Sections on this page:
Motivation and Selection
The Representation of Dates
The Division into Ages
Sections on separate pages:
The First Age (−900 - −650).
The Second Age (−650 - −400).
The Third Age (−400 - −150).
The Fourth Age (−150 - 100).
The Fifth Age (100 - 350).
The Sixth Age (350 - 600).
The Seventh Age (600 - 850).
The Eighth Age (850 - 1100).
The Ninth Age (1100 - 1350).
The Tenth Age (1350 - 1600).
The Eleventh Age (1600 - 1850).
The Twelfth Age (1850 - 2100).
These pages on History of Ideas were begun in 2004 on my NTL site, and briefly transferred to the Leicester Secular Society site from June to September 2007, during which time the pages were completely recast and expanded. The latest comprehensive revision, August 2011, makes more use of CSS and colour coding to improve the appearance. The sections on prehistory and early history down to −900 have now been moved to the Science Overview pages dealing with Anthropology and Archaeology. Instead of nine ages of 500 years the shorter period covered is now divided into twelve ages of 250 years.
My purpose in compiling these pages of historical chronology was to provide an overview of the whole sweep of history from the earliest surviving oral traditions and written documents, in a manner that would give me, and hopefully also the reader, a clear outline, without becoming too entangled in detail. The emphasis is on the history of ideas generally, and of science in particular, from a secular perspective, making clear the continual struggle between rationality and superstition.
History begins in the realms of myth and legend, generated when the participants in noteworthy events begin telling their stories and passing them on to the next generation, and becomes gradually more certain when this oral tradition can be preserved in writing and inscriptions. These preserved traditions and written histories can be retrospectively checked against the evidence of material remains which is the study of archaeologists. In this revised study I have concluded that History of Ideas, as opposed to the history of kings and empires, begins not with the invention of writing, around 3200BC, but with the first full flowering of literature, marked in particular by the works of Homer and Hesiod. Of course there are important precursors, such as the Precepts of Ptah Hotep, and the Legend of Gilgamesh, but these are isolated occurrences, not part of a continuing tradition.
One of the most irritating aspects of historical chronology is the choice of a point for the origin for time in the middle of the historical record, so that dates before and after that datum point are treated differently. This is the case in the system introduced by the Christian scholar Dionysius Exiguus (d.556) in 525 dating the earliest years according to the age of Jesus in that year; described as Anno Domini (abbreviated AD) meaning "In The Year of Our Lord" followed by the number from 1 upwards. Preceding years were referred to as BC (Before Christ) also numbered from 1 upwards. Thus there is no "year zero", only the time zero or datum point where 1 BC meets AD 1, and Jesus was somewhat paradoxicaly born on 25 December 1 BC. Later Christian research has placed the birth of Jesus as more probably 6 BC, and many nonbelievers question whether he existed at all. (For further discussion of this see: Chronology of Jesus & or Jesus never existed).
Accidents of history have resulted in this system becoming adopted worldwide, and the nonreligious suffixes CE ("Common Era") and BCE are sometimes used instead. An alternative I have considered is BD ("Before Datum"), and AD ("After Datum"). However I have settled on simply distinguishing years before the datum point by the minus sign −. This is not to be confused with the spaced hyphen used to indicate a date range. Thus for example Ovid lived (−43 - 17). Some writers give dates of prehistory as BP, meaning "Before Present", but such a system seems designed to cause confusion to people reading 1000 years from now!
Many other alternative starting points for calendar time have of course been used. The Jewish calendar starts in −3671, Anno Mundi, the supposed date of the creation of the world. The Roman calendar started from −753, "Ab Urbe Condita" (meaning "From the City's Foundation"). The Hindu calendar starts from 78, Saka Era (used since 1957) and there are other Eras used. The Islamic calendar starts in 622, the date of the Hejira, Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina. There are further complications in interconverting these dates, since they were based on different estimates for the length of the year, and on different placing of the New Year's Day, which results in a year in one calendar covering parts of two years in another. There may be a case for further reforming the calendar to fix a new Datum, based on some exactly fixed astronomical event, but until this is agreed we stay, for convenience, with the current Gregorian consensus.
