In the arrangement of the civil year, two objects are sought to be accomplished, - first, the equable distribution of the days among twelve months; and secondly, the preservation of the beginning of the year at the same distance from the solstices or equinoxes. Now, as the year consists of 365 days and a fraction, and 365 is a number not divisible by 12, it is impossible that the months can all be of the same length and at the same time include all the days of the year. By reason also of the fractional excess of the length of the year above 365 days, it likewise happens that the years cannot all contain the same number of days if the epoch of their commencement remains fixed; for the day and the civil year must necessarily be considered as beginning at the same instant; and therefore the extra hours cannot be included in the year till they have accumulated to a whole day. As soon as this has taken place, an additional day must be given to the year.
The civil calendar of all European countries has been borrowed from that of the Romans. Romulus is said to have divided the year into ten months only, including in all 304 days, and it is not very well known how the remaining days were disposed of. The ancient Roman year commenced with March, as is indicated by the names September, October, November, December, which the last four months still retain. July and August, likewise, were anciently denominated Quintilis and Sextilis, their present appellations having been bestowed in compliment to Julius Caesar and Augustus. In the reign of Numa two months were added to the year, January at the beginning and February at the end; and this arrangement continued till the year 452 B.C., when the Decemvirs changed the order of the months, and placed February after January. The months now consisted of twenty-nine and thirty days alternately, to correspond with the synodic revolution of the moon, so that the year contained 354 days; but a day was added to make the number odd, which was considered more fortunate, and the year therefore consisted of 355 days.
This differed from the solar year by ten whole days and a fraction; but, to restore the coincidence, Numa ordered an additional or intercalary month to be inserted every second year between the 23rd and 24th of February, consisting of twenty-two and twenty-three days alternately, so that four years contained 1465 days, and the mean length of the year was consequently 366&FRAC14; days. The additional month was called Mercedinus or Mercedonius, from merces, wages, probably because the wages of workmen and domestics were usually paid at this season of the year. According to the above arrangement, the year was too long by one day, which rendered another correction necessary. As the error amounted to twenty-four days in as many years, it was ordered that every third period of eight years, instead of containing four intercalary months, amounting in all to ninety days, should contain only three of those months, consisting of twenty-two days each. The mean length of the year was thus reduced to 365&FRAC14; days; but it is not certain at what time the octennial periods, borrowed from the Greeks, were introduced into the Roman calendar, or whether they were at any time strictly followed.
It does not even appear that the length of the intercalary month was regulated by any certain principle, for a discretionary power was left with the pontiffs, to whom the care of the calendar was committed, to intercalate more or fewer days according as the year was found to differ more or less from the celestial motions. This power was quickly abused to serve political objects, and the calendar consequently thrown into confusion. By giving a greater or less number of days to the intercalary month, the pontiffs were enabled to prolong the term of a magistracy or hasten the annual elections; and so little care had been taken to regulate the year, that, at the time of Julius Caesar, the civil equinox differed from the astronomical by three months, so that the winter months were carried back into autumn and the autumnal into summer.
In order to put an end to the disorders arising from the negligence or ignorance of the pontiffs, Caesar abolished the use of the lunar year and the intercalary month, and regulated the civil year entirely by the sun. With the advice and assistance of Sosigenes, he fixed the mean length of the year at 365&FRAC14; days, and decreed that every fourth year should have 366 days, the other years having each 365. In order to restore the vernal equinox to the 25th of March, the place it occupied in the time of Numa, he ordered two extraordinary months to be inserted between November and December in the current year, the first to consist of thirty-three, and the second of thirty-four days. The intercalary month of twenty-three days fell into the year of course, so that the ancient year of 355 days received an augmentation of ninety days; and the year on that occasion contained in all 445 days. This was called the last year of confusion. The first Julian year commenced with the 1st of January of the 46th before the birth of Christ, and the 708th from the foundation of the city.
In the distribution of the days through the several months, Caesar adopted a simpler and more commodious arrangement than that which has since prevailed. He had ordered that the first, third, fifth, seventh, ninth and eleventh months, that is January, March, May, July, September and November, should have each thirty-one days, and the other months thirty, excepting February, which in common years should have only twenty-nine, but every fourth year thirty days. This order was interrupted to gratify the vanity of Augustus, by giving the month bearing his name as many days as July, which was named after the first Caesar. A day was accordingly taken from February and given to August; and in order that three months of thirty-one days might not come together, September and November were reduced to thirty days, and thirty-one given to October and December. For so frivolous a reason was the regulation of Caesar abandoned, and a capricious arrangement introduced, which it requires some attention to remember.