The other day I was reading something about the history of Roman Empire some interesting facts came across the content about the Romans naming the eighth month of the year “Augustus” (August in English) in honor of the glory of Octavian (his honorific name Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus), the first emperor of the Roman Empire. That prompted my interest in taking a further glimpse into the allusions beyond the odd names of those 12 months in the Gregorian Calendar.
March / Martius
We all know that the English names for the 12 months are of Roman origin. As everything with a Latin origin, those Roman names indeed have a very long history. The Old Roman Calendar, initially set only for 10 months by the legendary creator of Rome - Romulus, dating back in circa 8th century BC, is the origin of the modern Gregorian Calendar system. Over 2500 years ago, winter was considered to be a timeless period for the Romans; and time will only start when spring arrives. Hence, March, the month when spring first touched the ground of Latium, was set to be the very first month of the year. Interestingly, when most civilizations are embracing the arrival of spring with rapturous praise of life and joyful hope of prosperity, Romans would dedicate the name of the “first month” of the year to their god of wars, “Mars“, hoping their god could navigate them towards victory in the new year. This is because for the Romans, the arrival of spring means the beginning of another year of military campaigns against foreigners, an aggressive military tradition that lead to the eminence of Roman power over the Mediterranean (however, Mars is also the god of Roman agriculture). While the glory of Rome was buried beneath the dust of history, the name of that month survives up to-day. Ironically people’s attitude towards wars is completely different nowadays compared to the old-time’s.
April / Aprilis
The etymology of the name of the second month in the Old Roman Calendar is a bit uncertain. Traditionally it is thought that “Aprilis” was derived from a Latin word “aperire“, which literally means “to open”. This is claimed to match with the traditional name of spring in Greek (which also means literally “opening”). In this theory, April would be the month when the Romans actually started to sit down and appreciate the transcending power of spring. Well, we don’t know why exactly Romans would dedicate the grace of spring to the second month of the year. Such speculation does not really match the naming preferences of the Romans, who would usually dedicate the name of the month to the corresponding god they prayed to in the beginning of that month. Alternatively, others followed this clue and claimed that “Aprilis” in fact originates from Roman’s devotion to the goddess of love, beauty and fertility – Venus, to whom Roman would hold yearly festival on the first day of this month. The evidence: the name for the equivalent goddess in Greek mythology, by which Roman mythology was heavily influenced, “Aphrodite“, might be the origin of “Aprilis“. While it does sound logic to dedicate the month of Venus after the month of Mars, the assumption of the connection between a Roman name and a Greek name of the equivalent goddess leaves a lot of question marks for this theory still.
May / Maius
Like the story of April, the origin of May is also disputed by two main theories. The first one points out that Latin name “Maius” might be derived from a Greek divinity, “Maia” the goddess of chastity and fertility, upon which the Roman deity “Bona Dea” was built. This is supported by the fact that Romans would hold religious rites for Bona Dea on the first day of May. It is likely that the Romans named this month in honor of this specific divinity, as what they did to Mars and Venus (the second theory) in previous months. The second theory speculates that the origin of Maius comes from the Latin word for the elders, “maiores“, in line with the origin of the name of the following month, “iuniores“, which is the word for youths in Latin (second theory for June).
June / Iunius
Same dichotomy applies for the name of June. The first version refers to another Roman goddess Juno, the wife of Jupiter, as the root of the Latin word for June “Iunius“. However, unlike previous months, the Romans didn’t really hold the festivals for Juno in June. It is questionable why Romans would dedicate a month to a deity whom they prayed for in another time. The second version followed the speculation of the previous month May. It is possible that Iunius was derived from the Latin word for youths “iuniores“, in line with the theory that the origin of May came from the Latin word “elders”. However, little clues are given why Romans would name two consecutive months in honor of the elders and the youths.
July / Iulius
It looks like since July Ancient Romans stop devoting the name of the month to their deity, though the rites of many gods continued all through the year. In the Old Roman Calendar, July was named as “Quintilis“, literally means the fifth month of the year in Latin. However, Romans’ passion for their gods did not really stop after their devotion of June to Juno (if the first theory stands). In 44BC, in honor of the great Gaius Julius Caesar, who was the first historical Roman to be deified immediately after his death, Octavian, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, adopted Caesar’s name (Julius) for July in honor of the glory of this newly deified god. Until this day, both the legend of Caesar and the honorable month name of Caesar persist, even after over 2000 years.
