Our modern passion for marking anniversaries can be traced back to the ancient Etruscans, whose belief in the cosmic significance of historical cycles was absorbed by the Romans. According to their augurs, every 110 years — then the maximum possible length of a human life — formed a distinct historical epoch called a saeculum, represented by its own metal (the golden age was best, silver second best…) and ruled by its own astrological power. Overall, history went in 10-saeculum cycles from glory to decadence to disaster to renewal and back again, ad infinitum, echoing the eternal movements of the seasons themselves. The turning of each cycle was marked with a festival or religious rite. Naturally, this emphasis on dates and cycles provoked an artificial self-awareness at key transitional moments — the Roman millennium of 248 A.D. being one extreme case, and the New Year’s Eve party of 1999 A.D. being another.
This ancient obsession has filtered down today in the excessive significance many people place on their 30th, 40th, 50th (and so on) birthdays — with their attendant introspection and depression (the cause for us being less the cosmic cycle than the one-way process of aging). Things about our lives that we barely noticed on our 28th birthday might seem urgently in need of repair on the 30th, often for no good reason.
Unfortunately, the Romans often got their dates wrong. Take the 1000th anniversary of the Eternal City. The year of Rome’s foundation was decided by a dotty academic named Varro: In the first century B.C., he pored over the city’s shadowy records, ancient genealogies, and folk romances to identify the exact moment when the semi-mythical herdsman Romulus fenced together seven hills into a village and became the first king of Rome. Varro magically came up with (by our reckoning), 21 April, 753 B.C., which became universally accepted, despite being entirely spurious.
Of course, the Christians were no more accurate.
You’d think that the question “What year was Jesus Christ born?” would be on a par with “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” After all, the whole Gregorian calendar is based on the assumption that the historical Jesus was born in 1 A.D., Anno Domini One, the first Year of Our Lord. (There was no Year Zero). Unfortunately, they screwed up their dates, too. Around 525 A.D., a scholar in Byzantium named Dionysius Exiguus, or “Dennis the Little,” set out to identify the year Jesus was born based on Gospel references. Most scholars who cross-reference New Testament with other historical events — the death of King Herod, Roman consulships we know about — now think Christ was born a few years earlier, probably 4 BC, four years before Christ. In the 17th century, Bishop Usher went on to trace Old Testament genealogies to pinpoint God’s creation of the world on 23 October, 4004 B.C. and the date that Noah’s Ark settled on Mount Ararat as 5 May, 2348 B.C. – “a Wednesday.” This assessment is still accepted as gospel by the dottier Creationist groups in the United States.
Even in Rome today, there is still a small festival and procession held every April 21, to celebrate the city’s mythic founding in 753 B.C., although few like to consider whether the Western world is on the cycle towards a golden age or decay. • 31 July 2009
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Potter, D.S., Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire: a Historical Commentary on the Thirteenth Sybilline Oracle, (London, 1990).