So, what was the deal with that year 2000 thing, anyway? Just what was it about the sight of the numeral 2 trailed by triple-zeros that seemed to get so very many people's panties in a temporal twist? Did the new minted millennium merit all that madness? Was it a sign of the end of the world? The coming of the Messiah? The dawning of the Age of Aquarius? Did the poles shift? The heavens open? The sun turn blood red? The Red Sox win the World Series? Was 2000 even the first year of the new millennium, or the last year of the old one? And just why is it that in this fast-moving, high-tech, math-driven day and age, so many people continue to look at numbers as if they were arcane magic symbols, suitable for unlocking the mysteries of the apocalypse, as well as figuring out the proper tip for the pizza guy?
Ah, so many questions... so little attention span.
Well, it all boils down to calendrics, y'see. An iffy sort of art, at best, pitting the randomness of reality against humankind's desperate - even neurotic - desire to find order in chaos, impose patterns onto pandemonium and make connections between everything, no matter how unrelated. Oh, it all starts innocently enough: One day, Ug the Mammoth Slayer decides it might be nice if his tribe could reliably pin down just when each year the Mastodon herds migrated past their cave. A couple of wistful glances skyward while a-pondering this problem clues Uggy in to the realization that both the sun and the moon can be counted on to be... well, counted on. The moon in particular goes through rather obvious and rapid phases that cycle through with high fiber diet-like regularity, perfect for prehistoric time-keeping.
The first calendars were almost certainly lunar ones, then. But, problems arose almost immediately when people tried to make their nice, reliable little lunar calendars agree with the solar cycles. Quite simply... they didn't. Yes, despite the absolutely adorable way the human heart goes pitter-pat at the sight of cosmic coincidences, the sun and the moon have refused to synchronize their cycles to please our numerical needs. The moon takes 29.53059 days to putter 'round our planet, and so, lunar calendars end up being based on 12 cycles of 29 1/2 days, which only adds up to a total of 354.36706 days-per-annum; some ten days - and change - short of the solar mark. Even our very own Mother Earth refuses to cooperate in these matters, slothfully falling short of a true solar year by no less than 5 hours, 48 minutes and 45.96768 seconds. Clearly, if these cycles were to be forced into some semblance of order, it would take some real fancy-schmancy numeric footwork to do so.
So, the art of calendrics was born.
I say "art" rather than "science" because the fact is, no matter how precise a calendar maker's calculations are regarding astronomical positions, at some point - and it's usually several - markers, rules and units must be set up that are entirely arbitrary and of purely human construction. Take our current fascination with units of 1000:
Looks pretty cool, doesn't it? Mystical, powerful. It's such a round and nifty number and when applied to years, looks dauntingly large next to our puny human life-spans. Yet, if one were to ask just what in Nature works on 1000 year cycles, we'd be awfully hard-pressed to give an answer. The thing is, Nature couldn't give a flying leap year about units of 1000... or 2000, for that matter. So, where did all this millennial obsession come from?
Let me direct your attention to the Book of Revelation: Specifically Rev 20:1-15, which states that Jesus Christ, top dog deity of the Christian faith, will zoom on back to Earth any ol' day now to hog-tie Satan, toss him into Hell and then set up a kind of semi-benevolent (that is, super-benevolent to Christians, but extra special ugly to everyone else) Dictatorship scheduled to last 1000 years. At the conclusion of that Fourth Reich, (more formally referred to as "Christ's Millennium") God is supposed to box Satan's ears one last time and then judge everybody's soul to figure out the location of their eternal parking space; upper levels or basement floor.
As the centuries passed, however, the word "millennium" came less and less to mean a specific projected occurrence from a book of ancient mythology and more and more to mean a practical and very ordinary calendrical unit of 1000 years. Unfortunately, the cracked and chipping patina of superstition has never entirely worn off the concept and people to this very day regard the numerical designation with awe, wonder and not a little pointless fear.
But, who got to determine when the year 2000 would be, anyway? 2000 from when? And why?
