Dionysius Exiguus (
Latin for "Dionysius the Humble"[a]; c. AD 470
– c. AD 544) was a 6th-century monk born in Scythia Minor
(probably modern Dobruja, in
Romania and Bulgaria). He was a member of
a community of
Scythian monks concentrated in Tomis, the major city of
Scythia Minor. Dionysius is best known as the inventor of the Anno
Domini (AD) era, which is used to number the years of both the
Gregorian calendar and the (Christianised) Julian calendar. Some
churches adopted his computus (calculation) for the dates of Easter.
From about 500, he lived in Rome, where, as a learned member of the
Roman Curia, he translated from Greek into
Latin 401 ecclesiastical
canons, including the apostolical canons; the decrees of the councils
of Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon and Sardis; and a collection of
the decretals of the popes from Siricius to Anastasius II. These
Collectiones canonum Dionysianae
Collectiones canonum Dionysianae had great authority in the West, and
continues to guide church administrations. Dionysius also wrote a
treatise on elementary mathematics.
The author of a continuation of Dionysius's Computus, writing in 616,
described Dionysius as a "most learned abbot of the city of Rome", and
Bede accorded him the honorific abbas, which could be
applied to any monk, especially a senior and respected monk, and does
not necessarily imply that Dionysius ever headed a monastery; indeed,
Cassiodorus stated in Institutiones that he was
still a monk late in life.
2 Works and translations
3 Anno Domini
5 See also
9 External links
According to his friend and fellow-student, Cassiodorus, Dionysius
although by birth a "Scythian", was in character a true Roman, most
learned in both tongues (by which he meant Greek and Latin). He was
also a thorough Catholic Christian and an accomplished Scripturist.
The use of such an ambiguous, dated term as "Scythian" raises the
suspicion that his contemporaries had difficulties classifying him,
either from lack of knowledge about him personally or about his native
land, Scythia Minor.:127 By the 6th century, the term "Scythian"
could mean an inhabitant of Scythia Minor, or simply someone from the
north-east of the Greco-Roman world, centred on the Mediterranean. The
term had a wide-encompassing meaning, devoid of clear ethnic
attributes.:127 Even for the "
Scythian monk" Joannes Maxentius,
friend and companion of Dionysius, the two monks are "Scythian" by
virtue of their geographical origin relative to Rome, just like
Faustus of Riez
Faustus of Riez is a "Gaul".:127
The dubious assertion, based on a single Syriac source, that the
Eastern-Roman rebel general Vitalian, to whom Dionysius seems to have
been related, was of Gothic extraction was the basis for labelling,
without any further evidence, all of the
Scythian monks, Dionysius
included, as "Goths".:128 In Greek and
Latin sources, Vitalian is
sometimes labelled with the same ambiguous term "Scytha"; he is
presented as commanding "Hunnic", "Gothic", "Scythian", "Bessian"
soldiers, but this information says more about the general's military
endeavours, and bears little relevance to clarifying his origins.
Furthermore, since none of the
Scythian monks expressed any kinship,
by blood or spiritual, with the Arian
Goths who at that time ruled
Italy, a Gothic origin for Dionysius is questionable.:130 Vitalian
seems to have been of local Latinised Dacian-Getic (Thracian) stock,
Scythia Minor or in Moesia; his father bore a
Patriciolus, while two of his sons had Thracian names and one a Gothic
name.:129 By the time of the flourishing of the
Scythian monks, the
provinces from the Lower Danube, long since Latinised, were already a
centre for the production of Latin-speaking theologians. Most likely
Dionysius was also of local
Thraco-Roman origin, like Vitalian's
family to whom he was related, and the rest of the
Scythian monks and
Thraco-Roman personalities of the era (Justin I, Justinian,
Flavius Aetius, etc.).:130–131
Works and translations
Dionysius translated standard works from Greek into Latin, principally
the "Life of St. Pachomius", the "Instruction of St. Proclus of
Constantinople" for the Armenians, the "De opificio hominis" of St.
Gregory of Nyssa, and the history of the discovery of the head of St.
John the Baptist. The translation of St. Cyril of Alexandria's
synodical letter against Nestorius, and some other works long
attributed to Dionysius are now acknowledged to be earlier and are
assigned to Marius Mercator.
