When was ‘Ancient History’?


By Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.27.2016

An Overview

I recently posted an article covering the why of studying ancient history, and here go to the when.  What time period does this ambiguous phrase cover?

Well, it’s an ever-evolving idea.

During the medieval era and into the Renaissance (and later), the Earth was thought to be about 6,000-years-old.  This age was based on the Old Testament in the Bible, the unquestioned source at the time for how and when history began.


James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh / Creative Commons

In 1650, James Ussher (Archbishop of Armagh) calculated when the Earth was created by counting generations in the Old Testament. He calculated the year and date of creation to be October 23, 4004 BCE. It was an unquestioned conclusion, and many still cite this today as truth (making the Earth less than 6,000 years old at the time he made his calculation).


Sir John Lightfoot (Rabbinical scholar) / Creative Commons

Some felt Ussher’s calculations weren’t precise enough. Sir John Lightfoot calculated it to October 23, 4004 BCE, as had Ussher, but he somehow figured the time of creation to be 9:00 a.m.


Hubble Image of Star Explosion, NASA

Humans have discovered many things since then, such as deep space and deep time. The Hubble Telescope image above is of an exploding star that is 3,800 light years away.  A light year is a measure of distance that gives us time. The star exploded 3,800 years ago, and it has taken that long for the light to reach the location of the telescope so that we could know about it.


Herrerasaurus and Eoraptor skeletons, plus a Plateosaurus skull / North American Museum of Ancient Life

We’ve also discovered things here on planet Earth since then. The word “dinosaur” did not yet exist in the time of Ussher and Lightfoot. But then the Stone Age was discovered. All of these things were discovered that did not fit their calculations. Many believe dinosaurs must have been on Noah’s Ark. All of this is impossible to fit into 6,000 short years, but they continue to try with each new discovery or simply decry a discovery and most fallaciously attempt to “debunk” it. The Ussher/Lightfoot dateline would put dinosaurs on the Earth after the pyramids were built, walking around with people! But we don’t find paintings or writings of dinosaurs in ancient history, as though early people felt them unworthy of mention.

Dinosaurs were prehistoric – not a part of history. They had been extinct 13,000 times the time span between now and the pyramids. They’ve been gone for 65 million years.

Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary Layer

The K/T Iridium Boundary / Calvin J. Hamilton

The K/T Iridium Boundary shows this age. The Cretaceous Period ended 65 million years ago, after which began the Tertiary Period. There were no dinosaurs beyond the Cretaceous Period – they did not form a part of ancient history.

History and Chronology

Chronology provides perspective. It is the study of time, the word itself formed from Greek chronos (time) and logos (study). All –ologies are studies of something, in this case time. Chronology is important to historians and archaeologists. It must be known to understand the past. Dinosaurs existed 65 million years ago, civilizations began around 6,000 years ago (though this is stretching back with new discoveries, as history and science should when the evidence leads where it does). The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. All complex small-cell life fits into one hand of a two-arm span. Recorded human history is an even smaller part of that – imagine it being the tiny tip of a fingernail on that single hand.  Humans haven’t been around very long at all and we’ve been producing recorded history far less than that.

Chronology is tricky because we live in a society that is constantly misinterpreting or being purposely deceitful about the correct order of things. Time Magazine did a piece in 1982 on the most amazing 60 years in history. They cited the years as 1923-1982. So the 60 years they had actually experienced just happened to be the most amazing years there had ever been in the history of the world!

Periodization is the practice of dividing history into distinct periods. It is of course somewhat arbitrary as we decide when certain life patterns began and changed to something else. We divide human history into three large periods – ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern. Each of those is further subdivided. Ancient history comprises three-quarters of all human history to this point, one-quarter is medieval, and one-twelfth is early modern and modern. Yet we live in a world that believes that last twelfth part to be the most relevant (the period Time Magazine calls the “most amazing”). This is of course not possible. We all know the ancient world plays a hugely important role in our understanding of who we are. There are always a much larger number of historians covering modern history, fewer medieval, and even fewer ancient.


Painting of the Piazza del Popolo in Rome / Between 1691 and 1765, Giovanni Paolo Panini

This is a painting of the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. It’s an old painting, and right in the middle is an obelisk that was created under the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I, where it first stood. It was transferred to different places during the Assyrian and Persian Empires, then under the Ptolemies, and then during the Roman Empire.  It was since excavated and is now erected in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome. That obelisk has seen quite a lot of travel!

