The Change of Millennium is Upon Us

Keith Rankin, 24 December 1999

published NZ Herald, 28 Dec 1999

Now that the year 2000 is nearly upon us, I fear that the millennium experience will be soured by the party-poopers (eg Arthur C. Clarke) who insist that the present millennium doesn't end until the end of next year.

The claim that the next millennium begins in 2001 is often expressed in the name of authoritative people such as mathematicians and historians. As a graduate in both economic history and maths, I find the 2001 argument to be unconvincing.

The party-poopers' argument can be wholly stated in one short sentence: "There was no year zero". My responses are "who says?" and "so what?".

Why turn to ancient scripture to resolve this question? We can define the millennium changeover in accordance with our own conventions.

The modern calendar is simply an odometer. We have public holidays on January 1 and January 2 every year for no reason other than to celebrate the odometer ticking over. New Year is more significant at the end of a decade, when at least two digits of the odometer tick over. A four-digit tickover would seem to be worth a week's holiday!

The party-poopers appear to be claiming that the century ends one year after the end of the decade. That makes no sense to a mathematician. Alternatively, they are claiming that the year 2000 is in the 1990s and that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in the 1830s. I don't recall many voices in 1990 claiming that that year belonged to the 1980s.

From a 1999 perspective, the present millennium began on 1 January 1000 and the millennium before that began at the beginning of the year before 1 AD, whatever we wish to call that year.

Nobody with any authority in history ever said there was no year zero. The AD (anno Domini) calendar system that we use was created in the year we now know as 531, in the correspondence of a Christian monk, Dionysius Exiguus. In the Roman calendar of Exiguus' time, the year was 247AD (anno Diocletiani).

Soon after the Roman millennium (Rome was founded in 753BC), the emperor Diocletian wound the Roman odometer back so that the first year of his own reign would be called year 1. 247 years later, Exiguus wound the odometer forward in a simple but effective act of protest. Diocletian had killed many Christians. Exiguus resented commemorating him through the dating system. The Coptic Christians of Egypt however still use Diocletian's calendar. For them the year 2000 is 1716 'in the Era of the Martyrs'.

Exiguus' dating protest was discovered by the English monk Bede and adopted in his History, and taken in the ninth century to the court of Charlemagne - emperor in effect of Western Europe - by scholars trained by Bede.

Exiguus never said there was no year zero. Nor did he invent the BC dating system. BC (before Christ) is an English language expression adopted by French astronomer Denis Petau in 1627. If anyone is to blame for the confusion it is Petau. He called the year before 1AD 1BC. He could have called it zero. Yet despite his BC nomenclature, Petau did not assert that there was no year zero. There is no reason why the year that we commonly call 1BC cannot also be called 0AD.

The common sense thing to do is what we have already done. At APEC Bill Clinton said that the new millennium begins at the beginning of next year. Tony Blair says the same thing. So did Sir William Birch in his 1999 budget speech. These people all have more authority than Denis Petau ever had.

The dating conundrum can only be resolved through practical common sense and popular usage, and not by ancient scriptures. We have taken the four-digit shift of the yearly odometer as the moment that the year, decade, century and millennium change. By dint of these realities of our digital age, the new millennium is just a few days away, and all previous millennia must take our millennium as their reference point.

Who knows what will be the case in 1000 years time? The people then may have new dating norms. The odometer may be rewound once more. (Indeed Pol Pot tried to make 1975 year zero. And some people in New Zealand like to think of 1984 as year zero.) So what? It will be the prerogative of our descendants to celebrate their millennium in accordance with their conventions, not ours.

For Christians, the year 2000 is closer to the bimillennial anniversary of Christ's birth than is 2001. That's just another reason why we should have no qualms about accepting next year as belonging to the new millennium.

The millennium is an event which has little more than novelty value for most people. I think we should pay more attention to decades. They structure our individual lives, and our social histories. Happy new decade!

NZ Herald version:
    Right Time to Count out the Sceptics, 28 Dec 1999 (includes letters in response)

    Duncan, David Ewing (1998) The Calendar; London: Fourth Estate

100 Years Ago

My other writings on this topic:

Some related newspaper correspondence and commentary:


© 1999   Keith Rankin

Rankin File | 1999 titles