Julius Caesar and his calendar

If you read any history of Caesar, from Plutarch to wikipedia (folks, do NOT get your history from your Shakespeare, especially not the tragedies, like our current Julius Caesar), at some point, you’re going to run across the concept of the Julian Calendar.

The original Roman calendar was supposedly created by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome. It superseded the ancient Greek lunar calendars, and separated the year into ten months for a total of 304 days. If you’re thinking, but a solar year is 365.25 days (something even the Greeks knew–but seemingly ignored), you’d be right. And you’d be right–though a little crazy–to think those extra days would just get tacked on, sans named month, to the end of the year.

There was a reformation of the original Roman calendar around 713 BC, in an attempt to align the calendar year to the solar year. This Calendar of Numa (named after one of the seven kings of Rome) gave us a twelve-month year–with some recognizable names–but it, too (with its with 355 days), didn’t align perfectly and it needed days added to it occasionally as well, this time in the form of an entire leap month of 27 days. The problem was that the determination of when the leap month was deployed was done not by science, but rather by a weird combination of religion and politics, in the position of Pontifex Maximus, who could dole out that month when he saw fit. But since the Pontifex was usually involved in politics, those leap months would get inserted when his allies were in power, and his enemies were not. Needless to say, this led to abuse.

Now the Numa calendar wasn’t the only one in the world. Both the Persians and the Egyptians used calendars based on the solar year. Julius Caesar experienced this for himself during his Egyptian campaigns of 48 and 47 BC. When he returned victorious to Rome, he brought together philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers to reform the Numa calendar.

In 46 BC,Caesar introduced the new calendar with twelve month, 365 days a year, with a leap day every four years.

Perfect, right?

Well, yes and no. For Caesar it was a good deal because to realign the calendar, days had to be added to that year… so this year in which Caesar was consul was 445 days long. And the 365+ concept was good enough to spread over much of Europe and North Africa. The not-so-good side was that the leap days were inconsistently inserted. This was so not-so-good that in 1582 (by which time the Julian calendar was off by 10 days), Pope Gregory XIII reformed the calendar (now called–you guessed it–the Gregorian calendar). The new calendar was adopted on a country-by-country basis, with (not surprisingly) the Catholic countries following suit first.

I know, you’re asking yourself, “Bill, why are you telling me this? And what does this have to do with Julius Caesar (other than the title character invented this better-than-before but still not right calendar)?”

Here’s why… re-read the last sentence of the paragraph before your/my question. “Catholic countries following suit first.” Remember that Henry VIII changed the national church from Catholicism to Anglican in 1534(ish). So, by the time Shakespeare wrote Julius Caesar, Great Britain was 10 days out of alignment with much of Europe. And since neither Shakespeare nor his audience lived in an information vacuum, they knew about the discrepancy. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find references to time in the play.

In fact, the second line of the play could be seen a sly reference to the date discrepancy, as Flavius asks the commoners, “Is this a holiday?” (I.i.2). And if it is a holiday, is it a holiday here in Rome, or back in England (for the audience)?

Even the most famous date referenced in the play is a reference to the Roman calendar of old: “Ides” was the named midpoint of any given month. Our modern months don’t have such a designated pinpoint, and I would be interested to know the contemporary audience’s knowledge of the term.

The Julian calendar (or at least a calendar) plays a part and gets a mention when Brutus asks Lucius to “look in the calendar and bring” (II.i.42) him word if the next day is the Ides of March.

Then IT happens: the “Clock strikes” (II.i.191 stage direction). This probably the most (in)famous anachronism in all of Shakespeare. There were no mechanical clocks in Rome of the first century BC. While there were water clocks in Caesar’s day, none had chimes. And the three “o’clock” references that follow in the play (II.ii.114, II.iv.24, and V.iii.108) all add to this mechanical clock anachronism.

Then as if to bookend the piece, Octavius’ final line (and the play’s too) discusses “the glories of this happy day” (V.v.80).

Holiday, Ides, clock, day.


We’ve seen before how Shakespeare compresses time in this play. In a larger sense, however, he compresses it to the point where he includes his own time (with Julian calendar day discrepancy and the modern clock). Caesar cast a shadow so big that it was felt in Shakespeare’s day in the continued use of the Julian calendar.

We’ve said before how this play seemingly has Brutus as its hero, and that there’s no reason for the title to be Julius Caesar. If you take the time references, the continued influence of Caesar, and combine them with the subconscious connection between Caesar’s day and the current waning reign of Elizabeth (and the fear of what would happen as a result of her possible coup) you get a sense of the timelessness of the play.

By the way, the British Empire would not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752. Ridiculous that the calendar was held hostage over an age-old religious squabble. All of which makes me wonder: do the use of time and calendar have less to do with Caesar and history than the current state of religion in Britain. In other words, is this a subtle pro-Catholic statement on Shakespeare’s part?

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