For over a thousand years, ancient Assyria used a system of eponyms to identify each year. Each year at the Akitu festival (celebrating the Mesopotamian new year), one of a small group of high officials (including the king in later periods) would be chosen by lot to serve as the limmu for the year, which meant that he would preside over the Akitu festival and the year would bear his name. The earliest attested limmu eponyms are from the Assyrian trading colony at Karum Kanesh in Anatolia, dating to the very beginning of the 2nd millennium BC, and they continued in use until the end of the Neo-Assyrian Period, ca. 612 BC.
Assyrian scribes compiled limmu lists, including an unbroken sequence of almost 250 eponyms from the early 1st millennium BC. This is an invaluable chronological aid, because a solar eclipse was recorded as having taken place in the limmu of Bur-Sagale, governor of Guzana. Astronomers have identified this eclipse as one that took place on 15 June 763 BC, which has allowed absolute dates of 892 to 648 BC to be assigned to that sequence of eponyms. This list of absolute dates has allowed many of the events of the Neo-Assyrian Period to be dated to a specific year, avoiding the chronological debates that characterize earlier periods of Mesopotamian history.
Among the ancient Greek historians and scholars, a common method of indicating the passage of years was based on the Olympic Games, first held in 776 BC. The Olympic Games provided the various independent city-states with a mutually recognizable system of dates. Olympiad dating was not used in everyday life. This system was in use from the 3rd century BC. The modern Olympic Games (or Summer Olympic Games beginning 1896) do not continue the four year periods from ancient Greece: the 669th Olympiad would have begun in the summer of 1897, but the modern Olympics were first held in 1896.:769
Another common system was the indiction cycle (15 indictions made up an agricultural tax cycle in Roman Egypt, an indiction being a year in duration). Documents and events began to be dated by the year of the cycle (e.g., "fifth indiction", "tenth indiction") in the 4th century, and this system was used long after the tax ceased to be collected. It was used in Gaul, in Egypt until the Islamic conquest, and in the Eastern Roman Empire until its conquest in 1453.
The rule for computing the indiction from the AD year number, which he had just invented, was stated by Dionysius Exiguus: add 3 and divide by 15; the remainder is the indiction, with 0 understood to be the fifteenth indiction.:770 Thus 2001 was the ninth indiction. The beginning of the year for the indiction varied.:769–71
The Seleucid era was used in much of the Middle East from the 4th century BC to the 6th century AD, and continued until the 10th century AD among Oriental Christians. The era is computed from the epoch 312 BC: in August of that year Seleucus I Nicator captured Babylon and began his reign over the Asian portions of Alexander the Great's empire. Thus depending on whether the calendar year is taken as starting on 1 Tishri or on 1 Nisan (respectively the start of the Jewish civil and ecclesiastical years) the Seleucid era begins either in 311 BC (the Jewish reckoning) or in 312 BC (the Greek reckoning: October–September).
An early and common practice was Roman 'consular' dating. This involved naming both consules ordinarii who had taken up this office on 1 January (since 153 BC) of the relevant civil year.:6 Sometimes one or both consuls might not be appointed until November or December of the previous year, and news of the appointment may not have reached parts of the Roman empire for several months into the current year; thus we find the occasional inscription where the year is defined as "after the consulate" of a pair of consuls.
The use of consular dating ended in AD 541 when the emperor Justinian I discontinued appointing consuls. The last consul nominated was Anicius Faustus Albinus Basilius. Soon afterwards, imperial regnal dating was adopted in its place.
Dating from the founding of Rome
Another method of dating, rarely used, was anno urbis conditae (Latin: "in the year of the founded city" (abbreviated AUC), where "city" meant Rome). (It is often incorrectly given that AUC stands for ab urbe condita, which is the title of Titus Livius's history of Rome.)
Several epochs were in use by Roman historians. Modern historians usually adopt the epoch of Varro, which we place in 753 BC.
