Monday, 31 October 2011

AD, CE, does it matter?


I think it may have been Voltaire's fault.

Recently, there has been a certain amount of internet discussion about the terms CE and BCE as replacements for the venerable AD/BC dating system. The wickedly subversive commentator Mary Beard (that's her description, not mine) helpfully informs us that "CE and BCE have been around for years, and < are > often used instead of BC and AD". But surely the question is: "why?"

I know that, in English, pedigree is everything. A bit like a squatter in someone else's house: if he's been there long enough, he gets to stay. If Mary Beard's friends have been using CE long enough, they get to continue. Thank goodness they haven't been using YsHtGD ("Years since Herod the Great Died"). However, Mary Beard prefers BC and AD because BCE and CE sound alike when she says them in a lecture theatre (so she probably wouldn't have liked YsHtGD and YbHtGD, either).

A Christian System?

Of course, not everyone uses the BC/AD system: Jews and Muslims have their own chronologies. Many supporters of BCE/CE claim that it is more respectful to these other faiths. This is a spurious argument. (Would we expect Jews and Muslims to give up their traditional systems in order to find a universal, neutral chronology?) In fact, the average history student (for who else uses the terms?) has no interest in knowing what BC and AD stand for, only what they mean chronologically.

A better point might be that the BC/AD system is a western tradition. As Mary Beard observes, "it is now impossible to imagine unpicking the Christian calendar". And, in any case, why should we be expected to overturn a perfectly good tradition that everybody understands?

A neutral system?

As many perceptive readers already realise, the BCE/CE system actually perpetuates the so-called "Christian" system by adopting the same cross-over point. The underlying system remains the same. 27 BCE is still the same as 27 BC, only it takes an extra letter to say so. So why change the abbreviations? Why does it matter?

It's all Voltaire's fault

Historical chronology began with biblical scholars. Writing in Latin, they naturally used the phrases ante Christum (before Christ) and anno Domini (in the year of the Lord) for dating biblical events. When secular historians tackled the chronology of ancient Greece, they naturally slotted events into the biblical timescale of "years before J.C." For example, in 1732, when James Anderson compiled his Royal Genealogies (subtitled The Genealogical Tables of Emperors, Kings and Princes, from Adam to these Times), he tabulated thousands of events beginning with the creation of the world "in the imaginery Year of the Julian Period 710, on the 23rd Day of October, Afternoon, before the Christian Era 4004 Years". He acknowledged that the only existing chronological framework was a Christian one.

Subsequent events were dated "A.M." (Anno Mundi, "in the year of the world"), with the equivalent year "before Christ" (being 4004 minus the year A.M.), with alternatives in the "Julian Period" (being A.M. + 710) and various other chronologies (olympiads, "era of Rome", "era of Nabonassar"). The Year 4714 of the Julian Period (= A.M. 4004) began a new era, according to Anderson, "which by long use is call'd the Era of Christ, and its Year call'd (Anno Domini) the Year of our Lord; tho' strictly it should be call'd (Anno Erae Christianae) the Year of the Christian Era". All subsequent dates are given A.D.

This was the milieu in which historians were working in the 18th and 19th centuries. When men like Voltaire came to write, they used phrases like "in the common era" or "in the Christian era" or "in the vulgar era" interchangeably. There was no Christian overtone. They simply made use of the chronologies worked out by men like James Anderson.

Which is better?

Any chronological system requires a fixed point. AD 1 painlessly gives us our fixed point, whether or not we agree with the reason for its invention. Any alternative chronological system would require a different fixed point to be agreed upon.

Perhaps it's simplest to stick with the BC/AD system. If some people feel the need to disguise its origins by relabelling it CE, who am I to complain?


  1. I prefer BC/AD - it sounds nicer and the change is pointless given the numbers are the same - but I always tell students they can use either, especially if a) they would feel more comfortable with something less obviously Christian or b) they won't remember that AD, because it means 'in the year of our Lord', goes *before* the year, not after it!

  2. When I write about the Minoans, for example, or ancient Rome, I use BCE and CE; later or Christian subjects get BC and AD. It seems simpler than arguing (or anguishing) over it.

  3. I use BC/AD, because I found that I too often had to explain to the non-historian what BCE/CE meant. I love to teach, but I would rather keep someone’s attention by talking about history instead watching their eyes glaze over by explaining dating systems.

  4. Quote; "instead watching their eyes glaze over by explaining dating systems."...... The histories of dating systems can and often are fascinating (and entertaining)subjects! Whether the topic be the confusing Regnal Dating systems used by the ancient Egyptians (with the attempts by 19th cent. scholars to force fit them onto a Biblical chronology)and other contemporary States or the successful recalibration of the Julian Calendar (based by Caesar on the the Egyptian) by Pope Gregory XIII - which resulted in much confusion and consternation with many faithful Catholics believing their lives had been shortened (or extended)somehow when Oct.4 1582 was followed by Oct.15 1582 (in additional to the rental and pay disputes to follow!) With most non Catholics refusing to co-operate, a more recent consequence was the arrival of the British Olympic team in Athens for the first 'modern' Olympiad the day before the opening - nobody told them the Greeks still used the Julian system and they believed they had 11 days to prepare! When we take into account that even 'true' believers now acknowledge that the birth that anchors our before and after system may have been a few years before more or less(in order to fit the astronomical/demographic(census)angle)what is more important is that people learn that 'years' while sometimes quite clear and certain.... can at other times develop a quantum aspect in that the closer you look at them ......the 'fuzzier' they appear to be.

  5. For an interesting take on the difficuties of early "BC" chronologies see a book written by David Rohl called A Test of Time. While definitly not the final say on Egyptian chronologies he does point out many of the inherent problems and makes some interesting observations - specifically on the early attempts to force fit the time frames in order to agree with the Bible which was still considered the final word.

  6. Funny, I use the phrase "xxxxx number of years ago". I am not arrogant enough to assume that my lecture will be remembered next year. Alternatively, I might say xxxxx number of years after Caesar died, the intention is to cement the relationship between the two events in time.
    But thats just me.

  7. << Alternatively, I might say xxxxx number of years after Caesar died ... >>
    Isn't it easier to say "in AD 14", or whatever?

    (Of course, if you say "in 14 CE", you're inviting the response, "what does CE mean?") ...

  8. Shouldn't we just compromise and use Voltaires' prefered VE (Vulgar Era). As Vulgarianism is everywhere on the rise and the tide of 'Vulgars' seems to be the wave of the future .... well whats an honest Citizen of Rome to do ? Just as the Jutes and their modern cultural descendants 'the Yutes' have forever changed our world,the Vulgarians will surely leave a permanent mark (or is it stain?). Witness the current political dialogue in the U.S. where a candidate for high office will attack his opponent for having attended Harvard or boast that 'If elected' I will (re)invade Mesopotamia(Iraq)and lets bomb the Persians while we are at it. Six weeks clean and 'withdrawal symptoms' are already in high gear. Yes I think I will start using the VE - Maybe even invoke Diocletians'(and Constantines')IOVI CONSERVATORI motto.