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The phrase ab urbe condita is used to express time in years after founding Rome. This can be found in ancient texts. It seems that the natural counterpart would be ante urbem conditam when one wants to describe time before that event. However, searching for ante urbem conditam in The Latin Library produces only four hits, and they are from third and fifth centuries CE.

How were years before founding Rome expressed in the republic or early imperial era (first century CE or anything BCE)? Was there a canonical choice or was a new expression concocted for every occurrence? Or was it perhaps the case that there simply was little need to give exact years before founding Rome?

I know that anno decimo ante urbem conditam is a grammatical expression. My goal is not to find a way to express this thing in Latin, but to find the way(s) this was expressed around the golden age of Latin literature.

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Your first suggestion seems spot on:

"ante urbem conditam" is correct and has several classical examples.

Cicero provides the most convincing example of this usage:

itaque et illos septem, qui a Graecis σοφοί, sapientes a nostris et habebantur et nominabantur, et multis ante saeculis Lycurgum, cuius temporibus Homerus etiam fuisse ante hanc urbem conditam traditur, et iam heroicis aetatibus Ulixem et Nestorem accepimus et fuisse et habitos esse sapientis. (Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes, V, 7)

And so we have received these seven, who were held and esteemed as "sophoi" by the Greeks and "wise" by our own, as well as Lycurgus many centuries before the founding of this city, in whose times Homer is even said to have lived, as well as Odysseus and Nestor in heroic ages--we have agreed that these men lived and were held to be wise.

In this example, I think it is debatable and potentially important to the spirit of this question whether "multis ante saeculis* is meant to quantify "ante urbem conditam* or not.

One other natural place to search was Livy's Ab Urbe Condita, which quickly yielded the following phrase in the preface to chapter I:

quae ante conditam condendamve urbem poeticis magis decora fabulis quam incorruptis rerum gestarum monumentis traduntur, ea nec adfirmare nec refellere in animo est.

Canon Robert's translation:

The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood.

I will continue looking for specific examples of a "X specific time ante urbem conditam", and will update this answer with my findings.

Update

After some considerable searching, I found an example from Marcus Velleius Paterculus (19 BC - AD 31), who is squarely on the border of the Golden and Silver age though he is usually classified as the first author of the latter age. He includes the following phrase in his History of Rome:

Hoc tractu temporum ante annos quinque et sexaginta quam urbs Romana conderetur, ab Elissa Tyria, quam quidam Dido autumant, Carthago conditur.

In this time-period, sixty-five years before the city of Rome was founded, Carthage was founded by Elyssa of Tyre, whom some call Dido.

This certainly does not read as a formulaic way of telling time, but I believe in this respect @Ilmari Karonen's observation is very apt: there was generally very little history that could be precisely dated, using the historical methods at their disposal, before the founding of the Rome. Note that even this "sixty-five" figure is one of at least three proposed figures.


Some more variations and examples from Augustine, who is admittedly not in the Latin golden age but whose Latin--in general--is reminiscent of the best:

Tot bella gesta conscripta sunt uel ante conditam Romam uel ab eius exortu et imperio, Augustine, De Civitate Dei, I, 2

Nam hunc Homerus de stirpe Aeneae, a cuius posteris Roma est, cum ante illam urbem conditam idem poeta fuisse dicatur, inducit magnum aliquid diuinantem Augustine, De Civitate Dei, III, 2

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    The question was: "How were years before founding Rome expressed?" I do not see that you have addressed this question at all. – fdb Apr 12 '16 at 0:09
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    I guess the OP is the ultimate arbiter of what his question meant, but I don't see how Cicero's "multis saeculis...ante urbem conditam" entirely misses the mark, as you suggest... – brianpck Apr 12 '16 at 0:14
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    Thanks! One of the difficulties I had searching for examples was that there can well be other words in the middle of the expression ante urbem conditam, so I am grateful for the examples. My question was indeed about expressing years before founding Rome (as @fdb wrote), so this does not fully answer the question. The example from Cicero is the only one that actually expresses what I want, but finding that example alone is well worth my upvote. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 12 '16 at 6:53
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    @JoonasIlmavirta see my update for a more exact example. – brianpck Apr 12 '16 at 14:07
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    Another example, although it is not used to indicate a specific date or year: Sextus Pompeius Festus, De Verborum Significatione 134.13, 134.14: Maius mensis in compluribus civitatibus Latinis ante Urbem conditam fuisse videtur. Qua ex causa, utrum a ma- ioribus, ut Iunius a iunioribus, dictus sit; an a Maia, quod Mercurio filio eius res divinae <idibus> fiant sollemnes; an quod ipsi deae in multis Latinis civitatibus sacrificia fiebant . . . – Cerberus Apr 13 '16 at 14:59
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The answer to your question is very simple. Neither the Romans nor any other ancient civilisation counted the years before any era. This has largely to do with the fact that ancient mathematics had no concept of negative numbers. The counting of years backward from the beginning of the so-called Christian era did not become common practice until the 15th century.

Addendum:

Brianpck has now supplied the interesting passage from Paterculus (ante annos quinque et sexaginta quam urbs Romana conderetur). I would, however, still maintain that there is a difference between the one-off statement that some event happened a certain number of years “before the Roman city was founded”, and the systematic use of a negative AUC era, analogous to our BC era. I still do not see any evidence for the systematic use of this sort of dating before the 15th century.

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    I know it's hard to back-up a negative claim, but a few sources for your (fairly strong) claims would be helpful? One elementary point is that years before =/= negative numbers. "tribus ante annis" does not mean "after negative three years" – brianpck Apr 12 '16 at 0:19
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    This is an interesting answer, but it would greatly benefit from a source or two. The idea that years before is the same as negative years after is hardly an ancient way of thinking. – Joonas Ilmavirta Apr 12 '16 at 8:14
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    @brianpck. As you say, it is difficult to give sources for the statement that something did not happen. The burden of proof is on those who claim that it did happen. I think that if you read through the whole corpus of Roman literature you will not find any dating of an event to a specified number of years ante urb. cond. – fdb Apr 12 '16 at 8:46
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    @fdb: I suspect the absence of ante urbem conditam dates has little if anything to do with there being "no concept of negative numbers", and much more with the fact that there was little if any Roman history (at least of the kind that could be accurately dated) prior to the founding of the city. Thus, the only reason to discuss earlier dates would be when referring to events from other, older civilizations, in which case it would be natural to use the local calendar system those events were originally recorded in, rather than translating them to some "proleptic Roman calendar". – Ilmari Karonen Apr 12 '16 at 13:03
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    @fdb, see my update for a concrete example from the first century AD. As I searched for that specific example, I came across innumerable phrases like "abhinc annos ferme octingentos septuaginta" which seem to contradict your statement. – brianpck Apr 12 '16 at 14:03

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