Monday 29 February 2016

'No one knows how ancient languages were pronounced'

This one sounds like it should be a no-brainer. We don't have any audio recordings from ancient Rome, after all. On an online forum earlier this month, in answer to the question 'What knowledge is considered lost by mankind?', one user answers
The actual pronunciation of Latin. And ancient Greek, for that matter, but Latin fascinates me because for all the Latinists out there, the best we're getting is a guess at what it probably might maybe have sort of sounded like.
and then goes on to cite a source.

The web page linked there starts off with a couple of caveats -- evidence is 'difficult to interpret', ancient sources 'lack clarity' -- but as it goes on, it makes it look like exactly the opposite is the case. What's going on?

Socrates (the late Tony Steedman) tries to speak Classical Greek to Bill S. Preston, Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted 'Theodore' Logan (Keanu Reeves). Vowels are a mix of Modern Greek and something else, consonants are British, and he doesn't even make an attempt at the pre-Hellenistic pitch accent. But certainly not laughable. (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, 1989)

There's a trick to this topic. The naysayers, the folks who insist that no one knows how these languages were pronounced -- at least the ones who know what they're talking about -- what they're talking about is a much more strictly defined kind of knowledge than most people are thinking of when they wonder how Latin and Greek were pronounced. What your average Joe is usually wondering about is the phonetics and phonology of Latin and Greek. And those are very well understood indeed.

What's the difference? We're not talking about audio recordings, or idiosyncrasies of speech. Phonetics doesn't refer to the actual noises you'd hear if you took recording equipment back in a time machine: audio data on intonation, pace, and so on truly is gone forever. Phonetics instead refers to a kind of abstraction of the sounds, like the instructions your English dictionary gives on how to pronounce words; and phonology refers to the relationships phonetic elements have with each other and with the words that they're in.

The naysayers' claim is equivalent to saying: if your only contact with English is through texts, you can't ever know how English is pronounced. In some strict senses there's some validity to that: there are many kinds of mannerisms of speaking that you can't extrapolate from written texts alone. But that's not what most people are thinking about when they ask how an ancient language was pronounced. What they're really after is phonetic values. And as I said, that's something that's very well understood.

Even if you've never heard someone speaking English, it's perfectly possible to know that the th in thirty typically represents a dental fricative, but that when spoken with an Irish Republic accent the same word usually has an alveolar stop (as in tin) or, in some parts of the country, a dental stop (a sound that doesn't exist in most other forms of English or other Germanic languages). We don't have audio recordings of ancient Greek, we don't know much about intonation or pace, and the variance within a given dialect is anyone's guess. But we know perfectly well 'how it was pronounced' in this more colloquial sense.

Well, we know a lot more than is often imagined, anyway. There are areas of uncertainty. But they're relatively limited, and they're probably not the kinds of uncertainty that you'd expect. Here are a few examples.

(1) The letter v in Latin. Depending on the Latin teacher you had, you may be aware of the dogma that the Romans pronounced the letter v like English w: so for example the Caesarian motto veni, vidi, vici ('I came, I saw, I conquered') was pronounced weeh-ny, weedy, weaky. It was the consonantal version of u: that's why the Romans didn't have a separate letter u. One letter represented both the w and u sounds, as i represented both the y and i sounds. But in Romance languages and in modern Church Latin, v is pronounced just like English v (so veeny, etc.). So which is right? Are the linguists all at sea? Well, no. The linguists know perfectly well that they're both right: languages change over time. At one time v was pronounced like w; later on, w sounds shifted to v, so the phonetic value of the letter shifted too. There's nothing mysterious or unknowable about that.

