Countdown to the Beginning of Time-Keeping

Robert Garland investigates the ancient origins of the calendar and time-keeping systems of the Western world.

Fasti Antiates Maiores—Painting of the Roman calendar about 60 BC, before the Julian reform. Observe (enlarged) that it contains the months Quintilis ("QVI") and Sextilis ("SEX"), and displays the intercalary month ("INTER") as the far righthand column.

Our present system of time-keeping provides us with a year of fixed and unalterable length which requires only the intercalation of a single (leap) day every four years. We seem to hold the passage of time so securely within the palms of our hands that we can almost hear its quiet heartbeat. Our present calendar has become so accurate that it will take 44,000 years before it falls out of step with the sun by so much as a single day.

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

If you are logged in and still cannot read the article, please email

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week