Everyone knows January is the first month of the year. And in the dim recesses of our brains, we might even recall learning—in what was it, fourth grade?—that the month is named for Janus (below), the two-headed Roman god. Janus could look backward and forward at the same time, making him the perfect figurehead for a month that ushers in a new year, marks the change from days growing shorter to days growing longer, heralds a farewell to one American president and the inauguration of another, and starts the new season of American Idol, with a supercool fourth judge added to the tiresome old mix!
Only here’s what they probably didn’t teach you in elementary school: January wasn’t always the first month of the year. In Roman days, it used to be the 11th month. Back then, March was the first month of the year. Named for the god of war, March was the time when the Romans planted their fields and went off to battle. “War was very, very important to the Romans,” explains Judith Hallett, professor of classics at the University of Maryland. “The Romans loved war. They benefited from it.” The spoils of war included land and the ever popular plunder.
Meanwhile, January and February brought up the end of the Roman year. “They were two depressing months,” Hallett says. The only bright spots during those times were certain festivals, like Lupercalia, the February bash during which men ran around naked and whipped women to promote fertility. I’m guessing the men enjoyed that festival more than the women did.
But I digress.
So how did January go from No. 11 to No. 1? Blame it on politics!
A couple of hundred years before the reign of Augustus Caesar (31 B.C. to 14 A.D.), the Romans began thinking of a better way to wage politics. Instead of inaugurating their consuls in bellicose March, why not install them in office in January, two months before the country went off to war? To mark this political upheaval, the 11th month of the year thus became the first month.
I know what you’re thinking: What an uncanny parallel to American history! Our president used to be inaugurated in March, too—until the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933, changed the date. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to take office on January 20. The reason for the change? To cut back on the long period of lame duckery.
So here’s a tip of two hats to Janus, god of gates and doors—and a much better symbol for new presidents than Mars.