(A slightly different version of this piece was published more than two years ago, my first Stuff from Way Back. It is perhaps my favorite anecdote from antiquity. I am reposting it for the New Year and because I am a bit short of time. It makes an excellent New Year’s Eve party anecdote, at least before everyone is gasolinoed. Happy New Year, though I expect it will just see our country slide further into silliness and stupidity.)
Ever wonder why the year begins on January 1? Probably not. It is the sort of thing that is such an established facet of life that it never occurs to one to ask why: “Because that’s when the calendar begins,” which is of course not much of an explanation. That’s akin to saying because the previous year ends on December 31. But consider: why should we begin our year in the middle of the winter and on a day that has absolutely no significance, except that somehow it has become the first day of the year. Why not on a day that has some significance in nature, such as the equinoxes and solstices. Or considering the importance of agriculture, why not in the spring, when life returns, or fall, when the harvest is in?
In fact, in antiquity states typically began their calendar years in the spring or in the fall with the harvest. So, what happened? Well, it’s because of the Romans and an otherwise relatively trivial event in their history. It begins with the defeat of Hannibal.
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 moved to any campaign of conquest in the Iberian peninsula. Italian capital and manpower were exhausted by the long and costly struggle against Carthage, and the first half of the second century BC was filled with major conflicts in the Greek east. The result was that the Roman occupation 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 Roman Senate was loathe to create provinces; they had to be administered and garrisoned, which was expensive. Nevertheless, there were in Spain no potential client kingdoms ready at hand, and consequently the Spanish possessions were organized into two provinces in 197 BC. But poor Roman administration led in that same year to the first serious insurrection, and crushing it triggered the First Celtiberian War (181-179 BC). Relative peace then lasted until the outbreak of the Lusitanian War (154-138 BC), during which occurred also the Second Celtiberian War (153-151 BC) and the Third Celtiberian (or Numantine) War (143-133 BC). Thus it was that 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, the first emperor, at the end of the first century BC. The Spanish provinces then went on to become the most peaceful and Romanized in the empire.
When in late 154 BC 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 element 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 the Ides of Martius, that is, March 15, which consequently placed the beginning of the Roman civil year at roughly the vernal equinox (March 21) 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 the Kalends of Januarius, that is January 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. (Coincidentally, Januarius was named after the god Janus, who as the god of gateways and transitions looked both ways, making the month of January very apt as the first of the year.) 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.
Incidentally, in August Nobilior’s army was ambushed by the Belli and Arevaci on its way to capture the city of Numantia in north central Spain and lost 6000 men, and it was only saved from complete annihilation by his Roman cavalry. He never did take the city and was replaced the following year. The war went on.