Welcome to the second part in this mini, Ancient Everyday blog series about Time in the Roman world.
Last week we took a brief look at how the Romans tracked and organized the years. If you missed it, you can read it by CLICKING HERE.
This week, we’re going to take a look at what is perhaps one of their greatest legacies – the Calendar.
Now, the Romans did indeed do a lot for us – you can check out this wonderful series hosted by Adam Hart-Davis to learn what the Romans did for us – and it goes without saying that we take a lot of it for granted today.
The calendar ranks right up there, and even though we take time for granted, it is actually something that we are constantly aware of. Quite the conundrum, if you ask me!
The word ‘calendar’, as well as the names of the months we still use today are of Roman origin.
However, the calendar went through some reform before it got to the version we are now familiar with.
The original Roman calendar, known as the ‘Calendar of Romulus’, was an agricultural, 10-month year. There were ten irregular months with a total of 304 days from March to December.
The names of these months originated then, and the gap of missing months accounts for the period of time in which no agricultural work was carried out. This was also a lunar cycle, so there was a degree of ‘seasonal drift’ compared to the solar cycle.
It is believed that the change to a 12-month calendar occurred in the sixth century B.C.
In the year 153 B.C., January was made the first month of the year, named after Janus, the god of doorways and new beginnings.
But until Julius Caesar’s calendar reform, the Roman year was 355 days long, divided into 12 months. Four of these had 31 days (March, May, July, and October), seven months had 29 days, and February had 28 days.
Here are the names of the months on the Roman calendar:
Ianuarius (the month of ‘Janus’)
Februarius (the month of ‘Februa’, purgings or purifications)
Martius (the month of ‘Mars’)
Aprilis (uncertain meaning)
Maius (uncertain meaning)
Iunius (the month of ‘Juno’)
Quinctilis (the ‘fifth’ month – renamed ‘Iulius’ in 44 B.C. after Julius Caesar)
Sextilis (the ‘sixth’ month – renamed ‘Augustus’ in 8 B.C. after Emperor Augustus)
September (the ‘seventh’ month)
October (the ‘eighth’ month)
November (the ‘ninth’ month)
December (the ‘tenth’ month)
Notice how some of these names are a legacy of the 10-month agricultural Roman calendar year?
There is apparently some evidence for ‘intercalation’, that is, the addition of days to adjust the year. This included the addition of 22-23 days every other year in February.
The act of intercalation was the domain of the pontiffs of Rome, but it was not accurate, and by the time of Julius Caesar, the civic year was about three months ahead of the solar year that was in use.
Caesar extended the year 46 B.C. to 445 days to remove the discrepancy.
So, from January 1st, 45 B.C. he made the year 365 days long with the months at their current numbers. Quite the legacy, no? He also introduced the leap year.
Thus, was the Julian Calendar born.
Today, the most widely used calendar is the Gregorian Calendar. However, the Gregorian calendar is basically the same as the Julian Calendar except for some small changes.
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII omitted 10 days from the calendar year to adjust the discrepancy between the Julian calendar and the solar year. He also ordered that 3 days be omitted in leap years every 400 years.
So there you have it! A very brief look at the evolution of the calendar from ancient Rome to the one we use today.
Next week, in Part III of this series, we’ll be looking at the days and weeks in the Roman world.
Thank you for reading!
This week on Writing the Past, we’re going back in time from the Middle Ages to ancient Rome once more.
I thought it might be fun to do a short series of Ancient Everyday blogs about something that concerned our ancient ancestors as well as ourselves. It’s something that, across the ages, we all wish we had more of: Time.
This isn’t going to be a philosophical series of posts on time, but rather a look at the practicalities of time and how ancient Romans organized it.
In this first post, we’re going to look at how years were counted and tracked in ancient Rome and across the Empire.
Today, dating is something we take rather for granted, but at times during the Roman era, there was a lot of thought put into this and the development of a system around it.