Jesus (Jim Caviezel) chats with Pilate (Hristo Shopov): probably the best on-screen attempt at Latin, but that's not saying much (and it's vanishingly unlikely that Jesus knew any Latin). The rhythms and vowels of the minor Roman characters, played mostly by Italians, carry verisimilitude even if they're not always borne out by evidence. But again, much too modern: phonetic values are all those of modern Church Latin. Some sounds we only start to see evidence for in the 1st century; some, not until centuries later. And worst of all, Jesus' lines are chocker with glottal stops -- Latin was much more continuous than Germanic languages like English. (The Passion of the Christ, 2004)

But we don't know very well the timeline of the shift. It seems to have been a gradual thing. We get our earliest evidence of v representing /v/ in the 1st century CE (spelling confusion between v and b; a 2nd century grammarian says v is pronounced with some exhalation, implying a fricative). But v was still representing /w/ in some contexts right up to the 6th century (e.g. the name Valerius being transliterated into Greek as Οὐαλέριος; Consentius writes of the word veni being pronounced as though it had three syllables). So it wasn't like flipping a switch. How exactly did the shift play out? What were the key moments? We don't know the answer to that as well as we'd like. Is that the same thing as saying that our state of knowledge is at best 'a guess at what it probably might maybe have sort of sounded like'? No, that's just dishonest.

(2) β in Greek. This is similar to the first example above: we know the letter β (beta) had two different pronunciations in different periods, but the timeline of the shift is unclear. In Classical Greek beta β had the phonetic value of an unaspirated English b (as in gib board), but in later Greek it was a fricative v (as in sieve), as it still is in Modern Greek. This is a pretty typical shift that you can see in lots of languages: in Latin, too, there was confusion between b and v after v acquired the value /v/. But our timeframe for when the pronunciation shifted from b to v is at least a 300-year window: we know it was pronounced b in the 2nd century BCE, thanks to testimony from two grammarians, and we know it was pronounced v in the 2nd-3rd centuries CE, when we start to find Latin v being transliterated into Greek as β. We know the switchover happened somewhere in between, but we don't know where or precisely when. Sometimes you'll hear this kind of uncertainty exaggerated to the point of saying that we don't know how β was pronounced at all. And that's nonsense.

(3) ττ in Attic Greek. In Attic -- that is, the dialect spoken in Athens up until the late fourth century BCE -- the letter τ (tau) had the phonetic value of an unaspirated t sound, like the first t in coattail. However, we don't know how the consonant combination ττ was pronounced in Attic. On the face of it it looks like ττ ought to represent a double t sound. But it isn't that simple. Where Attic has ττ, other dialects consistently have σσ (which looks like it ought to be unvoiced ss; not as in tosser, but as in toss sir), and ττ/σσ are used in words whose prehistoric forms had several different phonologies. It could be that both ττ and σσ represented affricates, but separate ones; it could be that only Attic ττ did, and represented a /t͡s/ sound (as in N.Z. tea) or /tt͡s/ (Italian grazia), or some other possibilities, depending on what word it appeared in. The fact that Attic spelling is so consistent suggests that all the variants might have been simplified, most obviously to /t͡ʃ/ (chin), or maybe even to exactly what it looks like, /tt/. But we can't be certain. This is one area where we are genuinely in the dark.

'Let it go' in Classical Greek, performed by the University of Auckland Classical Society (May 2014). Pronunciation is student Greek, which is to say a mixture of Erasmian with smatterings of Modern Greek ... but great fun anyway.

