October – when did eight become ten?

October, now familiar as the tenth month – derives its name from its position as month eight in the ancient Roman calendar.

In the early form of this calendar, there were ten months and the year began in March.  

As the Oxford Dictionaries blog will tell you: 

octo is the Latin for ‘eight’ … Two months were added to the end of the calendar year around 713 BC, and the beginning of the year was moved to 1 January in 153 BC

But wait … Is this really when eight became ten? 

October: can't quite see the whole rainbow
October: can’t quite see the whole rainbow

Live Science gives us a concise history of the evolution of the Western calendar. Briefly:

The ‘calendar of Romulus’ at the founding of Rome, 753 BC, had ten months. Check

The ‘calendar of Numa’, around 713 BC, added two months to the year (plus an intercalary month to account for the odd extra number of days). The two new months were what we now call January and February. March was still the first month. OK

But, the article continues:

By around 450 B.C. January was generally considered the first month of the year. 


The first article states ‘153 BC’, the second ‘around 450 BC’. A discrepancy of about 300 years. Why is this? Is it the difference between ‘generally considered’ and a date fixed in law? 

In my post on time passing for January, I refer to the Encyclopedia Britannica with the quote:

January replaced March as the first month of the Roman year no later than 153 BCE

‘No later than’ allows for variation – reflects uncertainty. But still, I can’t yet say why these variations exist. 

By whichever reckoning, over two thousand years have passed since eight first became ten.

But for the British and those who dwelt within its one-time colonies, the name of the month of October has been distanced from its original meaning for less time than for others elsewhere in Europe and around the world. We were out of step for a couple of centuries, refusing to adopt the (Catholic) Gregorian reforms and sticking with the Julian calendar (the system of dating followed from 46BC onwards). During this time we sometimes thought of March as the start of the year and sometimes January.

The final legal definitive shift to considering January 1 as the beginning of the year only came, in Britain, in 1752, when we finally adopted the Gregorian calendar, which presumably brought an end to the practice of having to refer to Old Style and New Style dates. 

Blackberries some red, unripe
Prickly issues

If you’re keen on historical ‘facts’ or ‘facts’ of any kind, whether for their own sake, or for the sake of getting something right when writing historical fiction, where do you look for accurate information? Popular articles online tend not to disclose their sources. 

The difficulties with accurately dating events and documents due to the staggered nature of switching from the Julian calendar, might be helped by this article from the University of Nottingham, which states in which years different countries adopted the Gregorian calendar. Indeed, reading this article brings me to doubt the one I have cited from Live Science, where it is stated that, on adopting the Gregorian calendar in Britain, days were cut from October. I was merrily about to repeat this until I found that the University of Nottingham article says ‘September’.

Who are you going to believe?

Though the editors of LiveScience are scientists, what can we say about the way information posted by contributors is curated and assessed? 

Are you aware of any further relevant academic research? Please add a comment.

Or perhaps you have noticed sites that repeat ‘facts’ which are thought to be incorrect?

If you think there’s anything wrong with the information I have presented in this post, please comment!

What do you think about our acceptance of ‘facts’ today? Is there time for this kind of checking in today’s helter-skelter world of constantly-streamed information?

How often have you found yourself having to revise what you think because the ‘facts’ have changed?

Allington Hill: misty early morning Sat 20 October 2018
Allington Hill: misty early morning Sat 20 October 2018






3 thoughts on “October – when did eight become ten?

  1. How interesting, and complicated time can be.

    I’ve been looking at the question of whether Britain celebrated New Year at March or January, before the shift to the Gregorian calendar, in the last two weeks. It’s such a relief to find that someone else has also been unable to fix on a definite answer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, Cath, it’s fairly hard to tell whether it was March or January at any given time unless you can find specific documents. Also, different people might well have used both systems at the same time (or ‘time’). In my memory I wrote a good deal more in other posts about the use of Old and New style dates, George Washington having two birthdays and the weirdness of our tax year. I know I read a lot about it! Probably wrote fiction instead …


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