Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

The moon has been hitting the headlines briefly, for something that happened 40 years ago. It was in the ancients' minds (and sights) all the time.

The ancients were farmers, and farming is season-dependent. So, determined to keep the gods smiling benevolently on their activities, they tied many of their most important religious rituals to the seasons in the hope that this would ensure their crops flourished. But ritual had to be conducted in the same way, place and time, and this was the problem.

The ancients knew that the seasons coincided with the time it took for the sun to complete its annual course (the 'solar' cycle of 365.25 days). But they counted time by the moon, and the average 'lunar' month lasts 29.53 days ('moon' and 'month' in English derive from the same Germanic root). Twelve of these make only 354 days, a shortfall of 11 days on the solar year. So after three years they would be 33 days short, and after nine years more than three months short. Spring festivals would thus be celebrated in mid-winter. Nor were things helped if you calculated only by the farmer's working year, which was ten months. Such was the original Roman calendar, beginning in March and ending in December (Latin decem, 'ten'). …

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