So, how do we know what we know about the phonetics of these languages? Like many things that relate to knowledge, it's not simple. You wouldn't expect to extrapolate the Big Bang theory from a single thing in the sky that you can see with a pair of binoculars; you don't reconstruct the phonetics of dead languages in a single easy-to-sum-up step. It's complicated and difficult, but that doesn't automatically mean that it's uncertain. There are several kinds of evidence. Here are a few:
  • Direct testimony from ancient sources. For example, the 1st century CE Roman grammarian Nigidius Figulus tells us that the letter v in Latin was enunciated with protruded lips, which tells us straightaway that it was a bilabial continuant (/w/); an anecdote in Cicero (1st century BCE) relies on wordplay between consonantal v and the vowel u. Dionysius Thrax and Dionysius of Halicarnassus both tell us that Greek β, γ, and δ were 'intermediate' between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, and they don't call them continuants (ἡμίφωνα). And so on.
  • Transliteration. For example, Cicero (1st century BCE) tells us that Greek βινεῖ was pronounced like Latin bini: this tells us that, at that time, (a) Greek β and Latin b were both pronounced the same way (but that might have been either /b/ or /v/); and (b) Greek ει was pronounced /i/.
  • Variant spellings. When we find Byzantine writers translating the Latin names Valerius and Vergilius as Οὐαλέριος and Βεργίλιος, that tells us (a) that Latin v could represent both /v/ and /w/ at the time, and (b) Greek β was pronounced /v/. Another Greek example: in Classical Attic ει, ι, υ, and οι all represented different sounds, but at some point they all acquired the Modern Greek value /i/. From variant spellings we know that ει and ι combined with one another and represented the same sound by Cicero's time, and υ and οι combined with one another from around the 4th century CE onwards; but the two pairs represented distinct sounds until at least the 10th century. This indicates that between 500 and 900 CE, υ and οι both represented the older pronunciation of υ, /y/ (as in French une, German über), while ει and ι represented the unrounded form of the vowel, /i/ (as in see).
  • Verse. Ancient verse forms relied on certain phonetic properties of their text, so we can often infer those phonetic properties from the texts. For example, Homeric Greek contains formulas that rely on the consonant /w/, but is generally indifferent about whether or not to observe the presence of /w/. So we can safely deduce that in the Ionic dialect of the early-to-mid 7th century, /w/ had no moraic value, which in turn tends to imply that it wasn't pronounced at all.
  • Common linguistic shifts. For example, we know that /v/ and /b/ are interchangeable in many languages, and we can see shifts between them in both Latin and Greek. Another example: we know that Indo-European had different 'flavours' of laryngeal consonants, and that one of these, h2, regularly turned into /a/; but in the Ionic dialect, we see words from h2 roots written with both α and η, and we know that at a later time these were pronounced /a/ and /e:/ respectively; from this we deduce that η represented a vowel that had once been intermediate between /a/ and /e/, namely /æ/. (And in fact we also have evidence that η still represented /æ/ in the sub-dialect spoken on the island of Naxos up until the 6th century BCE.) And so on.
Anyway, yes, on the whole we have a very, very good idea of how Greek and Latin were 'pronounced', on the understanding that this refers to phonetics and not to anything more nuanced. Yes, Julius Caesar pronounced his own name yoo-li-uss ka-eece-ar; yes, Cicero was kee-ke-raw. We can make a good estimate of pitch contours in Greek when it still had a pitch accent (like modern Norwegian; not a tonal language like Chinese).

Would a time traveller in Rome, armed with a modern rulebook about phonetics and phonology, be able to communicate with an ancient Roman? Absolutely yes. Getting to grips with the accent and pace would be challenging, but neither of them would find the other's pronunciation at all ambiguous, barring personal and local idiosyncrasies.

Would the time traveller stick out like a sore thumb as an obvious foreigner? Also yes.

Further reading

  • Allen, W. Sidney 1968. Vox Graeca: a guide to the pronunciation of Classical Greek. Cambridge University Press.
  • Allen, W. Sidney 1975 [1965]. Vox Latina: a guide to the pronunciation of Classical Latin, 2nd edition. Cambridge University Press.
  • Horrocks, Geoffrey 2010. Greek. A history of the language and its speakers. Wiley-Blackwell.

