Who was the last Roman Emperor?

Well, that’s an easy question to answer, right? Just grab a list of all the Roman Emperors and see whose name comes last! Well, that’s easy… let’s see here… looks like it was Romulus Augustus who reigned from AD 475-476. Shortest Cat Flag blog ever!

Except, no, of course it’s not that easy. I wouldn’t have written this blog if it was.

History books count Romulus Augustus as the last Roman Emperor for three reasons. First, after reigning in Rome for less than a year, he was deposed by the barbarian leader Odoacer who decided not to become emperor or appoint a puppet emperor to rule in his place, and instead declared himself the first King of Italy. Second, it’s kind of poetic that the last Roman Emperor would be named after the founder of Rome and its first emperor. Third, tables, charts, and lists have to have a finite ending point, and they don’t handle complicated mitigating factors very well.

See, counting Romulus Augustus as the last Roman Emperor is a bit problematic. While he ruled in Rome – or rather, his father ruled in his name, as he was only a child at the time – his power was limited to Italy itself and his legitimacy as “emperor” is disputed. Historically, the Roman Empire wasn’t initially a monarchy in the modern sense, as the Romans had been a republic for centuries and had a distaste for kings. So while some emperors were able to pass power down to their sons peacefully, a few men became emperor through rebellion, military coup, or assassination. One guy even won the title at auction! Thus historians tend to consider emperors as “legitimate” Roman Emperors if they controlled the entire Roman Empire at some point and/or were accepted as emperor by the Roman Senate. Romulus Augustus could make neither claim; by these criteria, he was a usurper.

Indeed, the man he usurped the throne from, Julius Nepos, was still around, continuing to reign in Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia) as the accepted legitimate emperor until his death in 480. So it was Julius Nepos who was the last Roman Emperor, right? Well, he was the last emperor in the west. In the eastern half of the empire, though, it was another story.

Okay, I’m guessing by now you are totally confused. So, let me back up a bit and explain what’s going on. After the Crisis of the Third Century (short version: the empire suffered 50 years of civil war and anarchy as everyone and their uncle fought for power), a man named Diocletian took over and decided the best recipe for stability was to split the empire up between four “emperors” that were each responsible for one part of the empire. Under his plan, there would be two senior emperors and two junior emperors. When a senior emperor died or abdicated, his junior emperor would be promoted to senior emperor and would appoint a new junior emperor. This plan failed spectacularly, leading to even more civil wars that led Constantine the Great to reunite the empire under his rule. Constantine was most famous for doing two things: (1) beginning the process of converting the Roman Empire to Christianity, and (2) moving the capital of the Roman Empire to a city that was not Rome. This new city, built on the site of the ancient Greek town of Byzantium, came to be known as Constantinople.

After Constantine, the empire would be divided and reunified several more times until Theodosius the Great became the last man to reign over a united Roman Empire. When Theodosius died in 395, the empire was “permanently” divided into a western empire based in Rome and an eastern one based in Constantinople. The eastern empire is often called the Byzantine Empire by modern historians in order to distinguish it from the older empire it sprung off of, but at the time, people who lived there still called it “The Roman Empire”, considered themselves “Romans”, and considered their ruler to be the Roman Emperor.

So, it made sense that after Julius Nepos died, the emperor in Constantinople at the time, Zeno, simply declared the empire to be “reunited” under a single emperor (himself, of course) once again. Functionally, all this did was annex Dalmatia to the Byzantine Empire, as the rest of the west had now fallen to barbarian tribes and was divided into the proto-feudal kingdoms that would give rise to medieval Europe. These kingdoms still technically considered Zeno to be their overlord, but functionally they were independent.

This arrangement lasted for a few decades, but then a new emperor came to power in Constantinople:

Justinian may be listed as a Byzantine Emperor, but I would argue he was the last Roman Emperor in the sense we tend to think of Roman Emperors. He reconquer many of the Roman imperial lands that had once been lost to barbarian invaders, reclaiming North Africa, Spain, and Italy itself. He was the last Roman Emperor who actually controlled Rome. However, he also reigned during the first recorded outbreak of bubonic plague, AKA the Black Death, killing 25 million of his subjects and leaving the empire unable to consolidate his gains. In the centuries that followed, Muslims would conquer the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain while the Germanic Lombards would invade Italy and Slavic tribes would take over most of the Balkans.

