How Did January Get Its Name? All Roads Lead to Rome

2 min read

January is a month of New Year’s resolutions and new beginnings, but it wasn’t always that way. For millennia, January wasn’t even part of the calendar — in the early Roman calendar, the year began with March. But in 1582 the Gregorian calendar (also known as the New Style calendar) was adopted by much of Europe. This solar dating calendar, including January and the shorter February, is still used today. So, how did the month of January come to be? Rooted in ancient religion and superstition, all roads lead to Rome.

When in Rome

The month of January was named for the Roman god Janus, or Ianus in Latin, but how this came to be is surprisingly complicated. To understand why an entire month would be named for Janus, it’s important to realize how significant he was to the Romans. The worship of Janus dates back thousands of years to the time of Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome, during the 8th century BCE. Janus was the god of many things, including time, beginnings, transitions, archways, and doorways. He was an unusual-looking god with two faces, one looking symbolically into the past and one looking into the future.

As Rome developed and expanded over the ensuing centuries, builders constructed   ceremonial gates known as jani (named after Janus),were used for good luck, throughout the city and empire. They involved a lot of superstition, because there were lucky and unlucky ways to walk through a janus. In particular, the Roman army paid careful attention to these archways during their departures. Janus Geminus was the most famous of these gates, serving as a shrine for the god. Its doors were left open while Rome was at war and were closed while the empire was at peace. Evidence of Janus's influence was seen in many other places around the city, from its coins to sculptures and artwork.

A New Calendar

According to legend Romulus instituted the Roman republican calendar around 738 BCE. This calendar had 10 months (beginning with March) and only 304 days. The months were: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Juniius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. January and February did not yet exist.

The Roman king Numa Pompilius (Romulus’s successor) is the likely source of January’s name. The ruler revised Romulus’ calendar sometime during his reign (from 715 to 673 BCE), filling a gap of about 61 days during the winter season that were apparently “monthless.” He did this by adding January to the beginning of the year and February to the end. He called January mensis ianuarius, from the Latin word for "month" and Janus’s Latin name, “Ianus.” He did this to honor the much-admired god. The king also added the month of February from the Latin word februa, meaning “to cleanse.”

Although January and February were now part of the calendar, it wasn’t until centuries later that the current order of the months would be established. The history of the Roman calendar during this period is murky, but by the time of Julius Caesar’s rule in the first century BCE, the calendar was a bit of a mess. It was about 10 days shorter than the solar year and needed to be revised. So, in 46 BCE, Caesar decided to reform the calendar, creating his namesake Julian calendar. This also officially cemented January 1 as the beginning of the new year. Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar again in 1582, shifting it by 10 days to compensate for a miscalculation during Caesar’s reign. This established the Gregorian calendar that is widely used today.

Featured image credit: HRAUN/ iStock

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