Monday 15 February 2016

Reading silently and reading out loud in antiquity

It used to be common wisdom that when the Greco-Romans read, they did so out loud. Libraries, it was imagined, must have been a hubbub of constant chatter, not the solemn silent spaces of today. As Bernard Knox puts it,
Greek literature, at least up to Thucydides, was intended for public delivery or performance, and from the early part of the fourth century B.C. on to the end of antiquity, rhetoric was the foundation and eloquence the aim of the educational process.
Woman reading a scroll (fresco from Pompeii)
Woman reading a scroll (fresco from Pompeii; Naples)
The traditional view was laid down by Eduard Norden in 1898, and Josef Balogh in 1927 (see below for full references). I confess I haven’t read Norden; Balogh is more standard anyway. Balogh didn’t take the extreme view that the ancients were incapable of reading silently, but he did conclude that silent reading was unusual enough to surprise anyone who saw it happening and to require explanation. He supplied a catalogue of supporting testimony, mostly from Roman-era sources.

Exhibit A for the reading-was-always-done-out-loud case has always been this passage in Augustine (ca. 400 CE; Confessions 6.3):
For I wasn’t able to ask (Ambrose) what I wanted, when I wanted... When he was reading, his eyes ran over the pages and his heart searched for the intent, but his voice and tongue were still. Often when we were present -- anyone was allowed to enter, and it wasn’t his custom to have visitors announced -- we watched him read silently, and never in any other way. We’d have to sit there in silence for a long time, then leave. For who would dare to annoy someone so absorbed?
We guessed that he wanted to have a break from the noise of other people’s business for that little time that he had for his own thoughts, and didn’t want to be disturbed. Perhaps he was also wary that if he should say out loud something difficult that he was reading, his listener would be interested and want to understand, and he would have to explain it... Though he may also have had a better motive for reading silently, namely to spare his voice, which wore out quickly. Whatever his reason was, a man like that must have had a good one. In any case I never had the opportunity to question him about what I wanted...
The idea is supposedly that Ambrose’s habit of reading silently was something out of the ordinary, so Augustine -- a very learned man himself -- feels the need to explain it. Another passage, in Plutarch, has been influential because of how it has affected some people’s picture of Julius Caesar (Life of Brutus 5):
...Cato and Caesar were standing together, and had opposing views. Just then Caesar was passed a little note from outside, and he read it in silence; but Cato shouted that Caesar was doing something strange, and receiving communications from the enemy. And the crowd went wild...
Supposedly the ‘something strange’ that Caesar was doing, reading silently, cast suspicion on him in Cato’s eyes.

This was the standard view of things for a long time. There were a few dissenting voices, like Knox, mentioned above. In the 1980s and 1990s, the mediaevalist Paul Saenger argued repeatedly that not only did the Greco-Romans invariably read out loud: reading out loud was a ‘physiological necessity’ (Saenger’s italics). It was impossible to read silently, Saenger argued, because ancient manuscripts had no spaces between words. Supposedly, empirical tests of modern people’s ability to read English text without spaces showed that they could not read as fluently as when reading text with spaces: even if they don’t read out loud, they supposedly have to do a lot of subvocalising -- talking in their head, or under their breath.

The turnaround came in 1997. That’s surprisingly recent. If you find a reputable book claiming that reading out loud was universal, check the date of the book: if it’s before 1997, that’s why. (That was the same year Saenger published a book-length summary of his arguments, so don’t be too hard on him: Saenger had no way of knowing what was coming.)

That year an important article by A. K. Gavrilov (subscription required) abruptly and completely overturned the old orthodoxy. The appendix of the article is where it’s all happening: there Gavrilov gives a tidy, straightforward catalogue of evidence both for and against silent reading. The catalogue doesn’t just undermine the old orthodoxy: it makes it blindingly obvious that silent reading wasn’t just an occasional thing, it was absolutely standard. References to silent reading are about three times as common as references that can be interpreted as supporting the reading-was-always-done-out-loud position, all the way from the 5th century BCE to late antiquity.

