TIMELINE: ANCIENT ROME
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WESTERN CALENDAR

Provides a chronological index of the history of Ancient Rome with extensive links to internet resources. Emphasis is placed upon the use of primary source material, numismatics, and a focus upon the roles of women in ancient time.

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WESTERN CALENDAR

CONTENTS

THE EARLY ROMAN CALENDAR

The Romans often cited events from the traditional foundation of their city ab urbe conditâ, or A.U.C., said to be 753 BCE (although later they used years A.D. that is, after the emperor Diocletian, ruled 284-305 CE). During the Republic, they also cited years using the names of reigning consuls, and of course in the Imperial period, they often used Roman emperors, for instance, an historian might say, during the reign of Tiberius, such and such occurred.

Plutarch, writing in The Life of Numa Pompilius, explains how the calendar had fallen into complete disarray, to be reformed by Pompilius. I quote Plutarch at length due to the richness of the passage. He wrote:

"(Pompilius) attempted, also, the formation of a calendar, not with absolute exactness, yet not without some scientific knowledge. During the reign of Romulus, they had let their months run on without any certain or equal term; some of them contained twenty days, others thirty-five, others more; they had no sort of knowledge of the inequality in the motions of the sun and moon; they only kept to the one rule that the whole course of the year contained three hundred and sixty days. Numa, calculating the difference between the lunar and the solar year at eleven days, for that the moon completed her anniversary course in three hundred and fifty-four days, and the sun in three hundred and sixty-five, to remedy this incongruity doubled the eleven days, and every other year added an intercalary month, to follow February, consisting of twenty-two days, and called by the Romans the month Mercedinus. This amendment, however, itself, in course of time, came to need other amendments. He also altered the order of the months; for March, which was reckoned the first he put into the third place; and January, which was the eleventh, he made the first; and February, which was the twelfth and last, the second. Many will have it, that it was Numa, also, who added the two months of January and February..."

Plutarch also gives a very interesting account as to the probable origins of the names of the months. Note, however, that there was disagreement as to their origins even in Plutarch's day.

"That the Romans, at first, comprehended the whole year within ten, and not twelve months, plainly appears by the name of the last, December, meaning the tenth month; and that March was the first is likewise evident, for the fifth month after it was called Quintilis, and the sixth Sextilis, and so the rest; whereas, if January and February had, in this account, preceded March, Quintilis would have been fifth in name and seventh in reckoning. It was also natural that March, dedicated to Mars, should be Romulus's first and April, named from Venus, or Aphrodite, his second month; in it they sacrifice to Venus, and the women bathe on the calends, or first day of it, with myrtle garlands on their heads. But others, because of its being p and not ph, will not allow of the derivation of this word from Aphrodite, but say it is called April from aperio, Latin for to open, because that this month is high spring, and opens and discloses the buds and flowers. The next is called May, from Maia, the mother of Mercury, to whom it is sacred; then June follows, so called from Juno; some, however, derive them from the two ages, old and young, majores, being their name for older, and juniores for younger men. To the other months they gave denominations according to their order; so the fifth was called Quintilis, Sextilis the sixth, and the rest, September, October, November, and December. Afterwards Quintilis received the name of Julius, from Caesar, who defeated Pompey; as also Sextilis that of Augustus, from the second Caesar, who had that title. Domitian, also, in imitation, gave the two other following months his own names, of Germanicus and Domitianus; but, on his being slain, they recovered their ancient denominations of September and October. The two last are the only ones that have kept their names throughout without any alteration. Of the months which were added or transposed in their order by Numa, February comes from februa; and is as much a Purification month; in it they make offerings to the dead, and celebrate the Lupercalia, which, in most points, resembles a purification. January was also called from janus, and precedence given to it by Numa before March, which was dedicated to the god Mars; because, as I conceive, he wished to take every opportunity of intimating that the arts and studies of peace are to be preferred before those of war."

An accurate calendar was important for an agrarian society and became even more so for a bureaucratic empire with a complex economy. Archeological remains reveal that Romans often painted the calendar on the walls of their homes.

| Archeological remains of Roman calendar fragment |

The month was divided into the Kalends, the first day of the month, the Nones, which was the 9th day before the Ides (counting Idus itself as the 1st day), and the Ides, which was the 13th day of January, February, April, June, August, September, November, and December, or the 15th day of March, May, July, or October. Other days were counted in relation to these three points.

