At the time of Meton, axial precession had not yet been discovered, and he could not distinguish between sidereal years (currently: 365.256363 days) and tropical years (currently: 365.242190 days). Most calendars, like the commonly used Gregorian calendar, are based on the tropical year and maintain the seasons at the same calendar times each year. Nineteen tropical years are about two hours shorter than 235 synodic months. The Metonic cycle's error is, therefore, one full day every 219 years, or 12.4 parts per million.
- 19 tropical years = 6,939.602 days (12 × 354-day years + 7 × 384-day years + 3.6 days).
- 235 synodic months (lunar phases) = 6,939.688 days (Metonic period by definition).
- 254 sidereal months (lunar orbits) = 6,939.702 days (19 + 235 = 254).
- 255 draconic months (lunar nodes) = 6,939.1161 days.
Note that the 19-year cycle is also close (to somewhat more than half a day) to 255 draconic months, so it is also an eclipse cycle, which lasts only for about 4 or 5 recurrences of eclipses. The Octon is 1⁄5 of a Metonic cycle (47 synodic months, 3.8 years), and it recurs about 20 to 25 cycles.
This cycle seems to be a coincidence. The periods of the Moon's orbit around the Earth and the Earth's orbit around the Sun are believed to be independent, and not to have any known physical resonance. An example of a non-coincidental cycle is the orbit of Mercury, with its 3:2 spin-orbit resonance.
A lunar year of 12 synodic months is about 354 days, approximately 11 days short of the "365-day" solar year. Therefore, for a lunisolar calendar, every 2 to 3 years there is a difference of more than a full lunar month between the lunar and solar years, and an extra (embolismic) month needs to be inserted (intercalation). The Athenians initially seem not to have had a regular means of intercalating a 13th month; instead, the question of when to add a month was decided by an official. Meton's discovery made it possible to propose a regular intercalation scheme. The Babylonians seem to have introduced this scheme around 500 BC, thus well before Meton.