August / Augustus
Similar to the story of July, August was originally named as “Sextilis“, which means the sixth month of the year in Latin. The current Latin name “Augustus” was adopted in 8BC in honor of the second historical Roman to be deified, Octavian. The change was made actually during his reign in Rome by the senatus. Romans dedicated this month to their first emperor who later also became a divine god. Together with his uncle, the great deeds of Octavian and the name of Augustus was forever remembered ever since.
September / September ; October / October ; November / November ; December / December
After the renaming of August, Romans had no longer continued to change the name of month in honor of any other individual. The Roman Empire after Octavian was a quite messy and few could reach the glory of Caesar and Octavian. By the time there appeared to be some extraordinary figures like Constantine the Great and Justinian the Great, christianity had already eroded the ancient Roman tradition. The name of the months remained and those Christianized figures were beautified instead of getting deified by the church. Hence, the name of September retained its origin name, “September“, which is associated with the meaning of the seventh month in Latin (in accordance with the fact that September was the seventh month in the Old Roman Calendar).
Similar to September, the name October, November, December remained untouched since their first creation. “Octo” is the latin word for eight, implying that October is the eighth month of the year in the Old Roman Calendar. The same goes with “Novem” (Nine) and “Decem” (Ten) as the ninth and the tenth month of the year, respectively.
January / Ianuarius
January and February did not really exist until late 8th century BC, when Numa Pompilius, the second king of the Roman Kingdom added those two to ensure the calendar to cover a full lunar year (365 days). It wasn’t until early Republic Era in mid-5th century BC (Decemviri Era) that January supplanted March as the official first month of the year. The Latin name for this newly added month, Ianuarius, was derived from the Latin word for the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god that guards the gate between the future and the past (later even evolved into a four-faced description). Interestingly, unlike most Hellenized gods in Rome, Janus was a local Roman god. He was seen as the gaurdian of Rome. Since Republic Era, Romans built the statue of Janus on the arch and Roman troops would always come across such arch before every military campaign to get the blessing from Janus. This tradition has widely spread and passed down in Europe. One of the most renowned triumphal Arch examples is the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It is possible that when January was made the first month of year, it also replaced March as the month when Rome began another year of campaign, therefore honoring Janus as the god of this month.
Feburary / Februarius
Like January, February was added later than the rest 10 months in Rome. The name of this month was probably after the ancient Roman ritual of Februa, a festival for ritual purification. The festival was held on the 15th day of every February, when the full moon emerges. It is generally agreed that Februa, possibly of Sabine origin, evolved to the Roman god of purification, Februus, whose name was adopted for this month by the Romans. No idea why Romans chose the chilly February as the month of purification though.
Fourth general speculations from those stories about the Roman month names:
1. In the original Old Roman Calendar, it is possible that all name simply reflected the numerical sequence of its month in the year. In this theory, there might be some lost names or stories for the month of March, April, May, and June (before those months were re-named in honor of the gods).
2. Ancient Romans really dug into their different gods. 7 out of 12 months were named/renamed after different deity. It required a great passion to name a month in honor a god, something that even the Christians didn’t manage (there’s only Christmas day, no Christmas month).
3. It is interesting to see the coincidence that lots of ancient civilizations marked March, the arrival of spring as the first time of the year. This is seen in both Old Roman Calendar and the Chinese Lunar Calendar, in which the Lunar New Year (a.k.a Spring Festival) was widely celebrated in the Sinosphere (the first month in Chinese Lunar Calendar equals to January or February of modern Gregorian Calendar. To me, it does make a lot of sense setting the day when snow recedes and trees bud as the very first day of the year. The arrival of spring is the exciting sign of a new year rather than the still-freezing 1st January in Northern Hemisphere.
4. Before I was researching about those stories, I assumed that the allusions must have lots of connections to the agricultural activities in Rome, as it was the purpose of the calendar in many other advanced agricultural civilizations. To my surprise, Roman civilization did not seem to place agriculture as the most important sector in the society, as little agricultural activities are reflected in those stories in the Roman Calendar. Comparatively, the Charlemagne’s Old Germanic Calendar created by Charlemagne himself around late 800 AD was explicitly revolved around various agricultural activities.
Now that I was digging the facts about the origin of those names, those hard-time English-learning memories all flashed back. It was indeed a tough time for me to learn those 12 names for each month in English back in the days in China. In Chinese, we just take the numerical naming system for the Chinese Lunar Calendar for the western Gregorian Calendar. So basically in Chinese we literally refer the first month (一月) as the first month, …, twelfth month (十二月) as the twelfth month. Learning to memorize those 12 obscurely irregular names for the month in English was one of the hardest thing for me in the high school. I hope those interesting stories beyond the name of each month would at least help someone understand where those names come from.