8. The Julian Calendar

22.03.2015 13:16


The Julian calendar, introduced by Juliius Caesar in -45, was a solar calendar with months of fixed lengths. Every fourth year an intercalary day was added to maintain synchrony between the calendar year and the tropical year. It served as a standard for European civilization until the Gregorian Reform of +1582.

Today the principles of the Julian calendar continue to be used by chronologists. The Julian proleptic calendar is formed by applying the rules of the Julian calendar to times before Caesar's reform. This provides a simple chronological system for correlating other calendars and serves as the basis for the Julian day numbers.


8.1 Rules

Years are classified as normal years of 365 days and leap years of 366 days. Leap years occur in years that are evenly divisible by 4. For this purpose, year 0 (or 1 B.C.) is considered evenly divisible by 4. The year is divided into twelve formalized months that were eventually adopted for the Gregorian calendar.


8.2 History of the Julian Calendar

The year -45 has been called the "year of confusion," because in that year Julius Caesar inserted 90 days to bring the months of the Roman calendar back to their traditional place with respect to the seasons. This was Caesar's first step in replacing a calendar that had gone badly awry. Although the pre-Julian calendar was lunisolar in inspiration, its months no longer followed the lunar phases and its year had lost step with the cycle of seasons (see Michels, 1967; Bickerman, 1974). Following the advice of Sosigenes, an Alexandrine astronomer, Caesar created a solar calendar with twelve months of fixed lengths and a provision for an intercalary day to be added every fourth year. As a result, the average length of the Julian calendar year was 365.25 days. This is consistent with the length of the tropical year as it was known at the time.

Following Caesar's death, the Roman calendrical authorities misapplied the leap-year rule, with the result that every third, rather than every fourth, year was intercalary. Although detailed evidence is lacking, it is generally believed that Emperor Augustus corrected the situation by omitting intercalation from the Julian years -8 through +4. After this the Julian calendar finally began to function as planned.

Through the Middle Ages the use of the Julian calendar evolved and acquired local peculiarities that continue to snare the unwary historian. There were variations in the initial epoch for counting years, the date for beginning the year, and the method of specifying the day of the month. Not only did these vary with time and place, but also with purpose. Different conventions were sometimes used for dating ecclesiastical records, fiscal transactions, and personal correspondence.

Caesar designated January 1 as the beginning of the year. However, other conventions flourished at different times and places. The most popular alternatives were March 1, March 25, and December 25. This continues to cause problems for historians, since, for example, +998 February 28 as recorded in a city that began its year on March 1, would be the same day as +999 February 28 of a city that began the year on January 1.

Days within the month were originally counted from designated division points within the month: Kalends, Nones, and Ides. The Kalends is the first day of the month. The Ides is the thirteenth of the month, except in March, May, July, and October, when it is the fifteenth day. The Nones is always eight days before the Ides (see Table 8.2.1). Dates falling between these division points are designated by counting inclusively backward from the upcoming division point. Intercalation was performed by repeating the day VI Kalends March, i.e., inserting a day between VI Kalends March (February 24) and VII Kalends March (February 23).

By the eleventh century, consecutive counting of days from the beginning of the month came into use. Local variations continued, however, including counts of days from dates that commemorated local saints. The inauguration and spread of the Gregorian calendar resulted in the adoption of a uniform standard for recording dates.

Cappelli (1930), Grotefend and Grotefend (1941), and Cheney (1945) offer guidance through the maze of medieval dating.