Facts of the Matter


March derives its name
from the god of war

The names of the twelve months in our Western calendar are so familiar that we don't think much about where they came from. The history of the calendar and the names dates to the ancient Romans, with many modifications along the way.

The word calendar comes from the Latin, "kalendae," the Roman name for the first quarter of a lunar cycle. In the first Roman calendar, each month began with a new moon.

Rome's original citizens brought with them a calendar of ten moons in a year of 304 days, with an uncounted winter period of 61 days. Romulus, Rome's founder, became the first ruler of the city and made extensive changes, making each month 29 to 31 days to bring the total to 360 days, which was better synchronized with the solar year.

Each new year began with March, when it is spring and life begins its yearly cycle. Between year's end in December and the new year was a festival period, which included the suspension of war. The start of the next year meant its resumption, so the month of March was named after the Roman god of war, Mars.

The last six months of the year were named by number: Quintillis (from Latin for fifth), Sextillia (sixth), and the ones whose names remain today, September (seventh), October (eighth), November (ninth), and December (tenth). After Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., Quintillis was renamed July in his honor, although some accounts suggest that he changed it to honor himself. Sextillia became August after Augustus became the first emperor of Rome.

There has been disagreement about the origins of the names for the other three months, April, May, and June.

The Roman poet, Ovid, writing around 30 B.C., said that April was named "Aprilis" after a corrupted form of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Others say it comes from the Latin, "aperiere: to open," suggesting springtime's buds. Some historians think that it may have come from an old Latin term for "after," or "second."

The origins of May and June are equally cloudy. They could have come from Maia, the goddess of growth and Juno, queen of the gods, sister of Jupiter and patron of new brides. Other accounts suggest these were months honoring grown men as in "maior" (major) and young men as in "junior."

It is uncertain when January and February joined the calendar, and in what sequence. It is generally believed that they were both added around 700 B.C. to fix the discrepancy between the 304 day, 10-month lunar calendar and the 365 days in the solar year.

January was "gateway month," named after Janus, the god of doorways and good beginnings, which the Romans thought ensured good endings. It seems February was always a short month although lore has it that Julius and Augustus each "stole" days from other months to lengthen "their" months.

February arises from the Latin word "februare" meaning "to purify." Some historians believe a goatskin thong called a februa was used to gently thrash women in the belief that it would make them fertile. The ritual was performed during Lupercalia, the festival of fertility held on the full moon. It gradually became associated with the feast day of St. Valentine, our Valentine's day.

We could all be a little smarter, no? Richard Brill picks up
where your high school science teacher left off. He is a professor of science
at Honolulu Community College, where he teaches earth and physical
science and investigates life and the universe.
He can be contacted by e-mail at

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