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CE and BCE: where did “eras” come from?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman agricultural calendar from the 1st century CE
Roman agricultural calendar from the 1st century CE. National Archaeological Museum of Naples. Photo: Michał Kubicz

Have you ever wondered when marking dates according to the time that has passed since the death of Jesus appeared? As it turns out, the matter is not as obvious as it might seem. It turns out that for a long time, several systems competed with each other and at first it was not at all certain that it was the date of Christ’s birth that would become the determinant for marking dates.

I dug up in the “Vademecum historyka starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu” under. edited by Ewa Wipszycka (PWN, Warsaw 1983) and found many interesting observations on this subject, which I share below.

Contrary to what is commonly believed, the Romans did not commonly use the “from the founding of the city” dating system. Instead, they simply pointed out that so-and-so happened under the consulship of such-and-such officials. From our perspective, such a system is extremely impractical, because few of us are well-versed in the chronology of consuls, but the Romans apparently had no problem with it. When the emperors began to rule Rome, dates began to be defined as the next year when a given emperor was granted his tribunicia potestas. Dating “ab urbe condita”, as it turns out, was used quite sporadically in Rome and only in special situations. If only because the date of the founding of Rome was disputed even for the Romans themselves – the most popular version indicated the date of 752 BCE, but there were also others in circulation: 753, 754, 751, 728, 729, 814 and 875. In other words – the way giving dates “from the founding of the city” is a modern romantic invention that has a rather weak basis in historical reality.

The dating system used in the East of the Empire, based on the years between successive Olympiads, is not much simpler – firstly because of the ambiguity about when the “first Olympiad” actually took place and the uncertainty of whether the dates for organizing the Olympics were really as rigid as we would like to believe. Nevertheless, this system was in use for a very long time and survived even into antiquity. Although the Olympics, in fact, from the end of the 4th-century CE were no longer organized, the imperial administration in Constantinople continued to date the years according to the Olympiads, as if they were held “virtually”.

When the Byzantine Empire finally stopped referring to the Olympics in the dating system, the point of reference in Constantinople became the “beginning of the world”, which had its roots in the Jewish tradition. Regardless of the dating used in the imperial administration in the East and in the West, the date of the creation of the world was the reference point for the passage of time in both Jewish and Christian communities. Unfortunately, this is also where the problem arises: both communities marked this “primordial beginning of everything” in a completely different way. According to Jewish tradition, the world began in 3761 BCE (according to our numbering), and according to Christian: 5492 or 5493 BCE.

As you can see, even among Christians, the birth of Christ was not a point of reference for a long time. The reasons for this were not only related to tradition, but also had a practical dimension: Bible experts indicated different annual dates for this event, and accepting one unambiguous one proved impossible for a long time.
It was not until the sixth century that a monk made the appropriate calculations based on the Gospels and indicated the date of Christ’s birth, which was finally accepted as binding. Interestingly, his calculation points not to a specific date to which we are accustomed, but to “the fourth year of 194 Olympiad or the first year of 195 Olympiad”. This shows that he himself was rather attached to dating based on the old Greek system.

However, even though the year of Jesus’ birth was fixed, other dating systems were still used in official records. The first indication of the date counted “from the birth of Christ” took place in the Eastern Roman Empire only at the turn of the 7th and 8th centuries! Interestingly, this system was originally used only for events that took place after Christ, not before. For events in the more ancient past, the old rules for determining years were still used for a very long time.

When the term “before Christ” or “before our era” appeared – unfortunately I have not been able to determine it, but from the above comments it follows that it could not have been earlier than during the eighth century CE.

As a side note, it is worth adding that indicating dates “before” and “after” an event that is a point of historical reference is not a Christian invention at all. As it turns out, in some parts of the Mediterranean basin such a term was already in use: dating from the founding of the Seleucid dynasty, whose dynastic center was originally in Babylonia and then in Syria, was very popular. This reference point was used for quite a long time in many countries concentrated in the eastern Mediterranean, even by Jews, Arabs and Parthians.

“Local” eras appeared in different provinces or cities. However, none of them became universal – they were usually used by small communities and were quickly replaced by the traditional dating systems indicated above (according to the Olympiads, according to officials or from the creation of the world). Only the system based on the birth of Christ as a reference point, which we use to this day, broke from this rule.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Ewa Wipszycka (red.), Vademecum historyka starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, PWN, Warszawa 1983

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