The University of Western Australia School of Humanities (Classics and Ancient History) clah 1103 Glory and Grandeur Notes on Ancient Chronological Systems

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The University of Western Australia

School of Humanities (Classics and Ancient History)

CLAH 1103 Glory and Grandeur
Notes on Ancient Chronological Systems
In modern Australia, time is measured very accurately. You can tell your age not merely to the year, but to the hour and perhaps the minute, maybe even the second. You expect a train to depart or arrive at a time fixed in hours and minutes.

In the ancient world this was not possible. Even years were not always the same as our own years. Historians need to understand this, and they must be careful not to make assumptions which are based on the situation which exists in their own time.

Some dates in ancient history can be calculated very exactly in modern terms (for instance, if there was an astronomical event which modern astronomers can time with precision). In other cases, only approximate estimates can be given. For this reason, students of ancient history often use the abbreviation c. (for the Latin word circa, meaning ‘about’), when they cannot date an event precisely.
The year

Major units of time have always been measured in the same way by most people: they have used the length of the solar year, the monthly waxing and waning of the moon, and the day and the night and their parts. Since the solar year (c. 365 1/4 days) and the lunar month (c. 29 days) cannot be easily reconciled, this is difficult. The Muslim religious year is an exception, since it is based only on the moon. For this reason, Muslim festivals take place at different points in the solar year, as one year follows another.

It has always been extremely important for farmers to measure the seasons of the year. They need to know when to sow and harvest their crops. Often farmers would make calculations based on the appearance and disappearance of certain stars on or from the horizon for this purpose. But man-made calendars were so unreliable until the time of Julius Caesar, that they regularly got out of step with these agricultural seasons, and extra (‘intercalary’) months had to be inserted to bring them back into line with the solar year.

The Egyptians settled on a system of twelve months of 30 days, with five days added at the end of the year (slightly less than an actual solar year).

Greek practice was (as might be expected because of the multiplicity of political units), more varied. We have no evidence for the nature of local calendars in many parts of Greece. Athens is the city whose arrangements are best known. Here the standard practice became the alternation of ‘full’ months of 30 days with ‘hollow’ months of 29 days. Six of each gave a year of 355 days, and every few years an extra month was intercalated (i.e., added to the calendar). A similar system, used occasionally in Greece, was to have twelve lunar months in a year, with an extra month intercalated every other year. Again, this was only approximately correct.

In the fifth century B.C. an Athenian astronomer called Meton calculated a cycle of nineteen years, with regular and intercalated months, which was followed for several centuries. Again, this Metonic cycle was slightly out of step with the solar year, and small inaccuracies developed in the course of time.

The Greeks did not have an agreed starting point from which years were counted. Very long periods of time might be counted in centuries or generations (thirty years, or three generations to a century). The most common way of denoting years in Greek cities was by the names of the principal magistrates (a way which demanded a very good memory when going back more than a few years). Dating by Olympiads was a late development, and not common. After the time of Alexander the Great it became more common for individual cities to date events from the time of their foundation, or refounding, or from notable events such as the Battle of Actium.

Within each year, Greek cities had various ways of recording the time at which events took place. Sometimes the month was used as a basis for this. At Athens, and at some other cities, records often refer to the ‘prytany’. The word ‘prytanis’ means ‘chief, leader’, and at Athens it was customary for committees of fifty men, chosen from each of the ten tribes, to serve as prytaneis. Each committee conducted the day-to-day business of the city for one-tenth of the year, and administrative decisions were recorded as being ‘in the prytany’ of that tribe.

The Greek year sometimes began in spring, or with the new moon following the summer solstice, or later in summer. Midsummer (in the sense of the longest day) has always been an important point in measuring time (note the stone circles at Stonehenge in southern Britain, a monument whose earliest stages were built before 3,000 B.C.; the major avenue of stones leading into it was aligned to receive the rays of the rising sun on Midsummer’s Day). The Athenian year began in midsummer, so for this and for other years which did not begin on January 1 modern scholarly publications often use a double year date, when this can be established (e.g., 425/4 B.C. indicates the second half of 425 B.C. in our reckining, and the first half of 424 B.C.).

Because Greek calendars were lunar, and the lunar months did not always stay in step with the solar year, the day of the month as well as the beginning of the year could vary from one city to another. The pure ‘lunar’ month could also be out of step with the ‘civic’ month. This explains the statement of the 4th century BC writer on musical subjects, Aristoxenus (Harmonic Elements II, 37): ‘The 10th day of the month for the Corinthians is the 5th for the Athenians and the 8th somewhere else.’

