The Calender of the Ancient World (Before Christianity)

Dec 2011
293
California
So we all use the Christian calendar divided into BC (or BCE, as atheists or non Christians would grudgingly say) and AD, with 0 set as Jesus Christ's date of Birth. So this brings up an evident question: Until Christianity became the western world's accepted religion, what was (were) the calender(s) of the Mediterranean area?

I assume they measured in years and had subdivisions similar to those of our months and weeks today. However, what was the 0 of their calendar? Did they have a BC or did their calender measure from the date they assumed the world was created? Did they compensate for leap year? What did they call the months? Etc.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
So we all use the Christian calendar divided into BC (or BCE, as atheists or non Christians would grudgingly say) and AD, with 0 set as Jesus Christ's date of Birth. So this brings up an evident question: Until Christianity became the western world's accepted religion, what was (were) the calender(s) of the Mediterranean area?

I assume they measured in years and had subdivisions similar to those of our months and weeks today. However, what was the 0 of their calendar? Did they have a BC or did their calender measure from the date they assumed the world was created? Did they compensate for leap year? What did they call the months? Etc.
They would typically date their year with refernce to some local king or official. So the year would be something like "in the 3rd year of Pharaoh Neco". In additioan to reign of Emperors, Rome used something like "In the year of Tribunal Gaius". Rome also used the year from the founding of Rome. For example, "In the 700th year since the foundi g of Rome". There was no one universal dating used by everyone.
 

ib-issi

Ad Honorem
Mar 2011
3,403
just sitting here
This is one of the problems with being able to date things in any definate chronological order , there were those who counted the months by the moon , rather than the sun , and each day therefore started when the sun went down , and the moon came up , they would have lost a day over the years , and eventually their years would be different.

The Scans were said to count the days from a great flood that killed thousands of them , some counted from a kings reign , but at these early times each county had a different king , and some only counted 360 days in a year , so chronology is a mess .

in the Oera Linda book it says that life was so good , that each day was like the last , so the Frisians did not make any distinction of the days that passed .and their vocabulary for time only involved the past , now, and those things yet to come .
 

constantine

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
8,545
The Christians didn't invent a calendar, they used the Julian Calendar that dated from the calendar reforms of Julius Caesar. They did give the birth of Christ as a reference point for counting years, as one of several conventions that existed before, but the more traditional system of naming years after the reign of consuls/monarchs/rulers prevailed for many years.

The Gregorian Calendar was a Christian modification to the calendar, done in 1582, but a relatively minor one, removing 3 leap days every 400 years.

The Christians did change the definition of new years day (some to September 1st, others to March 25th, others to Easter), but it has since been moved back to January 1st everywhere except in the Orthodox Liturgical Calendar.
 

Underlankers

Ad Honorem
Feb 2013
6,724
At one point September was the Seventh month of the year, October the Eighth month, November the Ninth, and December the Tenth. However our days in English are named after the Sun, the Moon, Tiwaz, Woden, Thunor, Frigg, and Saturn. Naming the Lord's Day after a pagan God was not considered desirable at least in the Latin cultures, which is why they tend to call Sunday some iteration of "Lord's Day." The Jewish calendar is still in existence so to observant Jews this is the Year of the World (Annus Mundi) 5773/4.

States dated their calendars from the reign of a king or at least an elected position that was deemed an acceptable substitute. Rome, for instance had the calendar Ab Urbe Condita *and* dated years by first the reigns of Kings, then the two Consuls, then the Emperors.

Edited so that the original Anglo-Saxon Gods are given their rightful Old English names, not translated versions of their Scandinavian names.
 
Jan 2012
28
Since there was no one Greek nation (nor even one Greek dialect, but rather many), many of the cities had their own calendars. They all appear to have been moon-based into the Hellenistic/post-Alexander period. There were twelve months plus a leap month. Each month began when the first crescent of the moon was visible, which means about 30 days (or alternating months of 29 and 30 because the lunar cycle roughly comes closest to 29.5 days). They all seem to have keyed the first month of their calendar to a Solar event (either a solstice or an equinox) but different cities used different markers, so the first month in one city was the sixth or ninth month in another city).

