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As we start a new year and look forward to what’s ahead, it is interesting to consider the history of calendars and timekeeping – and how we have reached the present day system of recording time through days, weeks and months.

Days, months and years

The earliest calendars date back to the Bronze Age with civilisations in the near east region, such as the Babylonians and Persians, being among the first to record time by using natural cycles including days, lunar cycles (months), and solar cycles (years).

The problem is that the actual length of a day is 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4 seconds; a month is 29.53 days and a year 365.2422 days – making it difficult to devise an exact calendar that is easy to follow.

The Egyptians are generally credited as the first to make all their months an even 30 days – moving away from early attempts of trying to synchronise with lunar cycles and focusing instead on aligning with the solar year. They also introduced the concept of a leap year every four years.

The Julian Calendar

The Romans developed this model and it was Julius Caesar, who oversaw the formation of the Julian Calendar and is acclaimed for putting in place the foundations of the calendar we use today.

Caesar commissioned astronomer Sosigenes to improve things – the result being that each month now had either 30 or 31 days except February, which contained 28 days and 29 in every fourth year.

However, under the Julian Calendar January wasn’t the first month of the year – instead it started in March and ended in February.

 Names for the days of the week

The days of the week were named by the Romans with the Latin words for the Sun, the Moon, and the five known planets. These names have survived in European languages such as French, Italian and Spanish but in English some of the names for days of the week also reflect our Anglo-Saxon influence.

For example, Tuesday in Latin is dies Martis – named after Mars, the Roman god of war, and in French the day is still called mardi. In Anglo-Saxon, however, it is Tiwesdaeg – after Tiw, who was an Anglo-Saxon god of war, and from which we derive Tuesday.

Likewise, Latin for Thursday is dies Jovis, named after Jupiter, the Roman god of the sky, and in Spanish the day is still called jueves.  But in Anglo-Saxon, it is Thursdaeg – after Thor, the god of Thunder, and thus we have Thursday.

Names for months of the year

Many more of the Roman terms for months of the year still survive in English today, such as March after Mars, the Roman god of war; May after Maia, the Roman earth goddess of growing plants; and June after Juno, the Roman queen of the gods.

Julius Caesar gave his name to July while his successor Augustus followed suit.

In the ancient Roman calendar September to December were listed as the 7th to 10th months of the year – and thus their names: septem is Latin for seven, octo is Latin for eight, novem is Latin for nine and decem the Latin term for ten.

The Gregorian Calendar

But it wasn’t until 1582 that the calendar much of the world uses today was devised. It was called the Gregorian Calendar after Pope Gregory XIII who wanted to get the calendar back in sync with seasonal events like the spring equinox and winter solstice by removing some days and working out leap years more accurately.

However, this was a time of religious upheaval and although many of the southern European Catholic countries adopted the new system almost straightaway, some Protestant countries resisted for many years. Germany didn’t change over until 1610 while the UK and the US held out until 1752. Greece and Islamist Turkey didn’t fall in line until the 1920s.


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