Earlier Historical Calendars

There are a variety of calendars that precede the one currently used in the west (the Gregorian) and which have some direct influence on it. Calendars that had no discernable impact (e.g., the Chinese, Indian, and Mayan calandars) are not discussed here.

The Egyptian Calendar

No extant evidence is known that describes the workings of the oldest Egyptian calendar (that of the pre-dynastic period). month hieroglyph We do know that it must have been lunar. Among other things, the hieroglyphic symbol for "month" shows a crescent moon (the first visible crescent of the new moon) over a star. Reconstruction of further detail has been attempted, but the argument remains controversial. Of greater interest for later chronology, particularly astronomical events, is the Egyptian civil calendar, whose existence seems certain by the fifth dynasty, and might, although the evidence is slender indeed, go back to the pre-dynastic period. There is also evidence for a much later, probably unconnected, lunar calendar. It does not, however seem to have been widely used. See Clagett and Parker for further details.

The calendar we know as the Egyptian calendar has no link to the moon at all, although it kept the old hieroglyph. In the Egyptian calendar, there were 12 months of 30 days each. The months each had three "weeks" of 10 days each. Between the end of the 12th month and the beginning of the first month of the next year were five epagomenal (extra) days, resulting in a fixed year of 365 days every year. This calendar, almost a quarter of a day shorter than the tropical year, constantly shifted with respect to the seasons.

For agricultural purposes, the seasons were determined not by the solar equinox or solstice, but by the heliacal rising of the star Sirius (Sothis in Egyptian), which roughly coincided with the flooding of the Nile. Every 1461 Egyptian years (1460 Julian years) the heliacal rising of Sirius came back around to its original position, a time known as the Sothic period. Early interpreters of the Egyptian calendar thought that the Egyptians actually maintained a separate calendar to track Sirius, but in the absence of any evidence, this position has been vigorously disputed by later scholars.

Egyptian Months
Season Month
akhet

Akhet
"inundation"
Thoth
Phaophi
Aythyr
Choiak
peret

Peret
"emergence"
Tybi
Mechyr
Phamenoth
Pharmuthi
shemu

Shemu
"low water"
Pachons
Payni
Epiphi
Mesore

Originally, the months were simply numbered as a month of a season, rather than named. There were three seasons, each of four months. These names suggest that the seasons were originally intended to coincide with the Nile's flooding (and probably did when the calendar was still lunar), but once the calendar took on the form we know they rolled through the seasonal year with the months. From the New Kingdom on, the months are often named.

Years were reckoned by pharaonic reign. For example, one actual Egyptian date appears as "Year 9 under the Majesty of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Djeserkare. The Feast of the Opening of the Year III Shemu 9. The Going forth of Sothis."

Since Djeserkare is a name for Amenhotep I, we can interpret this as "in year 9 of Amenhotep I, the heliacal rising of Sirius fell in the 3rd month of Shemu, day 9."

This particular date is one of only a handful surviving that record the Sothis rising in terms of the civil year. It's from the so-called Ebers Calendar, and in theory provides a good correlation of the civil calendar to Julina days. Unfortunately, a precise determination of when this fell is impossible. We don't know where the observation was made or what the exact conditions of observation were (which would determine how many degrees above the horizon a star would need to be before being visible to the naked eye. A range of dates, however requires that it be some time in the 2nd half of the 16th century BCE.

In 238 BCE, during the reign of Ptolomy III, the Canopus decree ordered that every four years there should be 6, rather than 5 epagomenal days, in other words, a leap year. Egyptians were very resistant to this change, however, and the attempted reform seems to have failed. An effective implementation of this so-called Alexandrian calendar did not come until Augustus introduced it (25 BCE).

The Egyptian calendar had an importance well beyond its purely Egyptian use. Astronomers used the old Egyptian (not the Alexandrian) calendar throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages because its absolute regularity in the number of days in both the months and the year made calculations much easier. Such regularity was highly desirable, as antiquity had neither arabic numerals nor even the concept of zero to make complex mathematics tractable.