Of great importance were the contributions of Dionysius to the
tradition of canon law. His several collections embrace:
1. A collection of synodal decrees, of which he has left two editions:
a. Codex canonum Ecclesiæ Universæ. This contains canons of Oriental
synods and councils only in Greek and Latin, including those of the
four œcumenical councils from Nicæa (325) to Chalcedon (451).
b. Codex canonum ecclesiasticarum. This is in
Latin only; its contents
agree generally with the other, but the Council of Ephesus (431) is
omitted, while the so-called "Canons of the Apostles" and those of
Sardica are included, as well as 138 canons of the African Council of
c. Another bilingual version of Greek canons, undertaken at the
instance of Pope Hormisdas, only the preface has been preserved.
2. A collection of papal Constitutions (Collectio decretorum
Pontificum Romanorum) from Siricius to Anastasius II (384–498).
Dionysius is best known as the inventor of the
Anno Domini era, which
is used to number the years of both the
Gregorian calendar and the
Julian calendar. He used it to identify the several Easters in his
Easter table, but did not use it to date any historical event. When he
devised his table,
Julian calendar years were identified by naming the
consuls who held office that year; he himself stated that the "present
year" was "the consulship of Probus Junior", which he also stated was
525 years "since the incarnation of our Lord
Jesus Christ". How he
arrived at that number is unknown, but there is evidence of the system
he applied. He invented a new system of numbering years to replace the
Diocletian years that had been used in an old
Easter table because he
did not wish to continue the memory of a tyrant who persecuted
Christians. It has been suggested that he arranged the numbers so
that leap years would be exactly divisible by four, and that his new
table would begin one "Victorian cycle" (see below), i.e. 532 years,
after his new epoch. The
Anno Domini era became dominant in western
Europe only after it was used by the Venerable
Bede to date the events
in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731.
Evidence exists that Dionysius' desire to replace Diocletian years
with a calendar based on the incarnation of Christ was to prevent
people from believing the imminent end of the world. At the time, some
believed that the
Second Coming and end of the world would occur 500
years after the birth of Jesus. The current
Anno Mundi calendar
commenced with the creation of the world based on information in the
Old Testament. It was believed that, based on the
Anno Mundi calendar,
Jesus was born in the year 5500 (or 5500 years after the world was
created) with the year 6000 of the
Anno Mundi calendar marking the end
of the world.
Anno Mundi 6000 (approximately AD 500) was thus
equated with the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.
In 525, Dionysius prepared a table of the future dates of
Easter and a
set of "arguments" explaining their calculation (computus). This
followed a request by Pope John I, possibly influenced by the fact
that the then current Victorian tables gave an
Easter date for 526 (19
April) which was the 22nd day of the moon. In a previous
embarrassment, the tables had given Saturday, 24 April as the date of
Easter in 482. Note well that only the first nine
arguments are by Dionysius – arguments 10 to 16 as well as the
second paragraphs of 3 and 4 and the third paragraph of 9 are later
interpolations. Arguments 11 and 12 imply that these were interpolated
in the year 675, shortly before Bede. Dionysius also introduced his
tables and arguments via a letter to a bishop Petronius (also written
in 525) and added another explanatory letter (written in 526). These
works in volume 67 of the 217-volume
Patrologia Latina also include a
letter from Bishop
Proterius of Alexandria
Proterius of Alexandria to Pope Leo (written before
457). Though not named by Dionysius, this collection was recently
called his Liber de Paschate (Book on Easter) by Audette.
Dionysius ignored the existing tables used by the Patriarchate of
Rome, which were prepared in 457 by Victorius of Aquitaine,
complaining that they did not obey Alexandrian principles, without
actually acknowledging their existence. To be sure that his own tables
were correct, he simply extended a set of tables prepared in
Alexandria that had circulated in the west in Latin, but were never
used in the west to determine the date of
Easter (however, they were
used in the Byzantine Empire, in Greek). The
Latin tables were
prepared by a subordinate of Bishop Cyril of
Alexandria shortly before
Cyril's death in 444. They covered a period of 95 years or five
decennovenal (19-year) cycles with years dated in the Diocletian Era,
whose first year was 285 (the modern historical year in progress at
Easter). Diocletian years were advantageous because their division by
19 yielded a remainder equal to the year of the decennovenal cycle
Ultimately, Dionysius Exiguus'
Easter table, meanwhile extended from
the years 532- 626 to the years 532-721, must have been adopted at
Rome and also have arrived in Britain and Ireland, where, however
in both cases certainly not before the second quarter of the seventh
century, Victorius of Aquitaine’s lunar limits 16-22 were
gradually replaced with Dionysius’ lunar limits 15-21; only then the
discord between the churches of
Alexandria regarding the
correct date for the celebration of
Easter came to an end, and only
from then both these authoritative churches used identical tables and
Easter on the same day.
