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The Julian calendar

Today’s Julian date:

What is the Julian calendar?

The Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. It was in common use until the late 1500s, when countries started changing to the Gregorian calendar. However, some countries (for example, Greece and Russia) used it into the early 1900s, and the Orthodox church in Russia still uses it, as do some other Orthodox churches.

In the Julian calendar, the tropical year is approximated as 365¼ days = 365.25 days. This gives an error of 1 day in approximately 128 years.

The approximation 365¼ is achieved by having 1 leap year every 4 years.

What years are leap years?

The Julian calendar has 1 leap year every 4 years:

Every year divisible by 4 is a leap year.

However, the 4-year rule was not followed in the first years after the introduction of the Julian calendar in 45 BC. Due to a counting error, every 3rd year was a leap year in the first years of this calendar’s existence. The leap years were:

45 BC, 42 BC, 39 BC, 36 BC, 33 BC, 30 BC, 27 BC, 24 BC, 21 BC, 18 BC, 15 BC, 12 BC, 9 BC, AD 8, AD 12, and every 4th year from then on.

Authorities disagree about whether 45 BC was a leap year or not.

There were no leap years between 9 BC and AD 8 (or, according to some authorities, between 12 BC and AD 4). This period without leap years was decreed by emperor Augustus in order to make up for the surplus of leap years introduced previously, and it earned him a place in the calendar as the 8th month was named after him.

It is a curious fact that although the method of reckoning years after the (official) birthyear of Christ was not introduced until the 6th century, by some stroke of luck the Julian leap years coincide with years of our Lord that are divisible by 4.

What consequences did the use of the Julian calendar have?

The Julian calendar introduces an error of 1 day every 128 years. So every 128 years the tropical year shifts one day backwards with respect to the calendar. Furthermore, the method for calculating the dates for Easter was inaccurate and needed to be refined.

In order to remedy this, two steps were necessary: 1) The Julian calendar had to be replaced by something more adequate. 2) The extra days that the Julian calendar had inserted had to be dropped.

The solution to problem 1) was the Gregorian calendar.

The solution to problem 2) depended on the fact that it was felt that 21 March was the proper day for vernal equinox (because 21 March was the date for vernal equinox during the Council of Nicaea in AD 325). The Gregorian calendar was therefore calibrated to make that day vernal equinox.

By 1582 vernal equinox had moved (1582-325)/128 days = approximately 10 days backwards. So 10 days had to be dropped.