The Babylonian Calendar

Babylonian astronomy plays a critical role in the development of Greco-Roman astronomy, which is in turn essential for establishing a reliable chronology of the ancient world. Among other things, it is from the Babylonians that we derive our sexagesimal system for minutes and seconds. We are very fortunate that we are in a position to confirm independently the chronology found in major works like the Almagest. Thanks to excavations of numerous cuneiform tablets we have abundant evidence of the Babylonian calendar, the regnal dates of their rulers, and their astronomical observations.
Babylonian Months
Cuneiform Name
Nisanu Nisanu
Aiaru Aiaru
Simanu Simanu
Duzu Duzu
Abu Abu
Ululu Ululu
Tashritu Tashritu
Arahasamnu Arahasamnu
Kislimu Kislimu
Tebetu Tebetu
Shabatu Shabatu
Addaru Addaru

The Babylonian calendar was lunisolar, which means that periodic leap months were required to keep the lunar and solar years in synchronization. The months began at the first visibility of the new crescent at sunset. In later Babylonian times, the new moon was determined not by direct observation but by a complex mathematical rule, which in fact yielded a very close result.

The intercalary month was inserted either after Ululu or Addaru, and it was simply called Second Ululu, or Second Addaru. There is some evidence that by the reign of Nabonassar (747 BCE) Babylonian astronomers had discovered the Metonic 19-year cycle, but until the 4th century BCE, there is no evidence that a 19-year cycle was used to assign fixed intercalary years within the cycle. In its fully developed form, years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, and 19 had a second Addaru, and year 17 had a second Ululu.

For earlier Babylonian history, years are reckoned by the regnal year of the ruler. After Seleucus I conquered Babylon, scribes began to record dates in the Selucid Era (SE), a continuous count of years that did not stop with the death of Seluceus. Year 1 SE corresponds to 312/11 BCE, a correspondence that can be confirmed by records of astronomical observations dated in this era.

After the Parthians conquered Mesopotamia, the western part of the Selucid empire switched the beginning of its year from spring (Nisanu) to fall (Tashritu), under Greek influence. The Parthians kept Nisanu as the beginning of the year.

The seven-day cycle makes its earliest appearance in Babylonian documents of the 7th century BCE. It is not quite yet the week as we know it, however. In origin, it seems to have been one fourth of the approximate time in a month the moon was visible. In short, it does not include the days around the new moon, and is not therefore a continuous cycle. To picture what this "week" was like, imagine one of our months with four regular weeks, and then a few epagomenal days at the end of the month, which do not belong to any week.


The Jewish Calendar

The Hebrew calendar looks much like the Babylonian one, and there is clear influence from the time of the Babylonian captivity. In its earliest stage, the months were numbered, rather than named. The names eventually adopted were versions of the Babylonian names. As in Babylonian reckoning, Nisan was originally the first month of the year. Tishri became the first month along with the western part of the Selucid empire, and it remains so today.
Jewish Months (regular year)
Month Days
Tishri 30
Marcheshvan 29/30
Kislev 29/30
Teves 29
Shevat 30
Adar 29
Nisan 30
Iyar 29
Sivan 30
Tammuz 29
Av 30
Elul 29

Despite this obvious Babylonian influence, Jews did not adopt the regular 19-year cycle for inserting intercalary months, nor did they use Babylonian mathematical calculation of new moon. The decision to insert an extra month was made by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem on rather vague criteria such as the appearance of new plants. Because they measured neither the equinox nor helical risings, the old Hebrew calendar cannot be reconstructed by mathematical formula.

Another difference between the Hebrew and the Babylonian calendar is the treatment of the 7-day cycle. Recall that the Babylonians had a 7-day cycle, but the days around the new moon when it was invisible were not included. In the Jewish scheme, the 7-day interval between Sabbaths runs independently of the months and years. There are no epagomenal days. The days are numbered 1 to 7. Only the Sabbath, the seventh day, is named, although day 6 is sometimes called ereb shabbat, "the day preceding the Sabbath."

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, the Jewish calendar was reformed. The primary purpose of this reform was to regularize the intercalation of months and the length of the months. Using the Metonic cycle of 19 solar years, months are intercalated in years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19 of the cycle, exactly the same spacing as in the Babylonian cycle. In a regular year, the months alternate between 30 and 29 days (Tishri has 30, Marheshvan 29, etc.). The embolismic month has 30 days, and intercalated between Adar and Nissan (never after Elul). It is called Second Adar, or Weadar. Nissan still has 30 days.

