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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Brian Flood

August is the Month of Augustus

In the original ten-month Roman calendar, August was the sixth month of the year and called Sextilis. Originally, March, the month when military campaigns began, was the Roman calendar’s first month. In about 700 BC it became the eighth month of the year when King Numa Pumpilius added January and February to the Roman calendar.

Parenthetically, Numa is one of the most interesting characters written about by Plutarch in his famous lives of heroes, bedside reading for Napoleon while on military campaign and the favorite book of the founding fathers of the United States.

After Numa added January and February to the Roman calendar, he didn’t change the name of Sextilis; it retained its name as the sixth month even though it was now the eighth. Quoting Plutarch’s biography of Numa:

"He applied himself, also, to the adjustment of the calendar, not with exactness, and yet not altogether without careful observation. For during the reign of Romulus, they had been irrational and irregular in their fixing of the months, reckoning some at less than twenty days, some at thirty-five, and some at more; they had no idea of the inequality of the annual motions of the sun and moon, but held to this principle only, that the year should consist of three hundred and sixty days.

"But Numa, estimating the extent of the inequality at eleven days, since the lunar year had three hundred and fifty-four days, but the solar year three hundred and sixty-five, doubled these eleven days, and every other year inserted after the month of February the intercalary month called Mercedinus by the Romans, which consisted of twenty-two days. This correction of the inequality which he made was destined to require other and greater corrections in the future."

Indeed, when Julius Caesar was in power in 46 BC and was campaigning to reform the calendar, he added two more days to the month, giving it its current length of 31 days.

In 8 BC, when Augustus was an old man of about 70 years of age, six years before his death, he renamed the month of Sextilis Mensis in his own honor. Sextilis Mensis was the month of his greatest triumphs, including the defeat of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in Egypt. August would also be the month of his death at the age of seventy-five.

Augustus was the only Roman Emperor who successfully renamed a month after himself during his lifetime. Other Roman emperors tried to do it, but failed. Their wishes were honored during their lifetime – largely out of fear, probably - but the months reverted to their traditional names after their deaths.

In about 15 BC, August was behind the colonization of a little backwater called Faventia, an Iberian settlement redrawn as a castrum, or military camp, in northeastern Hispania, whose full name was Colonia Faventia Julia Augusta Pia Barcino, today known as Barcelona.

Aug- is a PIE root and means “to increase”. It forms all or part of the following words: auction, augment, augur, august, author, auxiliary, inaugurate, auspicious. The Anglo-Saxon version of the same root is WAX, as opposed to WAIN. The root adds the sense of promising events, prosperity, plenty, and fullness. Not by coincidence, August is in agriculture the month of reaping the harvest. In Latin the adjective augustus means “venerable, majestic, noble”.

In England in the 11th century, after the invasion of the Normans, the Roman-derived August replaced the original name for the month on the Anglo-Saxon calendar: Weodmonað, or “weed month”.


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