In the early days, Romans denoted years by the names of the two Consuls who ruled each year and that system continued long after other ways of denoting the year were used. Later they began to count the years from the foundation of the City of Rome. There is no single agreed date for that but a Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro fixed the date as what we would call 753BC and that is the standard I shall use here. Romans used the letters AUC after these dates (in Latin ab urbe condita - from the foundation of the city).
The length of the year had been correctly determined by astronomers in different parts of the world many centuries before the Roman empire. But it was not until 46BC (708AUC) that the Roman emperor Julius Caesar introduced a calendar reform to recognise that the year lasted almost exactly 365.25 days.
Originally Romans had ten months in the year of either 30 or 31 days. The winter period seems to have been without formal months and the year began in the Spring with March as winter ended and crops were planted. The ten month year is still recalled in the names of some of our months - September, October, November, and December come from Latin words for seven, eight, nine and ten.
Around 715BC the twelve month calendar was introduced, based on the phases of the Moon. It takes on average 29.5 days between one new moon and the next and so a twelve-month lunar year lasts 354 days but an extra day was added because even numbers were unlucky. The twelve months had between 28 and 31 days in each to make the year last 355 days. February was the shortest month with 28 days and every other year a whole extra month - called Mercedonius which alternated between 22 days and 23 days - was inserted after the 23rd day of February to try to keep the calendar in line with the solar year of approximately 365 days. At the end of Mercedonius the remaining five days of February were taken, so Mercedonius was followed by the 24th of February. But the arithmetic did not quite work - the system gives an average duration for the year of 366.25 days - and the calendar slowly drifted away from the seasons once more. Inserting an extra period to correct the calendar is called an intercalation.
The situation was made worse because the calendar was not a publicly available document. It was guarded by the priests whose job it was to make it work and determine the dates of religious holidays, festivals, and the days when business could and could not be conducted. Through both carelessness and abuse, the intercalations were not made even according to the flawed rules that had been laid down. By the time Gaius Julius Caesar took power in the mid 40s BC the calendar was in a mess and he decided to make a major reform. Indeed, he called in an Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes to advise him. As a result, the lunar year was abandoned in favour of a solar year lasting 365.25 days, and a total of 90 extra days were added to the year 46BC to bring the seasons back into line and set the spring equinox on the 25th day of March. Caesar also decreed that the year would in future start with January - although it had done so more many centuries, some parts of the empire were reverting to March for the start. And the 1st of January in the IV year of Caesar's consulship otherwise known as 709AUC or as we would call it 45BC was the start of the modern era of the Calendar.
However, there is some dispute about whether the months were put in their present form then or not. Modern scholarship suggests that the calendar introduced by Julius was in its present form with February kept at 28 days (29 in a leap year) and that the other months were fixed at the lengths they have today. Earlier this century it was thought that January had 31 days and that short and long months alternated, making Sextilis (now called August), October, and December short months of 30 days and September and November long months of 31. February was given 29 days to make a year of 365 days but every fourth year it had 30, thus adding the extra quarter day required to keep the calendar in tune with Earth's orbit round the Sun. But there is now evidence that this is wrong. One clue is that in a leap year, the extra day was added after the 23rd day of February, so the month in effect had two February 24ths. And the name for this in Roman times implies that February had 28 days. There is more on this later in the discussion on days.
Within two years of the start of these reforms Julius Caesar was dead, assassinated on the steps of the Senate in Rome on 15 March 44BC (710AUC). To honour him, the Senate decreed that the seventh month, called Quintilis, should be renamed Julius. But Caesar was gone before he could see how his reforms were working and before the first leap year (not a term the Romans used) was due in 41BC (713AUC). And perhaps that is why, with no-one to correct them, the priests or Pontifices who were supposed to keep track of the calendar misunderstood Caesar's decree and added the extra day to February every three years instead of every four. The Romans counted inclusively so to them every fourth year meant 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10. As a result the first leap year was 42BC instead of 41 and they carried on with this error every three years until 9BC.
The mistake went unnoticed until around 9BC when Julius's successor as
Emperor - his great-nephew usually known now as Augustus Caesar - called for
further changes. The Pontifices's error had gone unchecked for 36 years, meaning
that 12 extra days had been added instead of 9. To correct this problem, Augustus
ordered a halt to leap years until the Earth had caught up with the
calendar. In 8 BC the Senate also decided to honour the Emperor by renaming the
month Sextilis as Augustus. It is currently thought that the month lengths had
already been set in their modern form by Julius Caesar - August was a 31 day
month already and no further change was needed when Augustus was honoured. But
we can say with certainty that from 8BC there were the twelve familiar
months with the same number of days they have now.
