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The Roman calendar changed its form several times in the time between the foundation of Rome and the fall of the Roman Empire. This article generally discusses the early Roman or 'pre-Julian' calendars. The calendar used after 46 BC is discussed under Julian calendar.

Fasti Antiates Maiores — Painting of the Roman calendar about 60 BC, before the Julian reform. Observe (enlarged) that it contains the months Quintilis ("QVI") and Sextilis ("SEX"), and displays the intercalary month ("INTER") as the far righthand column.

Contents

History

The original Roman calendar is believed to have been a lunar calendar,[1] which may have been based on one of the Greek lunar calendars. As the time between new moons averages 29.5 days, its months were constructed to be either hollow (29 days) or full (30 days). Full months were considered powerful and therefore auspicious; hollow months were unlucky. Unlike currently used dates, which are numbered sequentially from the beginning of the month, the Romans counted backwards from three fixed points: the Nones, the Ides and the Kalends of the following month. This system originated in the practice of "calling" the new month when the lunar crescent was first observed in the west after sunset. From the shape and orientation of the new moon, the number of days remaining to the nones would be proclaimed.

Roman writers claimed that their calendar was invented by Romulus, the founder of Rome around 753 BC. His version contained ten months with the vernal equinox in the first month. However, his months were not lunar:

Calendar of Romulus
Martius (31 days)
Aprilis (30 days)
Maius (31 days)
Iunius (30 days)
Quintilis (31 days)
Sextilis (30 days)
September (30 days)
October (31 days)
November (30 days)
December (30 days)

The calendar year lasted 304 days and there were about 61 days of winter which were not assigned to any month.[2] The later months were named based on their position in the calendar: Quintilis comes from quinque (meaning five), Sextilis from sex (meaning six), September from septem (meaning seven), October from octo (meaning eight), November from novem (meaning nine) and December from decem (meaning ten).

Numa Pompilius, the second of the seven traditional kings of Rome, reformed the calendar of Romulus by adding January and February around 713 BC to the original ten months, although Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November and December no longer agreed with their position in his calendar. Although Numa wanted to have a lunar year of 354 days, Romans considered odd numbers to be lucky and even numbers unlucky, so Numa added 51 days to the 304 days in the calendar of Romulus and took one day from each of the six 30-day months giving a total of 57 days to share between January and February. January was given 29 days leaving February with the unlucky number of 28 days, suitable for the month of purification. Of the eleven months with an odd number of days, four had 31 days each and seven had 29 days each.

Calendar of Numa
Civil calendar Religious calendar
according to
Macrobius[2]
and Plutarch[3]
according to Ovid[4]
(modern order due to
Decemviri, 450 BC)
according to Fowler[5]
Ianuarius (29) Ianuarius Martius
Februarius (28) Martius Aprilis
Martius (31) Aprilis Maius
Aprilis (29) Maius Iunius
Maius (31) Iunius Quintilis
Iunius (29) Quintilis Sextilis
Quintilis (31) Sextilis September
Sextilis (29) September October
September (29) October November
October (31) November December
November (29) December Ianuarius
December (29) Februarius Februarius

February was split into two parts, each with an odd number of days. The first part ended with the Terminalia on the 23rd, which was considered the end of the religious year; the five remaining days formed the second part. In order to keep the calendar year roughly aligned with the solar year, a leap month (the Mensis Intercalaris, sometimes also known as Mercedonius or Mercedinus), was added from time to time between the two parts of February. This caused the second part of February to be incorporated in the intercalary month as its last five days; there was thus no change either in their dates or the festivals observed on them. The resulting leap year was either 377 or 378 days long, depending on whether Intercalaris began on the day after the Terminalia[6] or the second day after the Terminalia.[7] Intercalaris had 27 days, its nones were on the fifth and its ides on the thirteenth as usual; the next following day was a.d. XV Kal. Mart.