Certain customs about the days of the week upon which the High Holy Days may be celebrated require adding a day to certain years and then subtracting a day from the following year. The shorter years are called "defective", and Kislev is decreased to 29 days. The longer years are called "perfect," and increase Marshevan to 30 days. Those interested in the precise formulation of these rules should consult the references.

The epoch that Hebrew calendar currently uses, the Hillel world era, begins October 7, 3761 BCE. This epoch was calculated by Hillel II in the 4th century CE, but did not become universal practice until the end of the Middle Ages. Other epochs used before then were the so-called era of Adam (3760 BCE), and the Selucid (312 BCE).

The Ancient Greek Calendar

Of all ancient calendrical systems, the Greek is the most confusing. The Greek Calendar is much like ancient Greece itself. It shared a certain basic similarity from region to region, but each city-state kept its own version. All the Greek calendars were lunisolar and shared the same basic features of the other lunisolar calendars we've examined so far: twelve months, with a periodic intercalation of a thirteenth.

The Athenian calendar is the best known and most intensively studied, and I shall therefore use it as a model. The Athenian months were named Hekatombion, Metageitnion, Boedromion, Pyanepsion, Maimakterion, Poseidon, Gamelion, Anthesterion, Elaphebolion, Munychion, Thargelion, and Skirophorion. (For a list of the known month names in other Greek areas, see Ginzel, vol. 2, pp. 335-6). The intercalary month usually came after Poseidon, and was called second Poseidon. Hekatombion, and hence the beginning of the year, fell in the summer. Other Greek regions started their year at different times (e.g., Sparta, Macedonia in fall, Delos in winter).

For the historian inclined towards tidy orderliness, the regrettable fact is that the Athenians were simply unwilling to stick to a completely regular calendar, which makes reconstruction difficult. Their irregularity was not from lack of astronomical knowledge. In 432 BCE, the Athenian astronomer Meton instituted his 19-year cycle, fixing regular intercalations (whether Meton got this cycle from Babylonia or discovered it himself is not known). From that point, a small group of Greek astronomers used the Metonic cycle in their calculations, but this should be regarded as an astronomer's ideal calendar. Abundant epigraphical evidence demonstrates that in the civil calendar, while the archons inserted approximately the correct number of intercalary months over the long term, the specific corrections were somewhat arbitrary, as the archons saw fit. This irregularity doesn't really affect the long-term workings of the calendar, but it does make things very confusing when trying to establish a precise date for an event.

The Athenians seem to have taken a rather casual attitude towards their calendar. It appears they used neither a regular formula nor continuous direct observation to determine the length of the months. Most likely, they followed a general rule of alternating months (29 and 30 days long), subject to periodic correction by observation.

In addition to this calendar, which has been called the festival calendar, Athenians maintained a second calendar for the political year. This "conciliar" year divided the year into "prytanies," one for each of the "phylai," the subdivisions of Athenian citizens. The number of phylai, and hence the number of prytanies, varies over time. Until 307 BCE, there were 10 phylai.

After that the number varies between 11 and 13 (usually 12). Even more confusing, while the conciliar and festival years were basically the same length in the 4th century BCE, such was not regularly the case earlier or later. Thus documents dated by prytany are frequently very difficult to assign to a particular equivalent in the Julian calendar, although we are usually secure in assigning an approximate date. Since the prytany will play no role in my argument for establishing a basic chronology, I will not go into the intricacies here. The references cited below, however, go into the problem in mind-numbing detail.

Ordinary records of Greek city-states were dated according to the eponymous year of the person in power, be that the archon, king, priest of Hera, etc. For Athens, our list of archons from the 4th c. BCE to the later 1st c. CE is complete for all but a few years, which is a great help in verifying our chronology. Regional eponymous years, however, are awkward for historians trying to correlate the various areas, a problem no less evident to the ancient Greek historians than it is to us. The solution that seemed obvious to them was to reckon time by the intervals between Olympiads, in addition to giving eponymous years.

