updated 1/2/2014 3:49:39 PM ET 2014-01-02T20:49:39

Planning to exercise more or eat fewer sweets in the New Year? If so, you're taking part in a tradition that stretches back thousands of years.

Ancient people practiced the fine art of New Year's resolutions, though their oaths were external, rather than internally focused. More than 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians celebrated the New Year not in January, but in March, when the spring harvest came in. The festival, called Akitu, lasted 12 days.

An important facet of Akitu was the crowning of a new king, or reaffirmation of loyalty to the old king, should he still sit on the throne. Special rituals also affirmed humanity's covenant with the gods; as far as Babylonians were concerned, their continued worship was what kept creation humming. [ Top 10 Creation Myths ]

Roman New Year

Centuries later, the ancient Romans had similar traditions to ring in their new year, which also originally began in March. In the early days of Rome, the city magistrates' terms were defined by this New Year's date. On March 1, the old magistrates would affirm before the Roman Senate that they had performed their duties in accordance with the laws. Then, the New Year's magistrates would be sworn into office.

After Rome became an empire in 27 B.C., New Year's Day became a time for city leaders and soldiers to swear an oath of loyalty to the Emperor. This was not always mere political theater: In A.D. 69, after Emperor Nero died, civil war broke out over Rome's next leader. The Roman legions in Germany refused to swear allegiance to the next candidate for Emperor, Servius Sulpicius Galba, said Richard Alston, a professor of Roman history at Royal Holloway University of London. Galba's bodyguards in Rome soon turned against him as well, and killed him in the Forum, Rome's civic plaza. [ In Photos: The Gladiators of Ancient Roman Empire ]

Like Babylon, Rome originally celebrated the New Year in March, Alston told LiveScience, but at some point around 300 B.C., the ceremony shifted to Jan. 1. Rome was a military society, he said, and as the empire expanded, the generals had to travel longer distances. Prime battle season was in the spring, which probably made a March 1 swear-in date too late.

"They wanted to have the generals in place for the campaigning season," Alston said.

As Romans gradually became less warlike, the switch from celebrating the New Year during a month (March) associated with Mars, the god of war to one (January), associated with Janus, a god of home and hearth, seemed appropriate, he added. The first half of New Year's Day in Rome would have been taken up by public ceremonies, oath-taking and temple sacrifices, he said, while the second half of the day was for social activities. Citizens would bring each other gifts of honey, pears and other sweets as presents for a "sweet new year," Alston said. 

Modern traditions

There is no direct line from ancient Roman tradition to modern New Year's resolutions, but the desire to start anew pops up repeatedly in western civilization. In 1740, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, invented a new type of church service. These services, called Covenant Renewal Services or watch night services, were held during the Christmas and New Year's season as an alternative to holiday partying. Today, these services are often held on New Year's Eve, according to the United Methodist Church. Worshippers sing, pray, reflect on the year and renew their covenant with God.



New Year's resolutions have become a secular tradition, and most Americans who make them now focus on self-improvement. The U.S. government even maintains a website of those looking for tips on achieving some of the most popular resolutions : losing weight, volunteering more, stopping smoking, eating better, getting out of debt and saving money.

Still, New Year's resolutions may be falling out of favor. A CBS News poll in 2013 found that 68 percent of Americans don't make New Year's resolutions. Two years ago, that number was 58 percent. People under the age of 30 were more likely than older folks to make resolutions — but only about half of resolution-makers keep their promises.

Follow Stephanie Pappas onTwitterandGoogle+. Follow us@livescience,Facebook&Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

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