Alfred Crosby wrote “Ecological Imperialism” in 1986. It is about the history of the Earth’s ecological development. He writes that between the Neolithic Revolution and the time of Columbus…roughly 4,000 years passed, during which little of importance happened.” How narrow and arrogant! We want to be modern, but a great deal of what we say and do every single day comes to us from the ancient world. We inherited a decimal numeral system from the Sumerians thousands of years ago. We still celebrate days in ways handed down to us from the ancients. We are creatures of another time and place. Ancients created and shaped what we are today.


The Pyramids at Giza and a statue of Cleopatra / Creative Commons

How many years separate Cleopatra from the pyramids?

This is relative chronology – how much time passed between them relative to each other. About 26 centuries (2,600 years) separate them. Most are inclined to believe they existed relatively close together in time. The stars in the night sky look very close together, but they are actually very far apart. Distance creates the illusion of closer proximity. The same concept applies to time – the further back, the easier it becomes to jumble things together that were actually vastly separated in time. We today are closer in time to Cleopatra than she was to the building of the pyramids. We are closer contemporaries to her than Khufu (the pharaoh who built the pyramids). Not born until 69 CE, she is separated from us by 20 centuries (2,000 years).


Dionysius Exiguus / Creative Commons

What do the French Revolution, the founding of Rome, the capture of Babylon by Seleucus, the birth of Jesus, and the first Olympics have in common?

Each of these events has been chosen at one time as the “year one.”

Chronology – the study of time, its record – depends on choosing when to start counting. This is culturally arbitrary, and many cultures have chosen differently when such time reckoning should begin based upon an event most important to them. In our modern society, we use the birth of Jesus. BC means “before Christ” and AD means “Anno Domini” (the year of our Lord).

A early medieval monk, Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little or Dennis the Small), was commissioned in 525 CE by the pope to come up with a new chronology. The pope said they had been using pagan reckoning systems for too long. Exiguus naturally made the year one to be the year Jesus was born. He designated everything before Christ’s birth as AC (Ante Christum). We have changed that to BC. To appear less culturally biased, many now prefer the nomenclature BCE/CE (Before Common Era and Common Era). It is still based on BC/AD, the years being exactly the same. Thus it really is still culturally biased as nothing was changed other than the reference names. By the way, Exiguus was incorrect in choosing which year Jesus was born, which was actually around 7 BCE and no later than 2 BCE.

There is no year “0”, actually – we go from 1 BCE to 1 CE. Centuries begin in odd numbered years (as our new century began in 2001, not 2000).


Thucydides / Creative Commons

Ancient historians use an ancient source like Thucydides 2.2.1, in which he describes timing in the manner then used before such calendars existed. He had no way of knowing someone named Jesus would be born and become the arbitrary new source of time reckoning which would be created by someone named Dionysius Exiguus. Following is Thucydides’ account:

“The thirty years’ truce which was entered into after the conquest of Euboea lasted fourteen years. In the fifteenth, in the forty-eighth year of the priestess-ship of Chrysis at Argos, in the Ephorate of Aenesias at Sparta, in the last month but two of the Archonship of Pythodorus at Athens, and six months after the battle of Potidaea, just at the beginning of spring, a Theban force a little over three hundred strong, under the command of their Boeotarchs, Pythangelus, son of Phyleides, and Diemporus, son of Onetorides, about the first watch of the night, made an armed entry into Plataea, a town of Boeotia in alliance with Athens.”

He wrote all of that to date the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, and we simply say it as 431 BCE today.


Base of Obelisk in Piazza del Popolo, Rome / Creative Commons

At the base of the obelisk in the Piazza del Popolo is an inscription that was carved under Emperor Augustus. It indicates when he erected the obelisk in Egypt. How do we know the timing? The inscription includes all of his office titles at the time, and there was only one time in which he held all of those titles at once – the year we call 10 BCE. He dedicated the obelisk to the sun god. The Latin inscription reads as follows:


The modern English translation of the inscription follows:

Emperor Augustus Caesar, son of the divine Caesar, Supreme Pontiff, given the title of imperator [a former word for emperor and also meaning Supreme Chief] for the eleventh time, and, after subjecting Egypt to the Romans, entitled to represent the people [Tribunicia Potestas] for the fourteenth time, offered this obelisk as a gift to the sun.

