The Ancient Babylonians began celebrating the New Year over 4,000 years ago.
For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox – the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness – heralded the start of a new year. The Babylonians marked the occasion with a religious festival called Akitu (derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was harvested in the spring) which involved a different ritual on each of its 11 days.
In addition to this new beginning, Atiku celebrated the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god Marduk over the evil sea goddess Tiamat. And it was during this time that the current ruler’s divine mandate was symbolically renewed or a new king crowned.
Several centuries later, the early Roman calendar consisted of 10 months, with each new year beginning at the vernal equinox. According to tradition, it was created by Romulus, the founder of Rome, around 753 BCE.
Gradually, the calendar fell out of sync with the sun, and Julius Caesar decided to consult the most prominent astronomers and mathematicians of his time to find a solution. The Roman author Pliny the Elder says that Caesar was aided by the Greek astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria, who is generally credited with coming up with the reform.
Known as the Julian calendar, it took effect in 45 BCE, shortly after the Roman conquest of Egypt (where, of course, Julius Caesar had another kind of date with Cleopatra).
January 1 became the first day of the year, partly in honour of the month’s namesake, Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, whose two faces allow him to look back into the past and forward into the future.
The following year, the Ides of March saw the assassination of Caesar, as dramatized by Shakespeare. Neither the seer whose words Caesar famously ignored nor Janus were able to prevent it. Maybe they got the day wrong.