By watching the movement of the sun, moon and stars, man began his journey of conceptualizing time, eventually dividing it into days, weeks, months and years. The process of arranging them in an orderly fashion ultimately led to the invention of the calendar.
In the 7th century B.C., Numa Popilius, the second king of Rome after Romulus, altered the primitive Roman calendar adding two months: Januarius and Februarius. (The former was added to the beginning of the year, and the latter placed at the end.) In 452 B.C. Decemvirs inserted Februarius between the months of January and March.
By the year 46 BC, under the reign of Julius Caesar, the calendar was in such disarray that the months no longer correlated with the seasons. After a trip to Egypt, where Julius learned of the solar calendar, he re-constructed the Latin calendar confusion and employed the Julian calendar.
Fast forward to 1582, 1600 years after the Julian calendar was implemented, and time was off by ten days. To correct the chaos, Pope Gregory XIII repaired the calendar with the help of astronomers; and by issue of a papal bull, designated the Gregorian calendar the “official calendar.”
Unfortunately, October 4th-14th would be lost in its emancipation. (Not many people were fond of the idea of losing ten days of their lives and numerous countries did not make the switch until many years later.)
Now that we know a very brief history on the calendar itself, let’s take a look at how the actual months were given their names, as well as, some interesting Roman facts:
January-from the Latin, Januarius(derived from janua, meaning “door.”)
The month of January was sacred to the Romans for it was named after their Roman god, Janus. Janus was depicted with two faces, one for the future, and the other for the past. He was also the keeper of doors, gates and entrances, which further explains his two faces- for doors both open and close. Janus was introduced into worship by Romulus, the founder of Rome; and it was Numa Popilus whom erected a temple for the god.
Coins with Janus’ figure held both a staff and key or the Roman numerals CCC (300) and LXV (65) to mark the number of days in the year.
February- from the Latin Febuarius. Februare means to “purify” and is linked with Februus , another name for Faunus who is the Roman counterpart of the Greek god, Pan. Consequently, the month of February became the time for purification and an occasion when people repented their wrongdoings.
Three important festivals took place during this month: The Festival of Februa, The Feast of Lupercalia and the Feast of Feralia.
March was so named after the Roman god Mars, whose Latin name was Martius. Mars was the Roman god of war, so it’s needless to say that the Romans identified quite closely with him. Early on in Roman history Mars was the god of springtime, therefore it was logical that the month of Martius was the first month of the new year. (It’s disputed as to when the month of January actually became the commencement month of the new year; some believe it began with Julius Caesar and the adoption of the Julian calendar, others say it was already in place at the time of the Roman Republic.)
April is from the Latin, Aprilius. How this month gained its name is debated.
Given that April was the month of festivals to the goddess Venus, some believe the Latin word Aprilis is a corrupted form of Aphrodite (the Greek name for Venus) through the word aphrilis. Others say it stems from the Latin word aperire, which means “to open.” (This is in recognition of the time of year when buds begin to bloom.)
Jakob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm, believed the month was named after the mythological hero Aper or Aprus.
Needless to say, April was indeed sacred to Venus for her Festum Veneris and Fortuna Virilis were celebrated during this time.
April was also the month of the Ludi Magalenses (public games,) in honor of the deity Cybele.
The birthday of Rome was celebrated on the twenty-first, and the time for the ceremony Vinalia Urbana. (This ceremony was actually a wine tasting.)
On April 28th and for five consecutive days the Ludi Florales was observed in honor of the deity of flowers, Flora.
May is possibly named after the goddess, Maia, who was the mother of Mercury and the daughter of Atlas. Other’s claim that May was named in tribute to the Maiores, a branch of the Roman Senate.
May was the third month of the calendar for a time and was under the protection of Apollo.
Lemuria, a holiday to protect ones home from the unhappy dead was observed; and despite the month of May being dedicated to love, it was not considered a good time for marriage due to the Lemuria observance.
June-Some believe the month Junius was named after Juno, the wife of Jupiter. Others claim it was in honor of the Juniores, the lower branch of the Roman consulate. Still others believe it was named after the consulate of Junius Brutus. However it gained its name, it was originally the fourth month. It was Julius Caesar that restored it to thirty days from its previous twenty-six. June also became the month for weddings, since many were postponed in May.
July was originally called Quintilis, which signified it as the fifth month. It was comprised of thirty-six days and in 44 BC its name was officially changed to July after Julius Caesar. (Unfortunately, this was also the year that Caesar was stabbed by Brutus.
July was a time of illness for the Romans, as many of them became unwell due to the oppressive heat. In relation to the high temperatures and the rising and setting of the little dog-star Canicula, the period between July 3rd and August 11th was known as the “dog days;” a term still in use today.
August was once known as Sextilis, Latin for the number “six.” It was changed to “August” in honor of the Caesar Augustus. Not wanting his month to be inferior to that of his uncle’s namesake month, Augustus borrowed a day from February so that both July and August had an equal amount of days. Even though Augustus was born in September, he was partial to the month of August. It was during “his” month that many fortunate events, such as the conquest of Egypt, occurred for him.
September is derived from the Latin septem, meaning “seven,” since September was at one time the seventh month. The Ludi Magni or Ludi Romani games were played during this month in honor of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (the best and the greatest,) along with Minerva and Juno. Together, these three gods were known as the Capitoline Triads.
October’s name comes from the Latin term octo meaning “eight.”
Four times the Roman Senate tried to change the name to no avail, as the Romans preferred the name October over any other offered. The choices for re-naming the eighth month were: Germanicus, Antonius, Faustina, and Herculeus.
Roman festivals honoring Jupiter and Mars were celebrated during October, as well as, the Chariot Race in the Campus Martius and the slaughter of the October Horse.
November- Novem is Latin for “nine” and keeping in mind that November was the ninth month on the calendar, it too retained its original name. The Senate tried renaming it Tiberius, but the Emperor himself refused.
Once again, November was an important month; it not only marked the beginning of winter, but the time when the Ludi Plebei was played, November 4th-17th. These games, held at the Circus Flaminia in the Campus Martius, honored the god Jupiter.
December- The Latin term decem means “tenth,” and once again the Romans refused to change it to a more fitting name. Emperor Commodus suggested the name Amazonius, in honor of his mistress who had been painted as an Amazon. His wish was obviously not granted.
One of the most popular festivals of the year was held during December, that of the Saturnalia. This well-loved celebration was a week -long conglomeration of feasts, role reversals, and joke playing, as well as a time of gift-exchange.