As July rolls into August, you might suspect your friendly columnist is just too lazy to come up with new stuff. But I had lunch with some friends this week who hadn’t heard this old one. And, admit it, you could probably do with a refresher…
QUESTION: Why are our 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th months named after the numbers 7, 8, 9 and 10?
ANSWER: In ancient Rome, the year was originally laid out as 10 months stretching from early spring to the winter solstice. The first 4 months were named after gods (Mars, Aphrodite, Maia and Juno) and the rest were just numbered from 5-10 (Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December). After that, there was an unnamed winter period, before starting all over again with Mars’ month.
In 46 BC, Julius Caesar defined the winter period as 2 new months, named for Janus, the god of new beginnings, and for Februa, the Roman festival of purification. He moved the beginning of the year to Janus 1st, the day the Senate took office. So now the year had 12 months, with the first 6 months named for something, and the last 6 months keeping their old number-names, which were now all “off” by 2.
Quintilis and Sextilis got fixed after Julius Caesar died. He was succeeded by his adopted great-nephew, Augustus Caesar. Augustus declared his great-uncle a god, and renamed the month of Quintilis as July, in honor of Julius’ birthday in that month. Augustus Caesar proved to be an excellent leader, so after his death, he too was declared a god and the month of Sextilis was renamed August.
Lots of subsequent emperors tried to rename 1 or more of the last 4 months in their own honor. Emperor Commodus tried to rename ALL 12 months in honor of himself, but he was an idiot, so nobody listened. But in the end, only the Caesars were able to retain permanent status of “Emperor of the Month.”
Which left the last four months of the year with a numerically nonsensical nomenclature.
And for the last 2000 years, we’ve all been happy to just go along with it.
Hail, stupidity! Hail, acquiescence!