The Lumber Room

"Consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them"

New Year

with 4 comments

Some time in the last two weeks, I tried to figure out the answers to two questions:

  1. Why does the new year begin on January 1?
  2. Why does January 1 occur when it does?

That is, the history of the calendar. The former question is about the structure of the calendar, and the latter about its (arbitrary) point of origin.

I don’t have definitive answers yet (and I’m beginning to wonder if any exist); please help me if you know something.

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been able to piece together from reading Wikipedia. The calendar most of us use most of the time can be understood in three phases…

Phase I: The (pre-Julian) Roman calendar: before 45 BCE

The Greeks used several lunar calendars. The Romans probably inherited such a calendar, and their early calendar was a lunar one. “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.”

According to Roman tradition, Rome was founded around 753 BCE by Romulus, and Romulus “invented” the following calendar:

    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)  [Total 304 days]
"Winter"                (About 61 days of winter, presumably)

Note that the names for months 5 to 10 (Quintilis to December) are just number names.

The arbitrariness of this calendar already makes no sense, but let’s start with it. We have to start somewhere.

In 713 BCE, Numa divided the winter into two months named Ianuarius and Februarius. Also, to make all the month lengths odd (considered lucky), he took away one day from each of the 30-day months.

Martius                 (31)
Aprilis                 (29)
Maius                   (31)
Iunius                  (29)
Quintilis               (31)
Sextilis                (29)
September               (29)
October                 (31)
November                (29)
December                (29)
Ianuarius               (29)	
Februarius              (28) [Total 355 days]

[Apparently by 450 BCE, the civil calendar had also been changed to start with Ianuarius, so half the month names became misnomers. So here’s where the answer to the first question should come from: why was the calendar changed to start with January/Ianuarius instead of March/Martius?]

February was actually two parts of odd number of days each: Part 1, 23 days, ended with Terminalia (and so did the religious year), and then there was a remaining part of 5 days. From time to time, an intercalary month of 27 days (subsuming the last 5, so only 22 additional days) was added. (So the leap year had 377 or 378 days.) So far the months were still more or less lunar, it appears.

Because the true length of a year is roughly halfway between 355 and 377, the intercalary month was needed roughly every alternate year. Adding the intercalary month was left to the Pontifex Maximus, a pontiff in charge of such things.

However, since the Pontifices were often politicians, and because a Roman magistrate’s term of office corresponded with a calendar year, this power was prone to abuse: a Pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his political allies was in office, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents were in power. If too many intercalations were omitted, as happened after the Second Punic War and during the Civil Wars, the calendar would drift rapidly out of alignment with the tropical year. Moreover, because intercalations were often determined quite late, the average Roman citizen often did not know the date, particularly if he were some distance from the city. For these reasons, the last years of the pre-Julian calendar were later known as “years of confusion”. The problems became particularly acute during the years of Julius Caesar’s pontificate before the reform, 63–46 BC, when there were only five intercalary months, whereas there should have been eight, and none at all during the five Roman years before 46 BC. For example, Caesar crossed the Rubicon on January 10, 49 BC of the official calendar, but the official calendar had drifted so far away from the seasons that it was actually mid-autumn.


Eventually Julius Caesar became Pontifex Maximus, and reformed the calendar into the Julian calendar in 45 BCE. “The reform was intended to correct [the above] problem permanently, by creating a calendar that remained aligned to the sun without any human intervention.”

Phase II: the Julian calendar (45 BCE to some time after 1582 CE)

The Julian Calendar: Eventually Julius Caesar became Pontifex Maximus, and in 45 BCE, “called in the best philosophers and mathematicians of his time” and reformed the calendar into the Julian calendar. He decided to approximate the tropical year, and so it became a calendar of 365 days with a leap year added to February (still the last month of the religious calendar?) every four years. So a year became exactly 365.25 days on average.

Somewhere here is where one should look for the answer to the second question: what about the start of the year?

“A passage in Macrobius has been interpreted to mean that Caesar decreed that the first day of the new calendar began with the new moon which fell on the night of 1/2 January 45 BC. However, more recent studies of the manuscripts have shown that the word on which this is based, which was formerly read as lunam, should be read as linam, meaning that Macrobius was simply stating that Caesar published an edict giving the revised calendar.”

Ah, if the new moon explanation were correct, it would have answered the second question! So close.

