Updated: Jun 18, 2022
What do Rick Steves, Julius Caesar, and Pope Gregory XIII all have in common? Calendars. I’m enjoying the pictures and countries featured in my 2022 Rick Steves’ Europe Calendar. There is nothing I would like more than to visit these sites! However, even calendars have evolved under the influence of Roman culture and a pope. It hasn’t always been easy to figure out what month or even year it is. If you were in Ireland or Britain on September 2, 1752, went to bed, and woke up the next day, it wouldn’t be September 3. It would be September 14. Blame it on politics, the sun, and religion.
L and Middle: 2022 Rick Steves’ Europe Picture-a-Day Calendar. R:Calendar Page, c. 1250–1262, Bologna, Italy, tempera and gold leaf leaf, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program. January, February, and March detail.
Early Romans relied on a lunisolar calendar with the new year beginning in March. The Roman Republican calendar had only 355 days. The result was that in 50 BCE the calendar was about 80 days off from the true season. Days were being added in February to compensate, but it took a quasi-dictator to make the radical adjustments that made the calendar jive with the solar system.
Julius Caesar, during his short four-year reign, and before his assassination in 44 BCE, discarded the lunisolar calendar and went solar. He started the New Year January 1 and corrected some of the shortcomings of the month of February, adding an additional day every four years. While he was at it, he added two months, what we now call July and August. July (Iulii) is named after himself and August (Augusto) is named after Caesar Augustus, the emperor following Julius Caesar.
The result is the Julian Calendar which is almost the same form that I have on my Rick Steves calendar and we have on our phones and computers. We live in a world still shaped by Roman history and culture. Each month has a Roman or Greek god as patron of the month. The names of the calendar months are truly Roman leftovers. However, Romans did not number the days of the month and instead divided the month into Kalends, the beginning of the month; Nones, the end of the first week of the month; and Ides, the middle of the month. Romans had an eight-day week cycle until Julius Caesar changed it to seven days. Sunday was changed to be the start of the week by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century CE.
January, Ianuarii in Latin, is named after the god Janus. Janus is a peculiar god with two faces looking out at 180 degrees. Appropriate for the new year, he looks backwards and forward, revisiting the past, and looking forward to the future. He was associated with city gates, passageways, and transitions. Romans were especially wary of beginnings, especially in the new year. Getting off to a positive start was a good omen. The twin-faced image might be found on doorways and on arches leading in and out of the city or other boundaries. His feast day was January 1 when greetings were exchanged and good wishes were expressed. The month of Ianuarii set the tone for the rest of the year. Romans would decorate their houses with evergreens, exchange gifts, and start the year with cheer. Undoubtedly resolutions were declared, and perhaps some kept.
February, or Februarius, was a month devoted to purification and blood sacrifices. The origins and development of some February religious observations are obscure. Lupercalia took place mid-February and does not resemble modern Valentine’s Day. This holiday marks the discovery of the twins Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of Rome. The boys were feral raised by a she-wolf and discovered by Mars, purportedly their father. Later Romulus killed his brother and went on to establish what would become the Roman empire. The origin myth of Rome was an important legend based on survival of the fittest and became a propaganda tool leveraged by Augustus. The image of the wolf suckling the boys can be found as souvenir trinkets everywhere in Rome.
The god Mars is the namesake for the month of March. The month of Martius, once the beginning of the year, was dedicated to warfare under his name Mars Ultor, Mars the Avenger. Mars in many ways exemplified the Roman macho attitude. He had duality as a warrior and a passionate lover. He was also a symbolic father to the Roman people. He is usually depicted decked out in full military gear or nearly naked making love to Venus, his partner. His military garb is close by, laying at his feet, while multiple cupids mischievously look on. Poets and particularly artists were fond of representing these two lovers, from BCE well into the early modern era.
Augustus (r. 27 BCE-14 CE) re-imagined what it was to be Roman, whether residing in the city or in a faraway conquered land. There’s a saying that Augustus transformed Rome from a city of brick to a city of marble. One of the key ways he accomplished this was through organizing and codifying a state religion. The new and improved state religion was based not so much on hundreds of years of history, but as a tool to politically unify, not just for the city of Rome, but for the empire. He commissioned over 80 temples to various gods and goddesses. The Temple of Mars Ultor was one of them in the Forum of Augustus, and important personally to Augustus.
Deifying and venerating Mars legitimized warfare and the expansion of the Roman empire. Augustus boosted the god’s importance in his desire to conquer additional territory. Following a successful battle, the standards carried by the Roman army were housed in the Temple of Mars Ultor. The Senate declared war, peace, and military successes from the temple. State ceremonies took place in the temple, including young men coming of age and putting on a toga as a citizen of Rome. Leaders from conquered countries would appear at the temple in subjugation and to swear allegiance to Rome. The temple was a monument to Augustus’ vision as well as a monument to Rome’s military power.
This small four inch bronze statuette of Mars may have been a devotional image in a home. He wears traditional military armor although he is missing what he was holding in his right hand. There is a larger version of this statue in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. The cuirass (a breastplate) is decorated with standing sphinxes while a gorgon head is placed below his chin. The gorgon is a protective amulet. I should mention that this Getty bronze is most likely looted as the provenance is sketchy, and originates from known dealers who trafficked heavily in stolen goods from Italy. Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman donated it to the Getty and must have known it was looted. They donated nearly four hundred pieces of ancient art to the Getty, most it highly questionable, not in terms of its artistic value but in its ethical origin, but that is another story covered in a previous post.