It is presumed that the early Roman calendar was influenced by the Babylonians, and this is also true of the days of the week. The names of the days of the week were derived from the heavenly bodies which were known to the ancients, namely, the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. The names of heavenly bodies were also used as deities. During the Medieval Period, similar Norse equivalents replaced some of the Roman gods. Tuesday comes from Tiu, the Norse god of war. The supreme deity Woden names Wednesday, Thursday is named in honour of Thor, the god of thunder, while Friday was Frigg, the wife of Odin and goddess of love and beauty.

Over 200 fragments of Roman calendars are extant, and they reveal both temporal and geographical variations in their format.

THE JULIAN CALENDAR

Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BCE -17 CE, more commonly known as Ovid, is our most important source for the Julian reforms to the calendar, and along with Plutarch, the most important source for Roman calendar information. This is true even though only the first 6 of 12 books, (1 for each month of the year) of his Fasti, a poetic calendar describing festivals and the legends, are extant.

As Plutarch explained above, the Roman calendar was originally based upon lunar, not solar calculations, and an "intercalary month", amongst other fine tunings, was needed to remedy the difference, and keep the calendar consistent with the seasons. For reasons which are not entirely clear, this was not always done, and consequently, by the time of Julius Caesar in the 1st Cen. BCE, the calendar was, bluntly, a mess.

Caesar employed the skills of the apparently quite brilliant astronomer and mathematician Sosigenes, of whom, unfortunately, little is known. His astronomical writings, including Revolving Spheres, are lost. Only a few isolated fragments remain, including one which asserts Sosigenes' belief that the planet Mercury revolves around the Sun.

| Coin depicting Julius Caesar | Ca. 45 BCE |

Sosigenes convinced Caesar to adopt his reforms, and, on Jan. 1, 45 BCE, the "Julian" calendar came into effect, which posits a 365.25 day year, with an extra day every fourth year as a leap year. Hence the calendar was now truly solar rather than lunar, and January 1st replaced March 1st as New Year's Day, which of course it remains.

THE GREGORIAN CALENDAR

At 365.25 days, the Julian Calendar was very accurate for an ancient calendar, however it was in error, as it included an extra 11 minutes 14 seconds per year. Over a century this error amounted to almost 3/4 of a day, and in 1,000 years amounted to approximately one week.

Pope Gregory XIII, upon his election in 1572, received proposals for correcting the calendar, as the vernal equinox, which was used in determining the date of Easter, had moved 10 days from its proper date by this time. Gregory came to accept the proposals based upon the work of Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius and Aloysius Lilius. In order to correct the date of the vernal equinox to March 21, the day after October 5 was designated as October 15, eliminating 10 days. Also, the year was determined to be 365.2422 days, as opposed to 365.25 days, in length. This difference of 3.12 days every 400 years led to the rule that three out of every four centennial years not be leap years (as they would have been in the Julian calendar). Thus, no centennial year is a leap year unless divisible by 400. The year 2000 will be will be a leap year by this formula.

| Detail from the Très Riches Heures: February | Limbourg Brothers | Nimwegen | Ca. 1408 |

THE MODERN CALENDAR

The origins of the calendar which we use today are often credited to the Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus, who lived in the middle of the 6th century, however this is inaccurate. Exiguus was concerned, as were other theological scholars of his day, with the correct date of Easter. Also, in his day, years were often cited as A.D., meaning after the emperor Diocletian. Dionysius desired to change this fact, as Diocletian was a notorious persecutor of Christians during his rule from 284 to 305 CE. In his calculations, he also explored a determination of the date for the birth of Christ. He placed this date, probably wrongly, as the eighth day before the Calends of January in the year 753 ab urbe conditâ, that is, 753 years after the founding of Rome. Hence the Calends of January in 754 ab urbe conditâ became the first day of A.D. 1. He called the years following Christ's birth years "of the Lord", which became Anno Domini or A.D., and the years preceding Ante Christum or A.C. The term B.C. is usually credited to Saint Bede, an English monk, who in 731, used it in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. So Exiguus had little or nothing to do with reforming the mechanics of the calendar per se, rather, he is partly responsible for the system of how we number our years.

