When we refer to the eighth month as ‘August’, we are celebrating the defeat and death of whom?
August is the eighth month of the year in the Julian and Gregorian calendars, and the fifth of seven months to have a length of 31 days. It was originally named Sextilis in Latin because it was the sixth month in the original ten-month Roman calendar under Romulus in 753 BC, with March being the first month of the year.
About 700 BC, it became the eighth month when January and February were added to the year before March by King Numa Pompilius, who also gave it 29 days. Julius Caesar added two days when he created the Julian calendar in 46 BC (708 AUC), giving it its modern length of 31 days. In 8 BC, it was renamed in honor of Augustus.
Augustus Caesar founded his reign on the defeat of Cleopatra. When he had the chance to have a month named in his own honor, instead of choosing September – the month of his birth – he chose the eighth month, in which Cleopatra died, to create a yearly reminder of her defeat.
Augustus would have liked to lead Cleopatra as a captive through Rome, as other generals did with their prisoners, in the formal triumphs that celebrated their victories. But she killed herself to prevent that.
Cleopatra didn’t die for love. Like Mark Antony, who killed himself because there was no longer a place of honor for him in the world, Cleopatra chose to die rather than suffer the violence of being paraded, shamed and helpless, through Rome. Augustus had to make do with an image of her that was carried through the streets instead.