Historical time-keeping

An essay from Paul J Kosmin, a humanities professor at Harvard, on an aspect of time that I hadn’t thought about at all— it wasn’t always just a number, regular and universal.

A revolution in time
Each of these systems was geographically localised. There was no transcendent or translocal system for locating oneself in the flow of history. How could one synchronise events at geographical distance, or between states? Take the example of the Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens and Sparta in the last third of the 5th century BCE. This is how the great Athenian historian Thucydides attempted to date its outbreak:

The ‘Thirty Years’ Peace’, which was entered into after the conquest of Euboea, lasted 14 years; in the 15th year, in the 48th year of the priesthood of Chrysis at Argos, and when Aenesias was magistrate at Sparta, and there still being two months left of the magistracy of Pythodorus at Athens, six months after the battle of Potidaea, and at the beginning of spring, a Theban force a little over 300 strong … at about the first watch of the night made an armed entry into Plataea, a Boeotian town in alliance with Athens.

Where we would write, simply, ‘431 BCE’, Thucydides was obliged to synchronise the first shot of war to non-overlapping diplomatic, religious, civic, military, seasonal and hourly data points.

And for some context, there’s this.

The lifespans of ancient civilizations
The average lifespan of those surveyed was 336 years, but some of the longest-lived civilizations were the Vedics, Olmecs, Kushites, and the Aksumites…they each lasted about 1000 years or more.

Author: Terry Madeley

I enjoy reading about art and design, culture, data, education, technology and the web.

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