Blanche Parry

Calendar link to ancient Rome

Remember the scene in 'The Life of Brian' when rebel leader Reg asks: 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' This months our local historian Ruth E. Richardson has an answer that may surprise you

In 2014 we, incredibly, still rely on the Romans! When, in 410 AD, the Romans no longer had the resources to hold conquered lands in far–off Britannia, the soldiers stationed here were not enough to defend British towns against invaders and pirates. In desperation, local town councillors wrote to the Emperor Honorius for more troops, but he had none to spare and replied that they should look to their own defence. Britain was on its own.

Romano–British people lived in purpose–built towns, a planning idea introduced by the Romans. They were used to Roman ways. Gradually, though, some Roman ideas faded away. Trained soldiers became farmers. Many craftsmen were unemployed for no–one wanted a mosaic floor, or tiled roof. In uncertain times it was more important to protect your land, growing food for your family. It was essential to distinguish changes in the farming year and the names of the months were useful.

The Roman year had started with March, named after Mars, god of war, for then the weather was usually dry enough to resume military campaigns after wet or icy winters. April, from Latin aperire, meaning 'to open', referred to the buds of Spring. May was named for Maia, an ancient earth fertility goddess of springtime, and the warmth to make plants grow. June was named for the goddess Juno, wife of the god Jupiter, who protected women in marriage and childbirth. She was one of the great deities of Rome and each major town had a central temple off the main forum, or market place, dedicated to the Capitoline Triad of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

July honoured Julius Caesar who was born in this month. In fact, as he reorganised the calendar to form the Julian Calendar, he actually renamed this month after himself! This good way to claim immortality was obviously appreciated by his successor, for Augustus Caesar did exactly the same thing – hence we have August.

The last four months are Latin numbers: September from septem meaning 'seven',

October from octo meaning 'eight', November from novem meaning 'nine' and December from decem meaning 'ten'. Of course, these are now wrong, as September is now the ninth month not seventh and the same for the other months. However, as the names remained useful no–one bothered to change them.

In c.713 BC Numa Pompilius, King of the then Etruscan city of Rome, decided to tidy the calendar by adding two winter months. So January was named for Janus, bearded god of doorways, gateways, departure, return, communications, beginnings and daybreak. As he looked backwards and forwards, he was portrayed with two faces looking both ways.

February, Numa's second new month, may originate from Februus an Etruscan god of the dead, februum referring to ritual purification. So the apparently dead month of February was for cleansing rites to ensure that Spring growth began again. However, remember 'February fill–dyke'? It is the month when the ditches fill with water from drenching rain or melting snow ... so, nothing new in that!

©Ruth E. Richardson 2014

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