Friday, November 11, 2011

Numa Pompilius and his calendar

Since our Roman King of the moment, Numa Pompilius is credited with reforming the calendar, I figured it would be an opportune moment to discuss what the months we still use today actually mean. Although the calendar was reformed two more times after Numa, first by Julius Caesar and much later by Pope Gregory XIII, Numa made the most significant changes.

Before Numa’s reign, the calendar had only 10 months. (Some say it was Romulus himself to invent the first Roman calendar!) This explains why the last four months of the year seem to be named after the wrong numbers: September, the seventh month, October, the eighth month, November, the ninth month and December, the tenth month. The calendar year was 304 days long and winter, oddly enough, was considered a monthless period.

In 713 BC, King Numa had the bright idea to add two months to the calendar year, and these were January and February. Although it is certain that it was Numa (if he actually existed, of course) to add these months, there is differing among Roman writers as to who actually decided that January would be the first month of the year. Some sources claim it was the Decimvirs to do this in 450 BC, but others maintain it was Numa himself. I tend to go with Numa, simply because of the name he chose.

Januarius (January) was named after Janus, god of beginnings and endings. Also god of gates and doorways, he is depicted as having two faces, one looking ahead and one looking behind. This is an apt name for a month that opens and closes the year which is what makes me think it was Numa himself to make this change.

Februarius (February) was named after Februa, a purification festival of Sabine origin that occurred on ides of February (the 15th of the month).
Martius (March) was named for the god Mars. As the god of war, this was Mars’ month because this was the time of year during which, after the cold, wet winter, war would again be taken up. Until Numa’s time, March was the first month of the year.

Aprilis (April) is a bit more complicated as it is not certain exactly from where the name derives. One possibility is that the name comes from the Latin word aperire, to open, as this is the month in which the flowers and plants are opening. To me that seems like a bit of a stretch, so I’m going to go with the other school of thought that would have it that April was named for the goddess Venus (Apru in Etruscan and Aphrodite in Greek), whose festival was on the first of that month.

Maius (May) is more straight forward. It is dedicated to Maia, Greek goddess of the spring and growth. She is the daughter of Atlas, the wife of Vulcan and the mother of Hermes (that is, Mercury, not the most beautiful scarves in the world, although she seems to have one on in this picture).

Junius (June) is clearly named for Juno, one of the three most important gods in the Roman pantheon, and the patron goddess of Rome. She is the goddess of marriage and the well-being of women. She is both the sister and the wife of the chief god, Jupiter. Her Greek counterpart is Hera.

Quintilis (July) originally the fifth month as its name implies, was eventually changed by Augustus in 44 BC to honor Julius Caesar, who had been born during that month. The second major calendar reform took place under Julius Caesar and Augustus carried on this project after Caesar’s assassination.

Sextilis (August), the sixth month, was renamed in 8 BC, also by Augustus, and this time to honor himself, despite the fact that he was born in September. (I’ll go into Julian calendar reform in more detail when we reach the first century in our very slow moving history of Rome. Don't hold your breath!)
Photo sources: 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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