Probably most of them used the Metonic cycle (which is a repetition of the lunar cycle every 19 years) or something similar (there is also an eight year lunar cycle). But no matter how you pour it, to keep up that Solar event with the lunar months meant that about once in every three years there was an extra month added. We know the most about the Athenian calendar and that's what they did. They had a 10 day week (splitting that 30 day month into three sets) but it appears to have been of minor importance.

No real counting of years for the Greeks as we imagine it. There were references to Kings (for those city-nations that had kings) or wars or the leaders or some event. No year zero for any Greek calendar. They never needed zero to calculate the circumference of the Earth, so they never had it as a concept. Also based upon the Athenian calendar (which is the one about which we know the most), they had a second calendar, a political calendar that was for ten months (though that eventually changed). The Greeks were a bit disorganised about their calendars, but it satisfied them and they never felt the need for any reformation.

Names of the months for two calendars (I had them written down somewhere else):

Athenian (begins after Summer Solstice): Hekatombaion, Metageitnion, Boedromion, Pyanepsion, Maimakterion, Poseideon, Second Poseideon (Intercalculary Month), Gamelion, Anthesterion, Elaphebolion, Mounichion, Thargelion, Skirophorion

Spartan (beings after Winter Solstice): Hekatombeus, Karneios, Panamos, Herasios, Apellaios, Diosthios, [NOT KNOWN], Eleusinios, Gerastios, Artemisios, Delhinios, Fliasios.

The names often refer to some important holy event of that month. For example, the Spartan holiday of Karneia occurred in the month of Karneios (which month the Athenians would call the month of Metageitnion, the people of Delphi would call that month Boukatios, the people of Cyprus would call Romaios .... and it goes on and on).


The Romans have a few legends about their calendar. It probably was a ten month calendar at first (before 500 BC) and was also lunar based, but eventually lost touch with the lunar part and became a 29/30 day month without directly consulting the lunar cycle. The week would have been eight days (especially for market/commercial ventures), but from a certain point of view you could say that they had another concept of the week where they split a month into the first five to seven days of the month (which was the time when the lunar crescent was barely visible), followed by about a seven to nine day period (which was the time up to the full moon) and then a fort'night (the waning period), but you'll never hear any of that named to be a week. It is however, how they marked the month. The first five to seven days were marked by the nones, the seven to nine day period was marked by the ides, and the final fort'night period was marked by what they called the kalends

Romans referenced years by Consuls (or kings in the case of the history for when their seven kings ruled) and then eventually by the year of the Emperor. I also recall Pliny (first century AD) using the reference of the mythical founding of Rome (753 BC) as a starting point (year one - they didn't have a year zero either) and others sometimes did from the first century onward. Some also used a reference to the first supposed Olympiad in 776 BC, but the year was mostly by Emperor or Consul.


The Romans at first had a leap month, something like the Greeks, but where the Greeks sometimes weren't too precise about keeping track of things because of a lack of unity, the Romans more often weren't precise because of corruption. The person assigned to officially declare the Roman year sometimes meddled with it because a longer (or shorter year) helped someone politically.

When the calendar became fixed to a solar year, it had a leap month turn into a leap day. March (and the time leading up to the Vernal Equinox) was the traditional start of the Roman Year, so this is the reason why a leap month (and then leap day) occurs right before March.

The names of the months are the same as we have them to-day (with the slight spelling changes of English and other modern languages from Latin). July and August were originally named quintilis and sextilis, but renamed for Julius Caesar and Octavius/Augustus Caesar. Later Emperors did rename other months in honour of themselves, but the names never stuck past the death of that Emperor.

The Egyptians had a calendar that was nearly sphynx-like in its unchanged passage through the ages. It was a 365 day calendar with 12 months of 30 days and an extra 5 day mini-month. Weeks were 10 days long, three weeks to a month. Years are reckoned by the king/pharaoh.