The story starts in ancient Rome, in the days of the old Republic. Back then, time was measured (well, by Romans, anyway) from the founding of the city by the mythical Romulus in 753 BCE...That is, 753 BCE by our lights. To the Romans, it was banner year 1 A.U.C. "ab urbe condita" or "from the city's foundation". Not that many people kept close track of it, mind you, since the old Roman calendar was pretty much a mess. A lunar affair borrowed from the Greeks, who themselves nicked it from the Babylonians, it had only ten months and 304 official days and had a tendency to drift any which way the bureaucrats found useful.
Marking time may be a big, fat deal in our modern age, but back then, the general opinion was that the seasons would come and go whether one kept perfect tabs on them or not; so, why fuss? The Romans were so blasé about it, in fact, that they didn't even bother to invent months for the winter season for the first 60 odd (very odd) years of the city's existence. The first attempt at gap-filling was by the ruler Numa Pompilius, around 715 BCE, (tho' in his opinion, it was 62 A.U.C.) who dreamt up January and February to stick into the empty bits. This brought the Roman calendar up to 355 days - still 10-some days short, true - but getting there. The excess, or intercalary, days were to be added to or subtracted from February, which was intended from the get-go as a leap month... Though they didn't call it a "leap month"; they used the term "bissextile", instead.
Bet'cha didn't know February was bissextile, did'ja?
It was the business of the Pontifices to make sense of all this and try to keep the calendar straight. Being typical government workers, they did such a spectacular job of it that by the time Julius Caesar came to power, no one had the vaguest idea what date it was. Well, Jules wasn't about to stand for that. He hadn't gone off and conquered the known world for nothing, you know. He wanted his fabulous victories and his glorious person properly celebrated in a timely, annual fashion. Fortunately for Jules, his new gal-pal Cleopatra had the solution. The Egyptians had been using a solar calendar for years and years that was easily the most accurate in the world. All one had to do was use the basic framework, stick a bunch of Roman calendrical names on it and it'd be set.
Well, it seemed like the answer to Caesar's ritual sacrifices and he wasted no time importing Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to cook up a brand, spanking new "Julian Calendar" to order. The new model, based on the solar cycle was divided into 12 months, the lengths of which went something like,
"Thirty days hath September,
April, June, October, Sextilis and December.
March, May and Quintilis have thirty-one
Oh, and February, too... but only every four years, when it goes bissextile...
Otherwise it's just 29."
Lacks something in the rhythm and rhyme department, doesn't it? Still, it worked for Caesar. As did the fact that it rounded the calendar off to 365.25 days, overshooting the target by eleven minutes. Being a politician, Jules figured it was close enough for government work and in 45 BCE (or 708 A.U.C.) declared it official. That is, he declared it official as soon as he tidied up the current lunar year, which was waaay out of whack. This took inserting 23 days onto the end of February and two entirely new months in between November and December to fix things. All of which made 45 BCE the longest year in western history at a total of 445 days and caused January to fall on what used to be March.
With me? Okay...
All this was before the month Quintilis was renamed "July" for Julius Caesar and before Augustus came to power as Rome's first emperor, with plans to make a few calendrical fixes of his own. It seems those sloppy Pontifices had problems with basic math and never quite got that leap year concept straight. Within a few short decades, the lovely, new Julian Calendar was off by three days.
Well, for the order-mad Augustus, this just would never do. About as much fun as New Year's Eve at an Amish funeral, Auggie was, nevertheless, the man to look to if you needed to run an Empire or whip a rogue calendar into shape. For the latter, he just nixed the whole leap thang entirely from 8 BCE (745 A.U.C.) to 8 CE (or AD - or 760 A.U.C.). And when the Senate showed their gratitude by renaming Sextilis "August" in his honor, he shuffled the monthly totals around again to make sure his month had at least as many days in it as Julius' did... So there. The results laid the groundwork for the obnoxious "Thirty days hath..." ditty that we all know and loathe, today.
So, did all the chronographers reckon happily ever after? Not by half.