The Roman year originally began in March, at the end of winter. It contained ten months, ending with December (from decem, ‘ten’), the beginning of winter. The period until March arrived again seems to have been regarded as useless. Before 500 B.C. the month of January (named after Janus, the god of entrances and beginnings) had received a name, but it did not actually become the official beginning of the year until 153 B.C.

In the Roman year March, May, July (called Quintilis because it was the fifth month until it was renamed in honour of Julius Caesar) and the eighth month, October, had 31 days, February 28 and the rest had 29. This produced a year of only 355 days, and so from time to time an extra month (not a day, as in our system) was intercalated after February (i.e. before the beginning of the new year). This was not always done correctly, and by the middle of the 1st century B.C. the calendar was three months out of step with the sun.

Julius Caesar therefore reformed the calendar in 45 BC. This new calendar was so successful that at the time of its reform by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 it was only ten days behind (England did not follow suit until 1752, by which time it was 11 days behind). It is now fourteen days behind the Gregorian calendar (this should not be used as an excuse for late delivery of essays in Roman History units).

From the early Republic onwards, the Romans counted their years according to the names of the consuls elected at the beginning of each year, as Greek cities had counted their years by the names of the archons. Lists were kept which could be consulted when necessary.

Occasionally the Romans calculated dates from the era of Rome, from the traditional date of the founding of the city, ab urbe condita, ‘from the city founded’. This date was calculated in slightly different ways by different writers, but 753 B.C. (in our terms) became the generally accepted date. Dates expressed A.U.C. were used by some modern scholars, when they were writing about Roman history, until the early twentieth century.

During the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian, a system of dating began to be used which had originally been used in Egypt. This used ‘indictions’, or annual tax accounting years beginning on September 1st each year. A full indiction cycle lasted for fifteen years, so we find documents dated to ‘the fifth (or tenth, or eleventh) year of the indiction (cycle)’. This system began on September 1st A.D. 284, but within a few centuries it had been adjusted forwards a little so that the indiction year like the consular year began on January 1st.

The Christian Era

According to the calculation of Dionysius Exiguus of Alexandria, made in A.D. 525, Jesus was born on December 25th in A.U.C. 753 (1 B.C. in the current reckoning). This calculation was first made as a part of his assigned task of calculating the dates when Easter would be celebrated in future years. This was rounded off to the following January 1st, which became the point from which dates A.D. (anno Domini) were calculated.

In the time of Dionysus it was normal to calculate years in indictions. But since it was felt that it was wrong to use a system which was associated with a tyrant who had persecuted the Christians, another means of dating was sought, and dating in years A.D. gradually became popular.

The evidence for the date of the birth of Jesus is in fact contradictory, and contains elements which are incompatible. Both Luke (1, 5) and Matthew (2, 1) date it in the time of King Herod of Judaea, who died in 4 B.C. If there is any truth in the story of the Massacre of the Innocents, the birth of Jesus should therefore be dated in the period 7-5 B.C. But other events with which it may be associated are either difficult to date exactly, or can be dated much later.

In Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 2) reference is made to a star which guided the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem. This may have been a comet, or a conjunction of two stars. Several possible dates have been suggested for such an event. No certainty is possible here.

Luke (3, 23) says that Jesus was about thirty years old when he began to preach, and he preached for a year or more before being put to death in the governorship of Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26-36).

In the Gospel of Luke (2, 1ff.), the birth of Jesus is associated with a census carried out for the purpose of calculating tax liabilities by the new governor of Syria, Quirinius (who took office in A.D. 6). There is no record elsewhere of such a census. If any kind of registration took place at this time, it must have been in A.D. 6 or later.

It is necessary to be careful when calculating the length of periods which run between B.C. and A.D. dates. The year 1 B.C. (i.e., B(efore) C(hrist) in our current scheme of dating), was followed by A(nno) D(omini) (‘in the year of the Lord’) 1. There is no Year 0.

However inaccurate it may be, most of the world, Christian and non-Christian, now calculates years in this way, although some groups, for example Chinese, Muslims and Thais, also use their own forms of reckoning.

Some non-Christians do not like referring to the Christian era, and prefer to refer to the Common Era, expressing dates as CE and BCE, i.e., C(ommon) E(ra) and B(efore) C(ommon) E(ra).

