It’s September, and that always makes me think of the names of the months. September of course, is the ninth month of the year, but the name might make you think it’s the seventh, if you know your Latin.
You see, the root of the name September is septem, the Latin word for the number seven. And the reason for this is that the old Roman calendar was believed to have ten months, beginning with March (Martius), therefore making September the seventh month of the year. You can see this pattern in the following three months, which are all derived from the Latin for the numbers eight (octo), nine (novem), and ten (decem).
Note I said that some believe the oldest Roman calendar had ten months, because it’s quite debated among historians. The main argument for a ten-month calendar is the naming of the months: why else would the last month of the year be named after the number ten?
Whatever the reason behind the names, the Roman calendar was replaced by the Julian calendar in 45BC. Devised by Julius Caesar, it featured twelve months, and forms the basis for our modern calendar. Our modern calendar is known as the Gregorian calendar. Named after Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in 1582, it basically tweaked the Julian calendar by 0.002%, to account for previous drifts in the calendar due to the solstices and equinoxes. The names of the month were retained from the Julian calendar, in slightly anglicised form.
Ianuarius – January
Februarius – February
Martius – Mars
Aprilis – April
Maius – May
Iunius – June
Quintilis – Iulius (renamed later in honour of Julius Caesar) – July
Sextilis – Augustus (similarly renamed for Caesar Augustus) – August
And the last four haven’t changed at all. But if the etymology of these months is pretty straightforward (and Quintilus and Sextilis meant fifth and sixth month respectively), what about the first four?
Ianuarius is generally thought to be named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transition. He was depicted as having two heads, facing in opposite directions, so it makes sense to name January, looking back to the old year and forward to the new one, after him.
Februarius was named for the ancient festival of purification known as Februa, which took place on 15 February. St. Valentine’s Day may have been placed on 14 February to supercede Februa and later Roman celebrations on the 15th such as Lupercalia.
Martius was named after Mars, the god of war and guardian of agriculture, as this was the beginning of the farming and war seasons, hence also a logical place for the Romans to start the year.
Aprilis may be derived from the Latin verb aperire (to open) as this is the time plants are starting to bloom. Some also suggest that, because this was the month when tributes were paid to the goddess of love Venus, it derives from her Greek name Aphrodite.
Maius is thought to come from the Greek name (Maia) for the Roman goddess of fertility Bona Dea. The Roman poet Ovid, however, suggested it was named in honour of elders (maiores), and that June was named for the young (iunoires).
Iunius though, is probably named after Juno, chief goddess and wife of supreme Roman deity. There doesn’t seem to be a particular reason to name it after her, but I suppose they had to name something after her, and June is a nice month to be named after.
So that’s how we got the names of the months of the year, and if anyone ever asks you what the Romans have ever done for us, you’ve got something to add to the list.