Ancient Everyday – Tracking the Years in Ancient Rome

Salve!

This week on Writing the Past, we’re going back in time from the Middle Ages to ancient Rome once more.

I thought it might be fun to do a short series of Ancient Everyday blogs about something that concerned our ancient ancestors as well as ourselves. It’s something that, across the ages, we all wish we had more of: Time.

This isn’t going to be a philosophical series of posts on time, but rather a look at the practicalities of time and how ancient Romans organized it.

Saturn, among other things, the Roman God of Time

In this first post, we’re going to look at how years were counted and tracked in ancient Rome and across the Empire.

Today, dating is something we take rather for granted, but at times during the Roman era, there was a lot of thought put into this and the development of a system around it.

Early in the Roman Republic, the years were usually dated by the names of the Roman Consuls, the highest rank for an elected Roman official, and the pinnacle of the Cursus Honorem, the tried and true path of public offices for anyone seeking political success.

Two consuls served at once and, conveniently, they served for just one year, so that could be readily used as a method of dating. The lists of consuls were called fasti, and they exist from about the year 509 B.C.

Fragment of the list of the Roman consuls known as the “Fasti Colotiani” (Museo della civiltà romana)

This practice of dating using the names of Roman Consuls stopped in about A.D. 537 when Emperor Justinian I (the ‘Great’) switched to the regnal years of the emperors.

Prior to that, there were other ways in which the years were tracked and counted.

Sometimes years were dated from the founding of the city of Rome – ab urbe condita was the wording used. Rome is generally thought to have been founded in the year 753 B.C., so the years would be counted from that point on.

I wonder how widespread this dating was, compared with the use of the fasti. There were even more dating systems across the Empire, systems which had a local flavour; say, for instance, years counted from a particularly big event in the history of a certain place etc.

Emperor Justinian I ‘the Great’

From the late 3rd century A.D., the practice of counting years by indiction, or indictio, was also used. This was the announcement of the delivery of food and other goods to the government. So, basically, indictio referred to the tax assessment which took place, at first, in five-year cycles, but in a fifteen-year cycle from about A.D. 312.

Indictio was also often used to date the fiscal years in the Empire which tended to begin on the first of September.

It’s thought that the general population may have tended to know the indictio years better than the consular years. This isn’t surprising as we’re all aware of the dates when the government slashes at our purse strings!

What is thought to be a relief showing Roman tax collectors

The Christian reckoning of years using B.C. and A.D. (for Anno Domini – ‘Year of the Lord’) in the Julian and Gregorian calendars was introduced in the mid-sixth century by the monk Dionysius Exiguus of Scythia Minor. In this reckoning, there is no year ‘0’, but rather 1 B.C. is immediately followed by A.D. 1. Nowadays, there is a movement toward using B.C.E (Before Common/Current Era) and C.E. (Common/Current Era).

Whichever method of dating you prefer today, it seems that the Romans had a variety of methods to choose from.

Were they as obsessed with time as we are today? I suspect not. But it was something they grappled with on certain levels.

Either way, ancient dates are likely less reliable before Julius Caesar’s calendar reform of 45 B.C.

I suppose we should thank the gods for circa, that is, ‘approximately’!

Thank you for reading!

If you are curious and want to check out a list of the consuls of Rome, you can do so by CLICKING HERE.

Come back next week for the next Ancient Everyday in this series on Time in which we’ll be looking at the Roman calendar and months.

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