Motivation for Caesar's reform
The ordinary year in the previous Roman calendar consisted of 12 months, for a total of 355 days. In addition, a 27- or 28-day intercalary month, the Mensis Intercalaris, was sometimes inserted between February and March. This intercalary month was formed by inserting 22 or 23 days after the first 23 days of February; the last five days of February, which counted down toward the start of March, became the last five days of Intercalaris. The net effect was to add 22 or 23 days to the year, forming an intercalary year of 377 or 378 days. Some say the mensis intercalaris always had 27 days and began on either the first or the second day after the Terminalia (23 February).
According to the later writers Censorinus and Macrobius, the ideal intercalary cycle consisted of ordinary years of 355 days alternating with intercalary years, alternately 377 and 378 days long. In this system, the average Roman year would have had 366 1⁄4 days over four years, giving it an average drift of one day per year relative to any solstice or equinox. Macrobius describes a further refinement whereby, in one 8-year period within a 24-year cycle, there were only three intercalary years, each of 377 days (thus 11 intercalary years out of 24). This refinement averages the length of the year to 365.25 days over 24 years.
In practice, intercalations did not occur systematically according to any of these ideal systems, but were determined by the pontifices. So far as can be determined from the historical evidence, they were much less regular than these ideal schemes suggest. They usually occurred every second or third year, but were sometimes omitted for much longer, and occasionally occurred in two consecutive years.
If managed correctly this system could have allowed the Roman year to stay roughly aligned to a tropical year. However, since the pontifices were often politicians, and because a Roman magistrate's term of office corresponded with a calendar year, this power was prone to abuse: a pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his political allies was in office, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents were in power.
If too many intercalations were omitted, as happened after the Second Punic War and during the Civil Wars, the calendar would drift out of alignment with the tropical year. Moreover, because intercalations were often determined quite late, the average Roman citizen often did not know the date, particularly if he were some distance from the city. For these reasons, the last years of the pre-Julian calendar were later known as "years of confusion". The problems became particularly acute during the years of Julius Caesar's pontificate before the reform, 63–46 BC, when there were only five intercalary months (instead of eight), none of which were during the five Roman years before 46 BC.
Caesar's reform was intended to solve this problem permanently, by creating a calendar that remained aligned to the sun without any human intervention. This proved useful very soon after the new calendar came into effect. Varro used it in 37 BC to fix calendar dates for the start of the four seasons, which would have been impossible only 8 years earlier. A century later, when Pliny dated the winter solstice to 25 December because the sun entered the 8th degree of Capricorn on that date, this stability had become an ordinary fact of life.