The decision to insert the intercalary month was the responsibility of the pontifex maximus. On average, this happened roughly in alternate years. The system of aligning the year through intercalary months broke down at least twice: the first time was during and after the Second Punic War. It led to the reform of the Lex Acilia in 191 BC, the details of which are unclear, but it appears to have successfully regulated intercalation for over a century. The second breakdown was in the middle of the first century BC and may have been related to the increasingly chaotic and adversarial nature of Roman politics at the time. The position of pontifex maximus was not a full-time job; it was held by a member of the Roman elite, who would almost invariably be involved in the machinations of Roman politics. Because a Roman calendar year defined the term of office of elected Roman magistrates, a pontifex maximus would have reason to lengthen a year in which he or his allies were in power, or shorten a year in which his political opponents held office. It was while Julius Caesar was pontifex maximus that the calendar was overhauled, with the result being the Julian calendar. The calendar reforms were completed during the reign of his successor Augustus. Quintilis was renamed Iulius (July) in honour of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and Sextilis was renamed Augustus (August) in honour of Augustus in 8 BC.

Months

The three reference dates were probably declared publicly when the lunar conditions were observed. After the reforms of Numa Pompilius, they occurred on fixed days.

  • Kalendae (Kalends) — first day of the month, from which the word "calendar" is derived; thought to have originally been the day of the new moon. Interest on debt was due on Kalends.
  • Nonae (Nones) — thought to have originally been the day of the half moon.
  • Idūs (Ides) — thought to have originally been the day of the full moon. The Romans considered this an auspicious day in their calendar. The word ides comes from Latin, meaning "half division" (of a month).

The nones are related to the nundinae, the market days which fell on the eighth day of the eight-day market week used by the Romans. They are so called because, in the Roman system of inclusive counting, they came every nine days. From the nones to the ides, there was exactly one market week. From the ides to the end of the month (except in February), there were exactly two market weeks; hence the mnemonic:

"March, May, July, October,
These are they,
Make nones the seventh,
Ides the fifteenth day."

In all other months, nones were on the fifth and ides on the thirteenth. The preceding day was Pridie, e.g. Prid. Id. Mart. = 14 March. Other days were a.d. NN, abbreviation for ante diem NN (meaning "on the NNth day before"),[8] e.g. a.d. III Kal. Oct. = on the third day before the October Kalends = 28 September (where this date refers to the early period when September had only 29 days). Note that the inclusive system of counting meant that the second day before the fixed point did not exist (because it was the same as Pridie, and the 'third' day was thus the day before that). Some examples: a.d. IV Non. Jan. = 2 January; a.d. VI Non. Mai. = 2 May; a.d. VIII Id. Apr. = 6 April; a.d. VIII Id. Oct. = 8 Oct; a.d. XVII Kal. Nov. = 16 October; a.d. XVII Kal. Dec. = 14 November (where the date refers to the early period when November had only 29 days).

Some dates are sometimes known by the name of a festival that occurred on them, or shortly afterwards. Such dates are known for the Feralia, Quirinalia and the Terminalia (though not yet for the Lupercalia). These dates are all after the Ides of February, which suggests that they are connected with resolving an ambiguity that could arise in intercalary years: dates of the form a.d. [N] Kal. Mart. were dates in late February in regular years but were a month later in intercalary years. However, it is much debated whether there was a fixed rule for using festival-based dates. It has been suggested that dates like a.d. X Terminalia (known from an inscription in 94 BC) indicated that the year was intercalary, that it was not intercalary, or that it could be intercalary.

When Julius Caesar added a day to September, he added it to the end of the month, so as not to disturb the dates of religious festivals in September, but the effect was to increase the count of the day that immediately followed the Ides:

a.d. XVIII Kal. Oct. = 18 days before the Kalends of October = 14 September

As a result, the position of all the following dates in September got bumped up by one day. This has some unexpected effects. For example, the emperor Augustus was born on 23 September 63 BC. In the pre-Julian calendar this is 8 days before the Kalends of October (or, in Roman style, a.d. VIII Kal. Oct.), but in the Julian calendar it is 9 days (a.d. IX Kal. Oct.). Because of this ambiguity, his birthday was sometimes celebrated on both dates, i.e. (for us) on both 23 and 24 September.

