1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dionysius Exiguus
DIONYSIUS EXIGUUS, one of the most learned men of the 6th century, and especially distinguished as a chronologist, was, according to the statement of his friend Cassiodorus, a Scythian by birth, “Scytha natione.” This may mean only that he was a native of the region bordering on the Black Sea, and does not necessarily imply that he was not of Greek origin. Such origin is indicated by his name and by his thorough familiarity with the Greek language. His surname “Exiguus” is usually translated “the Little,” but he probably assumed it out of humility. He was living at Rome in the first half of the 6th century, and is usually spoken of as abbot of a Roman monastery. Cassiodorus, however, calls him simply “monk,” while Bede calls him “abbot.” But as it was not unusual to apply the latter term to distinguished monks who were not heads of their houses, it is uncertain whether Dionysius was abbot in fact or only by courtesy. He was in high repute as a learned theologian, was profoundly versed in the Holy Scriptures and in canon law, and was also an accomplished mathematician and astronomer. We owe to him a collection of 401 ecclesiastical canons, including the apostolical canons and the decrees of the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon and Sardis, and also a collection of the decretals of the popes from Siricius (385) to Anastasius II. (498). These collections, which had great authority in the West (see Canon Law), were published by Justel in 1628. Dionysius did good service to his contemporaries by his translations of many Greek works into Latin; and by these translations some works, the originals of which have perished, have been handed down to us. His name, however, is now perhaps chiefly remembered for his chronological labours. It was Dionysius who introduced the method of reckoning the Christian era which we now use (see Chronology). His friend Cassiodorus depicts in glowing terms the character of Dionysius as a saintly ascetic, and praises his wisdom and simplicity, his accomplishments and his lowly-mindedness, his power of eloquent speech and his capacity of silence. He died at Rome, some time before A.D. 550.