Early in the Roman Republic, the years were usually dated by the names of the Roman Consuls, the highest rank for an elected Roman official, and the pinnacle of the Cursus Honorem, the tried and true path of public offices for anyone seeking political success.
Two consuls served at once and, conveniently, they served for just one year, so that could be readily used as a method of dating. The lists of consuls were called fasti, and they exist from about the year 509 B.C.
This practice of dating using the names of Roman Consuls stopped in about A.D. 537 when Emperor Justinian I (the ‘Great’) switched to the regnal years of the emperors.
Prior to that, there were other ways in which the years were tracked and counted.
Sometimes years were dated from the founding of the city of Rome – ab urbe condita was the wording used. Rome is generally thought to have been founded in the year 753 B.C., so the years would be counted from that point on.
I wonder how widespread this dating was, compared with the use of the fasti. There were even more dating systems across the Empire, systems which had a local flavour; say, for instance, years counted from a particularly big event in the history of a certain place etc.
From the late 3rd century A.D., the practice of counting years by indiction, or indictio, was also used. This was the announcement of the delivery of food and other goods to the government. So, basically, indictio referred to the tax assessment which took place, at first, in five-year cycles, but in a fifteen-year cycle from about A.D. 312.
Indictio was also often used to date the fiscal years in the Empire which tended to begin on the first of September.
It’s thought that the general population may have tended to know the indictio years better than the consular years. This isn’t surprising as we’re all aware of the dates when the government slashes at our purse strings!
The Christian reckoning of years using B.C. and A.D. (for Anno Domini – ‘Year of the Lord’) in the Julian and Gregorian calendars was introduced in the mid-sixth century by the monk Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor. In this reckoning, there is no year ‘0’, but rather 1 B.C. is immediately followed by A.D. 1. Nowadays, there is a movement toward using B.C.E (Before Common/Current Era) and C.E. (Common/Current Era).
Whichever method of dating you prefer today, it seems that the Romans had a variety of methods to choose from.
Were they as obsessed with time as we are today? I suspect not. But it was something they grappled with on certain levels.
Either way, ancient dates are likely less reliable before Julius Caesar’s calendar reform of 45 B.C.
I suppose we should thank the gods for circa, that is, ‘approximately’!
Thank you for reading!
If you are curious and want to check out a list of the consuls of Rome, you can do so by CLICKING HERE.
Come back next week for the next Ancient Everyday in this series on Time in which we’ll be looking at the Roman calendar and months.
One of the things that fascinates me the most about studying the ancient world is the vast array of gods and goddesses. They all played an important role in the day-to-day lives of ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and others.
There were many deities associated with agriculture in ancient Rome, Ceres and Saturn, for example. Many gods and goddesses, major and minor, could affect crops, agricultural endeavours and the subsequent harvests.
When you hear the name of Mars, agriculture is not the first thing that comes to mind. When I think of the Roman god, Mars, I think of one thing.
The Roman God of War was second to none other than Jupiter himself in the Roman Pantheon.
The Romans were a warlike people after all, and so Mars always figured prominently.
Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus) vowed to build a temple to Mars in 42 B.C. during the battle of Philippi in which he, Mark Antony and Lepidus finally defeated the murderers of Julius Caesar. When Augustus built his forum in 20 B.C. the Temple of Mars Ultor (the Avenger) was the centrepiece.
“On my own ground I built the temple of Mars Ultor and the Augustan Forum from the spoils of war.” (Res Gestae Divi Augusti)
People often think that Mars was the Roman name given to Ares, the Greek God of War, as was the case with many other gods in Roman religion. This is not exactly true.
In the Greek Pantheon, Ares was simply God of War, brutal, dangerous and unforgiving. To give oneself over to Ares was to give in to savagery and the animalistic side of war. Fear and Terror were his companions. Most Greeks preferred Athena as Goddess of War, Strategy and Wisdom.