The system was introduced by Marcus Terentius Varro in the 1st century BC. The first day of its year was Founder's Day (21 April), although most modern historians assume that it coincides with the modern historical year (1 January to 31 December). It was rarely used in the Roman calendar and in the early Julian calendar – naming the two consuls that held office in a particular year was dominant. AD 2020 is thus approximately the same as AUC 2773 (2020 + 753).
About AD 400, the Iberian historian Orosius used the AUC era. Pope Boniface IV (about AD 600) may have been the first to use both the AUC era and the Anno Domini era (he put AD 607 = AUC 1360).
Regnal years of Roman emperors
Another system that is less commonly found than might be thought was the use of the regnal year of the Roman emperor. At first, Augustus indicated the year of his reign by counting how many times he had held the office of consul, and how many times the Roman Senate had granted him Tribunican powers, carefully observing the fiction that his powers came from these offices granted to him, rather than from his own person or the many legions under his control. His successors followed his practice until the memory of the Roman Republic faded (about AD 200), when they began to use their regnal year openly.
Dating from the Roman conquest
Some regions of the Roman Empire dated their calendars from the date of Roman conquest, or the establishment of Roman rule.
The Spanish era counted the years from 38 BC, probably the date of a new tax imposed by the Roman Republic on the subdued population of Iberia. The date marked the establishment of Roman rule in Spain and was used in official documents in Portugal, Aragon, Valencia, and in Castile, into the 14th century. This system of calibrating years fell to disuse in 1381 and was replaced by today's Anno Domini.
Throughout the Roman and Byzantine periods, the Decapolis and other Hellenized cities of Syria and Palestine used the Pompeian era, counting dates from the Roman general Pompey's conquest of the region in 63 BC.
A different form of calendar was used to track longer periods of time, and for the inscription of calendar dates (i.e., identifying when one event occurred in relation to others). This form, known as the Long Count, is based upon the number of elapsed days since a mythological starting-point. According to the calibration between the Long Count and Western calendars accepted by the great majority of Maya researchers (known as the GMT correlation), this starting-point is equivalent to 11 August, 3114 BC in the proleptic Gregorian calendar or 6 September in the Julian calendar (−3113 astronomical).
Other dating systems
A great many local systems or eras were also important, for example the year from the foundation of one particular city, the regnal year of the neighboring Persian emperor, and eventually even the year of the reigning Caliph.
Late Antiquity and Middle Ages
Most of the traditional calendar eras in use today were introduced at the time of transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, roughly between the 6th and 10th centuries.
The Etos Kosmou of the Byzantine Calendar places Creation at the beginning of its year 1, namely 5509 BC. Its first known use occurred in the 7th century AD, although its precursors were developed about AD 400. The year 7509 of this era began in September 2000.
The Era of Martyrs or Era of Diocletian is reckoned from the beginning of the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian; the first year of this era was 284/5. It was not the custom to use regnal years in Rome, but it was the custom in Roman Egypt, which the emperor ruled through a prefect (the king of Egypt). The year number changed on the first day of the Egyptian month Thoth (29 August three years out of four, 30 August the year before a Roman leap year.) Diocletian abolished the special status of Egypt, which thereafter followed the normal Roman calendar: consular years beginning on 1 January. This era was used in the Easter tables prepared in Alexandria long after the abdication of Diocletian, even though Diocletian was a notorious persecutor of Christians. The Era of Diocletian was retained by the Coptic Church and used for general purposes, but by 643 the name had been changed to Era of the Martyrs.:766–7
The era based on the Incarnation of Christ was introduced by Dionysius Exiguus in 525 and is in continued use with various reforms and derivations. The distinction between the Incarnation being the conception or the Nativity of Jesus was not drawn until the late ninth century.:881 The beginning of the numbered year varied from place to place: when, in 1600, Scotland adopted 1 January as the date the year number changes, this was already the case in much of continental Europe. England adopted this practice in 1752.:7
A.D. (or AD) – for the LatinAnno Domini, meaning "in the year of (our) Lord". This is the dominant or Western Christian Era; AD is used in the Gregorian calendar. Anno Salutis, meaning "in the year of salvation" is identical. Originally intended to number years from the Incarnation of Jesus, according to modern thinking the calculation was a few years off. Years preceding AD 1 are numbered using the BC era, avoiding zero or negative numbers. AD was also used in the medieval Julian calendar, but the first day of the year was either 1 March, Easter, 25 March, 1 September, or 25 December, not 1 January. To distinguish between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, O.S. and N.S. were often added to the date, especially during the 17th and 18th centuries, when both calendars were in common use. Old Style (O.S.) was used for the Julian calendar and for years not beginning on 1 January. New Style (N.S.) was used for the Gregorian calendar and for Julian calendar years beginning on 1 January. Many countries switched to using 1 January as the start of the numbered year at the same time as they switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, but others switched earlier or later.