Nundinal cycle

The Roman Republic, like the Etruscans, used a "market week" of eight days, marked as A to H in the calendar. The market cycle is known as the "nundinal cycle". Since the length of the year was not a multiple of 8 days, the letter for the market day (known as a "nundinal letter") changed every year. For example, if the letter for market days in some year was A and the year was 355 days long, then the letter for the next year would be F.

The nundinal cycle formed a basic rhythm of day-to-day Roman life; the market day was the day that country people would come to the city, and the day that city people would buy their eight days' worth of groceries. For this reason, a law was passed in 287 BC (the Lex Hortensia) that forbade the holding of meetings of the comitia (for example to hold elections) on market days, but permitted the holding of legal actions. In the late republic, a superstition arose that it was unlucky to start the year with a market day (i.e. for the market day to fall on 1 January, with a letter A), and the pontiffs, who regulated the calendar, took steps to avoid it.

Because the nundinal cycle was absolutely fixed at 8 days under the Republic, information about the dates of market days is one of the most important tools we have for working out the Julian equivalent of a Roman date in the pre-Julian calendar. In the early Empire, the Roman market day was occasionally changed. The details of this are not clear, but one likely explanation is that it would be moved by one day if it fell on the same day as the festival of Regifugium, an event that could occur every other Julian leap year. When this happened the market day would be moved to the next day, which was the bissextile (leap) day.

The nundinal cycle was eventually replaced by the modern seven-day week, which first came into use in Italy during the early imperial period, after the Julian calendar had come into effect. The system of nundinal letters was also adapted for the week, see dominical letter. For a while, the week and the nundinal cycle coexisted, but by the time the week was officially adopted by Constantine in AD 321 the nundinal cycle had fallen out of use. For further information on the week, see week and days of the week.

Character of the day

Each day of the Roman calendar was associated with a "character", which was marked in the fasti. The most important of these were dies fasti, marked by an F, on which legal matters could normally be heard, dies nefasti, marked by an N, on which they could not, and dies comitiales, marked by a C, on which meetings of the public assemblies known as comitia were permitted, subject to other constraints such as the Lex Hortensia. A few days had a different character, e.g. EN (endotercissus or perhaps endoitio exitio nefas), a day in which legal actions were permitted on half of the day only, and NP, which were public holidays.

Years

Fragment of an imperial-age consular fasti, Museo Epigrafico, Rome

In the Roman Republic, the years were not counted. Instead they were named after the consuls who were in power at the beginning of the year (see List of Republican Roman Consuls). For example, 205 BC was The year of the consulship of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus and Publius Licinius Crassus. Lists of consuls were maintained in the fasti.

However, in the later Republic, historians and scholars began to count years from the founding of the city of Rome. Different scholars used different dates for this event. The date most widely used today is that calculated by Varro, 753 BC, but other systems varied by up to several decades. Dates given by this method are numbered ab urbe condita (meaning from the founding of the city, and abbreviated AUC). When reading ancient works using AUC dates, care must be taken to determine the epoch used by the author before translating the date into a Julian year.

The first day of the consular term, which was effectively the first day of the year, changed several times during Roman history. It became 1 January in 153 BC. Before then it was 15 March. Earlier changes are a little less certain. There is good reason to believe it was 1 May for most of the third century BC, till 222 BC. Livy mentions consulates starting on 1 July before then, and arguments exist for other dates at earlier times.

Converting pre-Julian dates

The fact that we use the same month names as the Romans encourages us to assume that a Roman date occurred on the same Julian date as its modern equivalent. This assumption is not correct. Even early Julian dates, before the leap year cycle was stabilised, are not quite what they appear to be. For example, it is well known that Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BC, and this is usually converted to 15 March 44 BC. While he was indeed assassinated on the 15th day of the Roman month Martius, the equivalent date on the modern Julian calendar is probably 14 March 44 BC.

