Here we go again, a Latin byline for this month’s installment of calendar trivia. And here I left my Second Edition of the Oxford Libro Sermonum at home! As a side note, if you’re doing some post holiday shopping the soon-to-be-issued two-volume hardcover set of the classic Oxford Latin Dictionary weighs in with 40,000 primary words and 100,000 derivations (headwords and senses if you’re a purist) at the bargain-basement price of $300 would make your Sunday school magister very proud.
Moving along, Dennis the Small (or Little or Short, take your pick) was a Scythian monk residing in Tomis, the major city of Scythia Minor located on the coast of the Black Sea in what we would now refer to as part of Romania. Dionysius did not, though, have to suffer through the swarms of overweight Russian beachgoers wearing too little clothing and drinking too much vodka, that memorable vision was saved for our modern era and, for those of us who have seen it, remains as a searing image in some ways formative in our childhoods….alas. Dionysius lived from AD 470 to AD 544 and is most remembered for having invented the AD that notates even his years of existence. Anno Domini, as we’ve covered at great length, translates as “In the Year of the Lord” and was the replacement for the then-conventional anno Diocletiani – yes, another aD – which set its epoch as the year the Roman Emperor Diocletian assumed power. You have to admire the chutzpah, as our Hebrew-speaking friends would say, of restarting the calendar on one’s inauguration date, Holy Roman Emperor indeed! Anno Diocletiani referencing quickly passed into the world of historical archives with the exception of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria who stubbornly stick with its usage even though it means they have very few options for desktop calendars – next year is aD 2296, for example.
If any of this information thus far has struck you as interesting then you’ll be fascinated to learn that there were other year-counting approaches in use. Ab urbe condita (AUC) had its epoch as the year of the founding of Rome, and anno Mundi started with the biblical Creation of the world. Sadly the latter suffered in that there were different epochs depending on which version of the Bible one chose: 5500 BC if you were a Greek Septuagint believer, 4000 BC if the Hebrew Masoretic text was your preference. If you’re a dating purist – I know, I know – or just someone who likes fully-qualified domain names then you know that the official abbreviation is ADNIC (Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi) and, because it sources from Latin the convention is to place the AD before the year, ie AD 2012, as opposed to the non-Latin Before Christ and thus 112 BC. If you’re particularly zealous then you could, I suppose, shift to ACN 112 with the recognition that ante Christum natum does have a certain flair to it. The politically correct CE and BCE are particularly noxious to me so we’ll ignore those and leave their usage to people with little sense of tradition or history!
Technically speaking, Dionysius wasn’t originally chartered with changing the frame of reference for everyone’s calendars, rather his task was to assemble the Computus for upcoming Easter dates on behalf of Pope John I starting with what became the year AD 525. Careful readers already know that while Hallmark defines Easter as landing on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon (first full moon after the vernal equinox), the Catholic Church uses a theoretical model known as the Ecclesiastical Full Moon instead which would be fine if, for example, 19 tropical years had the same duration as 235 synodal months. Sparing you the details, it doesn’t, but heck if it weren’t for Galileo the Christian faith tradition would still hold that the Sun orbits the Earth so what’s 235 vs. 234.997 amongst friends!
In the course of his work Dionysius also happened upon another major milestone and became the first medieval Latin writer to make use of a true zero through the Latin nulla. This sort of makes sense because carving I’s, V’s and X’s is pretty straightforward, but can you imagine having to carve a 0? The first true zero symbol emerged in India around AD 500, and in AD 880 the Persian scientist al-Khwarizmi first published the Hindu-Arabic numeral system which remains in use to this date. Not so fast, though, in Europe one had to wait for the Latin translation first published in the 12th century. That’s right, until the 12th century it was impossible to be a number 0 in Europe. Oh how times have changed.
Zeroes seem like the kind of thing that a Greek philosopher would have discovered centuries earlier, but there progress ground to a halt as they were stumped by the proposition “how can nothing be something?” This same logic is, apparently, in use by their modern-day government budgeting offices but really in its inverse form, “if we have nothing then that’s something.”
Wrapping things up, and without even getting to my original topic which was that Jesus Christ’s year of birth turns out to be 4 BC (oops!), I leave you with a brief party trick for your New Year’s Eve festivities. If you were counting down the big crystal ball at the close of 1 BC, would the soon-to-illuminate year be 0 BC or AD 0? Buzz. Wrong answer, there was no year 0 in either lexicon, 0 hadn’t yet been invented. Second, at the time it would have been 3760 AM or 753 AUC as BC, AD and aD references had yet to be invented. Duh!
Regardless of snow, sleet, hail, wind, vacation, late flights, traffic jams, long lines at the mall or even the upcoming end of the world (thank you Mayan long count) please be have a very Happy New Year and celebrate AD 2012, aD 2296, AM 5772 or AUC 2765 (take your pick).