Nowadays we can speak of, say, "the 1970s" or "the 18th century," and it conjures up that era's zeitgeist, fashions, etc.

It's true that such things changed more slowly in the ancient world, but some changes there were. So citizens of places that used regnal years could speak of, say, "back in the reign of King X," and most of the time that would indicate an interval of at least a few years. Athenians could use Olympiads for the same purpose. But since the Republican Romans used consular dating (and AUC only rarely if at all), how might they refer to a previous decade or century? Or did they at all?

(To clarify, in response to a comment: I'm not asking about individual years. I'm aware that the equivalent of our "I was born in 1971" would be "I was born in the year of the consulship of M. Gloriosus Nobilis and Q. Ridiculus Corrupto." I'm talking about something like "I grew up during the '70s" or "this looks like something out of the 19th century.")

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    Each year was identified by the names of the Consuls that year. Oct 7 at 4:45

Since I wrote my thesis about Roman Calendars and Time Reckoning, this is a very pleasant question to answer.

  1. Centuries Reckoning

Romans used Saeculi Naturale, Civile and Religiosi. Saeculum means an indeterminate long period, but also a generation.

They used Saeculi Naturale often, to divide society in "generations", not only families as today. This is obviously, a relative dating method.

The Saeculi Civile were time units of Etruscan origin, that were reckoned from the AUC date (foundation of Rome). They were of 100, 110, or 125 years. Yes, they disagree because these were used to calculate the year of celebration of the Ludi Saeculares, a major game event that emperors used to influence Roman Society. So, emperors that wanted to celebrate games, choose the century lenght so they could celebrate the 700, 800th etc year of Rome's birth when they wanted.

The Saeculi Religiosi were the exact interval between Ludi Saeculares already celebrated (they were a sacred event).

  1. Years Reckoning

Romans used a variety of systems. They used lustrums (intervals of 5 years), but in a relative dating way, not structured as our decade system. They did NOT use the decada, which is of Greek origin and was used only sparsely, late in the Empire. They did use many systems for year by year counting:

  • Ab Urbe Condita (ranging from 759 to 748 BC): years since the mythical foundation of Rome.
  • Post reges exactos / post Capitolinam aedem dedicatam (509 BC): years since the monarchy was overthown.
  • Eponymous dating by consulates (507 BC - 541 AD): two consul names a year
  • By attribution of non-Roman titles (such as Aegyptian ones).
  • Pan-Hellenic Festivals (776 BC-IV AD): including but not only the Olympic Games, the Romans used these festivals, the same as the Greeks and other Greek-influenced Mediterranean peoples.
  • Eastern Hellenistic City-State Eras
  • By appropriation of magistratures (1st century BC- 4th century)

Methods used also later in Roman history:

  • The Cycles of Indictio (297 AD to year 1806)
  • Regnal Years (from 537 AD-onwards, specially in the east)
  • Western Latin Era (in Hispania)
  • Religious Eras (many of them, not a widespread use really)
  1. SOURCES BECKWITH, ROGER. 2001. Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian : Biblical, Interestamental and Patristica Studies. Boston; Leiden: Brill. BICKERMAN, E. J. 1968. Chronology of the Ancient World. London : Thames and Hudson. BLACKBURN, B. & HOLFORD-STREVENS, L. 1999. An Exploration of Calendar Customs and Time-Reckoning. The Oxford Company of the Year. Oxford University Press. BROUGHTON, T. 1951. The Magistrates of the Roman Republic,. New York: American Philological Association. Vol I & II. CAMPBELL-KELLY, M. 2003. The History of Mathematical Tables : From Sumer to Spreadsheets. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. CAPPELLI, ADRIANO. 1983. Cronologia, Cronografia E Calendario Perpetuo : Dal Principio dell’Èra Cristiana Ai Nostri Giorni : Tavole Cronologico-Sincrone E Quadri Sinottici per Verificare Le Date Storiche. Milano : Ulrico Hoepli. CLINTON, HENRY. 1845. Fasti Romani. 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Cambridge UK ;;New York: Cambridge University Press. LIVI, TIT, Antonio Fontán, Antoni Cobos Fajardo, Jordi Avilés Zapater, And Victoria. Bescós. 2002. Història de Roma. Barcelona: Fundació Bernat Metge. MAGINI, LEONARDO. 2001. Astronomy and Calendar in Ancient Rome : The Eclipse Festivals. Roma: Erma di Bretschneider. MAGINI, LEONARDO, Germaine. Aujac, and Adam Victor. 2014. Stars, Myths and Rituals in Etruscan Rome. MELLERSH, H. E. L. 1994. Chronology of the Ancient World, 10,000 B.C. to A.D. 799. New York: Simon & Schuster. MICHELLS, AGNES. 1967. The Calendar of the Roman Republic. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press. O’NEIL, W. 1976. Time and the Calendars. Manchester: Manchester University Press. OVIDI NASÓ, PUBLI, Miquel Dolç, Jaume Medina, and Fundació Bernat Metge. 1991. Fastos. Barcelona: Fundació Bernat Metge. PARISE, FRANK. 1982. The Book of Calendars. New York. PLUNKET, EMMELINE M. 1997. Calendars and Constellations of the Ancient World. London: Senate. ROSEN, RALPH. 2004. Time and Temporality in the Ancient World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. RÜPKE, JÖRG. 2011. The Roman Calendar from Numa to Constantine Time, History, and the Fasti. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ;;Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell. SALZMAN, MICHELE RENEE. 1990. On Roman Time : The Codex-Calendar of 354 and the Rhythms of Urban Life in Late Antiquity. Berkeley, Calif. : University of California Press. SAMUEL, ALAN EDOUARD. 1972. Greek and Roman Chronology : Calendars and Years in Classical Antiquity. München: Beck. SCULLARD, H. H. (Howard Hayes). 1981. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca N.Y.: Cornell University Press. STERN, SACHA. 2012. Calendars in Antiquity Empires, States, and Societies. Oxford ;;New York : Oxford University Press,. VENNING, TIMOTHY., and J. F. Drinkwater. 2011. A Chronology of the Roman Empire. London ;;New York : Continuum. 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  • 3
    !! good job!! Upvote
    – MCW
    Oct 7 at 13:46
  • A very informative answer and I upvoted it, but it looks like it missed part of the question, that of eras: The 20's, the High Middle Ages, the Victorian era, the Antebellum, etc. (Perhaps the answer is that as far as we know they didn't use references like that or that the information is too fragmentary to generalize from.)
    – Mark Olson
    Oct 7 at 16:19
  • 4
    Well, for what you understand as "Eras", they used common descriptions such as "during the Sulla dictatorship", or "during that war". Simple as that. They did not have an abstract, conceptualized and standard periodization of the past of their country, this is something only modern historians (and societies) do. As a society, they had their founding myths with timings already disputed back then (founding of Rome has 4 date proposals), and the common time references as mentioned.
    – James
    Oct 7 at 17:17
  • That sounds plausible enough. You should add it to your answer.
    – Mark Olson
    Oct 7 at 20:49

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