Julius Caesar: he came, he saw, he conquered the calendar and gave us New Years Day

The Western world celebrates New Years Day on January 1, although it has not always been so, and it took at least two major calendar reforms in as many millennia to cement January 1 as the official start of the year. new Year.

It turns out that the ancients enjoyed a new year’s day assortment. The Babylonians celebrated in the spring, the first new moon after the spring equinox; in ancient Greece, the new year began at the winter solstice; in Persia, at the autumnal equinox; and at the beginning of Rome, the new year began in March.

Most of the credit for New Year’s standardization goes to Julius Caesar, who took absolute power over Rome in 46 BC. AD, only to find that the mighty empire’s calendar was hopelessly shattered. Despite previous reforms, which included the institution of a complex system of periodic adjustments (analogous to leap years) intended to keep it roughly calibrated to the 365-day solar year, the Roman calendar was still based on the lunar cycles, which gave a year of 355 days. . The adjustments needed to keep it on track were vulnerable to political manipulation and applied haphazardly.

Roman calendar carved in marble. Undated illustration. Getty Images.

In short, the Roman calendar was unreliable. Forecasting seasonal changes, celebrating feast days, conducting day-to-day business and civic governance were all made more difficult by the whim of the calendar. How much more difficult? As historian Michele Renee Salzman noted in “Cambridge’s companion in ancient Rome, “the calendar was so out of whack during Caesar’s day that in 44 BC January 1 would actually have fallen on October 14 from the previous year (in terms of a 365-day solar year).

Caesar found this unacceptable. In fact, he was so determined to restart Rome’s broken calendar that he commissioned 46 BC.longest year in history“) to be extended to 445 days to force the calendar to align properly.

Caesar’s plan for reform called for a fixed 12-month, 365-day calendar starting on January 1 and ending on the last day of December. Long ago (as noted earlier), the Romans had sounded the new year in March. And although historians generally agree that Roman civic and religious institutions had already switched to observing January 1 as the conventional start of the new year long before Caesar came to power, his Julian calendar, as has been known, was the first to codify it as such and ensured that January 1 and other important dates never drifted off their seasonal moorings again.

At least that was the idea. As revolutionary as the Julian calendar was, it was not perfect and got out of alignment with time. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar – essentially, the calendar as we know it today – which incorporated minor adjustments to correct for the slight drift (although significant over time) discovered in the Julian calendar.

More importantly (for our purposes), the Gregorian calendar also reaffirmed January 1 as the official start of the year, which had become necessary because by the Middle Ages some kingdoms had shifted their New Year’s observance to alternative dates corresponding to various Christians. holidays.

In almost the entire western world, January 1 has been on New Year’s Day.


Cowell, FR Life in Ancient Rome: An Absorbing Social History – A Living Portrait of a Magnificent Era. Penguin, 1976.

Editors, Biography com. “Julius Caesar.” Biography, https://www.biography.com/physical-figure/julius-caesar. Accessed December 29, 2021.

Erdkamp, ​​Paul. Cambridge’s companion in ancient Rome. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Ermatinger, James W. The world of ancient Rome: an encyclopedia of everyday life [2 Volumes]: An encyclopedia of everyday life. ABC-CLIO, 2015.

Julian calendar. https://stevemorse.org/juliancalendar/julian.htm. Accessed December 29, 2021.

New Year’s Party | Definition, history, traditions and facts | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/New-Year-festival. Accessed December 29, 2021.

The longest year in history. https://uh.edu/engines/epi2364.htm. Accessed December 29, 2021.

The Galileo project | Chronology | Gregorian calendar. http://galileo.rice.edu/chron/gregorian.html. Accessed December 29, 2021.

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