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Why is Anno Domini the global standard?

Published 10:58am Tuesday, December 31, 2013

This is the second in a two-part series.

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

Last week we explored the history of the Gregorian calendar, which is also called the Christian calendar. This week, let’s find out how Anno Domini ended up being used to enumerate our years.

Anno Domini translates from Medieval Latin to “in the year of our Lord.” It is why since roughly the birth of Jesus Christ the years are noted as such: A.D. 2014. It comes before the numbers because it reads “in the year of our Lord 2014.” Years prior to the Nativity in English are called B.C. for Before Christ. It comes after, as in 45 B.C., means literally 45 years before Christ.

Still, with the decline in the study of Latin, putting the A.D. after the number has become common. What’s more, because A.D. and B.C. are Christian-based terms for a standard that has become global, in a world with many religions, the terms C.E. for Common Era and B.C.E. for Before Common Era have grown in use. It is going to be 2014 C.E., say the politically correct types.

And did you know there is no year zero? 1 B.C. is followed by A.D. 1.

So how did the Nativity become the basis for our years? And what did people do before the Anno Domini system became common?

A sixth century monk living on the Black Sea coast in what is now Romania named Dennis the Small — as in humble, or Dionysius Exiguus — devised a table of Easters and arrived at a number of 525. At the time, people of the Roman lands identified years by Roman consuls, the highest elected official. A consul ruled for a one-year term beginning Jan. 1. There’s more to it than that, but you get the general idea. Rome maintained the practice of consuls for centuries. The people of 525 would have said it was the consulship of Probus Iunior (i.e. junior). That’s what Roman Christians used, too.

Dionysius Exiguus wasn’t the first to use numbers for the years. Some Jews numbered years from when Seleucid returned to rule Babylon. Some Jews numbered years from the destruction of the Second Temple. Official Roman documents often stated years since the founding of Rome. That system was called Ab urbe condita. Early church leaders in Alexandria numbered the calendar based on the year Roman Emperor Diocletian began his reign. Anno Diocletiani began on what is now called Aug. 29, 284. (Recall from my column last week that the Alexandrian calendar begins on Aug. 29 — Thoth 1 — and is still used by Coptic Christians to this day.)

Dionysius Exiguus didn’t like basing a calendar on Diocletian because he persecuted Christians. He wanted to base the calendar on Jesus and, some say, to put off beliefs that the end of the world was imminent.

That’s because some monks and some Jews observed Anno Mundi, “in the year of the world,” deriving the calendar year by calculating years since the creation told in the Book of Genesis or Parashah Bereishit. It later became the official calendar for the Bzyantine Empire and, for centuries, the Eastern Orthodox Church. Anno Mundi varies depending on who is doing the calculating and even then the years don’t match the Gregorian calendar. The Hebrew calendar puts the present day at Anno Mundi 5774, but the Hebrew calendar would take an entirely separate column to explain. In addition to his dislike of Diocletian, Dionysius Exiguus felt that by calculating years based on the Nativity, doomsday would seem to be farther off.

There were predictions for the end of the world, but often they were arrived at by studying the planets and stars. Dionysius Exiguus predicted that the world would end when the planets aligned in May 2000. It is unclear how the monk picked 525 for his year, but many say he calculated to May 2000, then deducted 2,000 years to create his idea of an era called the Age of Pisces.

Even the Roman Catholic Church, however, describes the birth of Jesus as happening before A.D. 1. Scholars generally place it between 6 and 4 B.C.

On a side note, if you know a Mason, ask him about Anno Lucis, which means “in the year of light.” The Masons calculate years by adding 4,000 to the current year, so that 2014 becomes 6014. It’s kind of like a rounded-off form of Anno Mundi.

The Anglo-Saxon monk Bede used Anno Domini dating in writing of a history of the English people in 731, popularizing the standard. It spread throughout the rest of Europe under Emperor Charlemagne’s rule in the early 800s. Bede, by the way, calculated the birth of Christ under Anno Mundi years to be 3,952. The Masons aren’t too far off with their 4,000 estimation.

Regnal years were popular after the fall of Rome and before Charlemagne and still were used as another form of reference to the year, even after Anno Domini grew in use. You probably have heard of regnal years in movies and books, where the reference is made to the rule of a monarch, pope or some sort of leader, as in “in the third year of the reign of King Philip.”

Eastern Europe had been using the Byzantine calendar, with Anno Mundi years and a Sept. 1 start, but Peter the Great switched Russia to Anno Domini and a Jan. 1 start in 1700. Other Eastern Orthodox countries switched in subsequent centuries.

Happy New Year!


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.