Mars was a very different god from Ares. He was a uniquely Roman god. He was the father of the Roman people.
Mars was the God of War, true, but he was also a god of agriculture.
Just as he protected the Roman people in battle, so too did Mars guard their crops, their flocks, and their lands.
War and agriculture were closely linked in the Roman Republic. Most Romans who fought in the early legions were farmers who had set aside their plows and scythes to pick up their gladii and scuta when called upon to defend their lands. One of the most cited examples of this is Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 BC – 430 BC), one of the early Patrician heroes of Rome.
In his work De Agri Cultura, Marcus Porcius Cato (234 BC– 149 BC) speaks at length about the tradition of the suovetaurilia, a sacrifice that was made roughly every five years and occasionally at other times. This ceremony was a form of purification, a lustratio.
The highly sacred suovetaurilia was dedicated to Mars with the intent of blessing and purifying lands.
It involved the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep, and a bull – all to Mars.
The sacrifice was done after the animals were led around the land while asking the god to purify the farm and land.
Cato describes the prayer that is uttered to Mars once the sacrifices have been made:
“Father Mars, I pray and beseech thee that thou be gracious and merciful to me, my house, and my household; to which intent I have bidden this suovetaurilia to be led around my land, my ground, my farm; that thou keep away, ward off, and remove sickness, seen and unseen, barrenness and destruction, ruin and unseasonable influence; and that thou permit my harvests, my grain, my vineyards, and my plantations to flourish and to come to good issue, preserve in health my shepherds and my flocks, and give good health and strength to me, my house, and my household. To this intent, to the intent of purifying my farm, my land, my ground, and of making an expiation, as I have said, deign to accept the offering of these suckling victims; Father Mars…“
(Cato the Elder; De Agri Cultura)
This is not a prayer to the bloodthirsty god of war that Ares was.
The words and actions above evoke a wish from a child to a supreme father and protector. We see the fears that would have occupied the minds of the Roman people. No matter how mighty in war they may have been, if crops failed and disease spread, they would have been lost.
Romans prayed to Ceres and Saturn for the success of their crops, for abundance.
But the prayer above was to Mars, he who held Rome’s enemies, the enemies of its lands, at bay.
In war and in peace, Mars was always the guardian of his people.
Thank you for reading
If you want a clearer understanding of the suovetaurilia ceremony, and the meaning of this interesting Latin compound word, here is a very short presentation: https://youtu.be/pz1KiILdW2s
Recently, while excavating piles of my research on various topics, I unearthed some photos from a vacation in Tuscany back in 2002. These photos were of an Etruscan tomb just outside Castellina in Chianti.
The site was simple and unassuming, but it had a great impact on my imagination, so much so that I used it in some parts of Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra. On that trip, I started to learn more about the Etruscans who inhabited the Italian peninsula from roughly the Tiber to the Arno rivers and beyond, to the Po valley and Bologna.
So, my interest rekindled, I thought I would write a quick post on this fascinating people.
Not a great deal is known about the Etruscans, and I am by no means an expert, but from what I have seen and read, it’s a very interesting topic. Anyone who has studied ancient Greece and Rome will have had some contact with the Etruscans; the Greeks traded with them and were a great influence on Etruscan art and lifestyle, and Rome itself was ruled by Etruscan kings who brought that little backwater village by the Tiber out of the mud with a dash of civilization. In Tuscany itself, there are many sites where one can find remains of Etruscan civilization, places such as Cerveteri, Veii, Tarquinia, Volsinii, Volterra, Vulci and Arezzo.
Much of what is known about the Etruscans and their lifestyle comes from their tombs where elaborate paintings of banquets and sporting events such as the Olympics have been found. Many grave goods have been found in the tombs and there is an excellent collection of finds at the Archaeological Museums of Bologna and Florence.