The phrase, "Thank God it's Friday!" really is a misattribution. By rights, we ought to be thanking Emperor Constantine I, whose edict in 321 CE (or AD - or 1074 A.U.C.) gave us our 7 day week. Prior to that, the months of the old Roman calendar had only been broken up into kalendæ, Ides and nones, which had to do with lunar phases; and into dies fasti or dies nefasti: In brief, "business" or "pleasure". The Romans had just scads of dies nefasti penciled in their yearly schedules, but nothing like a regular weekend.
The 7 day week concept came from the Jewish calendar, and once Constantine got it in his head to convert to Christianity, a reliably frequent date that could be designated as the "Lord's Day" came right to the top of his "theocratic-things-to-do" list. It was likely his die-hard Mithraist streak that made him pin that honor on Sunday (Mithra having been the god of the sun). The days that followed were named for other celestial bodies, like the Moon (Monday) and Saturn (Saturday). Later, English-speaking and Nordic countries would raid the Teutonic pantheon of gods for Tiu (Tuesday), Woden or Odin (Wednesday), Thor (Thursday) and Frigg (Friday).
The awkward fact that 7 does not divide neatly into 365, but instead, falls a day short, wasn't a problem Connie chose to worry about. Still, it's that detail that has prevented our weekdays from matching up from year to year and has ensured lucrative returns for the cute theme calendar and pocket planner industry ever since.
But how does all this add up to our in-question Year 2000? Well, it all comes together when we factor in three more elements: The Biblical Genesis, Easter and a Scythian monk called Dionysius Exiguus, a.k.a. "Dennis the Short".
First things first: The notion of the Biblical week of Creation was a product of the Genesis tale. Seven days being what God took to whip up the Earth and the waters and light and plants and pets and fish and bicycles and whatnot. That whole idea began to take on new importance in the minds of Christians who'd been waiting around expectantly for the big cosmic wrap party promised in Revelation. Word was that all that world-ending business was supposed to take place in the lifetimes of Jesus' apostles. But, after a century or two, even the most mathematically challenged believer wasn't going to fall for that one anymore. So, what to do? Well, what they did was combine the Biblical Week Of Creation idea with a line from 2 Peter 3:8, which babbled something about a "day" for God being a thousand years for us pathetic mortal types. This led directly to the notion that God took 6000 years to create the world. (Plus 1000 years vacation... though they don't mention what the deal was for breaks and lunches and I guess we just have to assume travel expenses were a write-off)
Well, of course, this could only mean one thing: If God had to schlep around fussing over the world for 6000 years, then we had to do the same. 6000 years from start to finish, then bang! Party's over! It's Christ's Millennium for the next "God day" and good-bye cruel world right after. If one wanted to suss out the date for the End, one only had to figure out the date of the Beginning. And what could be easier than that?...
Well, playing "Rhapsody In Blue" on a zither with your tongue, comes immediately to mind. Biblical scholars really don't have too much to go on in that area, beyond toting up begats and Jubilees and just plain making stuff up. Nonetheless, the heat was on to peg Creation's dawning day. The calendar itself depended on it. Counting the days from Rome's foundation just seemed too quaint and parochial in the nouveau Christian era. The new idea was to start the clock from Creation Day 1 and work forward methodically to the big millennial meltdown. So, out went A.U.C. and in came AM, "Anno Mundi", "The Year of the World", and everybody had their own emotionally charged ideas about when that date fell.
It was into this chronological free-for-all that Dennis the Short was tossed. On one of those mad whims that pontiffs are given to, Pope St. John I (523-526 CE - or AD - or 1276-1279 A.U.C. - or it's-anyone's-guess AM) ordered Tiny Denny to prepare for him a definitive chronology. Eschewing the whole AM tussle, the little monk decided to split time in two with the ultimate split-point pinned down as the birth of Jesus. With that in mind, he just needed to concentrate on Roman calendrical and historical sources, as well as the Bible to figure out when that was. Yes, that's right. As big an event as it was supposed to have been, Jesus' divine natal date was somehow never jotted down by a single soul. Or, if it was, the post-it parchment had long been lost at the bottom of History's knickknack drawer. By Dennis's day, 500-something-give-or-take-a-century-or-whatever years later, nobody had a clue about it.
