March is the third month of the year in the Gregorian calendar. But who decided to call this month March? As with much of the early history of the calendar, the origins are shrouded in some mystery. However, historians have pieced together some clues as to how March got its name.
The early Roman calendar
The calendar we use today is based on the Roman calendar, which originally had just 10 months. Legend has it that the first Roman calendar was created by Romulus, the founder and first king of Rome, around 753 BC. This calendar had 304 days divided into 10 months as follows:
There were 60 days in winter after December which did not belong to any month. This calendar supposedly started in March, which was the first month of the year.
Adding January and February
Around 700 BC, the second king of Rome Numa Pompilius decided to expand the calendar by adding two more months – January and February. This made the Roman calendar match the solar year, with 12 months and 365 days. January was added to the beginning of the year, while February was added to the end. February was given 28 days, with an extra day added every fourth year (leap years).
The order of the months after these additions became:
So March retained its position as the third month of the year when January and February were added to the start of the calendar.
The Julian calendar
Over the next several centuries, the Roman calendar became out of sync with the solar year. To address this, in 46 BC Julius Caesar commissioned the development of a new calendar, the Julian calendar. This established the familiar pattern of a leap year every four years we still use today. In the Julian calendar, March remained in its position as the third month.
March named after Mars
In the original Roman calendar created by Romulus, March was the first month and took its name from the god Mars. This is because March marked the start of the season for warfare and agriculture. Mars was the Roman god of war, and the month was named Martius after him. It was only later when January and February were added that March shifted to being the third month, but it kept its name.
Some key facts about the Roman god Mars:
- Mars was second in importance only to the chief god Jupiter in Roman religion.
- He was the Roman version of the Greek god Ares, but Mars was also a distinctly Roman god with his own myths and legends.
- He represented military power, as well as agriculture and fertility.
- The Campus Martius area of ancient Rome was dedicated to Mars and served for military training, parades, and festivals.
- The Campus Martius was located outside the city walls and the area later became part of Imperial Rome.
- Important Roman festivals held in March included the Feriae Marti (Festival of Mars held on March 1), Equirria, and Quinquatria.
- The month March was sacred to Mars and the beginning of the season for war campaigns, so it was fittingly named after him.
So in summary, March was named after the Roman god Mars. It seems March has always been associated with the idea of war, right from the early Roman calendar.
How March got its name in other cultures
The naming of March after Mars is how it gained its name in the Roman calendar. But what about in other cultures and calendars?
In the Old English calendar
Before adopting the Roman calendar, Anglo-Saxons used a calendar with different month names. The Anglo-Saxon month equivalent to March was called Hlyda, meaning “loud” – likely referring to the loud winds of March. They also sometimes called it Hraedmonath meaning “rugged month” or Hlyd monath meaning “stormy month”.
In the Old Frisian calendar
The Old Frisian name for March was Merte, meaning “marsh”. This likely described the rainy and wet weather in the Netherlands during March which turned fields to marsh.
In other languages
Today, languages influenced by Latin retain the root “mart” in the name for March coming from Mars. For example:
- Italian: Marzo
- Spanish: Marzo
- Portuguese: Março
- French: Mars
- Romanian: Martie
However, other languages have different origins for the name March:
- In Middle English and Old Dutch, March was named for its position as the third month of the year.
- In Irish, March is Márta, possibly named after the goddess Mórrígan.
- In Slavic languages like Polish, Czech, and Belarussian, the name for March relates to “to flow” referring to the melting snow of spring in Eastern Europe.
March through history and culture
While named after Mars by the Romans, March has represented different things across history and in various cultures:
In the Roman Empire
- March was an important month for military campaigns and agriculture.
- Many Roman religious festivals and rituals were held in March, especially relating to purification, fertility, and the New Year.
- March 1 marked the beginning of the year until 153 BC when January 1 became the start.
- March 25 was celebrated as Lady Day and the beginning of the year in England until adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752.
- March holds several important feast days in the Christian liturgical calendar including Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17) and the Annunciation (March 25).
- Lent begins in March, as does the date for Easter which varies from year to year.
- March 25 celebrates the symbolic conception of Jesus that eventually led to his birth on Christmas.
In the modern world
- March signifies the coming of spring in the Northern Hemisphere after the cold winter months.
- March starts to see warmer weather and the rebirth of plants and nature in many countries.
- March is Women’s History Month in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
- Saint Patrick’s Day puts Irish culture on display worldwide on March 17.
- March Madness takes hold in the basketball obsessed United States.
- The March equinox occurs around March 20-21, marking the astronomical start of spring.
In literature and film
- The military origins of March are seen in the English proverb “March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb” describing the capricious weather.
- March’s stormy reputation appears in the play Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare when Caesar is warned to “beware the Ides of March” – March 15, the date he was assassinated.
- The March Hare features in Lewis Carroll’s famous children’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865.
- T.S. Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land opens with a reference to “cruel” April breeding lilacs from the dead land, implying the bleakness of March just before.
So in conclusion, while March is strongly associated with its mythological namesake the Roman god Mars, the month has represented different themes and events across history in various cultures. But the martial origins of March from ancient Roman times seems fitting for a month infamous for its blustery weather and the madness of March Madness. Whether you’re celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day or observing the Christian season of Lent, you now know March’s long history originating from the days when it stood as the first month dedicated to Mars in the early Roman calendar.