The Ancient Romans expressed time to each other in a far different way than we do today.
Observing lunar and solar patterns, the Romans were eventually able to devise a
calendar very similar to the one we use today.
Calendar] [Festivals and
Holidays] [Time-Telling Devices]
Knowledge of the Roman calendar comes to us from literary references and inscribed
calendars which have been found previously (fasti).
The original Roman calendar was originally introduced in the 7th century BC, containing
ten months (March - December) and 304 days. Two more months, January and February,
were probably added in the 6th century BC. January became the first month in 153
By the time Caesar reformed the calendar, a year was 355 days, made up of 12 months, four
of which contained 31 days (March, May, July, and October). February had 28 days and
the remaining months each had 29. The derivation of the names of the months is as
- January: Named after Janus, god of gates and
doors. On January first, Romans offered sacrifices to Janus so that he would bless
the new year.
- February: Derived from Latin februa,
signifying festivals of purification celebrated in Rome this month. Legend holds
that King Numa Pompilus added this month in 425 BC. It was originally 29 days but
one of those days was transferred to August.
- March: The Roman war god Mars.
- April: Latin, aperire,
meaning to open, probably because it is the season during which buds start to open.
- June: Uncertain. It could be
derived from the Latin goddess Juno, or the Junius clan of Ancient Rome. The Latin juniores
means "youth," and the month June may contrast the month May, which is
dedicated to maiores, or age.
- August: Named after emperor Augustus, due to
many important events in his life happening in this month.
- September - December: The Latin septem,
octem, novem, decem, meaning seven, eight, nine, and ten, in reference to the number
of each month in the year. June was originally Quintilus (five) and August sextus
The pontiffs of Ancient Rome
generally intercalated days to the calendar, but they did so improperly, so that by the
time of Julius Caesar, the calendar was three months off. To make up for this,
Caesar extended the year 46 BC to 445 days. His reformed version of the calendar
contained 12 months with the present amount of days and a leap year. However, his
calendar was 11 minutes longer than a true solar year.
The modern Gregorian calendar was developed by Pope Gregory XIII
during 1582. That year, ten days were scrapped from the calendar, and the Pope
ordered henceforth three days be omitted from the calendar every 400 years.
Roman calendars only had three dates with separate names: the Kalends (kalendae),
or 1st day of every month, the Ides, usually the 13th of a month but for three months the
15th, and the Nones (Nonae), or ninth day before the Ides. Romans would
indicate the date by relating how many days it was before one of the dates mentioned
above, unless it was the day before, in which case the term pridie was
A market day occurred every eight days, and was called a nundina. There
was no seven day period, or work weed, except in the east, where some days were named
after planets. The first reference to a seven day week is found during the reign of
Augustus, and was gradually adopted throughout the empire. The days were as
follows: Dies Lunae (Monday), Dies Martis (Tuesday), Dies
Mercuri (Wednesday), Dies Jovis (Thursday), Dies Veneris (Friday), Dies
Saturnae (Saturday), and Dies Solis (Sunday).
Feriae (dies ferialis) were holidays for visiting temples and making
sacrifices to the gods. At the same time, the term was used for public festivals and
private celebrations, such as birthdays.
Festivals often included additional rituals to what was normally practiced, and if not
celebrated correctly, the gods could become angry and cease their benevolence.
Therefore, there were important ceremonies conducted by public officials during festivals,
as well as private prayer and sacrifice.
Many festivals were not celebrated by the state, but rather as public holidays on which
only work sanctioned by the pontiff was permitted. Much work was likely done anyway,
however, and only the especially pious went to the temples rather than stay at home.
Legally, citizens were obliged not to work, but they were not legally obliged to
The number of Roman holidays was originally few in number, but some of the oldest and most
time honored survived untilt the end of the republic, preserving the memory of an ancient
agrarian society. So many festivals were added that the number of festivals
eventually outnumbered the number of working days. However, since there was no
weekend or rest day set aside, the impact was not as great as it might seem.
There was often no distinction between religious and secular activities, so that festivals
were often events of merry making. Originally "feast days," on holidays
the local aristocracy would pay for meals for the poor. Later, this custom ended and
the types of festivals were divided into three categories: feriae stativae,
annual festivals which occurred on fixed days, feriae conceptivae, festivals
whose dates were set yearly by priests or magistrates, and feriae imperativae,
irregular holidays proclaimed by consuls, praetors, or dictators to celebrate military
The games, ludi, had a religious element to them during early Rome in honor of
Jupiter Optimus Maximus. This ended after 220 BC, and while other types of
festivals, such as chariot races, still maintained a religious facet, the games did not.
Much festival celebration was geographically located to Rome and its vicinity.
Toward the end of the empire, many Roman holidays found there way into
Christianity, such as the Lupercalia, which became the Feast of the Purification
of the Saint Mary, and, most importantly, the birth of the sun god Sol on December
Among the more important Roman festivals were the Saturnalia, Lupercalia, Equiria, and the
The Saturnalia was held in December between the 17th and 23rd,
during the winter solstice. During the festival, masters and slaves would trade
places, gifts were exchanged, and business activities suspended. The Lupercalia
honored Lupercus, a pastoral god of the early Italians, and was celebrated at the cave of
the Lupercal on the Palatine Hill, where Romulus and Remus were supposedly found by the
shepherd Faustilus and taken home to his wife, Acca Lorentia. The Equiria was held
in honor of Mars on February 27 and March 14, when new military campaigns were
traditionally prepared. Horse races in the Campus Martius notably marked the
celebration. Finally, the Secular Games were held irregularly to usher in "new
ages," normally every century or so, with games and sacrifices. Later, the
celebration of this festival was often neglected.
For a complete listing of Roman festivals, click here.
To the Romans, there was always twelve hours of day and twelve hours
of night, so that the day and night periods of a Roman day varied, unless there was an
equinox. A daylight hour in midwinter would be equivalent to about 45 minutes, where
as a daylight hour in midsummer would be almost an hour and a half. The length of
each hour also varied with latitude.
Midnight was always the sixth hour of night, as noon was always the sixth hour of
day. The abbreviations A.M. and P.M. were first used by the Romans as abbreviations
for the term ante meridiem and post meridiem, or, before midday and
after midday, respectively.
Clocks (horologia) were used, either by means of shadow or water. Sundials
(solaria) were introduced around 300 BC. Relying on sunshine and needing a
different scaler at different latitudes, as well as needing seasonal correction, made the
sundial the inferior to the water clocks of the day, clepsydrae. These
often also needed seasonal adjustment, but could be used at night, especially in military
camps to measure the four watches of the Roman night. A basic water clock consisted
of a vessel filled with orifices that, when filled with water, measured the time as it
emptied. More elaborate clocks had a 24 hour water supply and worked by means of
Outstanding examples of each device are the Horologian of Andronicus, a water clock
erected in Athens in the 2nd half of the 1st century BC, and the solar clock of Augustus,
build in the Campus Martius in 9 BC and using an Egyptian obelisk as its gnomon.
Click here to return to top.