Here are a few samples:
  • (5th cent. BCE) Euripides, Iphigeneia at Aulis 34ff. and 107-108 -- Agamemnon reads and edits a letter repeatedly, but a slave standing next to him still doesn’t know its contents.
  • (5th cent. BCE) Euripides, Iphigeneia among the Taurians 760-3 -- ‘I shall tell you aloud everything written in the folds of the writing tablet, my friends, for safety. And if you keep the writing safe, it will continue to speak its contents silently.’
  • (5th cent. BCE) Aristophanes, Knights 115ff. -- Nikias gives Demosthenes a bundle of oracles to read, and Demosthenes is so absorbed in reading them that when Nikias asks him what they say, he just says ‘pour me another cup of wine’. A few lines later he paraphrases what’s in the text without quoting it.
  • (3rd cent. BCE) Herodas, Mime 4.21-4 -- ‘Who was the builder who made this stone, and brought it here and erected it?’ ‘Praxiteles’ sons; don’t you see the inscription, there, on the base?’
I omit the other 21 items. Perhaps the most striking piece of testimony is one Gavrilov misses: it appears in an afterword by Miles Burnyeat. The source is Ptolemy (2nd century CE; De iudicandi facultate 5.1-2, Burnyeat’s translation):
...[F]or judging a thing and discovering its nature, the internal logos [in this context, ‘faculty of reasoning’] of thought is sufficient: uttered logos makes no contribution here -- rather, its activity, like the exercise of our senses, disturbs and distracts one’s investigations. That is why it tends to be in states of peace and quiet that we discover the objects of our inquiry, and why we keep quiet when engaged in the readings themselves if we are concentrating hard on the texts before us. What talk is useful for, by contrast, is passing on the results of our inquiries to other people.
Woman reading a scroll (Attic vase, ca. 435 BCE)
Woman reading a scroll (Attic, ca. 440-430 BCE; Louvre CA 2220) (source:
Another important result from Gavrilov’s catalogue is that it shows an aural metaphor was routinely used for reading and writing, but without any particular implication of actual noise. For example, in Euripides’ Hippolytus, 856ff., Theseus opens a letter to ‘see’ what it 'speaks' to him; a few lines later, having read it silently, he cries out at its horrible contents, stating -- using the aural metaphor -- ‘it shouts, it shouts’. At 882 he cries, ‘I will no longer keep this unspeakable story within my mouth’s gate’. In Herodotus 1.123-125 Cyrus reads a letter: he is alone, so the references to what the letter ‘said’ and what Cyrus ‘heard’ are the aural metaphor again; and Herodotus 8.22 tells us what an inscription ‘said’. We have the same metaphor in English, of course: texts routinely ‘tell’ us things, and people ‘say’ things in writing.

This is important because most of the catalogue of evidence for reading out loud is premised on expressions of this kind that use the aural metaphor. Not only is there overwhelming evidence for reading silently: the aural metaphor disposes of much of the contrary evidence too!

The discussion since then has basically been about thinking about exactly how far the implications of Gavrilov’s findings extend. (Though here’s an amusing and embarrassing exception, a 2007 conference paper that ignores Gavrilov altogether, pretends there are only two pieces of testimony for silent reading, and assumes that Saenger ‘definitively disproves’ all contrary possibilities.) This 2000 article (subscription required) thinks about reading out loud as a social act: whether or not people could read silently, Greco-Roman culture was fundamentally an oral culture, and the social dimension was an intrinsic aspect of reading. This 2012 article (subscription required) accepts Saenger’s objection that the lack of spaces between words posed a problem for rapid reading, but suggests that the ancients managed by recognising common letter combinations at word breaks instead, based on a statistical analysis of letter-pairs in ancient Greek. And this 2015 article (subscription required) tries to write a history of the debate, and looks at what the debate tells us about the people who are arguing.

The lack of divisions between words in Greco-Roman texts does pose, if not actual problems, then at least questions. (I leave aside Latin inscriptions of the 1st centuries BCE and CE, which regularly use interpuncts, or mid-line dots, between words; ca. 100 CE it seems the Romans decided interpuncts didn’t add anything of value, and they stopped using them.) The 2012 article, above, is a worthy attempt to deal with the question of how exactly ancient readers managed to read efficiently.

