Posts Tagged ‘calendar’

May Dei

Posted in English Stew, General on May 1st, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

Yes, it is the first of May.

Before you start romping around a ribboned pole or while you are recovering from a Walpurgis Night binge, let me tell you about May.  The month had to be named for something.  Of course, the only May you knew was that elderly friend of your grandmother, and you still shudder at the memory of May’s arm flaps–they could have been used as semaphores.

In fact, the Romans had her in mind when they named the third month of their calendar.  Maiores is the Latin word for senior; it is also the gnarled old root for our words mayor and major.  The month of Maius was originally dedicated to seniors.  Coming in contact with the Greeks (and Southern Italy was really western Hellas) the Romans became self-conscious about their crude, prosaic culture.  A month in honor of senior citizens?  No, the Romans wanted to be as refined as the people they were slaughtering. 

It just so happened that the Greek pantheon had a minor celebrity named Maia.  She was the daughter of Atlas and had a fling with Zeus (who didn’t?) and that tryst resulted in Hermes.  To the Greeks, she was merely another cute nymph; but to the Romans, she was a homophonic gift.  The Romans now claimed that the month of Maius was named for her.  They promoted Maia to a Goddess of Spring (confiscating the attributes of their old Latin deity Bona Dea) and even arranged her marriage to their God Vulcan.  They weren’t even dating in Greek mythology. 

Now the Romans were sophisticated, having dumped the generic  maiores for the glamorous Maia.  So May is the trophy wife of months.

The Ides of March

Posted in General, On This Day on March 15th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 7 Comments

Imagine yourself a tourist in ancient Rome and you wanted to buy 15 postcards (the ones using mosaics were impressive but the postage was exorbitant). Of course, you would tell the shopkeeper, “I’d like Ides, please.”  If he were obliging, he would lift his tunic. Otherwise, he would think you a babbling idiot.

You see, Ides does not mean 15. It rather refers to the full moon by which the old Roman calendar divided the month. The similarity between month and moon is not a coincidence.

Ancient Rome was built on seven hills and an absurd lunar calendar. The Roman year had ten months as well another sixty days in winter that didn’t count. Be fair: if you were stuck using Roman numerals, you’d resort to any short cut, too. Such a slovenly, lackadaisical calendar might suit a small Tiber village or modern Italy, but not a growing empire. The government decided to organize the dead time into two new months: Ianuarius and Februarius.

That improved the bookkeeping but not the accuracy of the calendar. The Roman year was 355 days. As Rome expanded, it was coming into contact with more sophisticated systems. The Greeks had realized that a sun-based calendar was more accurate. Yet, out of self-reverence, for six centuries Rome adhered to its ridiculous calendar.

But that outdated calendar was just one tradition that Julius Caesar intended to end. While in Alexandria, Caesar was seduced by more than just Cleopatra. The city was the think tank of the ancient world. Greek science and Babylonian mathematics had produced a calendar of unequaled precision. Caesar was so impressed that he decided to impose it on the Roman world. And for some reason, people called it the Julian calendar.

(Alexandria’s scientific community also successfully promoted a chronological concept called the “week.” The seven-day period once had been dismissed as just another Jewish idiosyncrasy. But when Alexandria adopted the idea, everyone loved it.)

The Julian calendar went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C. If the Roman traditionalists had any objections, they certainly expressed them on March 15, 44 B.C.