JANUARIUS, FEBRUARIUS, MARTIUS, APRILIS, MAIUS, JUNIUS, JULIUS, AUGUSTUS, SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, NOVEMBER, DECEMBER.
or as they are more correctly written as Romans did not have a 'J' or a 'U'
in their alphabet
IANVARIVS, FEBRVARIVS, MARTIVS, APRILIS, MAIVS, IVNIVS, IVLIVS, AVGVSTVS, SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER, NOVEMBER, DECEMBER.
To get the calendar back on track, Augustus decreed that the first leap year after his reforms would be 8AD and they would occur every four years thereafter. And so they did. The calendar was to remain unchanged for more than one and half millennia and apart from a minor adjustment which began to be introduced in 1582, it remains substantially the same today.
While we count the days of the month forwards starting, for example, with the first of April and ending with the 30th, the Romans counted the days backwards. And not just from the end of the month, but from the first quarter and the middle of the month and then from the first day of the next month. So the day we would call the 20th day of January Romans would call the 13th day before the first of February. That arithmetic only works with inclusive counting - count every day from 20 January to 1 February inclusive.
This system harks back to the earlier Roman calendar based on the moon. The start of the month would be announced by the priest who saw the first faint sliver of light in the New Moon's black disc. He would call out - calare in Latin - and that is the origin of the Latin word for the first of the month the Kalendae or the Kalends. The next phase of the moon, the first quarter when it is exactly half a disc, were called the Nonae (usually Nones today) and the full moon was known as the Ides. The waning half was not marked. But even by the seventh century BC these divisions were formalised. The Kalendae were always the first day of the month. The Ides were fixed as the fifteenth day of a 31-day month or the thirteenth day of any other. The period leading up to the Ides was fixed as eight days and so the Nonae had to be on either the fifth day of a short month or the seventh day of a long month. At the time, only four months - Martius, Maius, Quintilis (Julius), and October had 31 days. The rest had 28 or 29. And these fixed dates were continued by Julius Caesar when he converted the calendar, even though other 31 day months were introduced. They remained in this form after the minor alterations of Augustus.
Days were referred to as so many days before the Kalendae, the Nonae, or
the Ides. So the 13th day of March was called
ante diem tertium idus Martias
before days third ides of March
or the third day before the Ides of March on the fifteenth. The Romans
counted inclusively so they count 13, 14, 15 to get three days.
On the day itself they simply called it the ides of March or the kalends of
May. And they referred to the day immediately before one of the three fixed
dates as the pridie - the eve of. So the 14th of March was
pridie idus Martias
the eve of the ides of March.
On inscriptions these words were all abbreviated which means that we can
ignore all the complex Latin endings to words which change with its grammatical
position in the sentence. So we can simply write
A.D. III ID. MART.
And that meant to a Roman 2000 years ago the day we would call 13th of
Today we cope with a leap year by adding an extra day at the end of the month - February 29th. The Romans did it differently. Julius added the extra day after the 23rd day of the month - the same place that the bi-annual extra month Mercedonius had been inserted. So the leap day was like a very short Merecedonius and familiar to Romans of the time. But if you are naming days by counting backwards from the next event, adding an extra day affects the names of the previous days as well. In February the ides fell on 13th day of the month. The next day was 16 days before the 1st of March in a normal 28 day February. If an extra day was added, then the day after the ides of February would be 17 days before the 1st of March. But that did not happen. Because - like Mercedonius - the extra day was not part of February.
|Calendar for the last ten days of February|
|Not a leap year||Leap year|
|Our date||Roman date||Our date||Roman date|
|20||10 days before the start of March||20||10 days before the start of March|
|21||9 days before the start of March||21||9 days before the start of March|
|22||8 days before the start of March||22||8 days before the start of March|
|23||7 days before the start of March||23||7 days before the start of March|
|24||6 days before the start of March||24||6 days before the start of March|
|25||5 days before the start of March||25||again 6 days before the start of March|
|26||4 days before the start of March||26||5 days before the start of March|
|27||3 days before the start of March||27||4 days before the start of March|
|28||eve of the start of March||28||3 days before the start of March|
|29||eve of the start of March|
In other words the extra day did not alter the calendar until after the 24th day - a time when it was always hard to tell the date in Rome. Because the 24th was normally called the sexto kalendae the extra day was called the bis-sexto-kalendae meaning the double, twice or again sixth day before the start of March. Sometimes a Leap Year is referred to as a bissextile for that reason. This odd way of doing things has led some scholars into saying that the extra day was added after the 24th, when in fact logic - and history - determines that it was added after the 23rd. This name and system also implies that February did indeed have 28 and 29 days after Julius Caesar's reforms.References