Yet even though it was now much, much smaller, the Byzantine Empire would continue to endure to the very end of the Middle Ages, finally coming to an end in 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. This means that the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, was the last man to claim the title of Roman Emperor.

Wait, no, that’s not right. Sorry, I forgot about the Holy Roman Empire.

In the late 8th century, the Vatican was in deep trouble. The Lombards were attacking and seizing control of Catholic land in Italy, and the Pope needed help. Luckily, the King of the Franks, a military genius named Charlemagne, was a devout Catholic and happily came to the Pope’s aid, crushing the Lombards and conquering Italy. Pope Leo III was so grateful for this service that he gave Charlemagne a surprise Christmas present: crowning him Emperor of Rome.

This wasn’t just a symbolic gesture, either. See, just three years earlier, a woman, Irene of Athens, took the throne of Constantinople and became empress in her own right. Until this point, the Popes had consistently accepted whomever was the reigning Byzantine Emperor as the legitimate Roman Emperor. But a woman? Perish the thought! By crowning Charlemagne, Pope Leo III was directly challenging Irene’s legitimacy. His hope was that Charlemagne and his heirs would restore the Roman Empire in the west and return Europe to its former glory.

Of course, this didn’t happen. As Voltaire famously said, “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” In practice, it was a collection of petty feudal kingdoms, duchies, and principalities as well as some city-state republics in central Europe. Its “emperors” were just ceremonial figureheads elected by a collection of the most important nobles and bishops, known as the “prince-electors”. That’s not to say a Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t be powerful, some were very powerful, but their power was based on what realms they held in their own right apart from their fancy title. A Holy Roman Emperor couldn’t enforce his will on the other kings, dukes, or princes unless his armies defeated them in battle.

Still, on paper, these so-called “emperors” claimed to be the heirs of the ancient Roman Emperors of old until the whole thing was abolished by Napoleon in 1806, with the Austrian Hapsburg monarch Francis II being the final Holy Roman Emperor.

We’re still not quite done, though. Skipping back over to Constantinople for a bit, we soon find out that after the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453 they didn’t abolish the title of Roman Emperor. They adopted it for themselves. That’s right, for centuries, the Ottoman Sultans claimed to be the modern Roman Emperor, along with other titles they claimed like Caliph of all Islam and Protector of the Holy Cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. The Ottoman sultans loved long, fancy lists of titles. Thus, the last Ottoman sultan to claim the title of Roman Emperor was, well, the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI.

Right. Now we’re definitely done, right? Actually, you might be surprised to learn that, as I type this, there is actually a man, right now, who can claim the title of Roman Emperor. Yes, there actually is a current Roman Emperor! Here he is:

I am talking about King Felipe VI of Spain, whose royal title is a bit interesting. See, while he usually just uses the title “King of Spain”, according to the Spanish constitution, he has the right to use any other title that historically “corresponds to the Crown”.

The founders of modern Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, may be most famous for sending Christopher Columbus on his journey across the Atlantic in 1492, but they did a great many other things during their reign as well. One of those things was help out Andreas Palaiologos, the nephew of Constantine XI Palaiologos, who was flat broke at the time. They purchased the Byzantine imperial title from him. Technically, no Spanish monarch has ever formally given up this title, meaning it is one of the titles that King Felipe VI is entitled to claim and use if he so chooses.

Who says the Roman Empire is dead?

Lessons Learned from Moving

As I was growing up, my family moved numerous times, and I ended up living in four states. However, as I was starting my freshman year of high school, my family planted itself in coastal California and stayed put. I would live in the same house for the next 15 years. So, when the time came for me to move once again, it had been so long that I had largely forgotten many aspects of moving. Plus, I am now a full-grown adult and not a child, so my experience would be completely different anyway. It’s one thing to be moved, it’s another to be responsible for planning and executing every aspect of the move. Along the way, I learned a few lessons, and I figured I might as well share some of the things I learned.

It’s always a bigger job than you first assume

I knew, roughly, what I was going to be taking with me to my new place. My bed, some of my furniture, some art on my walls, my books, my clothes, and my computer and printer. Piece of cake.

