Leadership in History

How Julius Caesar Created The Longest Year In History, Defining January 1

FLI Roman Calendar

1. What was the longest year in history ?

It sounds like a silly question, but it’s not. There is a correct answer: It was 46 BC. Julius Caesar stretched that year out to a whopping size. He wanted to make the following year begin at the right time again: that is, after the winter solstice.

Using the best astronomy and mathematics of the time, Caesar tinkered the old Roman calendar to make it fit the reality of the solar year. That’s the year of 365 days (plus a few hours) that we take for granted today. We still divide it into 12 months, and still call them by their Roman names. But to begin this new measure of time, Caesar declared a transitional year of 445 days. It was known as the “last year of confusion.” People began the year 46 making plans in the usual way, but suddenly they were told: the year would have three additional months.

Before Caesar’s reform, the Roman calendar was in a terrible mess. Originally, it was based on the moon, not the sun. Lunar calendars take their dates from observed lunar phases — new moon to full moon and back again. The priests of Rome juggled a shifting 12-month calendar that ran at least ten days behind the solar year. In theory, they could tack additional days onto February every other year to make calendar dates coincide more with the natural seasons. But this meant that the priests had to pay attention and make adjusting the calendar a serious priority. However, the years before Caesar’s rise to power were extremely turbulent. The calendar slipped farther and farther behind amid all the political turmoil. Harvest festivals no longer fell at harvest time.

If the old calendar system seems arbitrary, remember what a calendar was in those days. We think of the calendar as a universal measure of time. It’s like a perfect grid that can be extended endlessly into the future. There’s a website that tells me my birthday in the year 2128 will fall on a Monday.

But in antiquity, calendars were simply ways of organizing religious festivals, the terms of contracts, and other social arrangements. People knew calendars could be shifted and manipulated-even for political reasons. Priests and officials “kept” the time, and different calendars were in use throughout the world. Calendar time simply wasn’t as fixed back then. An ancient calendar was more like a schedule, subject to change and revision.

So Caesar’s reform was all the more remarkable. As both high priest and dictator of Rome, he had the authority to impose a whole new scheme on the Roman world. Cicero joked that this man now wished to control the very stars, which rose according to his new calendar as if by edict. Caesar’s calendar still needed some minor adjustments, but Europe never got another jumbo year like 46 BC. And to this day, we are still marching along on Caesar’s time.

by Richard Armstrong at the University of Houston

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FLI Numa Pompilius

Numa Pompilius added the months of January and February to the calendar around 700 B.C. Pompilius succeeded Romulus as the second king of Rome in 673 BCE, here on a silver denarius minted by his descendent Pompey in 49 BCE.

2. A History of the New Year

A move from March to January

The celebration of the new year on January 1st is a relatively new phenomenon. The earliest recording of a new year celebration is believed to have been in Mesopotamia, c. 2000 B.C. and was celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid-March. A variety of other dates tied to the seasons were also used by various ancient cultures. The Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians began their new year with the fall equinox, and the Greeks celebrated it on the winter solstice.

Early Roman Calendar: March 1st Rings in the New Year

The early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the new year. The calendar had just ten months, beginning with March. That the new year once began with the month of March is still reflected in some of the names of the months. September through December, our ninth through twelfth months, were originally positioned as the seventh through tenth months (septem is Latin for “seven,” octo is “eight,” novem is “nine,” and decem is “ten.”

January Joins the Calendar

The first time the new year was celebrated on January 1st was in Rome in 153 B.C. (In fact, the month of January did not even exist until around 700 B.C., when the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, added the months of January and February.) The new year was moved from March to January because that was the beginning of the civil year, the month that the two newly elected Roman consuls—the highest officials in the Roman republic—began their one-year tenure. But this new year date was not always strictly and widely observed, and the new year was still sometimes celebrated on March 1.

Julian Calendar: January 1st Officially Instituted as the New Year

In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar introduced a new, solar-based calendar that was a vast improvement on the ancient Roman calendar, which was a lunar system that had become wildly inaccurate over the years. The Julian calendar decreed that the new year would occur with January 1, and within the Roman world, January 1 became the consistently observed start of the new year.

Middle Ages: January 1st Abolished

In medieval Europe, however, the celebrations accompanying the new year were considered pagan and unchristian like, and in 567 the Council of Tours abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on Dec. 25, the birth of Jesus; March 1; March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation; and Easter.

Gregorian Calendar: January 1st Restored

In 1582, the Gregorian calendar reform restored January 1 as new year’s day. Although most Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar almost immediately, it was only gradually adopted among Protestant countries. The British, for example, did not adopt the reformed calendar until 1752. Until then, the British Empire —and their American colonies— still celebrated the new year in March.

by Borgna Brunner for infoplease.com

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FLI Roman Calendar3. The Roman calendar explained

The pictured calendar is a Roman Republican calendar before Julius Caesar’s reform (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons).

At the top are the month names (Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec), but notice July and August — later to be named after Julius and Augustus Caesar-still bear the old names Quintilis and Sextilis (“fifth month,” “sixth month”). Also at the far right a month is labeled INTER, which stands for the extra intercalary month added every two years or so to make the calendar stay in step with the solar year. At the bottom in Roman numerals are the old day totals for those months, which do not coincide with our totals. The letters running down in columns are simply marking an eight-day market cycle, which does not coincide with the scheme of months. The Romans did not yet have a 7-day planetary week like ours.

Days were reckoned individually this way: first of the month was called the kalends (marked K here), then one counted down toward the nones (marked NON), then counted down again toward the ides (marked EIDVS). From the ides, one reckoned towards the next kalends, that is, the beginning of the next month. The system seems very odd to us, because it means on this calendar November 14 would be called “the sixteenth day before the kalends of December.” It is assumed that the system is based on the original practice of lunar observations. At the kalends, the pontiffs would “call” (calare) a new moon; nones would be the half moon, and ides the full moon. From there one simply disregarded the phases of the waning moon and looked forward to the calling of the next new moon.

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