Bayou-Picayune Podcast, S02 EP08: The Longest Year
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Did you know there was one year that was longer than all the others in recorded history
Prior to that year, Rome (and other civilizations) relied on the moon for measuring the length of a year.
The Roman calendar, which originated with the Greeks, consisted of only ten months and 304 days. (The remaining sixty-one days fell in the middle of the winter and, apparently, were not counted until March when farmers started their growing season.)
The Romans called their ten months Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius and then six counting names — Quintilis (for five), Sextilis (six), September, October, November, December (for seven, eight, nine and ten).
In 153 B.C., the Roman ruler Numa Pompilius extended the year to 355 days by adding the months of January and February at the end of the year.
Then to adjust the lunar calendar to the actual length of a year, he created an extra month every other year which added 22-23 days to the calendar. This biennial month was called Mercedinus or Intercalaris.
However, by the time of Caesar, Rome’s lunar calendar was so seriously out of joint that the vernal equinox (instead of being March 21) was March 11. That ten-day discrepancy confounded both farmers with their planting and merchants with their contracts.
That was the major reason Julius Caesar commissioned a new calendar that was based on the sun, not the moon. But he also wanted the year to begin right after the winter solstice, instead of March when farmers started their growing season.
So, he started the first year of his new Julian calendar with January and February and added ten days to correct the shortfall in the lunar calendar.
Caesar had one last touch before he was finished, though. He wanted one of the months to be named after him, but he didn’t want his month to replace December in the cold, barren winter, and he didn’t want to place his month before any of the Roman deities, so he renamed the fifth month (Quintilis) after himself.
A few years after his new calendar was established, however, Julius Caesar was assassinated, and his nephew, Augustus Caesar, became the emperor of Rome. And he, following in his famous uncle’s footsteps, renamed the sixth month (Sextilis) after himself.
Augustus Caesar didn’t like the idea of his month of August having one less day than July, so he took a day away from February so his month in the sunny summertime would have as many days as the great Julius Caesar’s
One Roman senator, Cicero, did not appreciate the changes Julius Caesar was making in the calendar, so he mocked the preeminent senator of Rome by saying Caesar, not satisfied with just forcing his will on the citizens of Rome, wanted also to control the stars with his edicts.
Ironically, Cicero’s wry remark is echoed, apparently unknowingly, by William Shakespeare in the play Julius Caesar.
Shakespeare writes a famous last speech for Caesar immediately before the character is assassinated where Caesar compares himself to the Northern Star, the only star in the heavens that is fixed and unmoving.
The irony is obvious: Caesar, who thinks he is immortal, who thinks his light will shine forever, utters his famous last words just seconds before his “light” is extinguished forever.
The final irony, though, may be that Julius Caesar is indeed right and William Shakespeare is wrong; for, like the Northern Star (which shines to this day), the name of Julius Caesar is apparently fixed forever in the world’s calendar as the month of July.