassus, Caesar) had Caesar appointed consul for 59 BC to carry through legislation advantageous to them. Day after day, the other consul, M. Calpurnius Bibulus, declared the omens to be unfavorable for senatorial business, but Caesar went ahead with the legislation anyway: the year was facetiously known as the consulship of Julius and Caesar; in 45, Caesar actually did hold the consulship without a colleague (as Pompey had done in 52). The consular method has the drawback that it can be applied only to the past: a Roman in 44 BC could not use it to refer to 34 BC. I can in any case cite no example of a future reference using the AUC-system. (The reckoning of the year in relation to the birth of Jesus was first introduced in 525 by Dionysius Exiguus; in devising this system, he was the first person in the Roman world known to use the number zero.)

Reckoning years by the consuls may seem difficult, but who was King of England in 1651, President of the United States in 1851? (These are much easier questions, since they require only one answer each and kings and presidents do not change every year.)

The months, which, after Caesar’s reforms, had the same number of days as now, each had three named days, in relation to which all other days were reckoned: the Kalends (Kalendae, -ārum fem. 1) on the 1st, the Nones (Nōnae, -ārum fem. 1) on the 5th, except in March, May, July and October (on the 7th), and the Ides (Idūs, -uum fem. 4) on the 13th, except in March, May, July and October (on the 15th). The Kalendae were associated with the rare verb calō 1 “call”, perhaps the day on which the pontifex announced whether the Nones would be on the fifth or the seventh (a presumably rather uncontroversial ritual); the Nōnae are the ninth day (by inclusive reckoning) before the Ides; the derivation of Īdūs is unknown, though there was speculation linking it with an Etruscan word meaning “divide” (sc. the month).

The day before any of these named days was called precisely that, using the adverb prīdiē “on the day before” as if it were a preposition taking the accusative: e.g. prīdiē Īdūs Martiās March 14th, prīdiē Kalendās Maiās April 30th. Note the feminine forms Martiās and Maiās, agreeing with the feminine nouns Īdūs and Kalendās.

The 2nd and 3rd, the 6th-11th and the 14th till the antepenultimate day of each month, except March, May, July and October (2nd-5th, 8th-13th, 16th-29th), were reckoned, counting inclusively, from the next named day: e.g. the 3rd of December is the third day (counting the 3rd, 4th and 5th) before the Nones, and this is expressed either by an ablative “of time when” followed by ante + acc., tertiō diē ante Nōnās Decembrēs (commonly abbreviated to tertiō Nōnās Decembrēs), or, rather oddly, by ante with a double accusative ante diem tertium Nōnās Decembrēs. Note the following further examples: ante diem decimum Kalendās Octobrēs (September 22nd), quindecimō diē ante Kalendās Novembrēs (18th October) ante diem quartum Īdūs Novembrēs (10th November), octāvō diē ante Kalendās Iānuāriās (25th December). Abbreviations are commonly used. The examples given above could be written as prīd. Īd. Mart., prīd. Kal. Mai., a. d. iii Nōn. Dec., a. d. x Kal. Oct., a. d. xv Kal. Nov., a.d. iv Īd. Nov., a. d. viii Kal. Iān.

The method of reckoning the days of the month is even stranger, but not so strange as in Greece, where each of the major city-states had its own idiosyncratic calendar. For example, “The seeds of the fir tree are at their ripest when the constellation Arcturus is rising, the season that the Romans call the month of September, and we in Pergamum call Hyperberetaeus, and is known in Athens as Mysteries” (Galen On the Preservation of Health 4.6).

Inclusive reckoning survives in the Romance words for “fortnight”: Fr. quinzaine (quinze jours), Ital. quindicina (quindici giorni), Sp. quincena (quince días). (The rather attractive word “fortnight” itself retains the old Germanic method of reckoning time by nights, but has become almost obsolete in some branches of modern English, as did “sennight” long ago.)

Every eighth day was a nundinae (from novem + diēs “nine days” by inclusive reckoning), on which markets were held. By the end of the Republic, the Romans were aware of the eastern seven-day week which, with the adoption of Christianity in the 4th century, came to be used officially throughout the empire. The days of the week were named for the seven known “planets”. These names survive in most Romance languages, as can be seen, for example, in French, but the English names are mostly Germanic in origin, replacing the Roman deities with their Teutonic equivalents:

lūnae diēs lundi Monday (The moon)
Martis diēs mardi Tuesday (Tíw)
Mercuriī diēs mercredi Wednesday (Woden)
Iovis diēs jeudi Thursday (Thor)
Veneris diēs vendredi Friday (Frigg)
Sāturnī diēs samedi Saturday (Saturn)
sōlis diēs dimanche Sunday (The sun)

“Wednesday” is Woden’s day; Woden was the highest Teutonic deity, but he was identified esp. with Mercury. “Samedi” is sabbatī diēs (the day of the sabbath, Span. sábado, Ital. sabato). “Dimanche” is dominicus diēs (the Lord’s day, Span. domingo, Ital. domenica).