It’s not clear to me that an explanation is actually needed. Saenger’s claim is that spaces are necessary for fluent reading without subvocalisation. But the only piece of experimental evidence he cites for this is a 1962 study which tested subjects’ reading ability in their native language and script, which they had been accustomed to reading with word divisions for between 10 and 25 years, and didn’t even test the effect of word divisions as Saenger claims it did. Ancient readers had a lot more experience in reading continuous text than modern English speakers do. How to design a better test? Where can we find a bunch of people who have decades of practice in reading a phonetic script without word breaks? (Anyone want to bring up a set of 30 or so children who only ever get to see continuous text and are never allowed to see a word break?) Unfortunately, so far as I can find out, all modern phonetic alphabets and syllabaries have spaces or dividers of some kind between words at least some of the time. (Saenger claims the Vai syllabary of Liberia does not; that may possibly have been the case once, but it isn’t now.) So it’s very hard to imagine an experiment that would actually offer a good parallel to the ancient situation.

Much of the testimony that supposedly supports the rarity of silent reading needs to be reinterpreted in light of the aural metaphor. Gavrilov’s interpretation of the Augustine passage is that Augustine resents Ambrose’s silence and absorption, and that he is not trying to find an explanation for Ambrose’s odd behaviour but trying to justify his friend to himself. In the passage about Cato and Caesar, the ‘something strange’ (δεινά) that Caesar was doing is a tendentious interpretation: a more natural translation of δεινά would be ‘something terrible’, meaning the fact that Caesar was supposedly corresponding with Rome’s enemies.

Perhaps it’s useful to compare another Plutarchan passage about Caesar (Life of Caesar 11.3):
In like manner we are told again that, in Spain, when he was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears...
Here too, Caesar reads silently and people are startled. But in this case it’s perhaps more obvious that it’s not the reading silently that his friends are astonished at, but at his unexpected tears.

The opposing view would have to be that Caesar must have been reading out loud and then fell into thought, and that Plutarch simply happens to omit the fact that Caesar read the book out loud. Give me a break!

Woman reading a scroll
Reading as a social activity: woman reading a scroll
(British Museum E190)


Tuesday 2 February 2016

What year was it for the Romans?

For most of the world it is now 2016. Many parts of the world use other year-numbering systems alongside the international 'common era' system: perhaps most notably in Taiwan and Japan, where the current year is also called ROC 105 and Heisei 28 respectively. (Not to mention other year-numbering systems just in those countries!) In the western world, probably the best known 'other' year-numbering system is the Hebrew calendar, according to which it is currently the year 5776. But pretty much everyone also uses the 'Common Era' system -- hence the name 'common'.

The Common Era system -- or CE/BCE (AD/BC, for many Christians) -- didn't always exist. How it came to be is a pretty simple story. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, Christian chronographers calculated that Christ was born in 1 CE. (They were probably mistaken over which year Jesus was born, but there's no doubt about the number of years since 1 CE.) The first time anyone actually specified a date using Jesus' supposed birth as a reference point was in 525 CE, in a tract by the entertainingly named Dionysius Exiguus, or 'Dionysius the Insignificant'. (Here's a translation of his On the Paschal Cycle, if you're interested: the relevant section is under the heading Argumenta Paschalia, 'First argumentum'.)

A couple of hundred years later, in the 8th century, the Northumbrian scholars Bede and Alcuin followed Dionysius' lead, and Bede coined the phrase anno Domini 'in the year of the Lord'. And so the AD system gradually took off. Because really, in western Europe by that time, there weren't any other good systems to use.

So how did the ancient Romans number years before that? Popular belief has it that they used a system called 'AUC', standing for ab urbe condita 'from the founding of the city [of Rome]'. The legendary date of Rome's founding was 753 BCE, so
1 AUC = 753 BCE
2 AUC = 752 BCE
753 AUC = 1 BCE
754 AUC = 1 CE
2769 AUC = 2016 CE
(For years CE, add 753 to find the year count in AUC; for BCE, subtract the BCE year-count from 754. We have to have separate formulas for CE and BCE, because there was no year 0, and that messes things up. Except astronomers: when discussing astronomical events in the past, they use negative year-numbers instead of BCE, so astronomical year 0 = 1 BCE, year -1 = 2 BCE, etc.)