The Greek tables had begun with the new moon which fell (on 29 August)
the day before the starting date of their chronology, which was 30
August 284. The epact thus calculated was carried over unchanged by
Dionysius into his tables together with a number from one to seven,
calculated annually, called by the Greeks the "day of the [planetary]
gods" and in the west the "concurrent". This number the Greeks used
for calculating the day of the week for any date in their calendar,
simple arithmetic because all their months had thirty days. These two
variables were understood neither by Dionysius nor by the other
western computists, who were used to working with the age of the moon
on 1 January and the Sunday letters to determine the Sundays. This is
why the tables took so long to gain acceptance, but the values were
eventually assimilated into the theory, the concurrent as the weekday
of 24 March and the epact as the age of the moon on 22 March.
The epact, since it originally marked the new moon, was zero in all
first decennovenal years, making Dionysius the first known medieval
Latin writer to use a precursor of the number zero. The
nulla meaning no/none was used because no
Roman numeral for zero
existed. To determine the decennovenal year, the Dionysian year plus
one was divided by 19. If the result was zero (to be replaced by 19),
it was represented by the
Latin word nihil, also meaning nothing. Both
"zeros" continued to be used by (among others) Bede, by whose
extension of Dionysius Exiguus’
Easter table to a great
Julian calendar dates of
Easter Sunday were fixed
unambiguously at last. However, in medieval Europe one had to wait as
late as the second millennium to see the number zero itself come into
use, although it had come into being around the year 600 in India.
Dionysius copied the last decennovenal cycle of the Cyrillian table
ending with Diocletian 247, and then added a new 95-year table with
numbered Anni Domini Nostri Jesu Christi (Years of our Lord Jesus
Christ) because, as he explained to Petronius, he did not wish to
continue the memory of a tyrant who persecuted Christians. The only
reason he gave for beginning his new 95-year table with the year 532
was that six years were still left in the Cyrillian table after the
year during which he wrote. For the current year he only stated that
it was 525 years after the Incarnation of Christ, without stating when
this event occurred in any other calendar. He did not realise that the
dates of the Alexandrian
Easter repeated after 532 years, despite his
apparent knowledge of the Victorian 532-year 'cycle', indicating only
Easter did not repeat after 95 years. He knew that Victorian
Easters did not agree with Alexandrian Easters, thus he no doubt
assumed that they had no bearing on any Alexandrian cycle.
Furthermore, he obviously did not realise that simply multiplying 19
by 4 by 7 (decennovenal cycle × cycle of leap years × days in a
week) fixed the Alexandrian cycle at 532 years, otherwise he would
have stated such a simple fact.
Most of the British Church accepted the Dionysian tables after the
Synod of Whitby
Synod of Whitby in 664, which agreed that the old British method (the
insular latercus) should be dropped in favour of the Roman one. Quite
a few individual churches and monasteries refused to accept them, the
last holdout finally accepting them during the early 10th century. The
Church of the Franks (France) accepted them during the late 8th
century under the tutelage of Alcuin, after he arrived from Britain.
Ever since the 2nd century, some bishoprics in the eastern Roman
Empire had counted years from the birth of Christ, but there was no
agreement on the correct epoch – Clement of
Alexandria (c. 190)
Eusebius of Caesarea
Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 320) wrote about these attempts.
