Writing About History

By Maeve Maddox

Ever since people started writing history, they’ve needed some way to locate events in time. Romans tied events to consular years. Two men were elected every year to serve in the office of consul. Roman historians said that a certain event took place in the year that Marcus Such and Such and Publius So and So were consuls.

Historians who lived in monarchies could date events to regnal years, that is, a time tied to the reign of a particular king. This battle was fought in the third year of King So and So.

Some Jewish and Christian writers referred to creation years. Various scholars believed they could date the creation of the earth from clues in the Bible. One commonly accepted date was October 7, 3761 BCE. Writers would use that date as a reference point.

Roman consular dating prevailed in the West until the year 541 CE when the Emperor Justinian I stopped appointing them.

The terms BC and AD were first used by a monk in about 525 CE. Its starting point was the year in which Jesus was thought to have been born. (Modern scholarship places the birth date of Jesus at 4 BCE.) Anything that happened before Year One is referred to as happening BC “Before Christ.” Anything after that date is said to have occurred AD “Anno Domini,” literally “in the year of the Lord,” i.e., after the birth of Jesus.

The traditional way of writing BC and AD dates is to put AD in front of the date and BC after it. For example, Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Joan of Arc was executed in AD 1431.

Now that the various cultures of the world have become intertwined, a dating system based on a particular religious view is no longer appropriate. Most writers of history have adopted the notations BCE and CE.

BCE stands for “Before Common Era.” CE stands for “Common Era.” In this notation, Julius Caesar died in 44 BCE; Joan of Arc in CE 1431. The dividing date between BCE and CE is a Year One that coincides with the Consular Year One in which Gaius Caesar and Lucius Aemilius Paulus were consuls.

Different dating systems are still being used in various contexts. Muslims use a calendar in which Year One corresponds to CE 622, the year in which Mohammad took his followers from Mecca to Medina. Anything before that date is referred to as BH; anything after, as AH. The H stands for the Arabic word hijra, “migration.” AH stands for the Latin Anno Hegirae, “in the year of the Hijra.”

The Jewish calendar references its Year One as the year before the Creation, i.e. 3762 BCE. For Buddhists Year One corresponds to 543 BCE, the year Buddha died.

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11 Responses to “Writing About History”

  • Mike Perry

    I quote: “Now that the various cultures of the world have become intertwined, a dating system based on a particular religious view is no longer appropriate. Most writers of history have adopted the notations BCE and CE.”

    That’s absurd. Our modern calendar names the months after deified Roman emperors (August=Augustus) and the days of the week after Northern European pagan deities (Thursday=Thor’s Day). Anyone who’s serious about not basing dating based on a “particular religious view” would also be revising those names and not simply the rarely used abbreviations BC and AD.

    This change targets Christianity only and does so for precisely the same reason historians of earlier generations tried to deny evidence that the native population of the Western hemisphere developed sophisticated civilizations. Given the secularized “political correctness” of contemporary academia, Christianity’s role in history must be minimized to the greatest extent possible. Like it or not, that’s bigotry and if anyone who thinks otherwise, must be consistent and spend the rest of your life fighting to rid us of Augustus’ month and Thor’s day. You can’t change one without changing the others.

    Also, keep in mind that the latter set of changes is far more logical. Once the original name is removed, there is absolutely nothing religious about a particular month or day of the week. Months are loosely based on the lunar cycle tweaked to fit 12 times in a solar year and weeks are simply a quartering of the lunar calendar.

    Not so for BCE and AD. Whatever term is used, they are still dating history from a particular year in history that has absolutely nothing to distinguish it except that it was once thought to be the year when Jesus Christ was born. It’s an attempt to make a real event into a non-event.

    This fake anonymousness is precisely what Nazism did when faced with Heinrich Heine’s marvelous poetry. He was so popular, they could not remove his poetry from schoolbooks. but he was also Jewish. Their solution was to include his poems with a caption “Author Unknown.” The “Common Era” of BCE and CE (“Common Era”) are simply the historian’s equivalent of “Author Unknown.” Jesus (who was Jewish) is removed from history in precisely the same way the Nazis removed historically important Jews. And never forget that Christianity is the primary way the Jews have impacted world history. Take Christianity out of history and you also removed much of the Jewish impact.

    And yes, I know most historians aren’t raving atheists. I once exchanged email with a history professor so sincere about his removal of BC and AD, that he actually took seriously my elaborately developed suggestions for renaming the days of the week and month. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Couldn’t he see that I wasn’t serious, that I was merely trying to make him see just how absurd his POV was?

    Tolerance is what Christianity has long displayed. It never got hung up over a calendar absolutely filled with pagan names. It knew people could say “Thursday, August 16,” without denying the faith. It really was tolerant. Modern, secularized “tolerance” is simply intolerance who’s very inconsistency makes its intent to rewrite history all too obvious.

    Also, keep in mind that objecting to celebrating the once-supposed year of Jesus’ birth is even less defensible than the cranks who object to celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday. The latter is an official, government sanctioned holiday when post offices are closed. The former doesn’t require any change in the behavior of anyone. A racist can’t mail packages on Martin Luther King day, but an atheist will never find his life altered one bit by reading BC and AD in history books, he’s in precisely the same position as a Christian seeing (far more often) a calendar with the equivalent of “Thor’s Day” over every page. In both cases, they’re simply words in common use for many centuries.