Casting about for helpful hints as best he could, Dennis finally tracked down the blessed event to December 25, 753 A.U.C. The new epoch would have to wait another eight days, however, until January 1st (already celebrated as New Year's Day in the Roman calendar by wild coincidence) to really get started. Dennis's reason for the delay was to wait until the Feast of the Circumcision - always an excuse to party hearty, after all. On that date, Dennis had the modern age begin as 1 AD, "Anno Domine", "The Year of our Lord". Seems all nice and neat, doesn't it? Well, except for a couple of smallish details. The first being that he got the year wrong.
According to the most recent scholarship on the topic, Jesus had to have been born at least four years before Christ. Strange, but true. The story of the Nativity requires Jesus and Herod to be alive at the same time, since Herod was to have instituted a census for the purpose of rooting out his newborn rival. Problem is, Herod up and kacked in 4 BCE (or BC or 749 A.U.C. or 3757 Hebrew Calendar). So, unless somebody had access to a really great Ouija board, the H-man wasn't ordering baby counts or anything else by AD 1. Things get even stickier if one insists on hanging onto the census alone, as the only censuses held around that time were ordered by Augustus in 7 BCE and 7 CE, respectively. Further, Luke 2:2 states that Herod called for the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria... A neat trick, since Q didn't take office until some 10 years after Herod's death. The star of Bethlehem is, likewise, no help at all as the only astronomical phenomena recorded at that time were a comet in 5 BCE, a nova in 4 BCE and triple alignments of Jupiter and Saturn in Pisces in 7 BCE.
...And I won't even go into the problem of Jesus' birthday season.
Suffice to say, Dennis blew it, big time. And if anything magical had occurred on the 2000th anniversary of Christ's actual birth, it would have happened in 1996 or 1995 or 1993... Unless, of course, it happens in 2007 - Or, alternatively: 1997, 1996, 1994 or 2008. Or, if you're still hung up on 1 AD as the "Go" button moment, 2001.
"Huh?" I hear you query. Well, this is where Dennis's second goof comes in: Y'see, the vertically challenged one had the misfortune to cook up a calendar in the sixth century, some three hundred years before the Western world discovered a neat little Arab arithmetical curio: The zero. Denny knew zip about zeroes and so his posh new dating system got started without one - um, that is to say, it did get started with a "1", it just should have started with a zero - But it didn't. The result is that our centuries are counted from **01 to **01. Not from **00 to **00. So, even if Dennis's starting date had been correct, the new millennium that everybody went so mashugah about wasn't even going to begin until the year 2001.
Of course, back in Dennis's day, no one knew about either of these calendrical shortfalls and his approach to reckoning seemed like a perfectly good one... Didn't mean anybody adopted it, though. After all that work, Dennis had the poor luck to have his Pope up and die on him - in prison for treason against the Emperor, no less - So, instead of having everyone embrace his new system on Papal orders, it simply got circular filed for another 227 years. It wasn't until Saint Bede the Venerable went casting about wildly, looking for a way to put off an Anno Mundi-inspired apocalyptic panic in his own day that Dennis's calendar got dusted off and made official.
So, that's it. End of story. Right? ...Right?...
Au contraire! Dennis might have done a lot to change date numbering, but his retouches did nothing to alter the way the months ran or how the leap years were handled. The rest of the calendar still chugged along in the standard Julian way it had for centuries. And that was a problem, especially when it came to Easter. Most holidays have the decency to fall on specific, predictable dates: The 25th of December, the 1st of January, the November ratings sweeps, etc. Not Easter. The bane of calendar crafters for over a millennium, Easter has to fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. In order to figure all that out properly, you need a calendar that's going to stay put and stop drifting about like a Florida land-fill.