Trouble is, the AUC system is very nearly a myth. Hardly anyone ever used it for dating purposes, until the tail-end of Rome's imperial dominance. For one thing, Rome's founding wasn't dated to 753 BCE until the great scholar Varro, early-ish in the principate of Augustus. Obviously the AUC system couldn't have existed prior to that. For another thing, scarcely any writers use AUC dates until at least the 3rd century: we really start to see it in Censorinus, and more so in 4th century histories and historians like the Chronography of 354, Eutropius, and Orosius. These last two were writing at a time of intense Christianisation, not long before the Roman state was divided into western and eastern empires, and fewer than 150 years before Dionysius the Insignificant!

Prior to that, Varro's date for the founding of Rome crops up mainly in connection with jubilees, like the 800th jubilee in 47 (in the reign of emperor Claudius) and the 1000th jubilee (under Philip). Even in Eutropius' history, the opening paragraph reads:
Romanum imperium ... a Romulo exordium habet, qui ... urbem exiguam in Palatino monte constituit, XI. Kal. Maii, Olympiadis sextae anno tertio, post Troiae excidium ... anno trecentesimo nonagesimo quarto.
The Roman empire takes its origins from Romulus ... He founded a small city on the Palatine hill on the 21st of April, in the 3rd year of the 6th Olympiad1 ... in the 394th year after the destruction of Troy.2
1 '3rd year of the 6th Olympiad' is faithful to Varro's date. That year ran from 754 to 753 BCE, or 754/3 BCE for short: in Greek calendars the year began and ended in midsummer.
2 Eutropius puts the fall of Troy in 1147/6 BCE. Legendary though it is, the fall of Troy was a central starting point for Hellenistic chronographers. Extant sources give us at least a dozen different dates for it, ranging from 1335/4 BCE (Douris of Samos, FGrHist 76 F 41a, subscription required) to Eutropius' 1147/6. Eutropius was probably following the 4th century BCE historian Ephorus, who put it in 1149/8 BCE (FGrHist 70 F 223, subscription required); the discrepancy can easily be explained as a result of one source or another using inclusive counting for multiple consecutive intervals.

Eutropius has to resort to two other year-numbering systems to get his message across. AUC wasn't something he could take for granted: he subordinates it to the Greek system of counting Olympiads, even writing in the 4th century, not long before the abolition of the Olympia. As his history progresses he mentions AUC dates, but only occasionally.

The other contexts where we see AUC dates are
  • the Capitoline fasti consulares from Augustus' reign, listed alongside consuls' names (but replaced from 23 BCE onwards by Augustus' regnal years, starting from when he accepted tribunicia potestas in 23 BCE);
  • three places in Livy's history (3.33.1, 4.7.1, 5.54.5);
  • three references to lost republican-era historians in the works of Pliny the Elder, Censorinus, and Macrobius (Cassius Hemina fr. 20, fr. 26 ed. Peter; L. Calpurnius Piso fr. 36 ed. Peter);
  • a single coin from Hadrian's reign; and
  • a discussion of chronography by Aulus Gellius (Attic nights 17.21).

Section of the Capitoline fasti
Part of the Capitoline fasti showing second consuls for part of the 4th century BCE:
one of the handful of documents that actually use the AUC system.
The years listed (circled in red) are inconsistent with Livy's chronology.

As Denis Feeney puts it (see 'further reading', below), the AUC system had connotations of Rome's early monarchical period, and nearly all historians preferred to avoid that. The rate at which modern people cite AUC dates -- like the editor of the Eutropius edition I linked to above, who puts AUC dates in the margins of every page, far more often than Eutropius actually uses them -- is outrageously disproportional to its actual importance.

