History: A Broad Overview

by G. P. Jelliss

Motivation and Selection

Some 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. A comprehensive revision in August 2011 made more use of CSS and colour coding to improve the appearance. Sections on prehistory and early history down to −900 were moved to the Science Overview pages dealing with Anthropology and Archaeology. Now, for 2014, my History study is being incorporated within the Overview which now covers the whole of Human Knowledge.

My purpose in trying to compile 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. Of course there is no point at which archaeology ends and history begins. There are archaeologists who specialise in the period of the industrial revolution. Where History may be considered to begin is perhaps with the invention of writing, around 3200BC.

The Representation of Dates

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, the supposed founder of Christianity, 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 − or by underlining. 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.

1581 - 1656 James Ussher + + + +, biblical scholar and chronogist dated creation at −4004.

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 year 2011 become 12,011 (or 102,011). 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".

Divisions into Ages

In the study of history there is, self-evidently, so much material that the first question to decide is how to divide it up into manageable chunks. The most common division is into centuries, but the start and end of any century does not necessarily mark any particularly significant event in history, and between −4000 and +2000 there have been 60 centuries, which seems too many for an overview. What I was interested in when beginning this study was if possible to find a division into ages 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 we have a broad division into 12 ages each of 500 years.
The first six of these ages, 3 millennia, 30 centuries, are covered by our pages on Archaeology:
−3900 - −3400
−3400 - −2900
−2900 - −2400,
−2400 - −1900,
−1900 - −1400
−1400 - −900
The second six ages, 3 millennia, 30 centuries, are what we cover here as History:
−900 - −400 Age of Awakening,
−400 - 100 Age of Greece,
100 - 600 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 the later 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. This led me to arranged the material from −900 into 12 ages each of 250 years. Frankly I have been rather surprised at how well this division into ages of 500 years or half-ages of 250 years works! 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 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.

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. It is not suggested that the transitions between Ages are sudden, but they are nevertheless distinct and take place over, say, 50 years.

Sources of Information

History Guide.
The First Known Date

Caution: It is advisable to check sources for possible biases. For instance the first three sites listed here, while useful, are run by Fordham University in New York, which is a Jesuit foundation.
Ancient History Source Book
Medieval History Source Book.
Modern History Source Book.
Timeline of the History of Science

Nexus, Historical Chronology part I (−10,000 - −601), other parts follow.
WebChron - a collection of chronologies on specific subjects.
AlternaTime - a list of links to specialised chronology sites.
Chronology of Biology.
Chronology of Science and Science Fiction
Chronology of Science
Timelines and Scales of Measurement
Science Timeline
Timesearch, part of Bamber Gascoigne's History World.
Science Timeline
History of Science chronology project

Timetable of Greek Mathematicians Thales to Simplicius
The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive.
Chronology of Mathematics &.
Chronology of Slavery from 1619.
Chronology of Money.
Chronology of Chronological Methods.
Chronology of Vision Science (1600 - 1960).
Steam Engines Timeline 100 - 1960.
History of the Microscope 1299 -
History of Computers & 1820 -
The Science that led to the Atomic Bomb 1890 - 1945
The Automobile.
Timeline of Art.

Chronology of Egypt UCL
Chronology of Egypt Michael S. Sanders
Chronology of Egypt Margaret S. Rigby
Chronology of Egypt Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Virtual Kahun Manchester University & Petrie Museum
Chronology of Egyptian History & Abydos Egypt & Hawass.
Chronology of British History.
Chronology of Chinese History.
Chronology of United States History.
Chronology of Irish History.

Medieval Timelines (800 - 1600).
Chronology of Romantic Period (1642 - 1851).
Chronology of Ancient Rome.
World War Two in Europe
Ancient Greece

Map of Science with biographical notes.

Bible Unearthed Documentary & - says thereís no evidence of the exodus out of Egypt nor for the existence of Abraham. In fact, up until about the 7th century BC there isnít much that can be said about ancient Israel.
Biblical and Historical Timeline - looks plausible but according to this Isaac lived to age 146, which I'm disinclined to believe.
David Rohl & - controversial revised Egyptian and Biblical Chronology.
& - the Assyrian (732) and Babylonian (605) captivities.

A. T. Fomenko Claims most of History is Fiction.
Immanuel Velikovsky & & & & & & (1895 - 1979) Revised chronology. Identifies the Queen of Sheba with Hatshepsut of Egypt.
Graham Hancock & & & & Theory of a lost ancient civilisation.
Erich von Daniken & & (1935 - ) The 'ancient astronauts' theory.

Some further sources cited, and abbreviations used

[WHW] Wikipedia History of the World.
[CCH] Hywel Williams, Cassell's Chronology of World History, 2005.
[CBD] Chambers Biographical Dictionary, eighth edition 2007.
[CWH] Chambers Dictionary of World History, third Edition, 2005.
[TAA] Past Worlds: The Timesd Atlas of Archaeology 1988 (reprint 1996).