During the Middle Ages calculations were made by Christians about the age of the world from the time of its creation. These produced various results. Dates are sometimes expressed in this way in mediaeval texts. More recently, a calculation by an Irish archbishop made in the 18th century was used as a reference in many texts, although it is not now taken seriously. Dates expressed in this way are sometimes preceded by the letter A.M. (anno mundi, ‘in the year of the world’).
The year of the Common Era which we call 2000 could have been expressed as follows:
AD 2000: Year 4 of the 694th Olympiad (until midsummer, when Year 1 of the
695th Olympiad began).

AUC (ab urbe condita) 2753.

Year 7508 from the Creation of the World (Byzantine reckoning).

Year A.M. 6004 from the Creation of the World (Archbishop Ussher’s


Year 2543 of the Buddhist Era.

2311 according to the Era of the Seleucid Kings of Syria.

2030 according to the Era of the Battle of Actium.

Year 8 of the indiction cycle (until Sep. 1, when Year 9 will begin).

Years 1420 and 1421 of the Hijri/Hegira in the Muslim calendar.

Year 41 of the Era of the City of Nedlands (until July 1 2000, when year 42
of the Era of the City began.
Days of the month

Within the month, the Greeks usually marked the days in relation to the new moon and the full moon. When the way in which the months were fixed was not in step with the actual state of the moon (because an artificial month of 29 or 30 days was being used), a month might have two sets of dates, an ‘actual’ new moon and full moon, and a ‘business’ new moon and full moon; the latter were used for making payments which were due on these dates.

The Roman month had three points from which days were measured, the Kalends (Day 1), the Nones (Day 5 or 7) and the Ides (Day 13 or 15). The Ides probably represent the full moon, and the Nones a day nine days before it.

When the Greeks and the Romans tried to express the interval between two points in a series, they always counted both the beginning and the end, whereas we simply subtract. Dates were measured according to the number of days before the next of these points, counting both the first and the last day (i.e. the Ides of March 44 B.C. fell on the 15th, so in that month the 12th was the 4th day before the Ides). When Christians say that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and rose from the dead on the following Sunday, and that this was the ‘third day’, they are preserving this way of measuring time.

The seven-day week is a Jewish custom (perhaps Babylonian in origin, with a series of days named after the seven known planets), modified by the Christians, who made the day of the Sun God, Sunday, rather than Saturday, the Sabbath (this happened in the time of Constantine the Great, because they wanted to make the day when Jesus was said to have risen from the dead the day on which religious ceremonies could be most effectively conducted, and the day of the Sun God had been made a holy day or holiday). The idea of a regular day when no work was done was a novel one. In the ancient world in general, there were no regular days of rest (although religious festivals were frequent, which had much the same effect, so far as free persons were concerned). Slaves, or course, had no holidays, except for a Roman festival at the end of the year in December, called the Saturnalia, during which they were allowed some temporary liberties. The nearest thing to our week was the Roman cycle of market days (called nundinae, because they came every eighth day, which by the Roman system of counting was the ninth day).

To the Greeks and the Romans, hours were inexact (as they are for many people even today). The only closely fixed points were sunrise, sunset and midday (and in cloudy weather, even these could not be measured with any exactitude). The most common practice was to divide each day and each night into twelve ‘hours’. In summer, the daylight ‘hours’ would be longer and the ‘hours’ of darkness shorter. In winter the opposite would be true. Hours were counted from daybreak or sunset so in winter the hours of the day were shorter and the hours of the night were longer, while in summer the opposite was the case. Thus in midsummer the ‘third hour of the day’ would begin about 9.00 a.m. in our way of reckoning time, whereas in winter it would begin rather later. For this reason, if Julius Caesar reports that his troops conducted a manoeuvre at the second hour of the day, the actual time, in our terms, must be determined after considering the season of the year at which the event took place.

Fractions of the hour are sometimes mentioned, but could not be exactly measured. For this reason, no one in the ancient world could compare the times of Olympic victors, and ‘records’ could not be made or broken in respect of time.

No one in the ancient world had a watch. Some devices for measuring the length of elapsed time were used - the hourglass, or a water clock (which used a container with a small exit hole which emptied itself over a certain period). The principal use of such devices was in the law courts. Clocks, in our sense, are a development of the Middle Ages.

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