Because Dionysius did not place the Incarnation in an explicit year,
competent scholars have deduced both AD 1 and 1 BC. The
reason for his omission may be simply that the starting date was
computationally convenient, or that he did not believe that the date
of the Nativity could be pinpointed exactly. Ambiguities arise from
the fact that eras may be either elapsed or current years, there are
discrepancies in the lists of consuls, and there is disagreement as to
whether the Incarnation should be reckoned from the Annunciation or
the Nativity. Most scholars have selected 1 BC (historians do not
use a year zero), arguing that because the anniversary of the
Incarnation was 25 March, which was near Easter, a year that was 525
years "since the Incarnation" implied that 525 whole years were
completed near that Easter. Consequently, one year since the
Incarnation would have meant 25 March 1, meaning that Dionysius placed
the Incarnation on 25 March 1 BC. Because the birth of
nine calendar months later, Dionysius implied, but never stated, that
Jesus was born 25 December 1 BC. Only one scholar, Georges
Declerq (Declerq, 2002), thinks that Dionysius placed the Incarnation
and Nativity in AD 1, basing his conclusion on the structure of
Easter tables. In either case, Dionysius ignored his
predecessors, who usually placed the Nativity in the year we now label
2 BC. In his 1605 thesis, the Polish historian Laurentius Suslyga
was the first to suggest that Christ was actually born around 4
BC, deriving this from the chronology of Herod the Great, his son
Philip the Tetrarch, and the daughter of Augustus, Julia. Having
read Suslyga's work, Kepler noted that Christ was born during the
reign of King
Herod the Great
Herod the Great (2:1–18), whose death he placed in
4 BC. Kepler chose this year because
Josephus stated that a lunar
eclipse occurred shortly before Herod's death. John Pratt of the
International Planetarium Society proposed the 29 December 1 BC
eclipse as another eclipse. According to Josephus, Herod died in
the year 4 or 3 BC.
Although Dionysius stated that the
First Council of Nicaea
First Council of Nicaea in 325
sanctioned his method of dating Easter, that is only generally true.
There was no formal canon - the Council was working with Canon 1 of
the Council of Arles (AD 314) which had decreed that the Christian
Passover be celebrated uno die et uno tempore per omnem orbem (on one
day and at one time through all the world) and had charged the bishop
Rome with fixing the date. A circular letter from the Emperor
Constantine to bishops who did not attend records:
It was judged good and proper, all questions and contradictions being
left aside, that the eastern brothers follow the example of the Romans
and Alexandrians and all the others so that everyone should let their
prayers rise to heaven on one single day of holy Pascha.
A synodal letter to the church of
All our eastern brothers who up till now have not been in agreement
with the Romans or you or with all those who from the beginning have
done as you do, will henceforth celebrate Pascha at the same time as
Dionysius' method had actually been used by the Church of Alexandria
(but not by the Church of Rome) at least as early as 311, and probably
began during the first decade of the 4th century, its dates naturally
being given in the Alexandrian calendar. Thus Dionysius did not
develop a new method of dating Easter. The most that he may have done
was convert its arguments from the
Alexandrian calendar into the
Julian calendar. The resulting Julian date for
Easter was the Sunday
following the first Luna XIV (the 14th day of the moon) that occurred
on or after the XII Kalendas Aprilis (21 March) (12 days before the
first of April, inclusive). The 14th day of the moon, Nisan 14, was
the date that paschal lambs were slain (in late afternoon) until the
destruction of the
Second Temple in 70 prevented their continuing
sacrifice, as well as the day when all leavened bread crumbs had to be
collected and burned, hence Nisan 14 was the day of preparation for
Passover (Lev 23:5).
Alexandria may have chosen it because it was the
day that Christ was crucified according to the
Gospel of John
Gospel of John (18:28,
19:14), in direct contradiction to the
Synoptic Gospels (Matthew
26:17, Mark 14:12, and Luke 22:7), who state that he was crucified
after he ate the Seder, his Last Supper. Then and now, the Seder was
eaten after sundown at the beginning of Nisan 15. Because Dionysius's
method of computing
Easter used dates in the Julian calendar, it is
also called the Julian Easter. This
Easter is still used by all
Orthodox churches, even those which have regularized the rest of their
calendars with the West. The Gregorian
Easter still uses the same
definition, but relative to its own solar and lunar dates.
Ab urbe condita
^ Sometimes rendered in English as Dennis the Small, the Dwarf, the
Little, or the Short, referring to his humility.
^ "Trecerea în rândul sfinţilor a domnitorului Neagoe Basarab, a
lui Dionisie cel Smerit si a mitropolitului Iachint de Vicina" (in
Romanian). Basilica (Romanian Orthodox Church news agency). 8 July
2008. Archived from the original on 7 December 2008. Retrieved 9 July
^ "Sfântul Dionisie Exiguul, sfânt ocrotitor al Institutului
Naţional de Statistică" (in Romanian). Ziarul Lumina (Romanian
Orthodox Church newspaper). 13 September 2008. Archived from the
original on 7 December 2008. Retrieved 23 September 2008.