The Etruscans traded a great deal, and so had much contact with the Greeks from other parts of Italy, Sicily and mainland Greece. The walls of the tombs depict chariot races and elaborate banqueting scenes with diners reclining on couches, drinking wine from kraters and being entertained by musicians. The scene is like many an ancient Greek depiction with one marked difference: in Etruscan art, women were shown dining right alongside the men, drinking wine and enjoying conversation. This would have been scandalous to an ancient Greek, as women the other side of the Ionian sea were not permitted to be in attendance at banquets or symposia.
The Etruscans had their own rich culture and this is reflected in much of their bronze artwork and pottery. While some of it resembled ancient Greek art, or indeed was Greek art acquired through trade, much of it is quite unique. An excellent example of this is the famous bronze Chimera of Arezzo on display at the Florence Archaeological Museum.
There is much debate about the origin of the Etruscans in Italy with no consensus yet in sight. Some believe the Etruscans were an indigenous people, others that they came from Lydia in Asia Minor. As far as the Roman scene was concerned, the line of Etruscan kings began circa 616 B.C. with the reign of Tarquin the Elder who was a Corinthian Greek named Lucumo who lived in Tarquinia and married an Etruscan woman named Tanaquil. The two were shunned for a mixed marriage and so moved to the growing centre of Rome where Tarquin became the fifth king of Rome.
The Etruscans were famous for their understanding of augury and prophecy, religious practices which would be widely used in Roman life for hundreds of years. Etruscan augurs would read portents and the will of the gods in animal entrails and organs, and this skill impressed the Romans. The Etruscans not only complemented Roman religious practices, but also helped to improve Roman building practices and it is to them that the Romans owe their talent for building aqueducts and sewers.
At the peak of their power and influence, the Etruscans were the dominant people of central Italy. They were however, never a truly unified nation and, like the Greeks who had influenced them and traded with them, their city-states never stopped fighting amongst themselves. With the Romans growing in strength and skill to the South, and the Celts expanding in the North, the Etruscans were in a superbly unenviable position and could not hold sway for long.
The last Etruscan king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, who according to Livy took the throne by force and ruled through fear, was narrowly defeated in a series of battles between Etruscan allies and the Romans, led by Lucius Iunius Brutus. Many died on both sides, but Tarquin lived through the day and, though no longer King of Rome, lived out his days in exile in Tusculum. The wheels had been set in motion and Rome had become a Republic.
Of course, when I walked into the cypress-crowned tomb outside Castellina in Chianti years ago, I knew nothing of Etruscan history, nor how fascinating it really is. This short blog post is a tiny scratch on the surface, a mere taste – there is so much more to learn. There are not many books (fiction or non-fiction) on the subject, at least not in English. As far as historical fiction/fantasy, two great reads are Steven Saylor’s Roma, part of which takes place during Rome’s infancy, and the other book is Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderfully woven tale, Lavinia, which looks at the mythical foundation of Rome with the arrival of Aeneas after the Trojan War.
If you ever find yourself in Italy, I highly recommend the archaeological museums of Florence and Bologna where you can see Etruscan artefacts for yourselves, and it goes without saying that visits to the archaeological sites mentioned are well worth the adventure. Just remember that snakes, as well as tourists, like nothing more than a dark, damp tomb in summer time.
Thank you for reading.
*If anyone has a favourite source for information on the Etruscans, please do share it in the comments below so that everyone can check it out!
It’s been a while since our last Ancient Everyday post, so time to get back to it.
Today, we’re going to look at the father in Roman society, the paterfamilias.
As an example, we are going to use Quintus Metellus Anguis, one of the main characters from the book, Killing the Hydra.
Looking back on the writing of this book, I forget all the years of research that went into it. I take for granted the everyday Roman world I immersed myself in to write it and the rest of the series. It all seems quite normal to me now.
I’ve spent a lot of time with the characters – the good, the bad, the savage, the honourable, the beautiful, the mysterious etc. etc., but Senator Quintus Metellus Anguis was a difficult person to deal with. However, I’m not sure he would have been out of place in the early Republican era.
