How Did the Month of March Get Its Name?

March to Military Might in March

Mars wings up to Mount Olympus with his son, Romulus, in this painting by Jean-Baptiste Nattier. Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The month of March may be the third of the year, but that doesn't mean it took a step back when it came to having a kick-ass classical name! There's much more to this martial moniker than such a simple derivation. 

For the Romans themselves, the war lord Mars, later associated with his Greek counterpart, Ares, was one of the most ancient and revered gods. In his Fasti, Ovid recalled how Mars hung out with his twin sons Romulus and Remus at the city's founding; he was there when "Rome was little, if you wish to trace its first beginnings." As the father of Romulus, father of the city, Mars was essentially Rome's founding grandpa.

Mars added, "I was the origin of the race." Humblebrag! 

One of the oldest surviving inscriptions from ancient Rome and its surroundings is a dedication to the god Mars, for whom March (or Martius in Latin) was named. Dating to about 500 B.C.E., the inscription was devoted to "Mamartei," an old Latin version of "Mars"; it seems to have been dedicated by the private militia or gang of a guy named Publius Valerius.

And what better place to start the year than with the father of the Roman people and a month put there by his son? In fact, until 153 B.C.E., March - the only month the Romans chose to name after one of their gods - kicked off the year, according to some sources. Then January and February were bumped up to the first two slots in the year; in fact, at that time, the Roman calendar only consisted of ten months. But according to Suetonius's Life of Julius Caesar, the dictator added in two more months, rounding it out to the twelve-month year we know and love now; as a result, harvest holidays now took place in the appropriate months.

The month of March contained quite a few festivals celebrating Mars and purifying and preparing the army for war. One informal celebration was the start of marching season - campaign time! - at the beginning of March. More formal parties included the ​feriae Marti, the former New Year's Day, which took place on March 1; that day, the ceremonial fire of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, was renewed, symbolizing the revivification of the city itself.

On March 14, the Romans celebrated the second of two festivals called the Equirria, a series of horse races supposedly instituted by Romulus in Mars's honor. Where were they held? The Campus Martius, a.k.a. the Field of Mars, a site of great military significance.

At the end of campaign season in October, similar rituals were held to purify the army once again.