When not January but March was the first month of the year


Although there are many versions of the story behind the present day calendar, this one is most pragmatic. Read on to know more.

You may think the title of this post is misleading but is not. There was a time when March was the first month of the year and December the last. January and February didn’t even exist.

The earliest calendars had its flaws, and each was designed suiting their own civilisation. The Romans, taking a more pragmatic approach, designed a calendar based on agricultural seasons. Knowledge of the earth’s revolution wasn’t clear and rampant, hence the calendar was lunar in nature rather than solar.

In the 8th century BCE, the Romans used the calendar of Romulus, a 10-month calendar that began in spring (March) and ended in December. September, October, November and December were the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th month of the year. Their names too were derived from the geometrical terms – Septagon, Octagon, Nonagon and Decagon. As per that calendar, the months and days in each were as follows:

Martius: 31 days
Aprilius: 30 days
Maius: 31 days
Junius: 30 days
Quintilis: 31 days
Sextilis: 30 days
September: 30 days
October: 31 days
November: 30 days
December: 30 days

Though this calendar helped tide over the problems faced in the other calendars, it had a major flaw – it only had 304 days, short of 61 days to the next spring. Back then, winter had no relevance in the agricultural calendar and hence was not accounted for while creating the calendar. So for 61 days of the year, the Romans lived through a nameless month. This continued till King Numa Pompilius assumed the throne.

In 713 BCE, in an attempt to account for the missing 61 days and to line up the calendar with the year’s 12 lunar cycles – a span of about 355 days, King Numa introduced 2 new months – January and February, which were added to the end of the calendar. While doing this, he also factored in the Roman superstition of even numbers being unlucky. But to reach 355, one month had to be even. Since February was the last month it was chosen as the sacrificial lamb.  After these changes, Numa’s calendar looked like this.

Martius: 31 days
Aprilius: 29 days
Maius: 31 days
Iunius: 29 days
Quintilis: 31 days
Sextilis: 29 days
September: 29 days
October: 31 days
November: 29 days
December: 29 days
Ianuarius: 29 days
Februarius: 28 days

The 355-day calendar helped address many issues of the previous calendars but still was short of being perfect. As years passed by,  the season’s and months fell out of sync. Ad-hoc and non-standard corrective measures had to be introduced for course correction which caused large scale misery to the people. Julius Caesar, the then emperor of Rome thought enough was enough and decided to reform the calendar again.

After much deliberation, Caesar aligned the calendar with the sun as against the moon and added a few days so it summed up to 365 days. The calendar started in January to coincide with the month’s epiphany rather than spring. There were 12 months with alternating lengths of 31 and 30 days. The only exception was February which had 29 days. Thanks to the knowledge shared by the Egyptians, leap years gave February 30 days to compensate the time lost during non-leap years.

To put his new calendar to effect, Caesar had to patiently see through an entire year which ended up being 445 days long and often called the year of confusion. This was needed so the new calendar could be back in sync with the sun and seasons.

Ianuarius: 31 days
29 days
Martius: 31 days
Aprilius: 30 days
Maius: 31 days
Iunius: 30 days
Quintilis: 31 days
Sextilis: 30 days
September: 31 days
October: 30 days
November: 31 days
December: 30 days

Years passed by and the new calendar worked perfectly, ensuring that everything was in order. To celebrate the end of years of confusion and misery, the senate thought worthy to honour Caesar and his reform. Hence they decided to rename the month of Quintilius to July.

After Caesar when Augustus became the emperor, out of potential jealousy, he got the month after, Sextilus, named after him, hence it became August. However, the senate did not like the fact that emperor Augustus’ month only had 30 days as compared to emperor Julius’ month of 31 days. So they took a day from February, reducing it to 28 days, and made August 31 days. But this change meant there were 3 consecutive months with 31 days.

After a little bit tinkering, and with a random way the months alternate, we were left with the present day calendar.