B.C. (or BC) – meaning "Before Christ". Used for years before AD 1, counting backwards so the year n BC is n years before AD 1. Thus there is no year 0.
C.E. (or CE) and B.C.E. (or BCE) – meaning "Common Era" and "Before the Common Era", numerically equivalent to AD and BC, respectively (in writing, "AD" precedes the year number, but "CE" follows the year: AD 1 = 1 CE.) The Latin equivalent vulgaris aera was used as early as 1615 by Johannes Kepler. The English abbreviations C.E. and B.C.E. were introduced in the 19th century by Jewish intellectuals, wishing to avoid the abbreviation for dominus "lord" in implicit reference to Christ. By the later 20th century, the abbreviations had come into wider usage by authors who wished to emphasize secularism.
Astronomical year numbering equates its year 0 with 1 BC, and counts negative years from 2 BC backward (−1 backward), so 100 BC is −99.
A.H.S. (or AHS) is used by the Iranian calendar to denote the number of solar years since the Hijra. The year beginning at the vernal equinox equals the number of the Gregorian year beginning at the preceding 1 January minus 621.
Hindu calendar, counting from the start of the Kali Yuga, with its epoch on 18 February, 3102 BC Julian (23 January, 3102 BC Gregorian), based on Aryabhata (6th century).
S.E. or (SE) – for the Saka Era, used in some Hindu calendars and in the Indian national calendar, with an epoch near the vernal equinox of year 78 (its year 0); its usage spread to Southeast Asia before year 1000. This era is also used (together with the Gregorian calendar) in the Indian national calendar, the official civil calendar used in communiques issued by the Government of India.
B.E. – for the Buddhist Era, introduced by Vajiravudh in 1912, which has an epoch (origin) of 544 BC. This year is called year 1 in Sri Lanka and Burma, but year 0 in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Thus the year 2500 B.E. occurred in 1956 in the former countries, but in 1957 in the latter. In Thailand in 1888 King Chulalongkorn decreed a National Thai Era, dating from the founding of Bangkok on 6 April 1782. In 1912 New Year's Day was shifted to 1 April. In 1941 Prime Minister Phibunsongkhram decided to count the years since 543 BC. This is the Thai solar calendar using the Thai Buddhist Era aligned to the western solar calendar.
B.E. – The Bahá'í calendar dates from the year of the declaration of the Báb. Years are counted in the Bahá'í Era (BE), which starts its year 1 from 21 March 1844.
A.M. (or AM) – for the Latin Anno Mundi, meaning "in the year of the world", has its epoch in the year 3761 BC. This was first used to number the years of the modern Hebrew calendar in 1178 by Maimonides. Precursors with epochs one or two years later were used since the 3rd century, all based on the Seder Olam Rabba of the 2nd century. The year beginning in the northern autumn of 2000 was 5761 AM).
The Republican Era of the French Republican Calendar was dated from 22 September 1792, the day of the proclamation of the French First Republic. It was used in Revolutionary France from 24 October 1793 (on the Gregorian calendar) to 31 December 1805.
