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HISTORY

The year that started in March: The shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar

The calendar was once 10 months long, although it didn’t last long.

Nowadays we relate the beginning of the year with winter in the northern hemisphere and with summer in the southern hemisphere. We are very clear that the count restarts at the end of December and starts again in January, we have internalized it so much that sometimes it is hard to think that it was not always like that. Once the calendar started in March, but with the passage of history, astronomical calculations, and political influences, it came to what we know today.

The discussion about what is time is not exactly what concerns us here since we could make a whole essay on the definition of the concept and not even reach a conclusion. But what we do know is that humans have been marking the passing of days since millennia ago, at least 10,000 years ago, there were already records of this. However, the methods used were intrinsic to each culture, the Mesolithic people of present-day Britain, for example, were guided by the phases of the moon. While the Egyptians observed the behavior of the sun.

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There are many other examples of calendars used by cultures around the world, however, the calendar that we know today and that is used almost everywhere in the world, is an evolution of the one used in the Republic of Rome. This in itself brings its discussions, since the Roman period spans from 509 BC with the founding of the republic, until its dissolution in 27 BC.

Ancient Rome and its influence on the calendar

In this period, its calendarization method underwent several transformations, the first of which lasted only 10 months and was based on the lifestyle of Ancient Rome: agriculture and religious rituals. In this calendar, the year lasted 304 days and began in March (Martius) named after Mars, the god of war.

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It initially included 10 months, six of them of 30 days and four more of 31 days. The first four months were named after Roman gods such as Mars, Aphrodite, Juno, and Maia. However, the last months were named according to their Latin numeration. Thus, for example, Septem (seven in Latin) ended up being the name of the month we now call September.

It is possible that the Roman calendar began in March because it is precisely in this month when spring begins. Their way of life required to have this date very present because it was the time to start sowing. Likewise, the calendar ended with the harvest and from then on the months simply had no name and were not calendarized.

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The birth of January and February

The 10-month calendar did not last long; it underwent another transformation when the winter months began to be calendarized. In the 7th century B.C. with Numa Pompilius at the head of Rome, it was changed to a lunar calendar.

The change implied adding 50 more days to form two extra months, although to do so they also had to take one of each of the days of the months already stipulated. The result was the birth of Ianuarius (in honor of the god Janus) and Februarius (for Februa, the Roman festival of purification).

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Julian calendar

Although the lunar calendar brought more order to the winter, it also brought with it a huge problem. The lunar cycle lasted 29.5 days, so the lunar phases and the seasons that were to be marked were constantly out of phase. This, together with the fact that the calendar was not a public document, but was guarded by the priests, caused many governors to stop following it.

Until in 45 B.C. Julius Caesar demanded regularization of the calendar, which was named Julian in his honor. Designed by Sosigenes of Alexandria, an astronomer, and mathematician, the first to propose a 365-day calendar with an extra day every four years. It was precisely here that a modification occurred in the consensus of when the year began and ended. It was changed from March to January 1, because it was the day on which the consuls took office in the executive power of the Republic.

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This methodology to calendar the days and seasons was used for many centuries until Pope Gregory XIII made some adjustments to the length of the months in 1582. Thus it evolved from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar we use today.

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva

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