Basically, no one cared about AUC. AUC was never a thing. Stop trying to make it a thing!

So how did the Romans refer to years? The answer is simple but messy: they used a system of eponymous years. Years were referred to by the names of the most important patrician office-holders, the two consuls. So: 100 BCE was 'during the consulship of L. Valerius Flaccus and C. Marius'; 44 BCE was 'during the consulship of C. Iulius Caesar and M. Antonius'; 1 CE was 'during the consulship of C. Caesar and L. Aemilius Paullus'.

If that sounds horrid and untidy ... well, it's because it is. To navigate a system like that, you need a list of who the consuls were in every year. And that's exactly how Roman historians did it. The consul lists were called fasti consulares, and were a matter of public record. We have several fragmentary consular fasti, like the Capitoline fasti cited above. To measure an interval of years, you didn't simply subtract one date from another: you had to go through a list of names, counting each year one by one. That kind of system also leads to errors: all dates in Roman history before 300 BCE are uncertain by up to three or four years, because of incompatibilities between the Varronian fasti and Livy's history.

The eponymous consular system was far from universal, even within the Roman world. Under the principate, consuls were often sidelined in favour of the emperor's regnal year. And the consuls were closely associated with Rome itself: lots and lots of other calendars continued to exist elsewhere, with their own year-numberings. Most of them were regnal years, in the case of client kingdoms. Some places used eponymous years relating to local magistrates, like the archons at Athens.

Year-numbering systems
A selection of year-numbering systems (Coloured bars indicate periods of widespread usage, not year 1 according to the system!)

The two most important of these other systems were the Olympiad system, which remained the most popular one for chronographers up until the Christianisation policies of emperor Theodosius I in the 390s; and the Seleucid era system used throughout most of the Near East.

Olympiads were reckoned starting from 776/5 BCE: 776/5 was the 1st year of the 1st Olympiad, 772/1 was the 1st year of the 2nd Olympiad, and so on. It doesn't matter that the Olympia festival probably wasn't first celebrated in 776/5 -- just as it doesn't matter that Jesus probably wasn't born in 1 CE. Those are still the years that serve as the origin point for the year-numbering. The Olympiad system was only really commonly used by chronographers: it never enjoyed popular use. The first person to use it as a general-purpose dating system was the late 4th/early 3rd century BCE historian Timaeus of Tauromenion. Later in the 3rd century, Eratosthenes' chronographic work confirmed its role as the standard measuring rod for ancient historians, a role it kept for the next six centuries -- and beyond: after the early Byzantine campaign against pagan Hellenism petered out, Olympiads regained their popularity for a while under the Macedonian dynasty, notably in a 10th century encyclopaedia called the Suda.

The Seleucid system was simpler still: it was a plain count of years since 312/11 BCE, the beginning of Seleukos I Nikator's reign over the Seleucid Empire. Unlike the AUC and Olympiad systems, the Seleucid era count was used popularly throughout the eastern Roman empire and throughout central Asia as far as Afghanistan, not just by historians. The year-count outlived the Seleucid Empire itself: Hellenistic Jews used the Seleucid system for historiographic purposes until Hillel II fixed the Hebrew year in 359/60 CE, and Syriac historians used it for centuries longer still. Arabic scholars sometimes called it the 'Roman era' (târîch el rûm), 'era of Alexander' (târîch Iskender), or 'era of the two-horned one' (târîch dhû-l-karnaini), also referring to Alexander.

By the way, speaking of jubilees: just five years from now, 21 June 2021 will be the start of the first year of the 700th Olympiad. Start planning a party now!

Further reading
  • Feeney, D. 2007. Caesar's calendar: ancient time and the beginnings of history, U. of California Press, esp. pp. 139-42, 167-93.
  • Hannah, R. 2005. Greek & Roman calendars: constructions of time in the classical world. Duckworth, esp. pp. 148-52.