Angry Robot

Every Month Is Baberuary

Did you know Julius Caesar rejigged the Roman calendar? Talk about absolute power: can you imagine Bush lengthening a couple months and slicing one altogether? If he decided that new years would come in march from now on? That’s exactly what Caesar did, but it was just what the doctor ordered, since by this time the Romans had pantsed up their calendar something nasty. Get ready for some ancient lernin’, kids.

Originally the Roman calendar was a ten month lunar calendar that started in March, continued through to december and then kind of vanished. It was all about farming, so they didn’t even bother having months during their winter. (Two months of winter? Not bad.) That might have started in 700 BC or so, but every now and then some ruler or other would make an addendum, so I’ve been trying to find out what the Roman calendar was like circa 60 – 45 BC (when Caesar changed it).

Take a look at the names of the months, with their days in brackets: Januarius (29), Februarius (28), Intercalaris / Mercedonius (whatever)*, Martius (31), Aprilis (29), Maius (31), Junius (29), Quintilis (31), Sextilis (29), Septembris (29), Octobris (31), Novembris (29), Decembris (29). Quintilis through Decembris are simply counting from five through ten. At this point, they hadn’t named July after Julius yet, nor August after Augustus. The star* indicates the most messed up part of their calendar, a remnant of the ol’ not-countin’-the-winter-months thing. Since this calendar wasn’t based on the moon anymore, it had become sort of a wannabe solar calendar, but it never added up to 365.25, so the period of Intercalaris (“between calendars”, apparently also called Mercedonius) was added, and it was as long as necessary to get the calendar back into whack. To make matters worse, it didn’t actually come after february – it came after the 23rd day in february. They switched over to Intercalaris for however long it took, then back to february for the last five days!

I don’t even want to get into how they did the days of the week – let’s just say they botched it right up, counting backwards and shit. Apparently the start of the month was decided by the pontifexes, or priests, who also declared the middle of the month (the Ides – originally when the moon was full). But these clowns were so incompetent and/or corrupt that years were very irregular in length.

Caesar sorted all of that garbage right out. It was a confusing year, in fact it was known as the ultimus annus confusionis – Caesar had to intercalate 90 days. But when it was done he had something much more like we use today, leap year and all – no more intercalaris. Just imagine rethinking the calendar, coming up with something rockin’ good, forcing it down everyone’s throats (hey, who’s the dictator here?), and then having it stick, more or less, for 2,000 years. Now that’s an overachiever.

The other fun part is figuring out what year they would have called it. Over at Bloggus Caesari it’s 52 BC right now, but of course Caesar wouldn’t have called it that. Apparently they counted forwards from the mythical founding of Rome, which is thought to have happened in 753 BC, so that Caesar might have called it 702 AUCab urbe condita.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far you’re insane or deathly bored – for the love of god, run away! Go here, quickly!

2 comments on "Every Month Is Baberuary"

  1. marijke says:

    i, for one, find this kind of trivial crap fascinating.

    of course, the Julian calendar wasn’t accurate either… when the switch was made from Julian to Gregorian in 1582, they dropped 10 days off the calendar to adjust. So, October 4, 1582 was followed by October 15, 1582 (actually, not all countries made the switch immediately — Greece didn’t drop days until 1924, and the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches have never adopted the change, which is why their religious holidays are a week later).

    more on the days of the week, please. i know that they counted leading up to the benchmark days (new moon and full moon and whatnot?), and that they went straight from “2 days before Whatever Day” to “Whatever Day” (apparently some weird Roman math thing that “day before Whatever Day” actually had no meaning? i might be wrong about this…).

    did you know that Joseph Stalin proposed a calendar with a 5-day week in 1929?

  2. D says:

    Well, 10 days over 1600 years ain’t bad, right?

    As far as I can understand it with the days of the week, the start of the month was called the calends, somewhere about a quarter of the way through was the nones, and halfway was the ides. Originally these were all based off phases of the moon – start (kalends) was no moon, ides was full, and all of this was eyeballed by the pontifexes (which may have been the cause for skipping days, since they may have realized they were wrong once the moon started waning or something). They counted down days, so “seventh day before the Ides”, that sort of thing. By Caesar’s time, Ides and Nones were on fixed days – ides either the 13th or the 15th of the month, depending on the number of days.

    But the seven-day week is a Jewish tradition. Romans counted days in units of eight (lettered A through H), but they didn’t think of them as weeks, really – there didn’t appear to be set week-ends, and I think I saw it mentioned somewhere that other, non-lettered days (in fact red-letter days, since these special ones were marked in red) could be inserted here and there. Once again, all this was decided by the priests, but they didn’t decide in advance for the year it seems, making it quite challenging for everyone else to figure out what day it was.

    Should mention: another common way of marking the year was to refer to the consuls for that year, so: “Januarius of the year Caesar and Pompey were consuls”.

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