That the Olympics were held every four years is well known, but some evidence for that assertion is not out of place. Ancient writers all refer to the Olympics as a 5-year period (in Greek, pentaeterikoi, Latin quinquennales). This might seem strange, but Greeks and Romans most commonly counted inclusively; that is to say:

     1          2       3      4         5
 Olympiad      .       .      .     Olympiad

which we would call a four-year interval. NB: our way of counting implies a zero start, a concept both Greeks and Romans lacked. Since the Greek calendars all differed slightly, you might wonder how everyone managed to get to the games on time. The Pindar scholiast claims that for the early Olympiads, the festival was held alternately after 49 or 50 months, which is essentially equivalent to four years in a lunisolar calendar. This scheme makes perfect sense, because no matter what specific intercalary months the various cities did or did not decide to include, they could all simply count forward to 49 or 50. It also implies, by the way, that a rule of 8 years = 99 months was being used to determine this interval (although not that every Greek city used this formula for their own intercalations).

Since the Olympiad was a summer festival, it was eventually correlated to the Attic (Athenian) calendar, so as to begin on Hekatombion 1, which might imply a certain agreement about when intercalations should be added, or simply indicate Athenian cultural dominance.

Ancient historians date by Olympiad by giving both the number of the Olympiad and the year within the cycle, 1-4 (the Olympiad itself was held on year 1). Additionally, lists of Olympic winners were maintained, and the 3rd c. BCE writer Timaios compiled a synchronic list comparing Olympic winners, Athenian archons, Spartan kings, and the priests of Hera from Argos.

Olympiad 1,1 correlates to 776 BCE. We do not actually need to believe an actual festival was held on this date, but when Greek historians are writing in later times, they date their own events using this as the epoch. We can establish a precise correlation to the common era from a variety of different sources, but the most definitive comes from a passage in Diodorus, where he dates the year of a total solar eclipse to the reign of the Athenian archon Hieromnemon, which he also gives as Ol. 117,3. The only astronomically possible date for this event is August 15, 310 BCE, which fixes our epoch.

One thing to be wary of with reckoning by Olympiad is that writers calculated the start of the year by their local convention (spring, summer, winter, or fall). For example Ol. 1,1 correspond to Fall, 777 - Fall 776 BCE by Macedonian reckoning. Byzantine writers who use Olympiads take the year to begin on September 1.

Most of the other eras used by Greek writers are of little importance. One worth mentioning, however, is the Trojan Era (from the destruction of Troy), which is found in a number of historians' works. This date, of course, is purely conventional, and can be seen as analogous to the various world eras (e.g., Hillel's above). A wide variety of starting points are found, but the one with the widest currency, developed by Eratosthenes, set it 407 years before the first Olympiad (1183 BCE).

The Roman Republican Calendar

The very earliest calendar used by the Romans is obscure. By later Republican times, however, it is, if not regular, at least well documented. From the time we have direct evidence of it, the pre-Julian calendar was roughly lunisolar. Certain Roman religious customs, as well as the monthly subdivisions of Kalends, Nones, and Ides, indicate that the calendar was originally lunar, and that months began upon direct observation by a priest of the new moon.
Roman Republican Year
Name Days
Januarius 29
Februarius 28
Martius 31
Aprilis 29
Maius 31
Junius 29
Quinctilis 31
Sextilis 29
September 29
October 31
November 29
December 29

There were 12 months in an ordinary year, but many of the months were shorter than they are now (see the Julian reform). Their Latin names will largely look familiar. A regular year thus had 355 days. The lengths of the months indicate that by the time of our earliest records the year was not measured by direct observation, as no month so measured could have 31 days, but by conventional rule.

The number-names of the last six months indicate not, as is sometimes said, that there were originally 10 months (a number that if true would yield a nonsensical year length), but that the year originally began in March. There is a fair amount of confusion in different accounts of the Roman calendar about the beginning of the year. Sometimes it will be said that the year began on March 1 until Julius Caesar reformed the calendar. This theory was disproved by the excavation of an actual republican calendar in the 1920s, which clearly shows the year started in January. It is also sometimes said that the beginning of the year changed in 153 BCE, but in fact what happened this year was that the time when consuls took office was synchronized with the calendar year. January seems to have become the beginning of the year when the republican calendar was introduced, but there is so little information about that reform (taking place, it appears, in the 5th-century BCE) that we can say little more.

