The month of July is named after Julius Caesar. So why was he singled out for this honour, and what inspired the naming of the other eleven months?
As we find ourselves half way through the month of July, we take a look at the gods, mortals and numbers hidden behind the names of all twelve months, enlisting the help of a first century BC Roman poet for some of the more tricky questions. This concise history all about the months we have come to know and love in our calendars will enlighten and inform you.
July is for Julius
July, the month of Julius Caesar’s birth, was originally known as Quintilis or ‘the fifth month’, and was renamed in his honour after his assassination in 44BC. During his lifetime, Julius Caesar greatly extended the Roman Empire and eventually seized power for himself as dictator in Rome, at which time he made several very necessary reforms, including revising the calendar. Unlike earlier Roman calendars, his was the first to include all twelve months. It was in use for many centuries, becoming known as the Julian calendar.
When Caesar’s great nephew Octavius became the first Roman emperor, he was given the name Augustus from the Latin word ‘augustus’ meaning ‘consecrated’ or ‘venerable’. He completed the unfinished calendar reform and renamed a month after himself, changing Sextilis ‘the sixth month’ to August, because several fortunate events of his life happened in this month.
Numbers seven to ten
The months of September, October, November and December come from the Latin numbers from seven to ten: septem, octo, novem and decem. But this seems a little strange: we all know that December is the twelfth month, so why would it be named after the number ten? The answer stems from the time way before Julius Caesar’s calendar reform, when the year began in March and there were just ten months in each year, with December therefore being the tenth month.
Naming the ‘new’ months
In the seventh century BC, Numa Pompilis invented two new months, naming January after the god Janus, and February after a festival of purification. Janus, usually depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions, was the Roman god of gateways. In Rome the ceremonial gateways, or ‘jani’, were used for symbolic and auspicious entrances and exits. He was also considered the god of all beginnings. The start of the day, month and year were sacred to Janus so it is appropriate that his name was chosen for the new first month. The Romans celebrated the end of the old year with a festival of washing and purification, known as Februa. Pompilis turned this period into a month of its own, naming it after the festival.
Mars, god of war
Before the creation of January and February, the first month was March, named after Mars, the Roman god of war. The beginning of year was traditionally the time for the resumption of war, after the period between the old year and the new, when all hostilities ceased and everyone joined in celebrations.
The reasons behind the names of April, May and June are quite uncertain so it’s time to ask for help from our Roman poet, Ovid. At the time of Emperor Augustus, Ovid began writing the Fasti, a six-book poem describing the origins of Roman holidays and ancient customs. He never completed the work – known in English as the ‘Book of Days’ – but he did include some theories about the naming of months.
‘Aprilis’ is the Latin name for April, and the word ‘aperire’ means ‘to open’, so perhaps this name is a reference to the buds which begin to open during this month. But Ovid also suggests that the name might come from Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, beauty and procreation.
May and June are probably named for goddesses: May coming from Maiesta, the Roman goddess of honour and reverence, or in Greek mythology from Maia, a nurturer and earth goddess; and June coming from Juno, goddess of marriage and the wellbeing of women. But Ovid also points out that the Latin word for June is similar to ‘iuniores’ meaning ‘younger ones’ as opposed to ‘maiores’ or ‘elders’ with its similarity to May. He raises the possibility that the month of May celebrated the Roman elders, while June was named in celebration of younger men.
The inspiration behind the naming of our calendar months comes from a delightfully diverse collection of sources, ranging all the way from simple numbers, buds opening in spring, and a washing festival, to great Roman leaders, gods and goddesses.
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