In any case, this wasn’t the end. “the pontifices apparently misunderstood the algorithm for leap years. They added a leap day every three years, instead of every four years. […] After 36 years, this resulted in three too many leap days. Augustus remedied this discrepancy by restoring the correct frequency. He also skipped three leap days in order to realign the year. Once this reform was complete—after AD 8 at the latest—the Roman calendar was the same as the Julian proleptic calendar.”

Ah, finally! The year is fixed. Sort of.

The solstices and the equinoxes were now: 25 December, 25 March, 24 June, 24 September.

Quintilis was renamed Iulius after Iulius Caesar, and Sextilis was renamed Augustus after his successor Augustus Caesar. (Incidentally, these were not the only months to be renamed, just the only renamings to survive: “Caligula renamed September (“seventh month”) as Germanicus; Nero renamed Aprilis (April) as Neroneus, Maius (May) as Claudius and Iunius (June) as Germanicus; and Domitian renamed September as Germanicus and October (“eighth month”) as Domitianus. At other times, September was also renamed as Antoninus and Tacitus, and November (“ninth month”) was renamed as Faustina and Romanus. Commodus was unique in renaming all twelve months after his own adopted names […]” So apparently the trick in getting a month named after you is to do the renaming when the calendar is in flux, not after it’s been fixed.

Phase III: the Gregorian calendar: a few years after 1582 to today

The Gregorian calendar is what we use today, more or less.

The Julian calendar’s average of 365.25 days a year instead of about 365.2425 days a year is about 11 minutes extra each year, or about 3 days extra every 4 centuries. So the year had drifted, which had to be corrected, and in future, 3 leap days had to be removed every 4 centuries. Pope Gregory decreed this in 1582, though it took many countries a few centuries to take (or be forced to take) him seriously. This explains the “century years are not leap years unless divisible by 400” rule. Of course, Gregory’s calculation also wasn’t entirely perfect, but it’s handled nowadays by adding leap seconds etc. to the official clocks, and most of us aren’t even aware of it. (This is a mess, which David Madore has written about here.) When the calendar was introduced, it also dropped 10 days, and those who switched centuries later had to drop 10/11/12/13 days.

That’s about all of the history I have time for right now…
(It seems the answer to starting on 1 January may have something to do with some consul’s decision on when to start; the 2nd question is harder.)

Bonus: Why Christmas is on December 25th. The popular explanation is that it was a pagan winter-solstice festival that was appropriated, but according to some Christians, only the festival is pagan, not necessarily the date.

Written by S

Mon, 2011-01-10 at 15:13:07

Posted in history, unfinished

4 Responses

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  1. The procrastination post moved to your private blog? (it was there in my RSS reader :)

    After spending an unproductive unsatisfying semester as a grad student, I decided to start a daily log, that my friend-mentor checks every day. I check his daily log too. If I go off track for a couple of days or more, I get a scolding :P It works so far :P

    Happy New Year!


    Mon, 2011-01-10 at 23:42:43

    • Happy New Year!

      That post… oops, it was never meant to be ‘public’; I marked it as “private” immediately after posting it, but the internet is too quick :-|

      And you’re right. More than any other solution, enlisting the help of friends to watch over you is the best way of solving procrastination (and a great way of keeping friends too :p). This is the most important lesson and the one I’ve been most loath to try; thanks for reminding me.


      Tue, 2011-01-11 at 00:30:24

  2. I have always been thinking that the shift to January as the first month of the Roman year had to do with its being the first month after the Sol Invictus’ festival. In modern, non-religious terms, it is the first month starting after the Winter solstice (Notice that March was instead the month of the Spring Equinox).
    I am not sure I understand your second question, though.

    elisa freschi

    Tue, 2011-02-15 at 17:21:15

    • Thanks! That is certainly an appealing and plausible explanation. And sorry for taking so long to reply.

      My second question is this: with respect to, say, the tropical year, January 1st occurs at a certain point each year: about 10 days after winter solstice. The question is: why at this point, rather than (for instance) 20 days after the winter solstice, or 40 days before the winter solstice, etc.? We could have a January 1st that is 20 days after winter solstice, and still have the same calendar: only the dates of events like solstices would be translated by a constant number of days.


      Wed, 2011-06-15 at 13:44:20

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