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How the 12 Months Got Their Names: History & Meaning

Mar 10th, 2023

What’s in a name?

There are 12 names that hold a great deal of significance in our lives today — the names of the months!

They’re on every legal document, every wedding invitation, every birthday card and even on our own birth certificates. They dictate our travels, events, birthdays and more, and we have the ancient Romans to thank for it!

Here’s a history of the names of the months that starts all the way back in the second century B.C.

Why are the months named like they are?


Mensis Ianuarius, “Month of Janus”

Back when our modern calendar was in its earliest infancy, January and February didn’t even exist, and March was actually celebrated as the first month of the calendar year. 

It was only later when Numa Pompilius succeeded Romulus as the second king of Rome that Ianuarius was added to the calendar, and it wasn’t until 49 B.C. that it was moved to the top!

Anyway, the Romans named this month after the god Janus, who was the guardian protector of gates, doorways and other entryways. He’s depicted in many pieces of architecture as looking in two directions, representing both the past and the future. 

A pretty good reason to have him be the inspiration behind the first month of the year!


Mensis Februarius, “Month of the Februa”

February was a super interesting month for the ancient Romans, with a healthy dose of superstition, religion and politics all influencing its creation, naming, place in the year and even the amount of days within it! Here’s the history of February and why it has 28 days, if you’re looking for more in-depth information. 

Basically, to boil it all down, February was named for a type of purification instrument known as a februa, which was used in the Lupercalia festival. This festival was intended to purify cities of bad omens at the end of what was their calendar year (remember, March was the start of their year back then). Much like the ancient Celts held Samhain as a way to settle the debts of the old year and start a new year fresh (their calendar year started in the winter, and the festival became the origin of modern-day Halloween), the ancient Romans used their last month of the year to deal with their dead, settle debts and perform and cleansing rites.  


Mensis Martius, “Month of Mars”

Like we said, the ancient Romans celebrated the new year in March for centuries until it was replaced by January in about 153 B.C. — so March held a great deal of significance back in those ancient times. 

It’s believed that the Romans made a resolution to stop all wars during this first month in honor of the new year and a fresh slate. March was a time for religious events, rituals and a focus on preparing for the year ahead, and it was one of the few months to be named after one of the Roman deities, Mars. 

Mars was the Roman God of War and, as part of his duties as such, he also acted as a guardian of Roman life and death. This also included guardianship of Roman agriculture and the state of the Roman government, both of which were celebrated and highlighted during the month of March. 


Mensis Aprilus, “Month of Apru”

Spring is now in the air for the ancient Romans, which is why they named this month after the Latin words aperio, aperire or apertus, all verbs which mean “to open.” Which makes sense, after all: at this time of the year, the days are getting longer, the weather is warming and flowers and trees are starting to blossom and bud, while livestock, game and fish are also increasing in number. 

Female deities were often associated with spring time and new life, especially fertility goddesses like Venus, who was the Roman goddess of love, fertility, beauty, prosperity and victory. She was celebrated during this month, as were festivals dedicated to farming, crafting, homemaking and other aspects of rural life.


Mensis Maias, “Month of Maia”

By this time in the Roman calendar year, crops planted in spring were starting to grow and fruits were starting to harvest, marking the start of the early harvest season. To commemorate this important time of year, the Romans named this month after Maia, an earth goddess and the goddess of growth.

The goddess Maia was often associated with Vulcan, the god of fire, who was celebrated on the first day of May in his role as protector of the city. Priests would sacrifice a cow to Maia in hopes of bringing growth to the soils and harvest and, in return, a growth in profits. 


Mensis Iunis, “Month of Juno”

Though the root word iunius (meaning “young”) is linked to several different sources, historians believe that the Roman goddess Juno is the inspiration behind this month’s name.

Juno was the patron goddess of young people and of marriage which, if anything, just proves that #weddingseason has been around since the dawn of civilization. Because of the good weather and the abundance of flowers and fruits, Romans often held weddings and celebrations under the watchful eyes of Juno. 


Mensis Quintilis, “Fifth Month”

So, apparently the Romans obviously got tired of coming up with cool, mythological names for months once June was over and just switched to numbers. Which, okay, whatever — it’s not like people thousands of years in the future would even notice, right?

Thankfully, though, good old Julius Caesar came around in 49 B.C. and mixed things up a little. Aside from completely revamping the Roman calendar (and actually making it work), he also inspired future Romans to rename the fifth month Julius in his honor. Today, we simply call it July.


Mensis Sixtus, “Sixth Month”

Just like the Romans renamed the fifth month after Julius Caesar, so did they rename the sixth month after an equally-influential figure.

Augustus Caesar was heir to dictator Julius Caesar’s throne and was the first emperor of the brand new Roman Empire. He had quite the reputation and formed the basis of the incredibly successful period of Roman society, including supporting the implementation of Julius Caesar’s new calendar in its early years. And, as it turns out, a lot of his finer moments happened in the sixth month.

In fact, it was only a few years after his death in 14 B.C. that the Roman senate honored Augustus with a place in the calendar. Here’s the very decree that ratified it!

“Whereas the emperor Augustus Caesar, in the month of Sextilis, was first admitted to the consulate, and thrice entered the city in triumph, and in the same month the legions, from the Janiculum, placed themselves under his auspices, and in the same month Egypt was brought under the authority of the Roman people, and in the same month an end was put to the civil wars; and whereas for these reasons the said month is, and has been, most fortunate to this empire, it is hereby decreed by the senate that the said month shall be called Augustus.” 


Mensis September, “Seventh Month”

Another blast of brilliance from the ancient Romans, who named their seventh month after the Latin root word for “seven” — sept. 

Pure genius. 


Mensis October, “Eighth Month”

Yup. The Latin root word for “eight” is octo. You’re picking it up quickly!


Mensis November, “the Ninth Month”

Novem is Latin for “Nine”. Same pattern as above. 


Mensis December, “Tenth Month”

What better way to mark the end of the year than with a completely anticlimactic name? And yes, decem means “ten.” 

One wonders if the ancient Romans who used this calendar so many millennia ago ever imagined it would still be in use today. Though we take it for granted now, the names of the months held great significance to those early people, and much of their social, religious, political and superstitious lives were governed by the deities the months were named after. 

Really puts it all in perspective, huh?

Happy, February! Or March, or May, June, July….

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/NakNakNak

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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