It’s hard to believe 2012 has passed;
It was way too short and went way too fast!
One more tour `round the sun we’ve seen,
And now we are starting 2013!
It is interesting to note, on this first day of 2013, that, improbable as it may seem, it has been almost exactly 2058 years since the very first, unambiguous celebration of January First as the official New Year’s Day. Really.
The fact that this year is numbered 2013 is the result of work done by a Frankish or Scythian monk, Dionysus Exiguus, (“Dennis the Short”) at the behest of Pope John I in the fifth century. That first Pope John wanted to determine precisely when Jesus had been born. Dionysus, using the best available materials and spending a few years at his task, calculated that Jesus had been born in the 753rd year after the founding of Rome, which is now the widely used Year One. Some 1500 years later, we basically use Dionysus’s numbering scheme – though there have been a few bumps along the road.
But the fact that the first day of January marks the start of 2013 (and most other years in our calendar for quite a long while) is the inheritance from the brief but world-changing rule of Julius Caesar at the very end of the Roman Republic (after Julius Caesar, Rome became an Empire, which lasted another five hundred or fifteen hundred years, depending on your point of view.)
When Caesar took control of Rome’s government, one of the most painfully obvious problems facing Rome was its calendar: based upon the lunar cycle, it was hopelessly out of sync with the physical year. Lunar calendars, such as the Chinese, Jewish, and Islamic, are rather easily observed, being based upon the phases of the moon, but they wander out of phase with the Solar cycle, and they need regular adjustments. In ancient Rome, these adjustments were often used to extend politicians’ terms, or to hold off elections, or to forestall rent and debt payment due dates.
Adding to the confusion for the wary Romans, for military and religious purposes, the year started on the “Calends” (the first) of March, but for political and legal purposes, it started with the inauguration of new consuls on the Calends January. So not only did the calendar drift with the seasons, there was no single, comprehensive dating scheme. (By the way, to the Romans, the first day of every month was called “the Calends” or, in Latin, Calendae. And I’ll just bet you guess what modern word comes from that 🙂
The Roman college of priests – the Pontifices – voted on adjusting their ancient and unwieldy calendar year by year, so long range planning was very nearly impossible. Corruption, bribery, and extortion, however, were rife.
Because of the trials and troubles in the last decade of the Roman Republic, the Lunar calendar was more than ten weeks out of sync with the physical year, and there was confusion and chaos: cherries were being harvested in December; snow fell in May.
Julius Caesar saw the urgent need for genuine reform of the Calendar, and engaged a Greek astronomer in Alexandria, Sosigenes, to rework the Roman Calendar along the model of the Egyptian solar calendar which was even then famous for its accuracy and utilty. To correct things, the year commonly numbered 46 BC ( 707 from the founding of Rome) was extended by the necessary ten weeks, and the next year, 45 BC officially for all purposes commenced on the First of January.
With several notable exceptions, the First of January has been identified as the start of the new year ever since. This new starting date for the Roman year did mess up the names of the months; the ceremonial year had previously started on the first of March (the start of the military campaigning season and therefore aptly named after the god of war.) That old style made sense of the months we still know as September (7th), October (8th), November (9th), and December (10th.) In the new scheme the month named “Tenth”, December, became the 12th.
There were two other months named by their ordinal sequence: “Quintilis”, (5th), and “Sextilis” (6th.) The people of Rome were so grateful to Julius caesar for fixing their calendar that they voted, after Caesar was assassinated, to rename Quintilis “Julius,” our modern July. Caesar’s successor, Augustus, had the former Sextilis renamed “Augustus” in his honor, and we now have August. Augustus’ heir Tiberius decide to stop the trend, saying he hoped that there would be more Caesars than months!
So it is due to the practical reforms of Julius Caesar 2058 years ago that we formally nominate and celebrate the first day of January as the first day of a new year. The Romans marked the day as a holiday with no work, but plenty of games and sports and merry-making. I guess things have not changed so much in 2058 years!
Friends, I extend to you and yours my most sincere wishes for a happy and prosperous and peaceful and fullfilling new year!
— Jamie Rawson
“Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of travelling.”
— M.L. Runbeck