One of the oddities of the earliest Roman calendar, which according to legend was created by Romulus, is that it was a 300-day calendar, ten months of 30 days. It followed time roughly from March to December. This oddity is still enshrined in the fact that the last four months of our year have names that mean, more or less, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth even though they are the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth months. But the greater curiosity is that the time between December and March, what we now call January and February, was a murky, undefined time, an unlucky time spent waiting for March, when Romulus could again lead his people in war raids on neighboring tribes.
People who study our earliest ancestors, all those people we generally label ‘cavemen,’ note how likely it is that they spent the worst months of winter in virtual hibernation, huddling together with family bands in caves or other rough shelters, doing as little as possible so as to require little food. With the Romans in the time of Romulus we are not talking about the Rome of the Senate, the emperors, Tacitus and Cicero and all that. This was a primitive tribe of warriors just now carving out its territory on the Italian peninsula, not far removed from the earliest human practices. Viewed this way, perhaps it’s not so strange that they didn’t mark the months of deepest winter; the remarkable fact may be that they were learning to mark time during the rest of the year.
Last week we had a terrible winter storm–lots of snow, and the coldest temperatures around here in twenty-five years. People did not take it well. For instance, I am ‘the boss’ where I work, and as early as two days before the storm staff members were approaching me with fear in their eyes, breathlessly asking what we would do tomorrow and the next day and the next. We’ll go on, like we did last time it was this cold. Life will go on.
But even as I pleaded with employees, family members, and everyone else around me to be brave and take it like a man, I also wondered if we were meant to suffer through all this. Why can’t I just curl up in bed, read good books, drink coffee, get up once in a while to make a sandwich or get cookies, and wait until March?
It’s not like I need to make war on my neighbors–they seem like nice enough people. I don’t need more territory, and there is not much I am looking to conquer. I’m only a librarian. Can’t people read the books they have for a few months while I close the library until the sun is warmer and the rivers are running free again? Is it a mistake that we have set up for ourselves a life in which we must function at full capacity even when our foremost urge is to stay warm, nap and pack on enough calories to endure the months of winter? They say that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD, appropriately enough) is a mental condition, chronic weariness and depression through the dark months of winter. Maybe. Maybe it’s the right attitude, and the true insanity is forcing ourselves to continue working and striving through it all.
The Roman calendar was eventually revised to include all the months, and the Romans went on to be one of the greatest civilizations in history. Could they have done so if they had continued to relax and keep to themselves through January and February? History books talk a lot about the legacy of Rome. They don’t dwell so much on the curse of Rome. Is this the price we pay for inheriting the mantle of lords of the universe? Thanks a lot. I’m really tired.