A simple way to do this might be to add 10,000 (or 100,000) to all the dates of the Gregorian calendar, making the present year 12,011 (or 102,011) instead of 2011. This would move the datum back to the beginning of the Holocene age (or as far as the beginning of the last ice age, when the human population may have been close to extinction, and Neanderthals were still about). The year 1 would then become year 10,001 (or 100,001) and the year −1 becomes the year 10,000 (or 100,000). So dates BC must be subtracted from 10,001 (or 100,001) not from 10,000 (or 100,000). The year of the death of Socrates −399 would then become 9602 (or 99,602). I prefer the larger figure since "ten twenty eleven" is easier to convert than "twelve thousand and eleven".
In the study of history there is, self-evidently, so much material that the first question to decide was how to divide it up into manageable chunks. If we are covering the period roughly from −1000 to 2000, this is a period of 3 millennia. The most common division is into 30 centuries, but the start and end of any century does not necessarily mark any particularly significant event in history. What I was interested in was to find a division at meaningful points of time where the successive periods have a clear distinctiveness.
In my original treatment I proposed a division into ages of 500 years. Further examination suggested that the period 1500 - 2000 for the most recent age was unsatisfactory, since the date 1500 falls in the middle of the lives of such important figures as da Vinci, Macchiavelli, Copernicus, Michelangelo, and Luther and does not mark a notable change of zeitgeist. John Gribbin in his History of Western Science selects 1543 as his starting point, the date of publication of the works of Copernicus on the Solar System and Vesalius on Human Anatomy. Arthur Koestler in The Sleepwalkers thought that "AD 1600 is probably the most important turning point in human destiny after 600 BC." It was the year when Johannes Kepler went to join Tycho Brahe, joining astronomical theory to observational data, and the year Giordano Bruno was burnt for heresy. I came to the conclusion that 1600 was the better dividing point. One might also have selected 1609, when Galileo published the Starry Messenger on his first telescopic dscoveries, but keeping to round figures seemed more convenient. This decison was confirmed when I noticed that it led to some neat divisions in earlier ages. Thus −900 - −400 Age of Greece, −400 - 100 Age of Rome, 600 - 1100 Age of Islam, 1100 - 1600 Age of Renewal, 1600 - 2100 Age of Science.
Later I noticed that the mid-points of these ages also marked, approximately, events of long-term historical significance. Namely: − 650 The Cuneiform Library at Nineveh, −150 End of the struggle between Rome and Carthage. 350 The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire, 1350 the Black Death, 1850 the writing of Darwin's Origin of Species. The enormous development of ideas in the last 500 years was also more than could easily be squeezed into one section. Accordingly I have now arranged the material into 12 ages each of 250 years. Of course it would be possible to divide history into unequal divisions of time. This is in effect what is done when several chapters are devoted to say the Rennaissance while the Dark Ages may be passed over altogether. One of my aims however is to show how the poverty of certain periods contrasts with the richness of others with regard to the advancement of ideas and this requires equal divisions. Frankly I have been rather surprised at how well this division into ages has worked! I don't think it is just a self-deluson on my part; it really does make sense of the data and the dates.
Of course, no matter where a dividing line is placed there will be an important figure whose life spans that date. History cannot be squeezed or stretched to conform to some Procrustean grid. As a matter of consistency everyone must be treated the same. I have chosen to place everyone in the timeline according to their date of birth rather than death. This places them alongside their contemporaries, even if the major work for which they are best known was completed, or published, or became more widely known, later in their life, or even posthumously. In previous versions I tried shifting the correspondence between dates of events and dates of birth by 25 years, but this proved unsatisfactory. It is not suggested that the transitions between Ages are sudden, but they are nevertheless distinct and take place over, say, 50 years. I have tended to indent notes referring to events, to distinguish them from the timeline based on birth dates.
Any sound evaluation of the present must await the passage of time. However it is evident from the events of the first few years of the 21st century that there is little sign of the warlike ways of Homo Sapiens being brought under control. Indeed the 20th century, because of the development of military technology, was certainly the most murderous century in recorded history. The United Nations, like the League of Nations before it, has some limited effect, but seems incapable of preventing wars. Despite wars and famines the Human Population continues to increase, placing unsustainable demands on the environment. The chasm between reason and religious fanaticism seems to be growing wider. The only hope I can see may be in the rise of popular movements for democracy, and the development of peaceful war-preventing technologies, based on speedy communication, instead of war-waging ones. It is natural to wonder what the next, Thirteenth, Age will be like. Will it be the start of a new Dark age, or a new Age of Reason and Enlightenment, perhaps based on information technology and advances in biological science? Or something wholly new?