Happy New Year? Um...

Cheers! Drinking contest of Herakles and Dionysos, early 3rd century AD Antioch

Felix sanusque sit novus annus!

In the modern Western calendar, it’s the beginning of the year, a time for renewals and resolutions.I wish you every luck in your health, goals and prosperity.

It was a much more confused picture for the Romans, but then, their civilisation did last for 1229 years and evolved a fair bit over that time.

The early Roman calendar designated 1 March as the first day of the year – the awakening earth, renewed virility, the longer day, etc. Then, the calendar had ten months, beginning with March and some of the names of the months today reflects this. September to December, our ninth to twelfth months, were originally the seventh to tenth months (septem is Latin for seven; octo, eight; novem, nine; and decem, ten.)

Roman legend usually credits the second king, Numa Pompilius, with the establishment of the ‘new’ months of January and February which were first placed at the end of the year in the ’empty period’.

Fasti - list of consuls, Capitoline Museum, Rome (Author photo)

Fasti – list of consuls, Capitoline Museum, Rome (Author photo)

All change!
The January kalends (first of January) evolved as the start of the new year at some point after it became the day for the inaugurating new consuls in 153 BCE. Romans had long dated their years by these consulships, rather than sequentially, and making the kalends of January start the new year aligned this dating.

Still, private and religious celebrations around the March new year continued for some time and there is no consensus on the question of the timing for 1 January 1’s new status. Many other religions and many people more in alignment with the natural world still see the spring equinox as the start of the year. Nowadays, we assign Easter as the festival when new things begin.

Once I January became the start of the new year, it became a time for family gatherings and celebrations. A series of disasters, notably including the failed rebellion of M. Aemilius Lepidus in 78 BCE, established a superstition against allowing Rome’s market days to fall on the kalends of January and the pontiffs employed intercalation to avoid its occurrence.

If you think was was confusing…
In AD 567, the Council of Tours formally abolished 1 January as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on 25 December in honour of the birth of Jesus; 1 March in the old Roman style; 25 March in honour of Lady Day and the Feast of the Annunciation; and on the movable feast of Easter. These days were also astronomically and astrologically significant since, at the time of the Julian reform, 25 March had been understood as the spring equinox and December 25 as the winter solstice.

I think that now in the 21st century, we’ve come to a workable accepted date, so I hope your new year start is a good one!

© Steve Morton

© Steve Morton


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO,  PERFIDITAS,  SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA,  INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO.  CARINA, a novella, and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories, are now available.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. NEXUS, an Aurelia Mitela novella, will be out on 12 September 2019.

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