Dionysius (19) , surnamed Exiguus because of his humbleness of heart, was a Scythian by birth, and a monk in the Western church under the emperors Justin and Justinian. To him we owe the custom of dating events from the birth of our Saviour, though he is now acknowledged to have placed the era four years too late. His collection of canons laid the foundation of canon law. He knew Latin and Greek fairly; though it is obvious that neither was his vernacular. His Latin translations form the bulk of his extant works. Cassiodorus speaks of his moral and intellectual qualities with well-deserved praise. His performances were not original discoveries, but improvements on those of others.
I. The period called after him was borrowed from Victorius of Aquitaine, who flourished 100 years earlier, and is said to have invented it. It is a revolution of 532 years, produced by multiplying the solar cycle of 28 by the lunar of 19 years. It is called sometimes "recapitulatio Dionysii." A note to Â§ 13 of the preliminary dissertation to lâ€™Art de vÃ©rif. les dates shews how he improved on his predecessor. His cycle was published in the last year of the emperor Justin, a.d. 527. It began with March 25, now kept as the festival of the Annunciation; and from this epoch all the dates of bulls and briefs of the court of Rome are supposed to run (Butler's Lives of the Saints, Oct. 15: note to the Life of St. Teresa). His first year had for its characters the solar cycle 10, the lunar 2, and the Roman indiction 4, thereby proclaiming its identity with the year 4714 of the Julian period, which again coincided with the 4th year of the 194th Olympiad, and the 753rd of the building of Rome. It was adopted in Italy soon after its publication; in France perhaps a century later. In England it was ordained a.d. 816, at the synod of Chelsea, that all bishops should date their acts from the Incarnation.
II. In his letter to bp. Stephen, to whom he dedicates his collection of Canons, he admits the existence of an earlier, but defective, Latin translation, of which copies have been printed and named, after his naming of it, Prisca Versio by Justellus and others. His own was a corrected edition of that earlier version, so far as regards the canons of Nicaea, Ancyra, Neo-Caesarea, Gangra, Antioch, Laodicea, and Constantinopleâ€”165 in allâ€”together with 27 of Chalcedon: all originally published in Greek, and all, except the Laodicean, already translated in the Prisca Versio. The Laodicean, unlike the rest, are given in an abbreviated form, and the chronological order is interrupted to place the Nicene canons first. He specifies as having been translated by himself the 50 so-called canons of the Apostles, which stand at the head of his collection, which he admits were not then universally received: and, as having been appended by himself, the Sardican and African canons, which he says were published in Latin, and with which his collection ends. His collection speedily displaced that of the Prisca. Cassiodorus, his friend and patron, writes of it within a few years of his decease, "Quos hodie usu ecclesia Romana complectitur"; and adds, "Alia quoque multa ex Graeco transtulit in Latinam, quae utilitati possunt ecclesiasticae convenire" ( de Inst. Div. Litt. c. 23). It seems certain, from what Cassiodorus says, that Dionysius either translated or revised an earlier translation of the official documents of the 3rd and 4th councils, as well as the canons of the 1James , 2 nd.
III. He published all the decretal epistles of the popes he could discover from Siricius, who succeeded Damasus, a.d. 384, to Anastasius II., who succeeded Gelasius, a.d. 496. Gelasius, he says himself, he had never seen in life; in other words, he had never been at Rome up to Gelasius's death. By this publication a death-blow was given to the false decretals of the Pseudo-Isidore, centuries before their appearance. His attestation of the true text and consequent rendering of the 6th Nicene canon, his translating the 9th of Chalcedon into plain Latin, after suppressing the 28th, which, as it was not passed in full council he could omit with perfect honesty, and, most of all, the publicity which he first gave to the canons against transmarine appeals in the African code and to the stand made by the African bishops against the encroachments of pope Zosimus and his successors in the matter of Apiarius, are historical stumbling-blocks which are fatal to the papal claims. Misquotations of the Sardican canons, by which those claims were supported, are, moreover, exposed by his preservation of them in the language in which he avers they were published. Aloisius Vincenzi, writing on papal infallibility (de SacrÃ¢ MonarchiÃ¢, etc. 1875), is quite willing to abandon the Sardican canons in order to get rid also of the African code, which is a thorn in his side.