Roman New Years

New Year’s Day in Ancient Rome


It’s New Year’s Day in Ancient Rome. It’s the morning of March 1st, summer heat hammers the city, and you have no idea what year it is. How exciting. 

Keeping track of months and years in Ancient Rome was vastly different than the present. For starters, Romans didn’t keep track of years by numbers. Now, we say things like “Caesar launched his civil war in 49 BC.” Ancient Romans would have said, “Caesar launched his civil war in the year of the consulship of Lentulus and Marcellus.” They kept track of years by tracking the two men who served as consuls — basically co-presidents of the Roman republic. On rare occasions, they might use a number. 49 BC would have been 705 ab urbe condita (705 years since the founding of the city). 

Years were slippery things, though. Romans began with an eight-month calendar. They eventually expanded it to ten. However, the calendar was a lunar calendar. That meant that the months would slip a little bit every year based on phases of the moon. If you weren’t careful, October might hit in the height of summer or the dead of winter. To account for this, the pontifex maximus (highest priest) would alter the months as needed. That tended to keep the months pretty regular, but the 1st century BC in Rome was so tumultuous that the priests kind of forgot to fix the calendar. Eventually, folks were wearing fur coats in May. 

Julius Caesar had the power to change the calendar as pontifex maximus, consul, and dictator (like high fructose corn syrup, he was in everything). He rearranged the calendar entirely, and the resulting Julian Calendar is the basis for the one we still use. 

Originally, the final portion of the calendar had no name. December was the last month, and then there was a nameless period of winter. Winter in Italy was too cold for military campaigns or government work. To the ancient Romans, a month doesn’t even exist if the legions aren’t out stabbing folks. 

The nameless winter ended, and then the Roman calendar started on the calends of March, March 1. The first day of each month was named the calends, which signaled a new phase of the moon. That’s where we get the word “calendar.” 

Nameless winter was eventually divided into the months of January and February; they were the final two months of the year. However, consuls took office on January 1st. So, the year of the consulship of Whoeverus and Someguyimus would begin on January 1, but the new year would begin on March 1? That didn’t make much sense. Eventually, the Romans started celebrating January 1 as New Year’s Day. That made more sense politically; it also made more sense religiously. 

January is named for Janus, the two-faced god who can look backwards and forwards. On January 1, Romans would look backwards at the year that had passed and forward at the year to come. Typically, they would do some work of some kind. They believed that whatever you did on January 1 would set the tone for the entire year. Doing some work could make the new year a productive year. (Happy New Year to everybody but whoever didn’t do any work on January 1, 2020. Do better this year.)

Side Note: September means “seventh” in Latin. October means “eighth,” November means “ninth” and December means “tenth”. That’s because the calendar originally had ten months. So, December was originally the tenth month. After Julius Caesar died, Mark Antony renamed Quintilis (Fifth Month) July in honor of Julius Caesar. Later, Sextilis was renamed August to honor Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.