• Tastes Of History

What did the Romans ever do for us? Naming the Months

Updated: Aug 25

If you are an English speaker, have you ever wondered why we call the months of the year what we do? Well wonder no longer because here is a handy guide to where those names came from. Like many elements of western European culture we can, once more, thank the Romans.

January (Januarius) is named after the Roman god Janus, who is depicted with two faces, one looking forward to the future and one looking backward to the past [1]. Consequently Janus was also the god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings.


February (Februarius) is named after an ancient Roman festival of purification called Februa held on February 15th in the old lunar Roman calendar.

The Romans originally considered winter a single period without individual months. About 713 BC, however, the King Numa Pompilius [2] added January and February to a reformed Roman calendar.


March (Martius) is named after Mars, the Roman god of war and an ancestor of the Roman people through his sons Romulus and Remus. Martius was the first month of the earliest Roman calendar until the months of January and February were added later. Unsurprisingly the month of Mars was the beginning of the season for warfare, and the festivals held in his honour during the month were mirrored by others in October, when the season for these activities came to a close.


April (Aprilis) takes its name from the Latin word aperire, meaning ‘to open’, an allusion to it being the month when trees and flowers begin to 'open' or bloom. At least that is the traditional etymology, but in truth the derivation of the name is uncertain. As some months were named in honour of Roman divinities, April was sacred to the goddess Venus. The festival honouring Venus, Veneralia, was celebrated on April 1st.

May (Maius) was named for the Greek Goddess Maia who the Romans identified with their goddess of fertility, Bona Dea, whose festival was held in May.


June (Junius) is typically thought to be named after the Roman goddess Juno, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, and the wife of Jupiter, king of the gods. The name Junius may have come from the Latin word iuniores, meaning 'younger ones', as opposed to maiores ('elders') for which the preceding month May (Maius) may be named. Another source claims June is named after Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic and ancestor of the Roman family sharing the name Junius (Latin: gens Junia).


July was originally called Quintilis meaning the fifth month of the original 10-month Roman calendar. Later July was named by the Roman Senate in honour of Roman general Julius Caesar, it being the month of his birth.


August, originally called Sextilis because it was the sixth month at the time when March was the first month of the year, had an even more chequered life. About 700 BC, it became the eighth month when January and February were added to the year before March by King Numa Pompilius, who also gave it only 29 days. Julius Caesar added two days when he created his Julian calendar in 46 BC, giving it its modern length of 31 days. In 8 BC, it was renamed in honour of Emperor Augustus, who chose this month because it was the time of several of his great triumphs, including the defeat of his rivals Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and the conquest of Egypt.

But what about the rest? September, October, November and December are named after Roman numbers 7, 8, 9 and 10 (Latin: septum, octo, novem et decem) as they were originally the seventh (septemus), eighth (octavus), ninth (nonus) and tenth (decimus) months of the Roman year. With the revisions to the calendar, however, they are all now two months later on in the year.


So, what did the Romans do for us? They introduced the first version of the calendar we still use today, named the months and established the number of days in each.

Endnotes:

1. As such it makes sense that Janus would mark the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

2. The legendary successor to Rome's founding father, Romulus.

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