Our modern months come straight from ancient Rome. In this post we will cover the names of the months in Latin, as well as the meanings and associations behind each month.
Ancient Roman tradition says that there were originally ten months: March through December. This meant that the year began in March, not in January.
As the legend goes, the first Roman king – Romulus – created and named the original ten months of the year. Then the second king, Numa Pompilius, added January and February to reach the modern total of twelve.
As you will see, our English names for the months come directly from Latin (with a few minor changes). This makes the Latin names easy to remember!
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Months of the Year in Latin
First, here is a list of the names of the months in Latin. The second column contains English translations.
The Latin names for months are all adjectives, and they are usually accompanied by the noun mēnsis, “month.” So, for example, you will see mēnsis Augustus, which means “the month (of) August.”
Since mēnsis is a masculine noun, the names of the months are also masculine by default. Some of the months are first and second declension adjectives, while others are third declension adjectives.
Here are the “dictionary entry” forms of the adjectives. Good dictionaries include extra grammatical forms that help you to identify an adjective’s declension, stem, and more.
- Iānuārius, a, um
- Februārius, a, um
- Martius, a, um
- Aprīlis, e
- Māius, a, um
- Iūnius, a, um
- Iūlius, a, um
- Augustus, a, um
- September, Septembris
- Octōber, Octōbris
- November, Novembris
- December, Decembris
To learn more about how adjectives work, you can read my beginner-friendly post on Latin adjectives.
How were the months named?
People have been asking about the etymology of month names for thousands of years (literally!). Roman authors like Varro and Ovid (who both lived in the 1st century B.C.E.) speculated about where the names of the months came from.
In the following paragraphs, I will frequently mention Ovid’s Fasti as a source. This fascinating poem discusses the Roman year and frequently introduces gods and goddesses as witnesses for the history of the months.
Today we are sure about many of the etymologies of the months, but some remain mysterious. When there is doubt, I will list the most common suggestions.
Remember that, originally, the Roman calendar began with March and had only ten months. January and February were later additions. This detail becomes important when we arrive at the names of the later months!
January: the Month of Janus
January takes its name from Janus (Latin Iānus), the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. Janus has two faces, and a common interpretation is that one face looks into the past and one into the future.
We can also think about Janus as the god of the door (Latin iānua), since doorways are transitional spaces. The god can look in both directions, both in and out of the door.
Consequently, Janus is the ideal god to preside over the new year. That’s why the first month is named after him. Iānuārius is an adjective meaning “belonging to Janus”, so mēnsis Iānuārius is “the month of Janus”.
Fun fact: Janus is also known for his connection to war and peace. The Romans would open the gates of Janus when a war was occurring and shut them when there was peace.
February: the Month of Purification
The month of February was associated with purification and health. On February 15 the Romans celebrated a festival called the Februa or diēs Februātus. The goal was to purify the people and promote wellness for the new year.
Februa is the name of the festival, but the term also refers to purification in general. Certain religious items (twigs, strings of wool) were called februa, too. A related verb, februō, means “purify”.
“February” in Latin is mēnsis Februārius . This literally means “the month relating to the Februa”. It makes sense that February took its name from the prominent festival.
The Februa eventually became the Lupercalia, a festival best known for its peculiar shenanigans to promote fertility. Today few remember the Februa, but its name lives on in the month of February.
March: the Month of Mars
March was dedicated to Mars, god of war. Remember that the mēnsis Martius – “the month belonging to Mars” – used to be the first month of the year. Why did Mars receive this honor?
Mars meant a great deal to the Romans. He wasn’t just an angry warmonger – he was also the father of Romulus, the mythical founder and first king of Rome.
According to Ovid (Fasti 3), Romulus himself decided to name the first month of the year for his father. This explanation is attractive, but unlikely (since Romulus probably never existed).
Some scholars think the month has the name of the war god because military campaigns typically began in March. Roman magistrates traditionally took up office on March 15, and they doubled as military commanders.
(Magistrates didn’t begin entering office on January 1 until 153 B.C.E.)
April: the Month of Venus
The etymology of April is unclear, but one possibility is that it derives from Etruscan Apru “Aphrodite”. This would make it the month of Venus, Roman goddess of love and sexuality.
In Fasti 4, Ovid insists that April is the month of Venus. When Romulus designed the calendar, he put March first in honor of his father Mars, and then put April second in honor of his ancestress Venus. This is fanciful, but the point remains: many ancient authors associated April with Venus.
Other Romans, like Varro (De Lingua Latina 6.33), linked the mēnsis Aprīlis with the verb aperiō “open”. Why? Because the warm April weather opens up the earth for growth.
This leads us back to Venus, since she is the goddess of fertility. The aprīlis / aperiō connection has been discounted by linguists, but it’s still fun to think about.
