February's 28 Days Explained

Feb. 26, 2014

Why does February have only 28 days? Blame the Romans. Well, we can blame them for at least part of the reason.

February got shortchanged – in comparison with its 30- and 31-day counterparts – thanks to Rome's agricultural season. And it stayed that way to, well, keep time running like clockwork.

The original Roman lunar calendar spanned 10 months. January and February were later tacked on at the end, says Cynthia White, a University of Arizona classics professor and director of the Basic Latin Program.

"In winter, the agricultural cycle was dormant and so not counted," White said, adding that research indicates that Numa Pompilius, who served as the second king of Rome around 700 BC, made the additions. The calendar would go through a number of additional adjustments, especially under Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory XIII.

To shed more light on February's 28 days, White joined John Bauschatz, UA associate professor of classics, in answering a few questions about time keeping and the history of February.

"Though February may be small, it's also a very important month," said Bauschatz, who admits his birthday is in February, but won't reveal the day. February is also when we recognize American Heart Month, American History Month and Black History Month. "It also contains the occasional leap day, one of the quirkiest holdovers from the Julian calendar reforms. And best of all, its shortness helps us all get through the winter more quickly."

Q: Let's begin with some contextual information. Why have humans had a strong desire to mark time?

Bauschatz: There are a lot of good, believable reasons for this. To me, it all has to do with the desire to leave behind an account of anything and everything. I'd point to a guy who is often touted as the "first historian," the Greek writer Herodotus, who lived in the 5th century BC and composed a long prose account of the series of wars fought between the Greeks and the Persian empire. The wars themselves took place over two decades, between 499 and 478 BC, but Herodotus wrote about them several decades later, probably towards the end of his life. Herodotus tells us in the famous opening of his histories that he intends to display in his work the fruits of his research so that the amazing accomplishments of the Greeks and Persians would not be forgotten by posterity. To me, this same desire is what makes humans so preoccupied with marking time.

White: "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman is a wonderful fictional meditation on time. A quote that gets at the essence of why humans desire to mark time is: "In this world, there are two times. There is mechanical time and there is body time. They do not keep clocks in their houses. Instead, they listen to their heartbeats. They feel the rhythms of their moods and desires. Then there are those who think their bodies don't exist. They live by mechanical time. They rise at 7 in the morning. They eat their lunch at noon and their supper at 6. They arrive at their appointments on time, precisely by the clock."

Q: What are some of the other reasons scholars propose for the shortage of days in February?

Bauschatz: I've seen a number of explanations for why February had the fewest number of days, but I don't think there's consensus about the issue. I would guess it had something to do with the fact that January and February were the last two months to be added to the Roman 12-month calendar, divided out of the days of winter, which was evidently considered a monthless period back in the 8th century BC. February ended up representing the end of winter and the end of the year, which meant, I would think, that it was really just composed of however many days were left over before the new year started. Hence the small number of days.

Q: What about the influence of Julius Caesar?

White: Suetonius tells us that on the last day of December in the year 46 BC, Julius Caesar added 10 days to the existing 12-month calendar: two days to January, August and December; one day to April, June, September and November. February remained at 28 days. Beginning on Jan. 1, 45 BC, a new solar calendar of 12 months over 365 and one-fourth days began. The seasonal harvest and vintage festivals now aligned to the seasons. Every four years, to stay aligned, a "leap" day was added to the month of February, where intercalary periods had typically been added in the lunar calendar. Cicero is said to have remarked wryly that after Jan. 1, the constellations would rise "by Caesar's decree." The Julian year of 365 days with one day added every fourth year resulted in an average length of 365 days 6 hours. Over time, dates fell behind because the year was 11 minutes and 12 seconds too long – about one day every 128 years. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII dropped the 10 days that had accrued since the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. The date of Oct. 4, 1582 was followed by Oct. 15, 1582, to correct the shift.  Although the calendar was adopted in Europe in 1582, it was not until 1752 that it was adopted in Britain and its North American colonies, which is when George Washington’s birthday moved from Feb. 11 to Feb. 22.

Q: Any chance that the number of days in February could change again?

White: This is unlikely to happen since the Gregorian reform prescribed that only centennial years divisible by 400 would be leap years, a system that saves three days every 400 years. If we do the math forward, it means we are aligned until 4000 CE.

Bauschatz: I think it's extremely unlikely that we'd ever have another calendar modification. The reason? Any such shift would have lots of serious consequences. There would definitely be unexpected consequences, many of them seismic. For example, how would computers react to the switch? We might actually find ourselves faced by the kind of data-elimination catastrophe that, thankfully, didn't occur in Y2K. Even the expected consequences – panic in the calendar industry, the need to eliminate traditional birthdays and create new ones, resistance to change from certain nations, creeds and individuals – would be messy. Even something slight, like the addition of a couple of days to poor, deficient February, could be a nightmare.

Q: Any final thoughts to share?

White: It is useful to remember A.E. Housman's famous translation of the Augustan poet Horace's poem, "Ode 4.7." 

The snows have fled away,

And grasses in the mead renew their birth,

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring

Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers

Comes autumn with his apples scattering;

Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

Contact Cynthia White at 520-626-8296 or ckwhite@email.arizona.edu, and John Bauschatz at 520-621-7422 or jbausch1@email.arizona.edu.