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October was once the eighth month

Published October 19. 2013 09:00AM

It's really hard to believe that it is October again. It seems like just yesterday the leaves were fresh and green, the birds were singing and the geese were returning to Canada and points north. Where did the time go? Once again it is fall and the daytime is ebbing away more quickly with each cycle of the clock. This week we celebrated Kathryn's 6th birthday. Six years has passed in the blink of an eye and our little baby girl is now in kindergarten.

October is the tenth month of the year so one might wonder why the month is named October instead of Decober or December for that matter since the root deci- means ten. How did October with the Octo prefix which means eight become the part of the name for the tenth month? Well since October is National Magic Month, one could guess that the reason is a magic one, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Originally October was the eighth month of a ten month calendar year that was formulated according to Roman historians to Romulus, the founder of Rome according to Wikipedia. That first calendar began with the spring equinox occurring in the first month and then worked its way through a 304 day calendar which was probably based on lunar months. A lunar month is a cycle of the moon and it was a common way most ancient peoples measured time.

This original calendar was a mix of thirty day and thirty one day months. Many of the names like Martius, Aprilius, Maius, Iunius, September, October, November and December were forerunners of the current calendar and you can most likely see the derivations of March, April, May and June in the names while others are literally the same. This Romulus calendar is over 2700 years old. While 304 days were allocated in the first calendar there were still days left unaccounted. These days followed December's 31 days and totaled an extra 51 days that were not in a calendar.

While Romulus founded Rome in 753 BC and created that calendar, it only lasted for forty years before the second king of Rome, Romulus' successor decided to reform the calendar and adjust it to include these extra days. To do so, King Numa

Pompilius examined the calendar and made some changes to it. First he split the fifty one days in half, but since dividing them in half created too few days for a lunar month, he then took the thirty day months and reduced them by one to be 29 day months. Those months include are our present 30 day months, namely Aprilis, Iunius, Sextilis, September, November and December. By taking those seven days and combining them with the fifty one days, he carved out a 29 day month and a 28 day month which he named Ianuarius and Februarius. He placed those days at the beginning of the calendar year to create the twelve month year we continue to use, but the days were not consistent with our days.

One of the reasons for that is the Romans were predisposed to the superstition that odd numbers were lucky while even numbers were not. The Numa calendar changed eleven of the twelve months to odd numbered months either 29 or 31 days in length. The last month Februarius or our current February was made twenty eight days long and while the Romans considered it a two part month containing twenty three and five days, the month remained 28 days in total. While the length does not meet the criterion used for a "lucky month", it did meet the standards Roman priests used for purification.

When he was finished, the calendar contained 355 days instead of 304 days.

At this point there were three versions of the calendar depending on which writer you credit. Plutarch placed January and February at the beginning of the civil calendar pushing the other months off by two months. This shift placed October in the tenth position which it still holds today. The religious calendar used by the priests maintained the start of the calendar as Martius or March, the month of the spring equinox.

It was not until Julius Caesar became emperor and his successor Augustus assumed power that the calendar became more closely aligned to our own. Julius claimed the month Quintilius and renamed it Julius to honor himself. Following suit, Augustus renamed Sextilis to Augustus in order to honor himself as well. Once this pair of changes were made and they added some days to the ends of the months, the calendar finally became similar to what we know today.

So October assumed its place as the tenth month and not the eighth which also shifted November and December which were originally the ninth and tenth months as well as one can see by the root of their names to the eleventh and twelfth positions. The names eventually became Anglicized to what we know today and with the exception of leap year, today's calendar is actually a still used innovation of the Roman civilization which to me is quite amazing since so many things come into vogue quickly and flare out almost as fast.

The next time you check your calendar, take a moment to remember that you are looking at a document with origins 2700 years old and situated in a long gone Roman empire. So when you go to your Halloween parties, dress in a toga and explain why October is not the eighth month. People will think you're clever and I will never tell.

Til next time…

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