While no one person can be credited with devising the calendar, the system which we use today most resemble that devised by the 1st Cen. BCE Greek scholar Sosigenes, as the Gregorian and Christian reforms were arguably minor in comparison to his work.

The majority of scholars today no longer use the terms A.D. or B.C., we instead use the terms BCE and CE, which mean Before Common Era, (some say "Current Era") and Common Era, respectively. This is done in order to use objective, non-denominational terms.

THE MEANING OF CHRONOLOGY

TIMELINE: ANCIENT ROME presents to you a chronology of history, and as such, it is interesting and valuable to note the the meaning of chronology and the origins and evolution of our calendric system. As we enter a new millennium there exists an enhanced interest in this topic, and an increased realisation of its relevance to our daily lives.

The word chronology, as does much of our language, comes from the Greek. It is a combination of two words, Kronos and logos.

Kronos was the Greek god of time. The Romans, in Latin, referred to Kronos as Saturn; he was both a god and a planet. Kronos, according to ancient myth, ate his own children, as was masterfully rendered by Goya in the accompanying illustration. Time of course does devour each of us, as we are but children of time, and this was the meaning of the myth.

It is interesting to note that Aristophanes, Ca. 400 BCE, uses the term kronos as a pejorative, meaning "old fool", in his play Wasps.

| Detail from Saturn Devouring His Children | Francisco (José) de Goya | Spain | Ca.1820 |

Logos had various, albeit related, meanings, such as computation or reckoning, as in the computation of money. It was used as such in Herodotus The Histories, in the 5th Cen. BCE. It was also used as the relation, or proportion of one thing to another, such as the relation of gold to lead, as used by Aeschylus, who was born in Attica Ca. 525 BCE. Put together Kronos and logos mean a reckoning of time, and were used in this manner as early as the first Century BCE. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus states, for example, "after Artaxerxes' death (Bagoas) designated in every case the successor to the throne and enjoyed all the functions of kingship save the title. But of these matters we shall record the details in their proper chronological sequence."

In order to establish a systematic relationship, or correspondence in time, from one event to another, it is first necessary to designate an arbitrary point upon a chronological scale from which we can then measure temporal distance, in empirically consistent and verifiable units, as either before or after this point. The Romans used the legendary founding date of their city, 753 BCE as this point, and in the Western world, since the 6th Cen., we have used the presumed date of the birth of Christ. Scholars today have little faith in the accuracy of the dates traditionally cited for either of these designations.

A chronology to the historian is very much like longitude to the geographer. In order to reckon an east to west position on the globe, geographers created imaginary points of longitude, before or after the arbitrary point at Greenwich, England, which has been designated as zero. As with time, there really are no corresponding points in nature for these designations. While the solar year records a natural event, time is not a dependent of this activity, hence, our system of record keeping has been determined by chance, and simply serves to quantify and measure the concept of time, a concept which, in truth, remains beyond our comprehensible grasp.

WHEN DID THE THIRD MILLENNIUM BEGIN?

The Third Millennium began the stroke of midnight, the eve of December 31, 2000, that is, January 1, 2001. The Third Millennium did not begin upon the transition from 1999 to 2000. Here is why.

A millennium consists of an inclusive 1,000 years. When Dionysius Exiguus devised the system by which we count years, he did not place a year zero in between 1 B.C. and 1 A.D., so the first thousand years, since January 1, year 1, had passed upon the stroke of midnight, December 31, 1000, and the Second Millennium began January 1, 1001. Add one thousand years to that, and you get January 1, 2001 as the beginning of the new millennium.

Imagine that you are driving a brand new car, with absolutely no mileage on the odometer. Yes, you have travelled 1,000 miles when the odometer reads 1,000, but that is because you started at zero. Our calendar did not start at zero, it started at one, so to travel 1,000 years from one, we will have to to reach 1,001.

The timeline is divided chronologically into eight sections:

This symbol indicates a link to a primary source text

Click here to learn the real story

behind the events and characters portrayed in the movie Gladiator.

Kindly report any suggestions, problems, errors, or dead links by emailing david(at)exovedate.com

Copyright © David Neelin: All Rights Reserved

Using info from this site?

For detailed copyright information and bibliographic citation, click here

contact the author by emailing david(at)exovedate.com (note: replace (at) with the @ symbol)