The Calendar in Anno Domini (AD) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Calendar in Anno Domini (AD)

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We know what year we have now, and some may even have seen the letters AD. But, do you know what they mean? Those who do know what the letters mean will realise that the letters properly go before a date, not after it. Furthermore, it is important to know that this system is not really a calendar but rather a benchmark by which to set years in chronological order.

The Evolution of the Western Calendar

  • The Old Roman Calendar - This is the calendar under which Julius Caesar was born. This calendar had many features that are strange to us today.

  • The Julian Calendar - This calendar was first introduced by order of Julius Caesar in the year DCCIX on the old Roman Calendar. After his death, July was named in his honour. Augustus Caesar, not wishing to be any less honoured, named the next month after himself - August.

  • The Gregorian Calendar - By the year 1582, the seasons were 10 days out of sync, making the spring equinox 11 March, which did not sit well with those planning Easter festivities. So Gregory XIII had someone devise a new leap year rule and chopped 10 days off the month of October for that year only. Other nations were slow to follow, so both Sir Isaac Newton and George Washington were born under the old system and lost ten days when their respective countries converted to the Gregorian calendar.

The Beginning of AD

Early Christians dated things by the calendar of their regional governments, but by the 6th Century a more universal system was desired.

In that day, a monk named Dionysius Exiguus1, who had been born a Scythian2 but made a name for himself as an Abbot in Rome, was called upon to come up with a new system of numbering years. We have been using it ever since. In his days, the years were counted from the founding of Rome. While this may have been a pivotal event in the Roman mind, the once mighty Roman Empire was no longer in the heights of its former glory, and Dionysius could see it fading more. He wanted to start dating from something with permanent significance.

Being a devout man, the most significant thing he could think of was when God took on flesh, being born as a baby in Bethlehem, so that God and man could be reconciled. It has also been said he wanted to draw attention away from a controversy over Easter by stressing the birth rather than the death of Christ. In these days, all educated people spoke Latin, even if it was not their native tongue. Dionysius labelled the year of the Lord's birth as Anno Domini 13 (abbreviated 1 AD), as Anno Domini is Latin for 'The Year of The Lord'4.

The Year in Question

Dionysius placed the date at 754 on the Roman Calendar. This made the sequence 752 AUC (Ab Urbe Condite or 'The founding of the city'), then 753 AUC, then 1 AD, then 2 AD etc. Notice the absence of BC, which is a suffix added by the theologian Bede a few centuries later5. Dionysius did not have modern computers or astronomical data to set his date. It is believed now that he was a few years off. It is interesting to note that, despite the assertion that celebrating the resurrection on the wrong day would be blasphemous, no charge of blasphemy was levelled at the Abbot for getting his birth on the wrong year! How many years he was in error is still a matter of debate.

His system was first adopted in parts of Italy, but Charlemagne was the first ruler to give it wide usage. It then spread to other parts of the world. Bede seems to be the first historian to use it as his primary dating system. During the French Revolution and in Fascist Italy, attempts were made to start from some other year, but these never took hold the way AD has. When men were commissioned by Pope Gregory to bring the equinox back into line, they must surely have known that 1 AD was not the real year of Christ's birth, but apparently considered it outside their mandate to change and so left the benchmark year where Dionysius had placed it.

Other Calendars

There are some other systems, among them the Islamic Hegera and the Jewish Calendar, but none of these has achieved the universal acceptance of Anno Domini. The Y2K problem was just one example of how worldwide this calendar system is. Looking up the Chinese calendar, it could be noted that even the People's Republic Of China uses this benchmark in civil transactions. China is not alone. Nations all across the world now use it as the year in civil transactions even if it runs counter to their culture or religion.

Another Name

Some have renamed it CE for 'common era' and years prior to 1 as BCE. They do this to avoid the religious implications of calling it AD. One group, however, is resolving to keep AD complete with those religious implications. Representatives of The Southern Baptist Convention meeting in June of 2000 AD passed a resolution calling on all baptists to encourage use of AD rather than CE because they believe that the incarnation of Jesus still deserves a central place in history.

1Exiguus, which is 'little' in Latin, was probably a term of self-abasement, not a comment on his height.2The Scythians were nomadic people from Middle Asia.3The concept of zero wasn't invented/discovered at that time, at least not in Europe.4Given the translation, the abbreviated form 'AD 1' (or 'A.D. 1') makes considerably more sense than '1 AD', but this is, however, the way BC/AD dates are written on h2g2.5In Latin this is Ante Christum. Perhaps Bede did not use AC because it was too much like AD or perhaps it resonated of Antichrist. As Bede was Anglo-Saxon, he may have thought it would save problems to use the Anglo Saxon abbreviation rather than the Latin.

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