The Era Fascista 'Fascist Era' was instituted by the Italian Fascists and used Roman numerals to denote the number of years since the March on Rome in 1922. Therefore, 1934, for example, was XII E.F. (era fascista). This era was abolished with the fall of fascism in Italy on 25 July 1943, but restored in the northern part of the country during the Italian Social Republic. The Gregorian calendar remained in simultaneous use and a double numbering was adopted: the year of the Common era was presented in Arabic numerals and the year of the fascist era in Roman numerals. The year of the Fascist calendar began on 29 October, so, for example, 27 October 1933 was XI E.F. but 30 October 1933 was XII E.F.
China traditionally reckoned by the regnal year of its emperors, see Chinese era name. Most Chinese do not assign numbers to the years of the Chinese calendar, but the few who do, like expatriate Chinese, use a continuous count of years from the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor, using 2698 BC as year 1. Western writers begin this count at either 2637 BC or 2697 BC (see Chinese calendar). Thus, the Chinese years 4637, 4697, or 4698 began in early 2000.
In Korea, from 1952 until 1961 years were numbered via Dangi years, where 2333 BC was regarded as the first such year.
The Japanese calendar dates from the accession of the current Emperor of Japan. The current emperor took the throne in May 2019, which became Reiwa 1, and which was until then Heisei 31.
The United States government sometimes uses a calendar of the era of its Independence, fixed on 4 July 1776, together with the Anno Domini civil calendar. For instance, its Constitution is dated "the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth."Presidential proclamations are also dated in this way.
e.v. – Era vulgaris. (From Latin, meaning "common era", usually stylized in lowercase.) The Thelemic calendar is used by some Thelemites to designate a number of years since Aleister Crowley's inauguration of the so-called Aeon of Horus, which occurred on 20 March 1904, and coincides with both the Thelemic new year and a holiday known as the Equinox of the Gods. The abbreviation "A.N.", for Aerae Novae ("New Era" in Latin), is sometimes also used.
HE – for counting elapsed years of the Holocene from near the beginning of the Neolithic revolution of the Holocene epoch, specifically by adding exactly 10,000 years to AD (Anno Domini) or CE (Common Era) years, and subtracting BC/BCE years from 10001.
Julian day number – for counting days, not years, its era fixed at noon 1 January, 4713 BC in the proleptic Julian calendar. This equals 24 November, 4714 BC in the proleptic Gregorian calendar. From noon of this day to noon of the next day was day 0. Multiples of 7 are Mondays. Negative values can also be used. Apart from the choice of the zero point and name, this Julian day and Julian date are not related to the Julian calendar. It does not count years, so, strictly speaking, it has no era, but it does have an epoch. Today (noon-to-noon UTC) the value is 2459033.
^Richards, E. G. (2013). "Calendars". In Urban, Sean E.; Seidelmann, P. Kenneth (eds.). Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac (3 ed.). Mill Valley, CA: Univ Science Books. ISBN1-891389-85-8.
^Gedaliah ibn Jechia the Spaniard, Shalshelet Ha-Kabbalah, Jerusalem 1962, p. 271 (Hebrew)
^Associated Press Stylebook. New York: Basic Books. 2007. p. 6. ISBN978-0-465-00489-8.. "Because the full phrase would read in the year of the Lord 96, the abbreviation A.D. goes before the figure for the year: A.D. 96."
^A 1635 English edition of that book has the title page in English – so far, the earliest-found usage of "Vulgar Era" in English. The English phrase "common Era" appears at least as early as 1708.
In Latin, "Common Era" is written as Vulgaris Aera. It also occasionally appears as æra vulgaris, aera vulgaris, anni vulgaris, vulgaris aera Christiana, and anni vulgatae nostrae aerae Christianas.
^Use of "C.E." and "B.C.E.": Morris Jacob Raphall. Post-Biblical History of The Jews (1856).
Explicit use of "b.c.e." for "before the common era":
Max Stern, Lemaʼan Yilmedu: A Second Hebrew Reader for Jewish Schools and Private Instruction (1881), p. 37.