To keep the calendar roughly in line with the seasons, a leap month (it had no name other than "the intercalary month") was inserted at the end of February. This position, which falls more or less at the end of the year when the year began in March, implies that the intercalary month predates the change in observation of the new year. The decision to insert the intercalary month was made by the pontifexes. In theory the intercalation was roughly every other year. In practice, pontifexes seem to have been rather lackadaisical in carrying out their offices, and the calendar was sometimes allowed to get drastically out of synchronization with the seasons. Roman intercalation was peculiar. February was reduced to either 23 or 24 (it varied from year to year), and a 28-day month was added afterwards. This peculiar habit was a result of the ways that days of the month were counted in the Roman system.

There were two important festivals, Refugium and Equirria, which fell at the end of February and which could not be separated from the beginning of March. They are transferred to the intercalary month, but notice with the Roman method of counting backwards, they keep their day numbering constant whether it's a regular or intercalary year. Note that our general conversion rule applies for intercalary years as well. If February has 23 days, February 15 = a. d. x Kal. intercal. (xi if Feb. has 24).

The Roman calendar also had a recurring cycle of 8-days, similar to our week, called the nundinae = nine-days (once again, we have that habit of inclusive counting). This "week" was not religious in significance, but originally indicated days upon which a market would be held in Rome. Extant Roman calendars indicate this interval by giving each consecutive day a letter A through H. Note that this was simply a mnemonic marker. They did not call them "day A," etc. The 7-day week and its names were not introduced into Roman civil life until the imperial period.

While dating by Olympiad was occasionally used, Roman writers most often reckoned years by the eponymous names of the consuls in office that year. This habit persisted through the imperial period as well, even though (excepting those occasions when the emperor was also consul), consular power was much reduced. An unbroken list of consuls from the founding of the republic (conventionally, 509 BCE) through the late empire survives. Some have questioned whether all the earliest names in this are historical, but the later ones certainly are, and provide many opportunities for correlation to the Common Era.

The so-called Varronic Era, named for the late Republican antiquarian Marcus Terentius Varro, was only rarely used during the Republic, but became more popular under the emperors. In it, years were dated from the founding of Rome, or AUC (ab urbe condita), which was correlated to the Greek reckoning by saying that it fell in Olympiad 6,3 (olympiadis sextae anno tertio), i.e., 753 BCE. Like most eras calculated from a foundational date in the distant past, the Varronic Era should be seen as purely conventional. That is, even if Rome wasn't founded in 753 BCE, dating in this system can still work just fine, as long as it remains consistent.

Kalends, Nones, and Ides

The Romans did not count days in the month as a simple number, as we do, but backwards from one of three fixed points in the month: the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides. The Kalends are always the first of the month. The Nones fell on the 7th day of the long months (March, May, Quinctilis, October), and the 5th of the others. (Note that this long-short distinction refers to their length in the republican calendar, not the later version.) Likewise, the Ides fell on the 15th if the month was long, and the 13th if the month was short. The day before the Kalends (or Nones or Ides) was called "pridie" (or 2) Kalends, the day before that 3, etc. Therefore, May 3rd would be the 5 Nones of May; March 17 = 16 Kalends of April, or as you would find it abbreviated in a Latin text: a.d. xvi Kal. Apr.; (a.d. = ante diem).

Here's a general rule to convert to Roman day reckoning: first, find the nearest fixed point (Ides, Nones or Kalends) that comes on or after your day. If it falls on one of these days, you're done. Otherwise, take the day number on which that fixed point falls and add one. Since the Kalends is the first of the next month, treat it as the n+1 day of the month (where n is the total number of days in the month). Example: for March, before Nones use 8; Ides, use 16; Kalends use 33. Then subtract the day in question, and you have your backward count. For example, November 11 = a. d. iii Id. Nov.; May 6 = pridie Non. Mai.

To convert from Roman reckoning, take the same number from the Ides, Nones of Kalends and subtract the Roman day number. For example, a.d. x Kal. Sext. = 21 Sextilis.