What has happened to August?
The 31 days of August used to be the dog days of summer. They stretched before us until we slid into September and the world awoke from its torpor.
Nothing ever happened in August. It was known as ‘the silly season’ in newspaper parlance for good reason. The silliest of stories found their way into print through lack of anything better.
This last August was different.
It was a wicked month, one full of mean angst. It started with the debt ceiling debacle, and was followed by the US credit rating downgrade, the Eurozone panic, riot-torn British cities aflame, Gaddafi finally losing his grip on Libya after 42 years, Steve Jobs stepping down from the helm of Apple and Hurricane Irene fizzling up the eastern seaboard causing flood havoc in her wake. It was all aided and abetted by panic-stricken news coverage of the most perniciously tabloid kind.
Thank the gods September is here.
And in thanking the gods, how is it that in this third millennium we continue to celebrate pagan gods and Roman emperors in the names of our days and months?
There are days named after the Sun, Moon, Thor and Saturn. Janus, Roman god of doors and beginnings, opens the year in January. March is named after the Roman god Mars; Juno, chief Roman goddess, gave her name to June. And then there’s those alpha months, July and August.
At least Julius did something to earn his namesake month. To this day we have Julius Caesar to thank for reforming what was a chaotic calendar in his time. Bad calculations had caused the months to drift wildly across the seasons. January, for example, had begun to fall in the autumn. History records the Roman Senate was so grateful to Caesar for reforming the calendar that they renamed what was then the fifth month – Quintilis – in his honor. Thus, Quintilis became July after Julius.
The Julian calendar became the predominant calendar throughout Europe for the next 1600 years until Pope Gregory made further reforms in 1582.
Of course, having set a precedent, others Emperors were bound to follow. After his defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus became Emperor of Rome. With more than a little behind-the-scenes lobbying the Roman Senate ordained that Augustus, too, should have a month named after him.
The month following July was Sextillus (sextus=six). So Sextillus became the month of August.
There was a small glitch to rectify: since Julius’s month had 31 days and Sextillus had only 30 they took one from poor February and added it to August to even things up with July. February originally had 29 days (30 in a leap year), and was ever more reduced to a mere 28 days (29 in a leap year). After all, who cares about Februus, the Etruscan god of the underworld?
For a time, May was changed to Claudius and the infamous Nero instituted Neronius for April. They didn’t take. Only Julius and Augustus have had two millenia-worth of brand power.
But maybe it’s time for a rethink. Augustus has had his month, and it just isn’t delivering on its promise anymore. Sextillus isn’t such a bad name. In fact, it sounds very 21st century. Very Lippincott. And so heavy with heritage.
Here’s to a scintillating Sextillus in 2012.