Finding the exact Julian equivalent of a pre-Julian date can be very hard. Since we have an essentially complete list of the consuls, it is not difficult to find the Julian year that generally corresponds to a pre-Julian year. However, our sources very rarely tell us which years were regular, which were intercalary, and how long an intercalary year was. Nevertheless, we do know that the pre-Julian calendar could be substantially out of alignment with the Julian calendar. Two precise astronomical synchronisms given by Livy show that in 168 BC the two calendars were misaligned by more than 2 months, and in 190 BC they were four months out of alignment.

We have a number of other clues to help us reconstruct the Julian equivalent of pre-Julian dates. First, we know the precise Julian date for the start of the Julian calendar (although there is some uncertainty even about that), and we have detailed sources for the previous decade or so, mostly in the letters and speeches of Cicero. Combining these with what we know about how the calendar worked, especially the nundinal cycle, we can accurately convert Roman dates after 58 BC relative to the start of the Julian calendar. Also, the histories of Livy give us exact Roman dates for two eclipses in 190 BC and 168 BC, and we have a few loose synchronisms to dates in other calendars which help to give rough (and sometimes exact) solutions for the intervening period. Before 190 BC the alignment between the Roman and Julian years is determined by clues such as the dates of harvests mentioned in the sources.

Combining these sources of data, we are able to estimate approximate Julian equivalents of Roman dates back to the start of the First Punic War in 264 BC. However, while we have enough data to make such reconstructions, the number of years before 45 BC for which we can convert pre-Julian Roman dates to Julian dates with certainty is very small, and several reconstructions of the pre-Julian calendar are possible. A detailed reconstruction giving conversions from pre-Julian dates into Julian dates is available.[9]

See also

Notes

  1. ^ According to Livy, Numa's calendar was lunisolar with lunar months and several intercalary months spread over nineteen years so that the Sun returned in the twentieth year to the same position it had in the first year. (Livy, History of Rome 1.19) (William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (London: 1875) "Calendarium", Year of Numa)
  2. ^ a b Macrobius, Saturnalia, tr. Percival Vaughan Davies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), book I, chapters 12-13, pp. 89-91.
  3. ^ Plutarch, Life of Numa chapter 18.
  4. ^ Ovid, Fasti, tr. A.S. Kline (2004), Book II (February), last eight lines of introduction.
  5. ^ W. Warde Fowler, The Roman festivals of the period of the republic (London, 1899/1908), p.5.
  6. ^ Livy 45.44.3 for an example of this in 167 B.C.
  7. ^ Livy 43.11.13 for an example of this in 170 B.C.
  8. ^ Syntax note: The Latins had a habit of often inserting a phrase between a preposition and its noun. a.d. III Kal. Nov. expands effectively to ante (diem tertium) Kalendas Novembres, the ante refers to the Kalendas, and the literal meaning is 'on the third day' [accusative of time, and with an inclusive count as already stated.] 'before the November kalends' [months being adjectival back then]. In late Latin usage of the Roman dating method, the 'a.d.' was sometimes dropped in favor of an ablative construction. (The equivalent modern numeration is then 30 October, October having 31 days.)
  9. ^ Roman Dates

References and further reading

  • Bickerman, E.J. Chronology of the Ancient World. (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969, rev. ed. 1980).
  • Brind'Amour, P. Le Calendrier romain: Recherches chronologiques (Ottawa, 1983)
  • Feeney, Denis C. Caesar's Calendar: Ancient Times and the Beginnings of History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007 (hardcover, ISBN 0520251199).
  • Michels, A.K. The Calendar of the Roman Republic (Princeton, 1967).
  • Richards, E.G. Mapping Time. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-850413-6.

External links

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