February 29th

This coming Monday is February 29th – Leap Year Day. So what’s the story behind this ‘once every four years’ event? Well, this is one version of the stories but I’m afraid that I cannot vouch for it in person – and you’ll soon see why!

Legend has it that the first Roman calendar was instituted by Romulus in 738BC and had just ten months. There is no clear indication, though, whether this led to a shorter year or more days in each month. Numa Pompilius, who reigned 715–673BC, is viewed as the second king of Rome, and many of Rome’s most important religious and political institutions are attributed to him. One of these was to add months of January and February to create a 12 month year. It was not quite perfect, though, as the year only had 355 days. That situation stayed in place for 600 or so years until the time of Julius Caesar. It was then that one Sosigenes of Alexandria calculated that the year should have 365 and a quarter days. That was still not quite right so Sosigenes added one extra day every fourth year and tagged it on to the shortest month – February.

This whole new arrangement took effect on 1st January 45BC – and this extra day in 45BC became the first ‘Leap Year Day’. Would you believe, though, that it was not called ‘Leap Year’- and it did not get placed as the last day of February? Well it wasn’t – it was referred to as ‘bis-sexto-kalendae’!

The 24th day of the month of February was called the sexto kalendae so the extra day was called the bis-sexto-kalendae meaning the double, twice or again sixth day before the start of March.   Sometimes a Leap Year is referred to as a bissextile for that reason. This odd way of doing things has led some scholars into saying that the extra day was added after the 24th, when in fact logic – and history – determines that it was added after the 23rd. This name and system also implies that February did indeed have 28 and 29 days after Julius Caesar’s reforms. What your scribe here has not established is when that extra day got shunted to the end of the month of February. Any thoughts on this will be gratefully received.

There was just one thing left to do now – naming the days of the week! It was not until the 4th century that those names joined in the calendar when the first Christian emperor Constantine introduced the seven-day week based on the book of Genesis.

There was now just one thing left to make it all correct – and that was not resolved until 1582! What was it? Time itself! Caesar’s calendar year was overestimated by 11 minutes and 14 seconds! This was resolved in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII adjusted Caesar’s calendar and re-baptised it the ‘Gregorian Calendar’ – and that’s what we have today!

So – on this Monday, 29th February 2016, and on February 29th in years to come – just give a thought to how it came to be.


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