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Caesar’s calendar deserves both kudos and brickbats

By Debra Dobbins

We can thank Julius Caesar for the month of July. Oh, never mind; he’s not around anymore and, besides, he probably already thanked himself. After he revamped the Roman calendar, Caesar was honored with the renaming of the month of his birthday, Quintillus, to Julius.

We last left Caesar in 49 B.C. as he was deciding to cross the Rubicon River (see blog entry of Jan. 18) to fight for control of the Roman Republic. (It later evolved to a principate and then an empire.) The country broke into civil war.

Caesar’s chief nemesis was Pompey, a former ally. Indeed, Caesar, Pompey and Crassus had earlier ruled the Romans as an informal triumvirate, according to Wikipedia. Pompey had married Caesar’s daughter, Julia.

Caesar followed Pompey to Egypt in 48 B.C. He spent a year there, writes Isaac Asimov in Words from History. (Pompey soon met his end, but at the hands of an Egyptian, not Caesar, according to Wikipedia.)

While in Egypt Caesar noticed its citizens had a much better system of marking time, Asimov continues. The Egyptians based their calendar not on the changes in the moon, as did the Romans, but on a system of 365 days broken into 12 months.

Their calendar did not take into account the extra one-fourth of a day each year, but it was still more accurate than the Roman calendar, Asimov notes.

After his return to Rome, Caesar instituted a new calendar in the country that had once again accepted him as a dictator. He added a day to February once every four years to compensate for the quarter-day inaccuracy. February was considered an unlucky month, Asimov writes, and given only 28 days except for leap years.

Also, the year started in January, not March as before, and Caesar’s month Quintillus (meaning five) was renamed Julius. So, the fifth month of the year became the seventh.

That is also why September is now the ninth month of the year even though septem means seven. October is the tenth month, even though octo means eight, November is the eleventh month, even though novem means nine, and December is the twelfth month, even though decem means ten.

While we can thank Julius Caesar for the month of July, we can also blame him when the names of other months don’t seem to make much sense.

Marble bust of Pompey in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Bust of Caesar displayed at the Naples National Archaeological Museum
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


 

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