Monday, October 15, 2012

The Evolution of the Roman Calendar

The Evolution of the Roman Calendar


By Dwayne Meisner

Past Imperfect, Vol.15 (2009)

Fasti Antiates Maiores — Miniature black and w...
Fasti Antiates Maiores — Miniature black and white image of a 1 m high by 2.5 m wide fragmentary fresco of a pre-Julian Roman calendar (black and red letters on a white background) found in the ruins of Nero's villa at Antium (Anzio). The lengths of January to December are 29, 28, 31, 29, 31, 29, 31, 29, 29, 31, 29, 29 days each in years without the leap month Intercalaris. Now in the Palazzo Massimo. See Fasti Antiates. Adapted for legibility from a class handout. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Abstract: The Roman calendar was first developed as a lunar calendar, so it was difficult for the Romans to reconcile this with the natural solar year. In 45 BC, Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, creating a solar year of 365 days with leap years every four years. This article explains the process by which the Roman calendar evolved and argues that the reason February has 28 days is that Caesar did not want to interfere with religious festivals that occurred in February. Beginning as a lunar calendar, the Romans developed a lunisolar system that tried to reconcile lunar months with the solar year, with the unfortunate result that the calendar was often inaccurate by up to four months. Caesar fixed this by changing the lengths of most months, but made no change to February because of the tradition of intercalation, which the article explains, and because of festivals that were celebrated in February that were connected to the Roman New Year, which had originally been on March 1.

Introduction: The reason why February has 28 days in the modern calendar is that Caesar did not want to interfere with festivals that honored the dead, some of which were untouched. In order for this to be made clear, we need to have a grasp of the ways in which the Romans measured months and years, and positioned festivals within the year. This article begins with a brief description of the structure of the calendar and its earliest origins as a lunar calendar. In order to correct the discrepancy that inevitably resulted from the calendar’s inaccuracies, from time to time an intercalary month was added. After discussing the way this worked, the article looks at how festivals were organized within each month, and how this affected, and was affected by, intercalation. The Terminalia and Regifugium were especially important in their positions relative to the insertion of the intercalary month, and in ways that will become clear as the article proceeds, these festivals were crucial in influencing Caesar’s decisions regarding the calendar which, for the most part, we still use today. Therefore, to understand the Roman calendar is to understand the origin of our own calendar.