Stuff from Way Back #1: Happy New Year, Q. Fulvius Nobilior

Ever wonder why the year
begins on January 1?  Probably not.  But consider: why should we begin our year in
the middle of the winter, rather than in the spring, when the seasonal year begins?  In fact, in antiquity states typically began
their calendar years in the spring or in the fall with the harvest.  Well, it’s the Romans.

Part of Rome’s booty in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was the
Mediterranean coast of Spain, formerly territory of the now defunct Carthaginian
empire.  The Romans of course had no
intention of allowing this area to go free, but neither were they yet moved to
any campaign of conquest in the Iberian
peninsula.  Italian capital and manpower were exhausted
by  the Hannibalic War,  and the first half of the second century was
filled with major conflicts in the Greek east.
The result was that the Roman conquest of Spain was haphazard and slow, driven by the desire to exploit
the natural resources and to protect the coastal communities from the natives
of the interior.

The Spanish possessions were organized into two provinces
in 197, and poor Roman administration led in that same year to the first
serious insurrection, the crushing of which triggered the First Celtiberian War
(181-179).  Relative peace then lasted
until the outbreak of the Lusitanian War (154-138), during which occurred also
the Second Celtiberian War (153-151) and the Third Celtiberian (or Numantine)
War (143-133).  Three quarters of a
century of cruel and bloody counterinsurgency warfare were necessary to pacify
the peninsula, and the job was not actually completed until the reign of
Augustus at the end of the first century, after which the Spanish provinces
became the most peaceful and Romanized in the empire.

When in late 154 a number of Celtiberian tribes, encouraged
by the Lusitanians, revolted, Rome appointed Q. Fulvius Nobilior commander of four legions
about to be sent to quell the
revolt.  Nobilior had just been
elected consul, one of the two annual magistrates who were the executive heads
of the Roman state.  The consulship, like
the subordinate praetorship, conferred upon its holder imperium, the
superior form of official power, one facet of which was the all-important power
to command troops.  The consuls (and to a
lesser degree the praetors) were thus Rome’s generals.

The consuls and most of the other important magistrates
began their terms of office on 15  March,
thus placing the beginning of the Roman civil year at roughly the vernal equinox
(21  March) and the beginning of the
seasonal year.  The Senate was anxious to
get Nobilior to Spain as early as possible in order to extend his campaigning season, but
until he actually took office some three months hence the consul-elect had no
authority to command troops.  Preeminently
pragmatic, the Romans solved the problem and avoided any constitutional crisis by
simply moving the beginning of the civil year, and thus Nobilior’s term, to 1

When the new year began had
never been of much importance in the generally sloppy and conflicting calendars
of the ancient Mediterranean, and the Romans, seeing no compelling reason to
move the beginning of the civil year back again, left it on 1 January.  This day was thus enshrined as the beginning
of the year in the Julian calendar, which was passed on to Europe and
much of the rest of the world.  Because
of the Roman Senate and an obscure Iberian war, the vast majority of the human
race celebrates New Year’s in the middle of the winter.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s