Trivia 053: The Youngest Month

Well here we are again, caught in the grip of January. The weather outside is cold and gray, we don’t have the holidays to look forward to, and we’re all back at work. At least I have ensured that my area won’t be getting any more snow this year (by buying some new snow boots) /joke. But although this month is rather slow and frozen, it is a good time to plan the future, and consider the old year.

January is, after all, named after the Roman god Janus. He was the god of beginnings and endings, doorways, transitions, and time. Depicted with two faces, he simultaneously looked towards the future and back at the past. A fitting name for the first month of the year. But it didn’t always use to be thus. The original Roman calendar, off which our modern Gregorian Calendar is based, only had ten months.

Yes, that’s right, ten months. The year started in March, and ended in December. The winter months of January and February were considered “dead”, and were not named. The first month, March (Martius) was named after Mars, the god of war. It was during this time that the weather became good enough to begin military campaigns. April’s name (Aprilis) is somewhat debated, but may come from the Latin word aperio (to open), symbolizing when flowers open their buds. May (Maius) was either named after a goddess of fertility, or the Latin word for “elders”. June (Junus) was similarly either named after Juno or for the Latin word for “young ones”. Following these months were the boring Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December, the 5th through 10th months respectively. According to Roman tradition, it was King Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome (715–672 BC), who gave them their names. As stated previously, January (Januarius) was named after Janus. February, meanwhile, was named after the Februa, a purification ritual held during that month.

These two months, January and February, were at the end of the calendar until some time between 700 BC and 450 BC. At this point, various revisions to the calendar were made, which included moving those months to the beginning of the year. This did have the consequence of making the numbered months (Quintilis through December) have numbers which no longer matched their positions, but nobody seems to have cared much.

Then, in 45 BC, Julius Caesar instituted a reform of the calendar, creating the Julian Calendar. This reform standardized the number of days in each month, and also did away with the “intercalary month” in favor of the now common leap day. In 44 BC, following Julius’s death, Quintilis was renamed “July” in his honor, as that was the month he was born. Finally, in 8 BC, Sextilis was renamed in honor of Augustus Caesar, creating “August“. So despite what you may hear, Julius and Augustus are not actually to blame for the fact that September through December don’t match their numbers.

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