Until I actually began to pack, and quickly discovered that I had far more to go through than I initially planned. No sooner had I started packing my books than I discovered I still had my old college textbooks, boxes (plural!) of board games I played as a kid, some golf equipment, an unused clarinet and book on how to play it, and even a whole collection of audiobooks on cassette tape!

Who here actually remembers these guys?

It was a huge job going through all of that and sorting out what I was going to keep and what I was going to put out for yard sale. Then it got worse. All of that digging through things I forgot I owned unleashed hordes of dust monsters across my room. I exaggerate, of course, but I ended up having to go through more than a dozen dusting cloths and vacuuming some hard-to-reach areas multiple times.

Eventually, I managed to get it all packed, loaded onto a U-Haul, and unloaded at my new place. That’s when the real job began: unpacking everything I had just packed!

I now had to find places for everything, and that proved to be an even tougher challenge. Even after downsizing as much as I could manage beforehand, I still was cramming things in odd spaces because I didn’t have room for them where I intended to put them.

For example, I got a new bookshelf from Wayfair for my books, but when I finished assembling it, I quickly discovered that my many larger-sized books simply wouldn’t fit on it, so I had to get creative about finding places for the big books. That’s why all of my cookbooks are on a shelf in my kitchen.

The aforementioned kitchen. And yes, I am using this blog post as an excuse to show off my new place.

Speaking of Wayfair…

I officially love Wayfair now

I didn’t just get my bookshelf from Wayfair, I got my desk and chair from them as well.

Yep. Still showing off my place.

In both cases, I picked Wayfair because of their low, low prices compared to brick-and-mortar furniture stores. I mean, have you seen how expensive furniture is? Wayfair’s prices were usually about half of what I was seeing at the furniture stores on sale. The things I ordered arrived in giant, heavy boxes wrapped in bubble wrap and stuffed with Styrofoam. They arrived in pieces and had to be assembled.

This is where those savings come in… the extra you pay at the furniture store goes toward your custom-built pieces being brought in on a moving truck as fully assembled furnishings. That’s why I decided to spend the extra to buy my sofa and dining room table at the furniture store. But a desk, chair, and bookshelf? Yeah, I figured, I could assemble those. The desk and chair came together quite nicely. The bookshelf, on the other hand, was missing an important piece. I went digging through all the boxes and all the Styrofoam, and still saw no sign of the missing piece. I had to put a stop to what I was doing and call Wayfair.

Customer service, in my experience, isn’t about what you do when things go right, it’s about what you do when they go wrong. I have to say, I was super impressed with how Wayfair handled my issue. They immediately shipped me the missing piece, and it arrived before the week had ended. I was thrilled to finally be able to assemble my bookshelf!

Contrast that with the furniture store. All I wanted was an estimate on when the sofa and dining room table would arrive. I ordered them in mid-March, and I waited until early April to ask. I called three times, and each time, I was promised that I would get a call back later that day or the next day. Each time, I never heard back. At last, I had to actually walk in the store again to get my answer. They still haven’t arrived, by the way. So, no, I think in the future I’ll be doing much more business with Wayfair.

You will always forget something

I had several people help me move, for which I an truly grateful. It would have been a much bigger, more difficult job without their help. One of the nice things my mother and aunt each did for me was help to make sure I was well-stocked with food and basic necessities (scissors, pens, paper, silverware, pots and pans, etc.) before I moved in. Add to that the various items I knew I would need and bought for myself, I was confident that I had everything I needed.

I was wrong.

It’s amazing the little things you take for granted until the moment you need them. About four days after my move, I noticed my fingernails were getting a bit long, and thought, “Well, I’ll just clip them when I get home.” Then I remembered… I have no nail clippers! So, I had to make a trip to the store. A few days later, I was getting ready to hang my TV wall mount and pictures up, then I realized I had no stud finder. Another trip to the store. While preparing to cook dinner one night, I discovered I was missing a particular size of pot that the recipe called for. And so on and so on.

Bringing a cat with is tricky… and heart-wrenching

Of course I was going to be bringing Winkin with me to the new home! I’m CAT Flag, after all!

