Roman Origins of the New Year

Posted on 31. Dec, 2013 by in Uncategorized

Whilst enjoying your New Year, remember to look back on 2013 and see what you wish to make of 2014! But before you do that, read on the historic background of New Years Day!

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Originally, the Roman calendar designated March 1 as the New Year.  The Roman Calendar only had ten months with March as the first month.

  • March: named after Mars, the god of war
  • April: from aperire, Latin for “to open” (buds)
  • May: named after Maia, the goddess of growth of plants
  • June: from junius, Latin for the goddess Juno
  • July: named after Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.
  • August: named after Augustus Caesar in 8 B.C.
  • September: from septem, Latin for “seven”
  • October: from octo, Latin for “eight”
  • November: from novem, Latin for “nine”
  • December: from decem, Latin for “ten”

These were added later:

  • January: named after Janus, the god of doors and gates
  • February: named after Februalia, a time period when sacrifices were  made to atone for sins

According to Livy, January was invented by Rome’s second king, Numa Pontilius, along with February. The first time the New year was celebrated on January 1st was in 153 B.C.E. However, this change from March 1st to January 1st was not always strictly enforced. It was mainly implemented for political reasons. The New Year was moved to January 1st, because this was when the beginning of the civil year occurred. The month that two newly elected Roman Consuls began their one-year term.

Julian Calendar: January 1st Officially Instituted as the New Year

In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar introduced a solar-based calendar that improved  the ancient Roman calendar, which was a lunar- based which had become extremely inaccurate over the years. Julius Caesar’s calendar known as the Julian calendar decreed that the New Year would occurred on January 1st  for the entire Roman world.

A statue representing Janus Bifrons in the Vatican Museums.

A statue representing Janus Bifrons in the Vatican Museums.

For the Romans, the month of January carried a special significance. Its name was derived from the two-faced deity Janus, the god of change and beginnings. Janus was seen to be looking back at the old and ahead to the new, and this idea became tied to the concept of transition from one year to the next.

Romans would celebrate January 1 by giving offerings to Janus in the hope of gaining good fortune for the new year. This day was seen as setting the stage for the next twelve months. According to Ovid, most Romans also chose to work for at least part of New Year’s Day, as idleness was seen as a bad omen for the rest of the year.

So start your year the right way with retrospection and introspection! Be safe and have fun!

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About Brittany Britanniae

Hello There! My name is Brittany and I am a UC Riverside Graduate with a Bachelors of Arts in Classical Studies and Comparative Ancient Civilizations. I have studied Classical Latin and Ancient Greek for five years. My love of the ancient world stems from myths and movies such as : Gladiator, 300, Cleopatra, Rome, I, Claudius, and so on. Please feel free to ask me anything about Latin Grammar, Syntax, or the Ancient World.

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