    –Mike Perry, Seattle
    Editor of Eugenics and Other Evils by G. K. Chesterton

  • Maeve

    Like it or not, that’s bigotry and if anyone who thinks otherwise, must be consistent and spend the rest of your life fighting to rid us of Augustus’ month and Thor’s day. You can’t change one without changing the others.

    The position stated above represents “political correctness” at its most absurd level. Absolutely equal treatment of everything and everyone is an abstract concept impossible to achieve, even if it were desirable.

    Wednesday, Thursday, March, January, Easter and the other common words derived from ancient religions have long since joined the ranks of such words as box, which can refer to a container made of metal or paper and not just wood, and dilapidated, which is now used to describe unmaintained structures made of materials other than stone.

    No one, as far as I know, still worships the divine Augustus. A few neo-pagans may address themselves to Thor, but not so many as to constitute a proportion of the world’s population that would register on a graph of living religions.

    As a traditionalist, I prefer BC and AD to the newer notation and have to make a conscious effort to edit them out when preparing a manuscript for publication. Nevertheless, I recognize the fact that, while no one thinks about the guy with the hammer when writing the word Thursday, millions of non-Christians react negatively to the use of BC and AD in publications intended for an international audience.

    Of the 6 billion plus human beings on this planet, 4 billion are not Christians. I regard the choice of CE and BCE in writing intended for an international audience as a matter of courtesy.

    You may find this breakdown of world religions of interest.

  • JLB

    Mike: I’m a former Christian and it is people like you who have driven me away from Chrisitanity. Your bible-thumping in-your-face attitudes don’t make it anymore.

  • Beth Jones

    I’ve subscribed to this newsletter for about two weeks now. So far, I’ve yet to read anything that’s actually useful to daily writing. I’d rather hear discussions about dangling participles, the controversial use of commas in certain situations, how to write clearly, etc. These conversations never get old when it comes to daily writing whether it’s professional or not. A page long essay on B.C. and A.D. is pretty much useless compared to many other much more important issues in writing. Get in touch with what people want and need to learn about in regards to daily writing, please.

  • obudjo2

    Mike, you did an execllent job of clarifying the bigoted hypocrisy of those moving away from BC and AD; Maeve, you only proved Mike’s point; JLB, other people may be the CATALYST for driving you away from Christianity, but you need to examine yourself for the real reason.

  • Caroline

    As writers, we must always have an open mind to other ways of referencing and writing something, as opposed to our own beliefs. The adage of “write what you know” changes when we endeavour to expand our horizons.

    This writing tip is not so much to “preach” one way of referencing something, but more for us to understand the different ways in which we do so! Will it scar you forever to understand that some people prefer BCE or CE rather than BC and AD? No, likely not. But will you understand the differences the next time you see them in texts you read? Yes. Will you now understand Jewish and Muslim calendars better if you see them in writing? Of course!

    For instance, we were taught in our grammar classes of old that the AD or BC always went after the year. This article states differently, causing me to look it up in my Style Guide. Now, when I am writing about something wherein I have to reference the era, I will be able to do so correctly.

    I think this is the intent of this tip, as a way to educate, and introduce people to the different ways our world denotes the passage of years and time.

    To say that one was is better than any other is to lose our true learning objectivity as writers, and negates our ability to form our opinions once we have all the knowledge. It does not matter if we are Christian (which I am), Muslim, Jewish, or Agnostic.

    Thanks for a great tip!

  • Beth Jones

    I think a tip on how to use quotations would be nice. Example: The word “preach” in an earlier post should be in bold — not in quotations. Now, that’s useful info!! A segment on how people regularly overuse and misuse quotations would be a truly useful bit of information. This might actually improve someone’s writing. Purpose of this blog?

  • logos

    The first poster does make a valid point. If it is inappropriate to use “BC” and “AD,” then it must be equally inappropriate to use the numeral that traditionally accompanies those abbreviations. After all, the numeral is based on the belief that the clock started at or near the birth of Christ. To say that it is “2007 CE” still connotes the birth of Christ roughly 2007 years ago, albeit in a less frank manner.

    Here is a compromise: if someone asserts that the current year is 2007, then AD is appropriate; on the other hand, if someone asserts that the current year is something other than 2007, then some other marker is appropriate. Splicing the number of the year from the very basis of its calculation is more nonsensical than “sensitive.”

  • Scott

    The common era thing is stupid. What the heck does common era even mean? Common to what? Why nit just use a positive sign and a negative sign instead. I am not a Christian but I think most people don’t even know what AD or B C even stand for. It is confusing because it is varied in text books. What do you say to someone who asks what common era means and how that date was chosen? Stupid. As a M.D. I have found most college professors to be idiots and to worry about things that don’t need to be worried about. How about working on teaching our stupid kids who can’t read. Nah, too difficult, let’s worry about whether Pluto is a planet or whether we use AD or CE. Your a bunch of idiots.

  • Silvia Graciela Martínez

    Could you please tell me what Common Era means, please? Does it refer to the standard definition of “era” as in the encyclopiadias?

  • Catherine

    I would like to take a moment to appreciate Mike Perry’s comment, even though it was written almost 7 years ago! Insightful and well-written comments are extremely rare on the Internet, and I am glad to have found one. I will look into Eugenics and Other Evils.

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