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Although Greek astronomers had known, at least since Hipparchus, a century before the Julian reform, that the tropical year was slightly shorter than 365.25 days, the calendar did not compensate for this difference.
As a result, the calendar year gains about three days every four centuries compared to observed equinox times and the seasons.
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.
It was intended to approximate the tropical (solar) 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".
Consequently—since 16 February Julian/1 March 1900 Gregorian and until 15 February Julian/28 February 2100 Gregorian—the Julian calendar is currently 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar.
The Julian calendar has been replaced as the civil calendar by the Gregorian calendar in almost all countries which formerly used it, although it continued to be the civil calendar of some countries into the 20th century.
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.