November, the eleventh month of the year, actually takes its name from the Latin word for the 9 and it is not unique in this regard. September, October & December are named after the Roman numbers seven, eight & ten respectively. July & August used to be named Quintilis & Sextilis, meaning fifth & sixth month, before they were renamed after Caesar & his heir, Augustus. So why are these names all off kilter by two-months?
There are two theories. First, would you ever believe that there used to be just 10 months in the Roman calendar. At some point, they supposedly changed it to 12, the Romans added January & February at the front of the year which pushed the opposite 10 months & their names. Second, would you ever believe that there were always 12 months but New Year’s Day used to be celebrated on March 1 and the last month of the year was February. But over many decades & centuries, through a series of bureaucratic & political changes, the New Year holiday drifted back in the calendar until it landed on Jan 1.
Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, a physicist at the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy and has conducted archaeo-astronomical studies to chart the precise lunar-phases of ancient Rome’s calendars. Interestingly, under the 10-month theory, the months were not longer, she said. The Romans didn’t bother to mark or measure the days in what we call now January & February because little to no agriculture happened in those months and at that time, calendars were developed primarily for farmers. “After a gap in the winter, the year started from Martius,” she said.
But the Romans were a notoriously organized bunch, so why would they introduce two new -months & then simply ignore the very fact that a many of their other named months not made sense? Well, the answer might be that naming conventions were a touch of a political quagmire in those days. Many people in power were jostling to rename months to aggrandize their origins. Emperor Caligula, for instance, tried to have September changed to “Germanicus“ in honor of his father, Sparavigna said. Emperor Domitian also had a go & tried to show October into Domitianus.
But none of this went down terribly well with the Roman’s public, as it turned-out, were fairly conservative & didn’t take well to vary for change’s sake. “These changes of names apparently lasted for a really short-time,” Sparavigna said. This aversion to transform makes sense. In any case , many folks today still resist changes to the way we measure things; the metric system is far from universal and will partly explain why the authorities didn’t alter the naming system once they introduced January & February.
Not everyone buys that narrative, though.
“Personally, I think it’s strange to come up with a calendar in the first place that just leaves out two months & features a gap that nobody has bothered to name,” said Peter Heslin, a professor in the department of classics & ancient history at the Durham University, United Kingdom. The 10-month theory was actually a first put about by late-Roman thinkers, who were contemplating their own nonsensical ordering of the months. “Some modern scholars agree & say that’s what must have happened because the Romans said so. But others are more sceptical because it all sounds a touch bizarre,” Heslin said.
Instead, Heslin says there have been probably always 12-months in the Roman calendar. New Year’s Day used to be widely celebrated in March but other bureaucratic institutions of the Roman Empire would operate with January because the start of the year. Even today, many countries like US have a special tax year to the common calendar.” In 153 B.C.E. [Before the Common Era], it had been decided that the Roman consuls would begin their year in office on Jan 1, for instance, so while March may be considered the beginning by the general public, the political year started in January, then it had been a touch messy until they cleared it up,” he said. “All of this is often speculation, but I think there was a series of slow incremental changes where the March’s New Year was pushed back.”
By Heslin’s reckoning, because the change happened so gradually, nobody really not pay any attention at the time. Many centuries later, the Roman intellectuals then tried to rationalize why the names of the months didn’t make any sense. Their answer, he says, was to erroneously conclude that there must be 10 months at some point.