^ Dionysius Monachus, Scytha natione, sed moribus omnino Romanus, in
utraque lingua valde doctissimus. Cassiodorus. "Chapter XXIII". De
Institutione Divinarum Litterarum (PDF) (in Latin). At the
Documenta Catholica Omnia online library.
Dionysius Exiguus in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
^ a b c d e f g Patrick Amory, People and Identity in Ostrogothic
Italy, 489–554, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
^ Blackburn & Holford-Strevens 2003, 767.
^ Wallraff, Martin: Julius Africanus und die Christliche Weltchronik.
Walter de Gruyter, 2006.
^ Mosshammer, Alden A.: The
Computus and the Origins of the
Christian Era. Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 254, p. 270, p. 328.
^ Declercq, Georges: Anno Domini. The Origins of the Christian Era.
Turnhout Belgium. 2000.
^ Blackburn & Holford-Strevens 1999, 793 - 794.
^ G Declercq, Anno Domini: The Origins of the Christian Era, Turnhout
(2000), p 152.
^ G Declercq, Anno Domini: The Origins of the Christian Era, Turnhout
(2000), p 153.
^ L Holford - Strevens, The History of Time: A Very Short
Introduction, Oxford (2005), p 50.
^ L Holford - Strevens, The History of Time: A Very Short
Introduction, Oxford (2005), pp 49 - 51.
^ Marking Time, by Duncan Steel.
^ Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West,
by Anthony Grafton.
^ Kepler and the Star of Bethlehem by W. Burke-Gaffney.
^ Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVII, Chapter VI, Paragraph 4.
^ a b John P. Pratt, “Yet another eclipse for Herod” originally
published in The Planetarian, vol. 19, no. 4, Dec. 1990, pp. 8–14.
Josephus ... not always clear and ... sometimes inconsistent ...
states that Herod captured Jerusalem and began to reign in what we
would call 37 B.C., and lived for 34 years thereafter, implying
his death was in 4–3 B.C.” “Of the candidates to be Herod's
eclipse, the December 29, 1 B.C. eclipse was the most likely to
have been widely observed.”
^ Herod died 34 years after the death of Antigonus and 37 years after
Herod was made king by the Romans (Ant. Jews 17.8.1). Antigonus died
when Marcus Agrippa and Caninius Gallus were consuls (37 BC) (Ant.
Jews 14.16.4). Herod was made king when Caius Domitias Calvinus and
Caius Asinius Pollio were consuls (40 BC) (Ant. Jews 14.14.5). Both
37 BC minus 34 and 40 BC minus 37 yield 4 or 3 BC. See
List of Republican Roman Consuls
List of Republican Roman Consuls for the modern year numbers.
Bonnie Blackburn, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, "Calendars and
chronology", The Oxford companion to the year (Oxford, 1999),
Bonnie Blackburn, Leofranc Holford-Strevens, The Oxford companion to
the year (Oxford, 2003, a corrected reprinting of the 1999 original
Georges Declercq, Anno Domini: The origins of the Christian era
(Turnhout, 2000); idem, "
Dionysius Exiguus and the introduction of the
Christian era", Sacris Erudiri 41 (2002): 165–246.
Patrologia Latina 67 (works).
Cyclus Decemnovennalis Dionysii – Nineteen year cycle of Dionysius
Easter – with preface
Liber de Paschate (
Duta, Florian, "Des précisions sur la biographie de Denys le Petit",
Revue de droit canonique, 49: 279–96 (1999)
Charles W. Jones, "Development of the
Latin ecclesiastical calendar",
in Bedae opera de temporibus (Cambridge, Mass., 1943), 1–122.
Otto Neugebauer, Ethiopic astronomy and computus, Österreichische
Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-historische klasse,
sitzungsberichte, 347 (Vienna, 1979).
Gustav Teres, "Time computations and Dionysius Exiguus", Journal for
the history of astronomy, 15 (1984): 177–188.
Nick Squires –
Jesus was born years earlier than thought, claims
Pope, The Telegraph, 21 Nov. 2012
Modern version of Dionysius Exiguus'
Easter table (original version is
linked in References)
Literature by and about
Dionysius Exiguus in the German National
Dionysius Exiguus in the Ecumenical Lexicon of Saints
Nikolaus A. Bär: Der Osterstreit: Dionysius Exiguus
BNF: cb11929838b (data)