The Character Letters for the Roman Days

If we think of the types of days we have presently (workdays, weekends and holidays), the Romans had eight different kinds of days: two ordinary days (C & F), two festival days (NP & FP), two non-festival non-ordinary days (N & the N feriae), and two sorts of mixed days (EN & QRCF or QSDF). The ordinary days are known as dies fasti, that is, days that are right for doing certain things. Though the dies fasti were originally probably a religious designation, they became in time legal terms and were divided between dies fasti (F) and dies comitales (C).The former were days on which the praetor’s civil courts could pronounce whether a prospective case was legitimate and then initiate it. Once begun, the court could continue regardless of the succeeding type of day. For the dies comitales, the various comitia or popular assemblies could convene and business could be brought before them. If no assembly met on the day, the courts were then additionally allowed to inaugurate a sitting.

Distinct from the ordinary day is the dies nefasti (N), the not-fastus or ‘not-right’ day. Broadly speaking, these days include the festivals (the feriae stativae or fixed festivals) and the days of purification or other religious restriction. In essence, the nefasti day was not appropriate for the comitia or for the initiation of a civil court case. (Criminal court cases were not subject to this restriction). So among the kinds of nefasti days, we find the named feriae or festivals (NP), the named but in some sense non-feriae days – perhaps more like solemn days of observation rather than festive holidays (N), and the ‘ordinary’ unnamed nefasti days (N).

Just to add perhaps a further nuance, there are three feriae that receive the designation FP – at least in some of the surviving Roman calendars: the Ferialia (21 February) and the two Vinalia (23 April and 19 August) – all presumably Jovian festivals: the first to Jupiter in a funerary sense and the other two to Jupiter in his role as the lord of wine. We do not know, consequently, whether these three days are also nefastus or whether they are some kind of ‘super’ festival. Two calendars list the Ferialia as fasti and two as FP. One calendar lists the Vinalia Priora as FP, two as F and two as NP. The Vinalia Rustica of August are considered FP by three calendars, F by two and NP by one. Since no calendar has given the classification of N to these three feriae, I have approached them as not nefastus but as pure festivals, times of unbridled celebration.

Further feriae stativae are listed as nefasti: the Lemuria of May, the Vestalia of June and the Regifugium of February. There are in addition to these three another three that are designated ambivalently: the Quinquatrus of March is nefastus according to one calendar but NP in four others; the Cerialia in April – one calendar giving it as N and one as NP; and the Matralia of June – two times listed as N and once as NP.

It is also of interest to note that the Roman months always had three named days: the Calends (Kalendae), the Nones (Nonae) and the Ides (Eidus) regardless of what other festivals did or did not occur within them as well. Originally, the Ides was the day of the full moon, the Nones is the ninth day (counting inclusively) before the Ides, and the Calends was the day on which the first crescent of the moon could be seen and thus the first day of the month. It is from the word ‘calends’ that we derive our own word ‘calendar’. The Ides are always designated with the NP, and this same characterization applies to the March Calends as the New Year’s Day for the year as a whole.  Despite the Roman’s backwards designation of a day, that is, numbering it by how many days it fell before the next ensuing Calends, Nones or Ides, in our own sequential numbering of the days of each month, virtually all the Roman festivals (feriae stativae) fall on odd numbered days. The one full exception is the Equirria of March which fall on the 14th. In non-leap years, the Regifugium of February also occurs on an even numbered day, namely, the 24th. However, in leap years, the extra day was inserted immediately after the Terminalia on the 23rd (a practice maintained by the ecclesiastical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church), and the Regifugium would then be the 25th of February in our own reckoning. The February Equirria, to which the Regifugium is connected, shift then to the 28th. The original leap day between the Terminalia and the Regifugium was designated as a ‘second’ sixth day before the March Calends – the Regifugium being the first, and hence we derive our expression for the leap year as a ‘bisextile’ year.

Finally, there are the mixed days – part fasti (afternoon) and part nefasti (morning and evening) for the EN days (endotercisus or intercisus, that is, ‘cut into parts’; and nefasti until a ritual action occurs and then fastus or ordinary thereafter for those days marked as QRCF (quando rex comitiavit fas ‘right when the king or rex sacrorum enters the Comitium’) or QSDF (quando stercus delatum fas ‘right once the sweepings [from the temple of Vesta] are removed. The QRCF days are the 24th of both March and May. The QSDF is the 15th of June.

In summary, then, we have the following kinds of days recognized by the Romans:

F – fastus ‘right’ or ordinary, a secular day
C – comitiales ordinary or a kind of right day, a secular day
N – nefastus ‘not-right’, a restricted day (including at least three feriae stativae)
NP – a festive day, most of the feriae stativae or calendrically fixed days
FP – a festive day, three of the feriae stativae
EN – ‘cut days’ that are nefasti in the morning and evening but fasti in the afternoon
QRCF/QSDF – dies fissi, nefasti to start and fasti afterwards

All in all, commemorating this calendar that lies at the heart of the Gregorian calendar that most of the world employs today, I have found an intricate rhythm that has been superimposed upon but yet grounded in the natural seasons of the northern hemisphere. For me, with its understandings of the day’s fundamental colour and mystifying patterns and sequences of festivals, the Numa calendar has become a golden key or philosopher’s stone that continues to augment an organic spirituality as a source of renewal and discovery as well as a growing insight into nature, the human and the trans-human.