Actually getting her here, though, was a challenge. Not in terms of putting her in a pet carrier and driving her over, that was easy. No, it was the fact that she meowed and howled the whole way. It was completely heartbreaking to listen to her panic like that. I felt like a terrible person! Here I was, taking her from the only home she had ever known and bringing her to a completely new and strange environment.

Luckily, my mother is something of an expert on cats, and I also was able to find helpful online guides on how to move cats. Some key pointers:

  • Have a designated “cat room” pre-prepared. This will be the room with the litter box, scratching post, food and water dishes, and other familiar cat things. Keep the cat in there at first, especially while you are going in and out with boxes and furnishings. The less commotion the cat has to deal with (and the less likelihood it will try to escape and run away), the better.
  • Keep as much of the cat’s daily routine the same as possible. Keep feeding it and giving it fresh water at the same time each day, change its litter at the same time each day, bring as many of the cat’s old objects as possible and don’t get new ones unless you must.
  • Spend time playing and interacting with the cat to keep it calm.
  • Let the cat out of the cat room gradually once the initial unpacking is done. Let it out a little at a time, letting the cat explore its new environment at its own pace. Encourage exploration, but don’t push things too fast. If your intent is to have the cat be outdoors, keep it indoors for a few weeks first to minimize the risk it will run away.

Even so, she spent the better part of a week acting like she was traumatized. She didn’t eat or drink for two days, and then she would only do so at night. She spent all day hiding under the bed or under the bathroom sink. I brought her a cat toy and went to play with her, and she even acted scared of that! I was very worried.

However, after about a week or so, she was feeling much more comfortable and I’m glad to say that today she’s back to her old, happy self! She’s eating and drinking like normal, she plays all the time (when she’s not napping), and she’s even taking a liking to sleeping on my bed. Or the middle of the floor.

I’ve now had a couple of weeks to settle into my new home, and I am really enjoying it. I think this move will prove to be a very positive step forward. It’s been a bit of an adjustment, but I’m already starting to feel like this new place is home. Once again, to those who helped with this big project, thank you. I really appreciate it.

Next time, back to odd historical facts!

Remembering Jellybean

My oldest cat died yesterday. His name was Jellybean, and he has been a part of my life for a decade. He’s the big black cat you see in the banner at the top of this blog. It was such a strange sensation this morning to wake up without hearing him howl for his food. Feeding him and playing with him was such a part of my morning routine that it will be a big adjustment not to have him here. It will be a big adjustment not to have him lying on my legs as I sleep at night.

He always liked using me as a pillow.

He was a five-year-old rescue cat when we got him. It was at one of those events where people set up in front of a store and bring a bunch of animals for customers to look at and adopt on their way in or out. Everyone else was fawning over the cute kittens, but my mom saw a lonely, giant, back cat sitting in the corner and felt for him. She was told he had been hit by a car, and a veterinarian managed to stitch him back together. He had spent a year recovering at a cage-free, no-kill animal rescue facility in our area called H.A.R.T., and it was H.A.R.T. that put him up for adoption as part of their mission to ensure all of their animals find loving homes.

Jellybean certainly had a loving home with us. As soon as we let him out of the pet carrier into our house, he started making himself at home. Jellybean definitely had an alpha male personality, not taking very well to being scolded for tatting on the sofa and refusing to let any other cats into his little kitty domain. When I went to play with him, he would catch the toy and then sit on it, immediately stopping the play session so everyone would know it was HIS toy, dang it!

Nothing annoyed him more than when I put the toy on top of him!

He was a fussy eater, too. If he could see the bottom of his food dish, he would start to go into a panic, like he thought we would never feed him again.

He was definitely a lap cat, though. He enjoyed jumping up in our laps and cuddling with us as we watched TV. Once he was comfortable, he would even bury his face in our bellies. I tell you, nothing tickles like a cat’s face rubbing your stomach. Another thing he loved was when my mother gently massaged his front paws. That would get him purring really loudly. So would lying on a batch of nice, clean, fresh-from-the-dryer clothes.

Things got a bit more complicated in 2012 when a feral calico cat had a litter of three kittens in our backyard. We started feeding these cats and giving them attention, and one of the kittens, Winkin, decided she really, really liked me.

This is Winkin. You probably recognize her, too, from this blog.