It wasn't until they were conquered by the Romans that they had to adjust their calendar to match the Roman one (which by that time was the 365.25 day calendar that ironically had been influenced by the Egyptian one in the Caesar reformation of it). by adding a sixth day to that mini-month ever fouth year. This calendar is what Egyptian Coptic Christians use to-day, by the way, and is sometimes called the Alexandrian (Bede, for example, mistakenly references this Eyptian calendar as the one that always existed, not understanding that there was not always a leap day).

For agricultural purposes, there was another calendar using the heliacal rising of the star Sirius (Sothis in Egyptian), which roughly coincided with the flooding of the Nile. I don't know much about this.

Names of months:

Thoth, Phaophi, Hathyr/Aythyr, Choaik, Tybi,Mecheir/Mechyr, Phamenoth, Pharmouthi/Pharmuthi, Pachon/Pachons, Payni, Epeiph/Epiphi, Mesore, Epagomene [intercalculary mini-month]

The months slowly wandered through the year so that the year never commenced at the same time of year.


Since someone mentioned the Hebrew calendar, the modern one that they use is based upon the Babylonian/Mesopotamian calendar (even copying the Babylonian names). Their current calendar is not too much different from the Greek model and the months begin with the new moon/cresecent. In modern times it consciously uses the Metonic cycle of 19 years to add leap months in a mathematical pattern made to achieve the best mathematical average that matches the astronomical position of the moon, however in ancient times they went by direct observations and were much more inexact.

Christians from 300 AD and forward are recorded to have had problems with determining Easter because the Christians relied upon Jews' declaration of when Passover occurs and the Jews in some locations declared Passover at a different time from Jews in other locations.

In classical times the Jews did not use the Annus Mundi for year dating. The Old Testament shows dating from events or from Kings, similar to the Greeks, Egyptians, and others. Their week was seven days.

The post-babylonian month names are Nisan/Nissan, Iyyar, Siwan, Tammuz, Av, Elul, Tishri, Marcheshvan, Kislew/Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Adar Second [intercalculary month]

The intercalculary month is inserted at the end of the year, which makes Nisan the first month, which is determined by the first new moon/crescent after the Vernal Equinox (which is the same idea for the Roman calendar - many calendars outside the Mediterranean also considered the Spring to be the start of the year), however modern Jews refer to the holiday of Rosh Hashonah as the beginning of the year, though the Old Testament specifies a month number (not a name, however - the earliest month by name mention is in Exodus 13:4, called Abib/Habib, which is similar to an Egyptian month) of seven.
 

ib-issi

Ad Honorem
Mar 2011
3,403
just sitting here
Good informative post Mr.Binch, Welcome to the site, thanks for taking the :)time
 
Dec 2011
293
California
The Romans at first had a leap month, something like the Greeks, but where the Greeks sometimes weren't too precise about keeping track of things because of a lack of unity, the Romans more often weren't precise because of corruption. The person assigned to officially declare the Roman year sometimes meddled with it because a longer (or shorter year) helped someone politically.
They would! :squinting:

Thank you for a very informative post! :)
 
Oct 2012
9
AFAIK the Romans used a.u.c (ab urbe condita) though the year's standards differ from time to time (Caesar and Augustus made their own calendar). However a.u.c was rarely used opposed to the consular year, e.g. "The Year of the Second Consulship of Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo and Marcus Licinius Crassus".
 
Jul 2012
33
All calendars, even are Gregorian calender have come from the Egyptian calender which is dated 4241 B.C. It is the first calender ever created or used that we have on record. The name of the calender has only changed because of the Roman rulers of the time. WE are still using this calender today, the zero came into effect when the calender became confusing because of the extra days that were added to it to match their birthdays of those Roman rulers, farmers could not find the proper days to plant their crop, astronomer no longer could calculate the movement of the stars. theirs lots of information about the calender online without having to go into debate about it.I do understand that their are those who are uneducated about this. So now that you know this all you need to do is add the year 2013 to the 4241 and you will now know the actual date it is today.