By Salvatore Di Vita
With the month of June upon us, we find ourselves halfway through Anno Domini MMIX (year of the lord 2009), marking off the days of the calendar. The story of how our present day calendar came about is an interesting and complex one. Although many cultures have had their own method of measuring time, the Romans were quite instrumental in putting it all together.
Today we follow what is known as the Julian or Roman calendar and here’s why. Legend has it that as far back as the eighth century B.C., Romulus, the first king of Rome, introduced a calendar based on ten months and only 304 days. What is strange is that 61 days were basically ignored and occurred sometime during the winter season. The fact that any civilized entity was able to stay in existence century after century is something short of a miracle although it has had its ups and downs. Their calendar however was something of a disaster.
Sometime around 45 B.C., along with social disorder and political strife, Roman politicians had fiddled with the calendar so much that it became a total mess and as a result the year had 445 days. Mamma mia! By the time Julius Caesar consolidated his power, he had his hands full. But soon after invading Egypt, he found himself surrounded by the world’s foremost experts of astronomy. The Egyptians were able to calculate the length of the solar year to 365 days and six hours. Julius Caesar then took full credit for the work done by the Egyptians and implemented what became known as the Julian calendar. Ah, but he wasn’t finished. Remember those 61 days that weren’t being used? Well, Caesar took those previously abandoned months and stuck them at the beginning of the year. Finally, each month had 30 days except for five months which had 31 days. All together they totaled 365 days. Alleluia!
All went well for a while until Julius was assassinated. After his death, his grand nephew Octavian and his best friend Marcus Antonius took a 30 day month and set it aside in honor of Julius. But since both Octavian and Marcus felt that a month honoring Julius should have 31 days, and not wanting to disrupt their new solar calendar, they simply took one day from February and left it with only 29 days. After Octavian became emperor of Rome, the Roman senate granted Octavian the name, “Augustus”, meaning, “exalted one”. Now there’s no doubt that Augustus was indeed feeling quite exalted, because he decided to name a month after himself. There was nobody around to stop him. Uncle Julius was dead and Augustus was in charge. He therefore took the month following July and called it August. But he still wasn’t happy because the month following July had only 30 days. Well, what else could he do but revisit February and snatch another day. February was now left with only 28 days.
End of story, right? No! Remember, the Egyptians calculated the solar year as consisting of 365 days plus six hours. Eventually a decision had to be made as to what to do with these six extra hours. As it turns out, the powers that be multiplied the six hours by four and came up with a product of 24 hours, a whole extra day. “No problem,” they said, “We’ll just collect these six hours each year and after four years we’ll tack them on to February.” In Italian it’s called “anno bisestile” but in English it’s called “leap year”.
Well, we finally reached the point where everyone is happy, right? Wrong! When I was 18 years of age, back in Brooklyn, N.Y., I happened to be visiting a friend whose mother was celebrating her 12th birthday. That’s right, her 12th birthday. She jokingly lamented that as a child she had to wait four years for each birthday because she was born on the 29th of February. She was actually 48 years of age. Kind of interesting , huh?