May: the Month of Maia
Ancient authors disagree on where the word “May” comes from. The two main theories are as follows: 1) the mēnsis Māius is the month of the goddess Maia or 2) it relates to the ancestors (maiōrēs).
According to one version, May takes its name from Maia, a Roman earth goddess who was the wife of Vulcan. Others say that May is named for the Greek nymph Maia, who slept with Zeus and gave birth to Hermes (Roman Mercury).
Finally, still other authors connect May to the maiōrēs or ancestors. Maiōrēs literally means the “elder ones”. Former generations and their customs were very important for the ancient Romans.
In Fasti 5, Ovid discusses both of these options (and one other!). Varro (in De Lingua Latina 6.33) insists on the connection to the ancestors. Macrobius summarizes the various theories in his Saturnalia (1.12.16).
June: the Month of Juno
Most people agree that June is the month of Juno (Greek Hera). Juno was a powerful goddess among the Latins and protected her chosen cities fiercely. At Rome she was part of the Capitoline Triad with Jupiter and Minerva.
Juno’s Latin name, Iūnō, likely means “young woman” and has the same root as iuvenis “youth, young person.” This makes sense, since one of Juno’s roles is to be the guardian of women, especially those in the prime of life.
Today scholars recognize that the mēnsis Iūnius is linked to Juno. But the Romans had various suggestions.
In Fasti 6, Ovid talks about Juno first, but then he writes that maybe June is the month of young people (iūniōrēs) or the month of “joining together”. In De Lingua Latina 6.33, Varro agrees with the “young people” theory, and thus sees May and June as a pair (dedicated to the old and the young, respectively).
July: the Month of Julius Caesar
Back when the Roman year began in March, July was the fifth month. The Romans called it Quintīlis, from the Latin quintus “fifth.” Even when January and February were added and Quintīlis became the seventh month, the old name remained.
So what happened? In the first century B.C.E. Julius Caesar rose to power in Rome. He decided to reorganize the Roman calendar, which had gotten terribly messed up. The seasons came in the wrong months, and festivals didn’t match the seasons.
Caesar’s calendar reform was successful and the Senate decided to rename a month in his honor. Julius Caesar was born in Quintīlis, so consul Mark Antony proposed that this month be called Iūlius in his honor.
And that’s how July became the month of Julius Caesar.
(Our historical sources are Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar 76, and Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.12.34.)
August: the Month of Augustus Caesar
August was originally the sixth month of the Roman year, so the Romans called it Sextīlis (from the Latin sextus “sixth”). Eventually January and February were added to the calendar and Sextīlis became the eighth month.
Why did the name change? Well, in the 1st century B.C.E., the Roman Republic faced a series of civil wars. This ultimately led to Octavian taking control and founding the principate (soon to be the empire). In 27 BCE, the Senate bestowed on him the title of Augustus, which is why he is known as Augustus Caesar.
Augustus is an adjective meaning “majestic” or “venerable”. It had been used in the past to refer to temples, sacred rites, and minor gods. But now, in the empire, it became a title for the ruling Caesar (the emperor).
In 8 B.C.E., the Senate voted to rename Sextīlis “Augustus” in honor of the emperor. The eighth month was chosen because it was when Augustus had begun his first consulship and achieved various military victories.
So the eighth month became the “majestic” month, or the month of Augustus Caesar. And that’s how yet another Caesar got his name into the calendar!
(See Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.12.35, for the Senate’s decree to change Quintīlis to July.)
September, October, November, and December
Just like the ill-fated Quintīlis and Sextīlis, the last four months of the year took their names from Roman numbers.
- Septem “seven” gave us mēnsis September, “the seventh month.”
- Octō “eight” gave us mēnsis Octōber, “the eighth month.”
- Novem “nine” gave us mēnsis November, “the ninth month.”
- Decem “ten” gave us mēnsis December, “the tenth month.”
Now, thanks to the addition of January and February, the names of the months no longer correspond to their numbers. So, for instance, September is the ninth month, not the seventh, and October is the tenth month, not the eighth.
Nevertheless, the names are here to stay. Their inaccuracy is a testimony to the quirks of word history!
Further Reading on Roman Months
Now you know the ancient Roman names for the months and how the months got their names! The Latin names have influenced many modern languages, including English and the Romance languages.
If you are intrigued by the Roman calendar, then I have two book recommendations for you.
First is a poem about the calendar by the Roman poet Ovid. This unique piece of literature walks us through the year (from January to June), discussing all the various festivals and events. Gods and goddesses – from Janus to Juno to Flora – make appearances to gossip about Roman customs.
Next is a book by Denis Feeney, a professor of Classics at Princeton University. His study of Roman conceptions of time is fascinating and has made me think about calendars and timekeeping in a whole new way.
Most of the information that I have presented in this post is found in either Ovid or Feeney (or both), so their writings deserve some attention!
Keep exploring the ancient world with the following posts: