Today is the first day of January. Many people have agreed to name this day the first day of January, which is why this is so, and they say that this date marks the beginning point of the year. Last year is over, now on this day the year gets a new number. We need this sort of standardization so we might communally preform the usual cycles of society (commercial, political, spiritual, and so on) according to annual schedules. As a people, like other cultures before ours, we enjoy feeling that that which has started, may start again. An event that means enough to be remembered, can be remembered again. Accurately. We like to say this is the exact day upon which whatever it was happened, happened.
Our need for ritual depends upon such a precision to reality; this moment will come around again and we can plan when that will be. But it doesn’t. Temporal repetitiveness would be nightmarish. Can you imagine the eerie sameness we would experience as we age? In this Nietzschean eternal return1 what free will would we have? If we indeed have any. You wouldn’t notice until you had cycled through a number of years but it would not be long before you will start seeing it. Ordinary days would compare dimly from year to year, but the eternal sameness would show up in neon lights during those calendar moments which happen annually. Your birthday for one. You would feel the hell of your own personal Groundhog Day, but on an annual scale. Groundhog year. Thankfully, this is not our reality, but it is the model of reality we prefer to use.
It makes sense. Seasons are cyclical, they alter according to the position of the earth as it moves around the sun, so calendars tend to be cyclical to match. Why is this day, January 1, the designated first day of our year? It makes little sense from the perspective of timing spring planting for fall harvest. Spring seems a more logical start to the year: new plants breaking through the ground, new leaves on trees, animals giving birth in the springtime, and indeed, many more calendars in the history of calendar making begin the year in the spring than do so in the winter. There are cultures as well who have used the same calendar we use today, but start their year at other times besides January. Spring is a logical start, but a case may be made for winter, at least in the northern hemisphere, as the winter solstice makes for a particularly good annual beginning. This is the moment when the axis of our wobbly earth points farthest away from the sun before beginning it’s semi-annual tilt back the other direction, increasing the length of sunshine in the day. A period of increase makes a fine start.
But January first? This is not the solstice, it’s close, but this is neither horseshoes nor hand grenades. So why? We can begin to find the answer in the way the Roman Kingdom patterned their year. Cultures existing long prior to the Romans divided the year into 12 parts. The Eutruscans who occupied the Italian peninsula prior to the Romans did so, and I could point to several other cultures which informed the Roman understanding of the year, but we have landed on January 1 for our new years day hangover for specific reasons. We are here today collectively calling this moment the start of an annual cycle because the Roman kingdom required a political calendar that lasted just a bit longer than a lunar planting calendar could offer. And the first of the year happens when it does specifically because Julius Caesar once had a tremendously good time partying in Egypt. This is what an extended cruise on the Nile with Cleopatra can do.
Let me explain. I know you want to hear about the sexy Nile trip. Too bad, we must begin with the Kingdom of Rome and its second king according to legend, Numa Pompilius. Numa was everything a virtuous (sober) person ought to be: Pious, intelligent, enjoys the simplicity of country life. He is gentle and peace loving. He is also a Sabine king, which helps bring in a portion of the population necessary to appease if you want to rule Rome at this particular time. Plutarch calls Numa humane and Greek-like.2 It’s good to be called Greek by a Greek. Plutarch’s Numa feels content with the way of things as they have gone on so far, and becomes king reluctantly, though his superior virtue requires he fulfill his destiny. He wasn’t so superiorly virtuous according to Livy, who says Numa understood that an effective politician must engage in a little lying to the public in order to gain their support.3 In Numa’s case, he invented evening trysts with the goddess Egeria (and presumably her priestesses) who as a fertility goddess beloved by the people, lent a certain sexy legitimacy to his rule. Then, he invented the calendar.
Before Numa, Rome used a 10 month calendar which began on the first new moon before the spring equinox, and ended 10 months later. Given that the lunar months (about 29 and a half days each) don’t fit nicely into a solar year — there are a good 10 days left over in a solar year after counting out 12 lunar months, there is plenty of slack to be made up at the end of the year. Many cultures add festival days and the like. Rome merely ignored the days between the 10th lunar month, and the first one to contain the equinox. It was just winter. Long as hell.
Numa, needing a more precise way to order political and religious life throughout the entire year, took this long winter and carved out of it two new months and an occasional short month called Mercedinus which appeared every couple of years whenever there were extra days to account for. Usually, only two months would be recognized: February from Februum — the word for purging and purifying — lots of which went on in the rituals which preceded spring, and January after Janus the double faced god of beginnings and doorways. A deity of temporality whose two faces can see past and future, Janus’ statue according to Pilny in his Natural History had, as befit the god of temporal duration, his fingers arranged somehow to signify the 355 days of the lunar year.4 Never mind the 10 extra days required for the earth to make a complete trip around the sun, we have ten fingers, we’ll count those days without Janus’ help. Janus can keep track of the other 355. Perhaps the most important deity during early kingdom Rome, Janus being the god of beginnings, was invoked at the start of any sacrifice and the opening of any other deity’s festival. We invoke him still at the start of every year because who better to name the first month after than the god of origins himself.
There are two faced deities everywhere — India, Mesopotamia, Scandinavia — but it took the double dealings of a two-faced politician to bring us a fixed date for the start of January. Fixed that is to the solar year.
Julius Caesar met Cleopatra in 48 b.c.e. You must imagine a statesman well in his prime, educated by Greek tutors, and raised to revere the empire building accomplishments of Alexander the Great. When Caesar first arrived in the Egyptian city which bore Alexander’s name, he was deep into a civil war with Pompey, while Cleopatra was herself at war with her brother Ptolomy XIII. Pompey had been a friend to Cleopatra’s family, and his appearance in Egypt during that summer would have been a welcome relief to Cleopatra, besieged in the desert as she was by her brother’s army. Unfortunately her brother’s rather shady advisers who ruled Egypt in the boy king’s name, believed they could persuade Caesar and his army to their side by presenting him with Pompey’s head, which they removed from his body the minute he set foot on the Egyptian beach outside of Pelusium. Pompey thought he would find shelter amongst friends, or at least the relatively friendly, after losing a battle to Caesar. He found a sandy grave instead. Well, most of him did.
Arriving in the capital a few days later, Caesar was not amused to receive the rotting head of his rival, who was also his son in law. Better for a great Roman to be defeated in battle properly than to be butchered on a beach by decadent foreigners.
In the great city of Alexandria where congregated the premier intellectuals of every discipline, Caesar established himself in a villa on the royal grounds and summoned the siblings to settle the matter of who would rule Egypt. Ptolomy’s advantage: he was already there. His disadvantage: the matter of Pompey’s head. Big mistake. But he did hold the palace and his sister would have to get past Ptolomy’s army before she could have any hope of convincing Caesar to support her. So here we have that story we all know of Cleopatra wrapping herself in a carpet, and traveling by tiny row boat into Alexandria’s harbor and Caesar’s bed. It is easy to see how she got there. Young, intelligent, a descendent of Alexander the Great — that itself counted for quite a lot — highly charismatic, and really really rich. We don’t know what she looked like. It doesn’t matter what she looked like, she won the moment her young brother found out she was there and threw an epic tantrum in the streets the scale of which is only possible if one is the boy king of the richest country around. Poor kid.
There were lots of complicated political moves to be made, Caesar and Cleopatra were under siege by the citizens of Alexandria who were overtaxed and overrun by battle weary Romans, and there were two other Ptolomy siblings to handle who would enjoy a little power themselves, but Caesar could see easily enough which of the co-monarchs he could work with and which should have his advisors assassinated in prison.
All of this goes down, Cleopatra becomes sole ruler of Egypt, and Caesar moves from the guest villa and into the palace proper and settles in for a little holiday with the now pregnant Cleopatra. It’s nice. They go on a river cruise. Caesar immerses himself in this culture of high intellect and higher pleasure. Egypt is exotic and it is sexy, and when Caesar finally tears himself away from all the pleasurable decadence and returns to Rome, he brings back with him a new idea for a calendar.
Well, not new. More of a modification of the Egyptian system which had a fixed length of 365 days. The first day of the Egyptian year was counted as the first sighting of the bright star Sirius above the eastern horizon just before dawn, which always happened during the annual flooding of the Nile. Rome had no Nile. Caesar consulted an astronomer in Alexandria called Sosigenes who fabricated a calendar which would retain the Roman lunar months, but fix the length of the year to the solar cycle of 365 1/4 days as established by greek astronomy. Month lengths were standardized with odd numbers preferred as lucky. January as the first month, and March as the traditional first month were each given 31 days. February, that month of purification and sacrifice, and I assume dwindling supplies from the harvest, was made shortest as only makes sense — there are only so many days of sacrifice one might endure — but was also given the extra date for leap year to make up for it. The sometimes month of Mercedinus was abolished outright.
Some of these month lengths were politically chosen, or were related to festival dates, and the choice of which dates were to happen when must take into account that festival dates are tied to the phases of the moon. If, say, we are determining these things today, this year the vernal equinox will occur on March 20. Under Numa’s system, the first new moon prior lands on February 26 and that day would begin the month of March. The new moon before that lands on January 27, so there would start February, and January would have begun just a few days ago on what we now call December 28th. A purely solar calendar would begin on an equinox or solstice. The Julian calendar is a solar calendar, but the subtle homage it does pay to the lunar year can be seen by not choosing to name the winter solstice January the first. That day when the earth’s axis points farthest away from the sun is still in December. Here’s how to see the lunar reference encoded into why we begin January when we do. Remember that there are 355 days in the lunar year. It takes that long for the moon to cycle 12 times. If we start the first day of January when we do, the 355th day of the year lands on the solstice day itself. Moon, meet sun, you have arrived at the same place at the same time. The winter solstice marks the last day of a lunar year, literally so when the new moon happens on January first, and we can count the rest of the days for ourselves on our fingers until we can walk through Janus’ doorway and begin the year again.