Happy New Year! As the days start to get longer again and we start to look forward to summer in the not-too-far-distant future, I wanted to take you back for a look into the past. Because, while New Year might for you mean a lot of fireworks and even more resolutions (most of which have fallen by the wayside already), the celebration of the New Year actually goes all the way back to Roman times. (They didn’t have fireworks then, though, and I’m pretty sure the Romans were just as bad at keeping resolutions as we are.)
In fact, celebrating the New Year on January 1st has a bit of a bloody history to it. We’ve all heard of Julius Caesar, the famous first emperor of Rome who was murdered in the Senate for trying to become a tyrant. But what you might not have known is that Caesar, amongst his bloody campaigns and power-mongering, also engaged in a bit of home affairs. In fact, what Caesar decided Rome really needed was a new calendar. The trouble is that there aren’t exactly 365 days in a year, but 365 and a little bit. Now, before Julius Caesar, the Roman year lasted 355 days, and then, every now and then when they were running behind things a bit, the Romans would add in an extra month to make the time up. Not very convenient really, is it? Well, Caesar had a plan. Caesar’s idea was to divide the year into 365 days, rather than 355, and then simply add an extra day to the month of February every four years. That’s what gives us leap years today. And he also decided that it was much more sensible to celebrate the new year on the 1st January, rather than on March 1st, when the Romans used to celebrate the coming of spring. Much more logical, if you think about it.
Julius Caesar’s calendar (today called the ‘Julian Calendar’) took effect in 45 BCE. But if you’ve done your homework, you know what happened next. Yes, that’s right: on the ides of March, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was murdered (and, paradoxically, only a few weeks after the old New Year celebration. Good timing, Brutus). It was a difficult time for the newly formed empire, and having a new calendar in place can’t have made it easier. But when the senate voted to make Julius Caesar a god, they decided to do in on the first of January, as an official recognition of his achievement in making the new calendar, and the beginning of the new year.
So the celebration of the New Year on January 1st originally began with Julius Caesar turning into a god; and yet, the name of the month January actually comes from another Roman god – but not Julius Caesar (he got July). This is Janus, the two-headed god who guarded doorways and who could look both forwards and backwards – forwards, to the year to come; and backwards, to the year that had gone.
What do you think – if Janus could have looked forwards to us now, in the future, would he still have recognised the New Year’s celebrations from his own days?
I like to think so.
Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.
Julius Caesar image credit: Andrew Bossi