Why we’ve counted years – a Big Deal

a new system for reckoning the passage of time

years.timeline“What year is it? It’s 2019, obviously. An easy question. Last year was 2018. Next year will be 2020. We are confident that a century ago it was 1919, and in 1,000 years it will be 3019, if there is anyone left to name it.”

Those are the opening sentences in the article A revolution in time by Paul J Kosmin. The subtitle: “Once local and irregular, time-keeping became universal and linear in 311 BCE. History would never be the same again.”

D’oh. There are so many concepts we take for granted – the number zero, e.g. – that we take assume that they’ve somehow ALWAYS existed. But “from earliest recorded history right up to the years after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the late 4th century BCE, historical time – the public and annual marking of the passage of years – could be measured only in three ways: by unique events, by annual offices, or by royal lifecycles.”

What about the Hebrew calendar, for which it is currently 5779? “One of Alexander’s Macedonian generals… introduced a new system for reckoning the passage of time. It is known, after him, as the Seleucid Era. This was the world’s first continuous and irreversible tally of counted years. It is the unheralded ancestor of every subsequent era system, including the Christian Anno Domini system, our own Common Era, the Jewish Era of Creation, the Islamic Hijrah, the French Revolutionary Era, and so on.”

Moreover, “these Seleucid Era year numbers were marked onto an unprecedented range of public, private and mobile platforms. Era dates were affixed to market weights, jar handles, coinage, building constructions, temple offerings, seal rings, royal letters, civic decrees, tombstones, tax receipts, priest lists, boundary markers, astronomical reports, personal horoscopes, marriage contracts – and much, much more. In our own world, filled with ubiquitous date marks, it is easy to underestimate the sheer novelty, and so historical significance, of this mass year-marking. But, in the ancient world, this was without precedent or parallel.”

Why is this such a big deal? Chronology and dating “are the stuff that history is made on, for dates do two things: they allow things to happen only once, and they insist on the ordering and interrelation of all happenings. Every event must be chained to its place in time before it becomes an available object of historical articulation. And the modes by which we date the world, by which we apprehend historical duration and the passage of time, frame how we experience our present, conceive a future, remember the past, reconcile with impermanence, and make sense of a world far wider, older and more enduring than any of us.”

For ABC Wednesday