Explainer: Where Do The Names of Our Months Come from?
Caillan Davenport, 12 Jan 18

Detail from the Roman-era Sousse Mosaic Calendar, El Jem, Tunisia. Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Our lives run on Roman time. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and public holidays are regulated by Pope Gregory XIII’s Gregorian Calendar, which is itself a modification of Julius Caesar’s calendar introduced in 45 B.C. The names of our months are therefore derived from the Roman gods, leaders, festivals, and numbers.

If you’ve ever wondered why our 12-month year ends with September, October, November, and December – names which mean the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months – you can blame the Romans.

The calendar of Romulus

The Roman year originally had ten months, a calendar which was ascribed to the legendary first king, Romulus. Tradition had it that Romulus named the first month, Martius, after his own father, Mars, the god of war.

This month was followed by Aprilis, Maius, and Iunius, names derived from deities or aspects of Roman culture.

Thereafter, however, the months were simply called the fifth month (Quintilis), sixth month (Sixtilis) and so on, all the way through to the tenth month, December.

Mars and Rhea Silvia by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1617/20. Wikimedia Commons

The institution of two additional months, Ianuarius and Februarius, at the beginning of the year was attributed to Numa, the second king of Rome. Despite the fact that there were now 12 months in the Roman year, the numerical names of the later months were left unchanged.

Gods and rituals

While January takes its name from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, February comes from the word februum (purification) and februa, the rites or instruments used for purification. These formed part of preparations for the coming of Spring in the northern hemisphere.

The februa included spelt and salt for cleaning houses, leaves worn by priests, and strips of goat skin.

These strips were put to good use in the festival of the Lupercalia, held each year on February 15.

Young men, naked except for a goat-skin cape, dashed around Rome’s sacred boundary playfully whipping women with the strips.

This ancient nudie run was designed to purify the city and promote fertility.

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