The Julian calendar was altered and misunderstood, but ultimately became the basis for all subsequent records of time until 1582.
Up to the early years of Caesar, the Romans calculated the years against the date of the founding of Rome in 753 bc, or the reign of the succession of emperors. Calends (from which the modern word ‘calendar’ is derived), meaning the coming together of people, was the first day of the month, a time when the priests would announce the sacred events and festivals of the coming month.
The Julian calendar removed the 354-day lunar year calendar, introducing a 365-day solar version, with leap years every four and alternated 30- and 31-day months, with 29 days in February. To bring it into line with the observable motion of the stars, 69 days had to be added to the first year; called the Year of Confusion, this lasted 445 days, with the first day of January starting in the old month of March.
Caesar’s reforms were an important part of the struggle between the sacred and the secular, relieving the priests of their central role in defining the calendar. The objective fact of the day was, for the first time, not subject to the machinations of the priests and their sponsored politicians.
The promise of stability was undermined initially when the leap years were applied every three years instead of every four. This was eventually spotted by Emperor Augustus, so that from AD 4 the dates were correct. Augustus indirectly caused the other main problem in the early years: in recognition of Caesar’s work on the calendar, the senate had changed the name of the month Quintillius to Julius, which we know as July. Similarly, because Augustus had completed a stunning series of military victories in ad 8, so the month of Sextilius was changed to Augustus. Unfortunately this month had only 30 days to Julius’s 31, so they took one day from February and reorganised the 30- and 31-day months from September, producing the disorganised second half of the year which persists today.
Constantine the Great
In AD 312 Constantine moved the centre of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. With its closer proximity to Alexandria, Byzantium was a thriving cultural centre and afforded greater prestige than Rome, which at that time was suffering the fatigue of empire and leadership. The origins of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the great schism with Rome can be found in this move.
Constantine declared himself a Christian and, as a Christian ruler, proceeded to impose his will throughout the Roman Empire, reversing the secular authority established by Caesar over 300 years earlier. He called a gathering of all bishops to Nicea in Turkey to resolve the many differences of faith and modes of worship between the sects that had developed throughout the years since the death of Christ. One main issue was the date of Easter.
After much painful and difficult debate, Constantine was able to make three significant alterations to the Julian calendar. Sunday, at the end of the seven-day weekly cycle, was prescribed as a holy day, deliberately not the Saturday Sabbath of Judaism. Christmas was a fixed holiday, while Easter was the first Sunday after the first full moon after the measurably moveable spring equinox. It is said that the phrase ‘moveable feast’ originates from this feast of Easter. The first council of Christian bishops issued what became known as the Nicene Creed, laying the foundation stones for a single, unified Christian faith, the Catholic (from the Greek katholikos, ‘universal’) Church.
Names of the Months
The English names for the months have their origins in the Latin language and come to us from the Roman Empire.
- January: Januarius. After the god Janus.
- February: Februarius. Februa was the Roman festival of purification.
- March: Martius. After the God Mars.
- April: Aprilis. Either from the Greek god Aphrodite, or the Latin aperire, meaning to open, April being the opening month of spring.
- May: Maius. After the goddess Maia.
- June: Junius. After the goddess Juno.
- July: Julius. After Julius Caesar, in 44 bc, formerly Quintillius, from the Latin for fifth, quintus, being the fifth month of the old Roman calendar.
- August: Augustus. After Emperor Augustus, in 8 bc, formerly Sextilius, from the Latin for sixth, sextus, being the sixth month of the old Roman calendar.
- September: September. From the Latin for seven, septem, being the seventh month of the old Roman calendar.
- October: October. From the Latin for eight, octo, being the eighth month of the old Roman calendar.
- November: November. From the Latin novem, nine, being the ninth month of the old Roman calendar.
- December: December. From the Latin for ten, decem, being the tenth month of the old Roman calendar.
The next Time post looks at Time in the Dark Ages…
Some other posts of interest.
- The first post in the What is Time? sequence
- What is Time? Ancient Calendars
- What is Time? Beginnings of Our Time
- What is Time? Time and the Calendar
- What is Time? Lunar vs Solar Calendar
- William Blake: Artist and Revolutionary
- Only Connect, the Creative Melting pot of 1910 and Modernism
- Fibonacci 0
- Micro-fiction podcast: Time Thief
The image in the head of this post is the Aztec calendar stone, from 15th Century, now housed at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City (see here for a good article)