Dating in ancient Rome

First, no — this post is not about Ovid’s elegiac how-to guide Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Being a Lover’), entertaining as that volume is. Rather, it is about how ancient Romans wrote what day, month, and year it is. We all think that writing a date is a fairly simple, straightforward task, whether you write 9 July 2017 in the UK or July 9, 2017 in Canada, or 09.07.2017 or 2017.07.09. However you slice it, a modern date is a pretty tame creature, even if the engineers get up in arms about how other people choose to write it numerically. It wasn’t so straightforward in the ancient world.

The topic has been at the heart of the past week of mine at work, as I looked through papal letters and imperial laws from the pontificate of Leo the Great (440-461) on the one hand and the reigns of the Emperors Majorian (457-61) and Leo (457-74) on the other. And yes, there are letters between the two Leos (Leones!), addressed: ‘Leo episcopus Leoni augusto in domino salutem.‘ — ‘Bishop Leo to Emperor Leo, greetings in the Lord.’ One such letter from Leo to Leo (Ep. 165) is dated thus:

Data decimo sexto kalendas Septembris, Leone et Majoriano Augustis coss.

Given on the sixteenth day before the kalends of September when Emperors Leo and Majorian were consuls.

I don’t have all my notes with me, but I suspect that in the manuscripts that probably looked more like, ‘Data XVI kal. Sept, Leone et Maiuriano Augg coss‘. We would write that as 17 October 458. The basic elements of a Roman date are all there.

Rather than writing the day of the month by which number of day it is, as 17 October, ancient Romans counted backwards from three different days — the kalends (first of the month), the nones (sometimes the seventh, sometimes the fifth), or the ides (sometimes the 15th, sometimes the 13th). Usually, the ides fall on the 13th. However, in March, July, October, and May the ides fall on the 15th day. Nine days before the ides come the nones, thus either the seventh or fifth.

Wait, you say. How is the seventh nine days before the fifteenth? Isn’t it only 8?

Ah, well here’s where we move along to the next part. Not only are you counting your days before one of these three specially-marked days of the month, as a Roman, you count inclusively. Therefore, it is not simply the difference as in arithmetic they taught you in Grade 1. The current day and the day you look ahead to are both included. So the number becomes one greater than anticipated.

This was even a bit weird for the Romans on the day before, so rather than saying that the final day of a month was two days before the kalends of the next, they simply said, ‘pridie’, ‘the day before’ (in essence).

I can assure you I spend a lot of time counting backwards on my fingers or writing the days of the month out to be sure I get the inclusive reckoning right whenever I convert a number into the modern system.

So, today is 9 July 2017. The ides of July are the 15th, so to day is 7 days before the ides of July.

So at least Romans had a way of reckoning dates that they agreed on.

What about years? Well, in 458, people had made a few calculations of their own as to when what we would call the BC or BCE to AD or CE crossover occurred (that is, the birth of Jesus). They were also largely united that what we now call 753 BC was the foundation date of Rome. Some people writing chronicles would actually date things from the creation of the world as calculated in Genesis. Others didn’t. In 457, Victorius of Aquitaine decided to start his Easter Tables (for reckoning when Easter had and would fall) with Year 1 as the crucifixion  — which he dated to our AD 28. This is perfectly logical, since there was no Easter before that.

Anyway, our dear friend Dionysius Exiguus, the bilingual monk from Scythia who did a lot of work on canon law and his own Easter tables, wasn’t around for about 75 years yet, in 458. His Easter Tables and related matter are what set the AD/BC turning point as we know it, as he dated the nativity of Jesus to AD 1 (there is no year 0). And his numbers for the years were not suddenly adopted as the standard way of telling which year it was. I don’t know how long that took, but it was a secondary aspect of his work.

Regardless of what number of year it would have been, not everyone agreed, and not everyone numbered the year. Then how did you know which number of year it was in ancient Rome?

The consuls.

The consuls of Rome were originally the highest-ranking magistrates, elected from the Senate. There were two consuls every year, and they originally had particular powers and authority in terms of proposing and passing laws. Obviously, with the arrival of the emperors with Augustus, they lost most of their real power.

One thing that they always did, however, was give their names to the year. Thus, one could refer to the consulship of Cicero and Hybrida (63 BC). There is a big list of all the consuls here. This way of naming years was not unique to the Romans. The Athenians also did it, naming years after the magistrate called the archon.

Naming the year becomes one of the biggest functions of the Late Antique consul. And people would put together big, unofficial lists of consuls to keep track of the years, sometimes with events slotted in.

This practice can have numerous ramifications for all sorts of things, of course. That’s why I’m taking an interest in it, particularly the year 458. Not that we have time to deal with my research now.

Anyway, I thought I’d share with you one of those small yet distinctive ways in which we and the Romans differ.

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One thought on “Dating in ancient Rome

  1. R. W. Burgess

    A very good list of consuls can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_consuls

    Actually, the standard date for the crucifixion was AD 29 (‘duobus Geminis conss’). It comes out as 28 in Victorius because of corruption in the consular list in 346 (both the eastern consuls and the western postconsulate for that year were mistakenly included)). Two notes from my (soon to be a) book which I thought I’d add since I’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t understand the square brackets in Mommsen’s edition of Victorius:

    “Prosper’s pairing of consuls and anni a passione was used in 457 by Victorius of Aquitaine to provide the annual chronological structure for the 532 years of his Cursus paschalis. Although in his edition of Prosper Mommsen records these years annually, as they appear in Victorius, they only ever appeared in Prosper every decade. Unfortunately for Prosper and Victorius, and anyone else who used their system for chronological instead of paschal purposes, there was an extra year in the fasti used by the creator of this system, so that when the numbers are counted backwards from the fifth century A(nnus a) P(assione) I actually ends up in 28, instead of 29, as can be seen from the fact that the Anni a passione ending in I in Prosper and Victorius match modern dates ending in 8, not 9.. (Because of early errors in his consular list this is only true in Prosper from 278. It is Jerome’s regnal years and the Anni a passione that keep Prosper’s overall chronology on track in spite of these errors.)
    As a result of this error the years from 28 to 344 are in square brackets in Mommsen’s edition of Victorius: they are only the dates of Easter, not of the consuls, which are one higher. From 345 the unbracketed dates are the dates of *both* the Anni a passione and the consuls. For some reason Krusch in his edition puts all first-cycle dates in square brackets.”

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