Remember those eleven extra yearly minutes that Julius couldn't be bothered with? Well, by 1578 those eleven minutes - and 14 seconds, to be anal - had added up to ten extra days! Exacerbating that problem was the fact that the Julian calendar suffered from a serious largesse of leap years. The long and short of it was, if something wasn't done to fix things soon, Easter would eventually end up being celebrated right on top of Christmas; an occasion that could lead to some truly surreal holiday pageants.
Enter Pope Gregory XIII, a papal leader boring enough to actually fixate on the subject. Greg put together a little committee of astronomical experts and after a mere four years of hashing the matter over, (the blink of an eye, in Vatican time) he issued a Papal bull that tossed the Julian calendar out and ushered our present Gregorian calendar in.
The main thing was getting those naughty leap years straight. To that end, the first thing Greg's committee did was to keep a lid on excess leaping by dropping a leap year at the end of every century. But, since doing that every century would take too many days away, they added another rule. And this one said that the leap-year-dropping-at-the-end-of-every-century rule had to be dropped at the end of every century not divisible by 400. That is, every 400 years, they dropped dropping. Got it?
But wait! There's more! All that dropping and un-dropping might help keep the calendar stay put in the future. But, something had to be done to wrestle that baby into line and deal with those ten extra days right away. Greg's solution? He just chucked them out. Yes, one quick flick of the Papal quill and voila! October 5-14 disappeared into the void, never to dawn at all. October 4th flipped directly over into October 15th, with nothing in between and the year 1582 ended up being only 355 days long.
Well, talk about yer absolute power! The English, in particular, were so incensed over the whole business - which they viewed as nothing more than an insidious Popish plot, right up there with eating fish on Fridays - that they refused to go along with it for the next 170 years. By then, they found themselves no less than eleven days in the hole and when, in 1752, Parliament lopped September 3-13 unceremoniously out of the English calendar, chrono-possessive Brits nearly rioted in the streets, hysterically demanding their eleven mortal days back.
Of course, England wasn't nearly as behind-the-times as Russia, which didn't convert over to the Gregorian calendar until 1918, leading to some awkward results: Like, having the famous October Revolution occur in November. Also, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the countries it's dominant in - save those that went Soviet for a time - never have converted from the Julian calendar*. So, as far as they were concerned, while we Gregorian clock-watchers were all jumping around like idiots at the stroke of our midnight, January 1, 2000, they still had lots of time left to do their last-minute Christmas shopping on December 19, 1999.
In the final analysis, the whole notion of the year 2000 was and is, like all dates, an entirely arbitrary one, based on nothing natural or absolute or miraculous. Nature is no respector of our calendars. Not any of them. Trying to assign magical significance to days and dates, however much our human minds may love and crave symmetry, coincidence and big, round numbers, is an endeavor doomed to failure. Simply speaking, the cosmos doesn't care. Despite a preposterously over-hyped bit of business with a computer glitch, January 1, 2000 came and went with no more special significance than did January 1, 1999. Of course, the hard-core, unregenerate catastrophists have never stopped jumping frantically on other doomdates and are continuing to do so as I write. So, don't be surprised if the whole sorry, hysterical mess plays out all over again on some future New Year's, or another as-yet-to-be-determined paranoia point on the obsessive's schedule.
To you, gentle reader, I can only suggest you use these dates as an excuse to party, as a reason to travel someplace special, be with family and/or friends or just cuddle with the one you love. But, if you're planning to hole up in a boondocks fortress waiting for civilization to crumble or to stand out in a cold, damp field somewhere looking for the aliens to land, you better plan on wearing comfy shoes - 'cause you're gonna be waiting a good, looong time.
Just remember, no matter what day it is, it's later than you think... unless, of course, it's earlier.
*I'm advised by alert reader and proud bearer of the cool name Alexios Chouchoulas that Greece has, in the main, converted over to the Gregorian system. Though it does appear to be on a semi-voluntary basis from individual Greek to individual Greek, resulting in a positive embarrassment of riches, holiday-wise.