It is fitting that Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology) is patron of Apirlis. The origin of the Latin word for the month could be from aperire, to open, referring to the beginning of a new season, spring, and agriculture. Festivals were dedicated to shepherds, crops, and fertility. Venus is no stranger to visual and poetic representation in ancient art and beyond. In Greek and Roman art she is usually represented for her virtue and pureness. And like Mars, Venus has a duality of personalities: modesty, faithful married love, and passionate love outside of marriage. In any form, poetic or visual, she is a synonymous with beauty.
Julius Caesar created a cult of Venus and claimed direct descent from the goddess. Her cult was especially popular during the time period when the Louvre Aphrodite was created. She is depicted as Romans would have understood the image as rising from the sea, partially clothed, according to her birth myth. The Louvre statue is named after Camille Borghese, the previous owner. It is a composite piece, not discovered in its present museum state. The legs are of Carrara marble and the torso is made of Greek marble. The top and bottom are from two different statues.
Although she, along with other Roman gods, faded from visual imagery during the Middle Ages save for planetary references, Venus really did receive a re-birth in the Renaissance. Venus and Mars were a favorite subject in painting, although Mars doesn’t always look so battle ready, often a slim youth. Three of the most well-known Venus paintings are Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, Primavera, and Birth of Venus. The Renaissance Venus becomes more sexualized as her love relationships take center stage.
The month of May is problematic. There is very little research or resources to connect visual imagery or literature to a specific deity. It appears the goddess Maia may be the patron of Maius. Symbolizing growth, Maia was a Greek earth goddess. She does not seem to have played a big part in Roman holidays or religion.
We know more about Juno, an important goddess and wife to Jupiter, king of the gods. The month named after her is June, Iunii. She was the goddess for all Roman women, and possibly has origins as an Etruscan goddess. Juno underwent many variations throughout the years, as stern matron, protector in childbirth, marriage deity, and acted as the official state goddess. There are about six different titles for her, one of which is Juno Regina (queen).
She is the mother of Mars. She often appears warrior-like with a spear or staff. Her multi-functional roles as protector of women and yet firm defender of the empire also expresses the diverse purposes of many Roman gods. She was no push-over, and could be spiteful, yet is sometimes depicted as compassionate and caring.
Bronze Mirror with Juno, Jupiter, and Hercules, late 4th, early 3rd century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, open access. Inscribed in Latin, L to R, Iuno, Iovei, Hercele.
This bronze mirror features three gods: Juno, Jupiter, and Hercules. Mirrors were often wedding gifts and this is an early representation of Juno, before her roles were amplified under Julius Caesar and Augustus. Hercules was the offspring of Jupiter’s affair, and Juno tried in vain to kill Hercules. He prevailed due to his innate strength and ability to sense danger. He is depicted here with his weapon, the club. The threesome on the mirror would be a powerful group of gods to evoke.
This brings us to autumn. September through December are names from the old Roman ten-month calendar, when the year began in March. September was the seventh month, October the eighth, etc. It is striking how the Latin month names from over two thousand years ago are recognizable, not only in English, but in most Western languages.
English Month Name Latin for numbers 7, 8, 9, 10
Julius Caesar didn’t completely synchronize the calendar with nature. He came very close. However, days were slowly becoming out of sync with the seasons. By the sixteenth century the spring equinox appeared on the calendar as March 11, about ten days early. A man named Ugo Boncampagni coordinated a reform to the Julian calendar to make it work.
Ugo was born in Bologna, Italy and became a law professor. He later served as a bishop at the Council of Trent, and later made Cardinal. Elected to pope in 1572, he chose the name Gregory XIII. At age eighty he undertook the task of restructuring the calendar, in order to create a workable system to establish when Easter would occur as a lunar holiday, fix leap year issues, and to correct the problems of date slippage. In 1582 the Gregorian calendar came into use and it is the calendar we use for civic and business purposes throughout the world today. A lunar calendar is used today for some or all Jewish, Hindu, Indigenous American, Christian, and Islamic religious holidays.
Change can be hard, especially if a Catholic alters the calendar. Protestants refused to accept the reforms of the Gregorian calendar. Catholic countries had no problem with the changes and quickly embraced them. Britain, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands all resisted. Germany and the Netherlands relented in 1698, but Britain and Ireland were holdouts.
The English and Irish kept the Julian version and began the legal year on March 25. However, Scotland used January 1 as the beginning of the year. There were now eleven days difference between the Gregorian calendar and the “old” calendar. Diplomatic and commercial correspondence must have been difficult and very messy.
Britain and Ireland legally adopted the “new” calendar 170 years later. They never referred to it as the Gregorian calendar. Eleven days vanished from their calendar the morning of September 14, 1752, as they joined the rest of Europe. Russia did not adopt the calendar until 1918, as evidently it took a revolution to do so. Greece came on board last, in 1923.
Buon Anno! Happy New Year!
Dyson, Stephen L. Rome: A Living Portrait of an Ancient City. The John Hopkins University Press, 2010.
Freiberg, Malcolm. “Going Gregorian, 1582-1752: A Summary View.” The Catholic Historical Review, vol. 86, no. 1, Catholic University of America Press, 2000, pp. 1–19.
Howard, Sethanne. “Calendars: What Day Is It Anyway?” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, vol. 96, no. 4, Washington Academy of Sciences, 2010, pp. 13–34.