Quintus is a spiteful, hard man who is quick to anger and jealous of his son’s (that is, Lucius Metellus Anguis’) successes. He is of a mindset that was born in the very early days of the Republic when there were no emperors, when kings were killed, and when the father held supreme power in the family.
Then again, in some ways, Quintus Metellus could not be more out of place in early 3rd century Rome, the period during which the story takes place.
Let’s take a look at the father in ancient Rome and his role as paterfamilias.
First we should have a look at the word familia. In ancient Rome, a familia did not only include a father, mother and children. The word also referred to other relatives (by blood or adoption), clients, freedmen and all slaves belonging to the family. It included all the family houses, lands and estates and anyone involved with running those holdings.
The Roman familia went far beyond the nuclear family, and the paterfamilias was the head of it all.
During the early days of the Roman Republic, the role of the paterfamilias was largely determined by an unwritten moral and social code called the Mos Maiorum, or the ‘ways of the elders’. These governing rules of private, social and political life in ancient Rome were handed down through the generations. Because these rules were unwritten, they evolved over time. Values and social mores change, as is natural, and successive generations come into their own with ideas different to their predecessors.
The generational differences form a large part of the conflict between Lucius and his father Quintus in both Children of Apollo and Killing the Hydra.
Quintus Metellus, as a Republican, is against Emperor Septimius Severus. He has had a vision of his son’s social and political progress since before he was born. He has tried hard all his life to breathe life back into the ancient name of ‘Metellus’, but without success. Now, all the pressure is placed upon his son, Lucius, whom he wants to become a senator of renown after he completes his minimum number of years in the military.
But Lucius has other ideas. He does not want what his father wants. Lucius has found success in the Legions and has been praised and promoted by Emperor Severus, a man he is happy to serve. Unlike many equestrian youths, Lucius Metellus Anguis is not interested in pursuing a political career. He wants to be a career officer in Rome’s Legions – something that causes his father no end of embarrassment and frustration. In his opinion, it is not the way to further the family name and better their fortunes.
In the early days of the Republic, Lucius would have had to do as his paterfamilias dictated. There would have been no choice in the matter, no influence from his mother or older sister to help his cause. The paterfamilias’ word was law within the familia.
In ancient Rome, the paterfamilias had to be a Roman citizen. He was responsible for the familia’s well-being and reputation, its legal and moral propriety. The paterfamilias even had duties to the household gods.
And this is where Quintus Metellus fails. He has lost faith in the gods that have watched over them. In fact, he fears them and their apparent favour of his son. Quintus clings to the archaic role of the paterfamilias like a dictator with power of life and death over the members of his familia. He forgets that the paterfamilias’ role is also to protect his familia within the current world they live in, and to honour their ancestors and their gods through his behaviour, his example.
This is where Lucius fills the void in duties neglected by his father.
But it is never as easy as that. The Empire is large, and most men are susceptible to corruption. Lucius fights for honour and goodness in a world that has no qualms about dismissing honour, virtue and family in the interests of greed and political advancement.
Quintus Metellus is the paterfamilias of their branch of the Metellus gens, but his own shortcomings and archaic notions are at complete odds with his son and the times they live in.
It’s always interesting to compare previous ages and practices with those of our own. Certainly the role of the father has changed over the centuries, though it varies from family to family and culture to culture.
Fortuna smiled on me with my own father who, thankfully, bore no resemblance to Quintus Metellus. But it was interesting to write such a character as Quintus, to explore his relationship with Lucius and the rest of the familia.
By the 3rd century A.D. the paterfamilias’ power of life and death over his family was restricted, the practice all but dead.
But old habits and ideas die hard, and for Quintus Metellus there are other ways to kill a member of your familia and maintain your power as paterfamilias.
Thank you for reading.