The Anno Domini or "year of [Our] Lord" nomenclature for the chronological era in the 21st century of which we live is somewhat controverted. The alternative Common Era (abbreviated C.E.) is often suggested. This article will examine the beginning of the A.D. era and the reasons put forward for changing its nomenclature while retaining its numbering system.
Other Eras in Common Use
The A.D. era is the only system in everyday use in the Western hemisphere and Europe, and it is the common system in regular commercial use in the rest of the world. However, many religious and ethnic groups keep track of their lives and celebrate holidays according to remarkable various calendars and eras. For instance, Muslims operate on an era based on the Hegira, the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622. However, because the Hegira occurred in September, and the divergence of the Muslim lunar calendar and the off-set from the beginning of the Western year means that subtracting 622 from the A.D. date does not produce a reliable Anno Hegirae or A.H. date.
- Jewish eras
- other eras
History of Dating in the Christian World
Anno Domini dating was not the initial choice of Christians in the Mediterranean world. Like all people in the Roman Empire, Early Christians dated by their local system. On the pan-Mediterranean scale, that meant the regnal year of the emperor ("in the Xth year of Emperor Such-and-such") and the tax indiction cycle (15 indictions make up a tax cycle, an indicition is more or less a year). A great many local systems were also important, such as the year since the foundation of your particular city, the regnal year of the neighboring Persian emperor, and eventually even the year of the reigning Caliph. For example, the City of Rome dated from its foundation in 753 B.C., and the date ab urbe condita, "from the foundation of the city" (abbreviated A.U.C.), shows up on occasion in records. The dating of documents in antiquity and the Middle Ages was a process with a high level of redundancy. This redundancy, in fact, allows historians to construct parallel regnal lists for many kingdoms and polities by comparing chronicles from different regions which include the same rulers.
After the Roman Empire
As the decline of the Roman Empire, imperial regnal year dating became sloppy, but remained the norm for 400 years in Church circles. The Papacy was in regular contact throughout the Middle Ages with enovys of the Byzantine world, and had a clear enough idea (sudden deaths and deposals intervening) of who was emperor at any one time.
The Anno Domini system was developed by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus (often described as a Scythian) in Rome around the middle of the 6th century, but was not widely adopted. Byzantine chroniclers like Theophanes continued to date each year in their world chronicles on a different and much more popular Judaeo-Christian basis — from the notional Creation of the World as calculated by Christian and Jewish scholars in the first 5 centuries of the Christian era. These eras, sometimes called Anno Mundi, "year of the world" (abbreviated A.M.), by modern scholars, had their own disagreements. The most popular was that established by Eusebius of Caesarea, a historian at the time of Constantine I. The Latin translator Jerome had made a comparison of Eusebius with certain dates deduced from the Old Testament which helped popularize Eusebius's A.M. count in the West.
The Popularization of Anno Domini
The first historian or chronicler to use A.D. as his primary dating mechanism was the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, published around 730. Bede was different from historians working in more important places in two ways:
- He was in Northumbria, outside the bounds of the later Roman Empire. Unlike the Mediterranean-focused countries Italy, France, and Spain, his people had little knowledge of or interest in who the Roman Emperor was in any particular year.
- He was confronted with the problem of seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their overlapping regnal years.
He had also previously written a chronicle going back to Creation, so he had the numbers at his fingertips. He adopted A.D. dating as a way of keeping track of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and trying to bring their dates into line with the fragmentary evidence he had for imperial regnal years.
It should be noted that A.D. always occurs before the year, e.g. A.D. 2001. This is in keeping with the original Latin meaning: "in the year of our Lord 2001" versus the (ungrammatical) "2001 in the year of our Lord." Other era markings, B.C., C.E., and B.C.E. are placed after the year, e.g., 2001 C.E. They are also generally typset in small caps, as this article demonstrates.
On the continent of Europe, A.D. was first used as the dominant dating system by Charlemagne and his successors. It was this influence of the Royal Frankish court that popularized the usage and spread it east into German speaking territories. The Carolingian use of A.D. may well have had twin ideological reasons of breaking away from using the Byzantine era and defusing certain strains of apocalyptic thought.
Attempts at Alternative Eras in the West
The French Revolution and the Italian Fascists each tried seriously to displace the A.D. system by dating from their own initiation–a non-royal regnal year system.
Alternative Nomenclature for the Same Era
As a substitute for "Anno Domini," many people now use the abbreviation C.E. which is sometimes understood as meaning Common Era and sometimes as Christian Era. Correspondingly, as a substitute for "Before Christ," the abbreviation B.C.E. is used, which is understood either as Before the Common Era or Before the Christian Era. This terminology is preferred by academics for various reasons, but probably mainly because it need not be interpreted as making reference to the birth of Jesus Christ.
The term "Common Era" is not a recent coinage, but has been in use since the late 19th century. Indeed, in its article on "Chronology," the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia uses the sentence: "Foremost among these [dating eras] is that which is now adopted by all civilized peoples and known as the Christian, Vulgar, or Common Era, in the twentieth century of which we are now living."
This terminology is seen by some Christians, and others, as a move by nonbelievers to make Christianity less popular. By contrast, the use of C.E. and B.C.E. is often presented in the academic community as a matter of sensitivity to those who are not Christians. That justification is not accepted by some Muslims, some of whom accept that the A.D. era is based on the life of an important historical figure.
Oddly, almost no one uses the meaningful and historically correct name "Gregorian Calendar" or G.C. Yet not even the Catholic Church claims that Pope Gregory's calendar starts from the birth of Jesus. Most historians seem to agree that if this birth took place, it probably happened in the year 4 or 5 B.G.C. (Before the start of the Gregorian Calendar.)