BC/AD Year Dating Question

I was reading about the philosopher Seneca the Younger who was born in 4 BC and died in 65 AD. According to Wikipedia, BC and AD usage wasn’t around at the time Seneca was alive.

“There is no year zero in this scheme; thus the year AD 1 immediately follows the year 1 BC. This dating system was devised in 525 by Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor, but was not widely used until the 9th century .”

So in Seneca’s day, what year would he have said he was born, and what year would they have said he died? Would Senaca have said he was born in the 23rd year of Caesar Agustus’ reign, and would they have said he died in the 11th year of Nero’s reign, or did the Romans have a more sophisticated way to count years like we do today?

The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ uses that terminology.

“In the year seven hundred and fifty-two
since the foundation of the City of Rome;
in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus,
the whole world being at peace”


Those who are not religious or who otherwise don’t assume the divinity of Jesus use Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE). I wouldn’t call our current method especially sophisticated, they picked an event and called it Year 1.

Beyond that, I don’t have an answer to your question. It looks like @D_Anconia has found evidence for a more convenient option than using emperors’ reigns (since some of them were very short), dating from an agreed-on Year 1 of when Rome was founded. So basically the same system we have now, just a different event to mark the Before from the After.

I think they would still have measured dates by the reigns of consuls (the two of which held the ultimate power in the Roman Republic, for a fixed term) in Seneca’s day. Even though the title held no power at that point, it was part of the fiction that the republic was still around.

Though at some point they gave up and just started judging time by reigns of emperors, that was later I think.

In common practice, Romans in the Republican era referred to years by who was Consul that year. After the empire was founded, they referred to years by who the emperor was and how long he had been in power.

So a Republican Roman might say something like “I bought this estate in the year of Asiaticus and Norbanus” while an Imperial Roman might say “My father died in Vespasian’s fifth year”.

Sometimes people dated stuff by the AVC (“From the Founding of the City”) system D_Anconia referred to, but that was never the general usage.

Greeks had a choice of 3 opoch systems, they used the presidents year system was used for financial transactions, and the Archon year or Olympiad year for anything else.

Yes, this. The consulate carried great prestige well into the principate (the early empire), even though its actual political power was disappearing. The Roman emperors did not formally abolish the institutions of the republic; they retained them nominally (and would often assume these offices themselves). So the practice of naming years eponymously after the consuls would still have been around.

As an example, see here letters between Seneca (or someone purporting to be him - there are writings ascribed to him whose authorship is dubious) and a correspondent. It contains many examples of year datings of the “when X and Y were consuls” sort.

By tradition, Rome was founded in 753 BC, so equating the year 752 AUC (ab urbe condita, since the foundation of the city) with the forty-second year of Octavian’s reign would put the beginning of that reign into the year 42 BC. Probably it’s a reference to the Battle of Philippi, when Octavian’s and Mark Antony’s forces defeated those of Brutus and Cassius. It was an important event on Octavian’s path towards becoming emperor, but he didn’t achieve the position of sole ruler of Rome until much later; by tradition, the beginning of his rule as emperor is given as 27 BC.

It’s also worth pointing out that Christian texts are usually written from the perspective of people who were not themselves Romans, or if they were, from provincials. For them, the empire as personified in the person of the emperor would be the embodiment of Roman power. Republican-minded Romans from the city itself, however, would, for a long time, cling to the old institutions of the highly revered republic.

I have to wonder how well, practically speaking, referring to years by the Consuls worked out. It seems to me that there’d be a lot of “Now wait… Was Quintius and Pontius before or after Vespian and Asiaticus”? Especially since, although consuls couldn’t serve consecutive terms, there was no limit, expressed or implied, on the total number of terms they could serve, and one man could serve as Consul many times. It would even have been possible, though I’m not sure if it ever actually happened, for the same pair to serve together multiple times.