Winkin may have been born feral, but unlike her two sisters and her mother, she has basically become a domestic cat and my pet. This caused Jellybean to be jealous of the attention I was giving her, so I had to learn to balance my time and attention between the two cats so they would get along. Eventually, they did start getting along, so long as we kept Jellybean inside and Winkin outside. Whenever we had the front door open, Jellybean would sit by the screen door and hang out with Winkin, who would sometimes rub against the screen to greet him.

Jellybean was there all through my college years, lying on my bed as I worked on homework and greeting me when I got home from my first job. When my younger brother got home from work or school, he would greet him and then jump on my brother’s bed, and the two would hang out for hours as my brother did his homework or played video games. In the morning, he would wait at the door of every person in the house, in order, as we got up one at a time. If I had the door open already (which was most of the time), he would leap up onto my bed and sniff my face for a few seconds, then jump down. If I kept laying there and didn’t get out of bed right away, he would repeat the procedure.

I loved Jellybean very much. I loved feeding him, playing with him, petting him, and just hanging out with him. I loved his odd idiosyncrasies and his “I’m the boss” demeanor. I loved how easygoing he was with strangers, and how smart he would be when we set up puzzles for him, such as putting his toys under a box or behind a door for him to find. I feel blessed that he was a part of our lives for ten years, and I am glad we were able to make him happy and comfortable in that time. He will be missed.

Rest in peace, Jellybean.

Weird Facts About Presidential Inaugurations

Inauguration image from the Department of Defense

Two days ago, I watched the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Watching the ceremony brought back memories of 2009, when I watched Barack Obama’s inauguration, and I started to think about how wonderful it is that we live in a country where the transition of power from one person and one political party to another is so peaceful and smooth. After all, that very same day, the president of the Gambia had to be convinced by an invading army to step down and let his elected successor take office.

Later, I watched a special on American Heroes Channel about how the White House Staff have only five hours on Inauguration Day to move the new First Family in and redecorate the White House to the new president’s liking. I had always assumed that it would be a multi-day process, and had no idea it had to be done so quickly! It turns out that the inauguration day parade and ceremonies have a very practical purpose – they give the staff the time they need to fix up the White House.

All of this made me wonder what other interesting facts and trivia there is floating around out there about U.S. presidential inaugurations, and so I decided to look and see what I could find.

Where the ceremony takes place has changed several times

Washington's Inauguration painting by Ramon de Elorriaga

When George Washington was sworn in in 1789, Washington, D.C. didn’t exist yet, and New York City was serving as the temporary capital. Consequently, his first inauguration was held at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan. New York didn’t stay the capital for long; just one year later the federal government moved to Philadelphia. Both George Washington’s second inauguration and John Adams’s only inauguration were held inside Congress Hall, the building Congress was using during its stay in the city.

Of course, once Washington, D.C. had been built and the federal government moved in, the tradition began that the president’s inauguration should be held at the U.S. Capitol Building, where Congress actually meets. However, there have been exceptions.

  • In 1814, British troops burned Washington, D.C. After the war ended, the White House and U.S. Capitol had to be rebuilt, so Congress temporarily met in a less-badly-damaged brick building on the site where the Supreme Court sits today. It was in front of this “Old Brick Capitol” that James Monroe’s inauguration in 1817 was held.
  • John Tyler was sworn in at the Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel in Washington, D.C.
  • When Abraham Lincoln died, the Chief Justice and Cabinet found his vice-president, Andrew Johnson, in his room at the Kirkwood House a few blocks away and held a quick inaugural ceremony there.
  • Similarly, Chester Alan Arthur was at his home in New York when he received a telegram telling him that James Abram Garfield had died, and went out to find a local judge who could swear him in. After taking the oath, Arthur set out for Washington, D.C., where he could have a more traditional inauguration ceremony at the Capitol.
  • Theodore Roosevelt rushed to Buffalo, New York when he heard that William McKinley had been shot, only to be informed on the way there that McKinley had died. His inauguration was thus held in Buffalo.
  • Calvin Coolidge was at his home in Vermont when he heard of Warren G. Harding’s death, and had his father – a notary public – swear him in as President in front of a crowd of reporters that had gathered at his house.
  • Harry S Truman’s first inauguration took place in the White House, as did Gerald Ford’s inauguration.
  • Perhaps the most famous not-at-the-Capitol inauguration was that of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was hurriedly sworn in aboard Air Force One in the chaotic confusion after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Even ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol have moved around. In the early years, most ceremonies were held in either the Senate or House chambers inside the building, but later, it became traditional to hold the ceremony in front of the Capitol’s east side. Then, in 1981, Ronald Reagan insisted that the ceremony should be held on the west side, symbolically facing the majority of the land and people of the United States. Every presidential inauguration since then has been held on the west side of the Capitol.