Ancient writing indicates how they recorded time. Two months – July and August – are named after Roman emperors (Augustus and Julius Caesar, his adoptive father). Our calendar today is in fact Roman.  We are conditioned by antiquity. All twelve months are Roman names or numbers representing leaders or deities/sacred things. September, October, November and December literally mean 7, 8, 9 and 10. Obviously this doesn’t match the numbers 9, 10, 11 and 12 that we attach to those same months. The reason for this is that the Romans first invented a lunar, not solar, calendar. Lunar calendars tend to have ten, not twelve, months. The original Roman calendar only had ten months (March to December) and those numbers were then correct. January and February were added to the beginning when Romans switched to a solar calendar, January becoming the first month of the year instead of March. March was named after the war god Mars. By the time they created the solar calendar, it took their armies longer to reach further extents to which the empire had expanded. This allowed the armies time to arrive at a location by March to fight battles in honor of Mars. June was named after the goddess Juno, and it is when most people still get married today (Juno being the goddess of marriage).

February is the odd shortest month because there weren’t enough days left in the solar calendar to equally assign to it as had been assigned to others. February was named after Februa (bloody strips of goat hide). In this month, Romans celebrated a religious festival in which two prominent young men were selected to enter the Roman Forum, strip naked, and eat bloody goat hides. They would run about the city of Rome with the pieces and lash women with them who had not yet given birth to make them fertile.


Christian Jürgensen Thomsen / Creative Commons

In 1836, Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, a Danish antiquarian and archaeologist, defined early human cultures based upon the technology they used – Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. He was hired to organize museum materials, and he arbitrarily sorted them according to the material of which they were made. It was then that he discovered, entirely by mistake, something of tremendous importance. The organization had chronological significance.

The stone implements were older than the bronze and the bronze older than the iron, defining three stages of human existence during which people relied on different material. The Stone Age was primarily prehistoric, and the Bronze and Iron Ages fall within human history. Simply because people existed in the Stone Age doesn’t make it historic. They were not yet recording their lives and events – PRE-historic. Each of these ages have since been divided into smaller sub-units as well.

We define three periods within the Stone Age: Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic – Old, Middle, and New – Stone Ages. The Stone Age comprises the time period of about 600,000-3300 BCE. In Latin, “lithic” means “of stone.” The Bronze Age lasted from about 3300-1200 BCE, and the Iron Age followed. The Stone Age lasted over 100 times longer than has civilization. Humans have spent more time making and using things of stone than any other material. The Neolithic Age was ended by the state and urban revolution around 3300 BCE – the emergence of cities and states. This was the rise of civilization and the beginning of history, when civilizations created writing. Prior to 3300 BCE, we can only infer what they did based on materials they left behind (archaeology). Writing allows us to get into their minds and actually reconstruct events.


The Fertile Crescent / Creative Commons

Civilization emerged in the region of the Middle East today. This is the cradle of civilization – the “Fertile Crescent” – where there was sufficient irrigation for agricultural production to sustain large cities. Many in modern times worry that civilization will end right where it began. One center of civilization was Mesopotamia (“land in the middle of the rivers” – Tigris and Euphrates). The rivers empty into the Persian Gulf today after merging, but they did not merge in antiquity and separately emptied into the gulf. Another center of civilization was Egypt, dominated by the Nile River. Most early civilizations were river-based because water was needed to increase agricultural yields of cropland through irrigation. The Nile naturally inundated the land around it, while the Tigris and Euphrates required a bit more work for diversion.

Time and place are key to understanding history. History must play itself out against a geographical background. Think about the similarities and differences between these two early civilizations. We think of buildings of stone in Egypt. Egypt had immense quantities of quarried stone. In Mesopotamia they didn’t have such quarries and made most of their structures of mud brick. Mud brick tends to dissolve when inundated. Different environments conditioned two completely different types of civilizations.

It was at this point, when writing began – primarily to record laws and treasury/agriculture inventories – that history began.  Some will argue that much older cave paintings should be included in history, but those must fall under the archaeology of older time periods because we can only infer the meaning of the art.  That is the equally important study of prehistory.

The more we learn about the ancients, the more we learn from them – and the more we realize how briefly separated from them we really are today.  We’re never far from where we were.