I’m also not sure how the occasional six-month dictatorship affected the calendar: During times of war or other crisis, when it wouldn’t be feasible to have two rulers possibly in conflict with each other, the executive power would be put in the hands of one dictator, with the tradeoff being that a dictator could serve only six months (when G. Julius Caesar named himself dictator for life, it was the “for life” part that was unprecedented). But how did they transition back to consuls after a dictatorship? Did the new consuls just finish out the term and so also serve only six months, or did they shift the date of consular elections every time that happened?

Of course there is a year zero, if we want there to be one. Year zero ACE is the same year as 1 BCE.

As someone pointed out, the current system for “BC” is one of the oddest things. The numeration of the years runs backwards, so 10 BC is earlier than 1 BC. But numeration of the days run forward, just like “AD” days. (Although days that also ran backwards would be VERY confusing.)

One of the first attempts to coordinate all the dates using Roman, Greek, Hebrew, Persian, etc. ways of dating events was done by James Ussher in a 1654 book called (among other things) Annals of the World. This is usually thought of as the book in which it was first claimed that the world was created in 4004 B.C. (although it wasn’t). Actually that was only one of the events that it claimed to establish more precisely. It was one of the early books that tried to put together all that was known of dating systems of the world:

Personally, I would not date anyone about whom I was unsure if she had been born in BC or AD.

“When two thousand years old you reach, look as good you will not, hm?”

I dunno, if they are in good enough shape to date me, they must have AWESOME genes.

The powers of a dictator superseded those of the consuls, but the consuls stayed in office. They were subordinate to the dictator during the latter’s term and would afterwards resume their office, so the eponymous numbering of the years continued.

As for the practicalities of handling such a scheme, a modern-day analogue lies in the fact that until 1962, British Acts of Parliament were cited by the regnal year of the reigning monarch. For instance, the Representation of the People Act 1918, by which women’s suffrage was introduced in the UK, was numbered 7 & 8 Geo 5 c 64: In the parliamentary session that spanned the 7th and 8th years of the reign of George V, chapter (c) 64, i.e. the 64th act passed in that session. In 1963, this was changed to a numbering by calendar year plus chapter, but prior to that, British lawyers would need to remember the succession of kings and queens, for which various mnemonics were in use.

Yep. AD 0 is just as ahistorical as AD 1–they are both back-dating a calendar system not in use contemporarily.

It’s no more ahistorical than it is to use Fahrenheit or Celsius to quantify temperatures at a time when neither was in use, or to use kilometres or (modern-day statute) miles to quantify distances between cities in antiquity. All it does is use a scale to measure something for which we find these scales convenient. There’s no reason we couldn’t apply these scales to a time before they were invented.

Lest this give anyone the mistaken impression that you can infer a person’s religiosity from whether they use BC/AD or BCE/CE:

Plenty of people, both Christian and nonchristian, still refer to dates as B.C. (“before Christ”) and A.D. (“Anno Domini”: “in the year of our Lord”), because that’s the older style; it’s what they grew up with and what they’re used to using.

However, nowadays, most scholars, including many who are Chrsitians, use BCE and CE, to be consistent with the standard modern usage, and/or to be sensitive to others who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord/Christ, and/or because “B.C.” and “A.D.” are historical oxymorons, since no one knows for sure exactly when Jesus was born but it was probably sometime “before Christ.”

Absolutely, we can use whatever measurement system we prefer and what was used in the past is not a useful criterion for what we use now. I’m criticizing a common comment that “there was never a year 0”, which is true but elides the fact that there was also never a year 1.

Note that even what year an event happened pre-Julian calendar in Rome is sometimes iffy.

The calendar was a mess and politically manipulated. March 21 (the vernal equinox) was supposed to start the year but these manipulations mucked with things. They didn’t even have January and February as actual months for a long while. It was just “winter”.

So if you see a date like March 18th*, 59BC, you don’t immediately know what year it “really” was. Does the source of this date correct for all this or do you need to take a deep dive into calendar minutia to convert to our current calendar?

  • Or third day after Ides or whatever.