Not all presidents were sworn in on a Bible

Lincoln Bible image by Michaela McNichol

In fact, when you go down the list of what each president had his hand on when he took the oath, you find that John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce were sworn in on a law book, and that Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in on John F. Kennedy’s Catholic Missal, the only religious book they could find on Air Force One. Not only that, but we just plain don’t know what 14 presidents used during their swearing-in ceremonies, as nobody thought to keep a record of that. The idea that every president must be sworn in on a Bible that has some important symbolic meaning – be it George Washington’s Bible, Abraham Lincoln’s Bible (pictured above), or a Bible that carries some deep personal meaning to the new president – is very new.

Also, while some presidents who use the Bible for their swearing-in will have the book closed and their hand on the cover, some presidents prefer to have the Bible open and their hand on a particular Bible verse. Still others will stack Bibles: Barack Obama’s second inauguration used the Lincoln Bible on top of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Bible, while Donald Trump used the Lincoln Bible on top of a Bible from his childhood. When George H.W. Bush was sworn in, he combined the two: his family Bible was opened and set on top of George Washington’s Bible, which was also open.

Mishaps and Misfires

There have now been 58 inauguration ceremonies, and this has meant that there have been 58 chances for something to go wrong with the inauguration. Let’s talk about some of those times that something did.

  • Andrew Jackson wanted to show himself to be a “man of the people”, so he decided that for his inauguration, the White House would be open to the public. That turned out to be a bad idea, as tens of thousands of citizens showed up and trashed the place.
  • James Buchanan had contracted food poisoning just before his inauguration, and spent his big day struggling with a bad case of diarrhea.
  • During Ulysses S. Grant’s second inauguration, the place where the inaugural ball was to be held was freezing cold and there was no time to heat the building up. People had to dance in coats and scarves, the food and drinks provided were frozen solid, and a flock of canaries brought in to please the guests all froze to death.
  • The podium at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration caught fire because the space heater beneath it had a short.
  • William Henry Harrison’s inauguration killed him. At 68 years old when he took office in 1841, he delivered the longest inaugural speech in U.S. history, all while standing on the East Portico of the Capitol in cold and mucky weather without a coat, hat, or gloves. Not long after his inauguration, he got a cold that developed into pneumonia. He died after being president for only a month, making his presidency the shortest in U.S. history.

Some More Inauguration Trivia

Lastly, let’s finish off with some quick trivia tidbits about the various inauguration ceremonies of U.S. history:

  • Thomas Jefferson was the first president to hold an inaugural parade.
  • James Madison was the first president to hold an inaugural ball. Madison was also the first president to be inaugurated during wartime.
  • John Quincy Adams was the first president to wear trousers, not breeches, to his inauguration.
  • James Buchanan’s inauguration was the first to be photographed.
  • William McKinley’s inauguration was the first to be recorded by a motion picture camera.
  • Warren G. Harding was the first president to ride in a car to his inauguration.
  • Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration was the first to be broadcast over the radio.
  • Harry S Truman’s inauguration was the first to be televised.
  • John F. Kennedy was the first president whose ceremony included an inaugural poet, with Robert Frost doing the honors. Kennedy was also the last president to wear a hat at his inauguration.
  • Jimmy Carter was the first president to make sure his inauguration was handicapped-accessible.
  • Bill Clinton’s inauguration was the first to be streamed on the Internet.


Why is January 1st the First Day of the Year?

Happy Ne Year 2017 by Covi

Happy New Year, Cat Flaggers! 2016 is over, and 2017 has arrived! But… why? Why is January 1st the first day of the year? After all, the end of one year and start of another is a bit of an arbitrary distinction.

The calendar we Americans use, and most of the rest of the world also uses, is known as the Gregorian calendar. It was designed by two men, Aloysius Lilius and Christopher Clavius, and proclaimed by Pope Gregory XIII in October 1582. The new calendar was immediately made the official calendar of the Roman Catholic Church and heavily-Catholic countries like Spain, Italy, and Poland. However, it was only gradually adopted by non-Catholic countries. Britain and her then-colonies in America didn’t switch to it until 1752, when George Washington was 20 years old. Russia didn’t start using it until 1918, Greece didn’t adopt it until 1923, and it wasn’t until 1926 that Turkey began to use it! Even today, three countries – Ethiopia, Iran and Afghanistan – have refused to use it.

It was the Gregorian calendar that standardized January 1st as the start of the new year. But again, the question is why. Well, the Gregorian calendar was based on the earlier Julian calendar, which was designed by none other than Julius Caesar and had been used in Europe since he proclaimed it throughout the Roman Empire in 45 BC. His calendar, in turn, was based on the ancient Roman calendar that Romans had been using for centuries before Caesar came along.

According to Roman traditional legends, the original calendar adopted at the foundation of Rome had 10 months – March, April, May, June, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December. It was 304 days long, but had an odd feature – almost the entire season of winter wasn’t counted. The year would end and 51 additional days would pass before the next one would begin. Roman historians claimed that Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, added two months to account for those winter days: January (in honor of the Roman god Janus) and February (which would be honored by the Roman purification festival, Februa). It made sense for January 1st to be the start of the new year, since it celebrated the god of beginnings and transitions.

This revised Roman calendar was now 355 days long, but this meant seasonal festivals tied to solstices and equinoxes would quickly fall out of alignment, leading to such confusing situations as spring festivals being celebrated when it was still winter. So, Romans would periodically add an additional “bonus” month named Mercedonius of varying length to get everything back into alignment. Years that featured Mercedonius would be 377 or 378 days long. Rome’s leaders were supposed to study the stars and the seasons to decide when to add this bonus month, but instead they often added it in years where it wasn’t needed to extend their terms of office and those of their cronies. Julius Caesar’s new calendar ditched Mercedonius entirely, instead decreeing that every fourth year would be a “leap year” that gave an extra day to February, the shortest month. Later Roman emperors would also change the names of two of the months, Quintilis becoming July and Sextilis becoming August.

Obviously, this calendar survived the fall of the Roman Empire, in large part because Christians used it to calculate the dates of their most important holidays, such as Easter and Christmas. However, Christians were not so thrilled to honor a pagan god they didn’t worship by starting the year on the first day of his month. While the Roman Catholic Church continued to officially count January 1st as New Year’s Day, various countries started using other dates to start their years, such as Christmas or Easter. The French and English counted March 25, the date of the Annunciation, as New Year’s Day. In France, the New Year celebration lasted a whole week and ended on April 1st.

This brings me back to Pope Gregory XIII and his decision to change the calendar. It turned out Julius Caesar’s calendar reform wasn’t perfect. The orbit of the Earth around the sun is actually 365.25636 days, so having a leap year every four years, over the course of many centuries, caused the Julian calendar to go ever so slightly out of alignment with the seasons. The Gregorian calendar fixed this by having October 4, 1582, followed immediately by October 15, 1582, and then changing the leap year formula a bit. Years that are divisible by 100 (1700, 1800, 1900, etc.) would NOT be leap years, UNLESS they were ALSO divisible by 400 (1600, 2000, etc.). This simple(ish) change makes our calendar so accurate, it has an error of 1 day per 7,700 years.

Nothing in any of this required the new year to start on any particular day, but since the Catholic Church had always officially used January 1st, Pope Gregory XIII held that New Year’s Day on his calendar would continue to fall on that date. As country after country adopted his calendar, they also adopted his New Year’s Day. In so doing, they were essentially returning to an earlier tradition.

Interestingly, some have speculated that April Fool’s Day exists because of this change. The story goes that after France adopted the Gregorian calendar, Frenchmen who honored New Year’s Day on January 1st would play pranks on those who continued to celebrate it from March 25 to April 1st instead of getting with the times.

So, why do we celebrate New Year’s Day on January 1st? Because the ancient Romans and the Catholic Church did. History can be funny like that.