A Timeline of History

by G. P. Jelliss

Notes on Methods and Sources

Sections on this page: — Motivation and SelectionRepresentation of DatesDivision into AgesSources of Information


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. At that time the sections on Prehistory and Palaeohistory were moved to the Science Overview pages under the headings of Anthropology and Archaeology, but from 2014 they have been restored to this History Timeline.

My purpose in trying to compile pages of historical chronology was to provide an overview of the whole sweep of recorded 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, or knowledge and ignorance, or wisdom and foolishness.

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 Recorded History may be considered to begin is perhaps with the invention of writing.

This March 2020 revision makes considerable changes. First the Ages are reduced from 500 years to 400, as explained below, so that the entries are spread over more pages. Second the named historical figures are shown in bold. Links to biographies and original sources are then shown by the @ sign, or by a single capital letter to indicate certain frequently used sources, namely A for Art History from The Met Museum; B for UCMB Berkeley History pages; C for Cambridge University, History and Philosophy of Science 'Starry Messenger'; F for Fordham University; G for Gutenberg Organisation; H for The History Guide; I for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; M for MacTutor, Mathematics at St Andrews University; N for New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia; S for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; T for Sacred-Texts site; W for Wikipedia; V for Victorian Web; Y for YouTube. These should open on a separate tab. I have tried to avoid pay-walled sites and any that seemed of dubious safety, or require special programs to be installed, or pester one with pop-up pages.


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 @ in 525 dating the earliest years according to the age of Jesus, the supposed founder of Christianity, with each year described as Anno Domini (abbreviated AD) meaning "In The Year of Our Lord" followed by the number from 1 upwards. Preceding years were later 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.

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 considered is BD ("Before Datum"), and AD ("After Datum"). However I settled on simply distinguishing years before the datum point by the − 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.


Division 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. In the previous versions it proved convenient, since we count by the decimal system, to index the dates in the more recent periods at 25 year intervals, which correspond roughly to a generation. Four generations thus make up a century which is often used as a way of dividing history into convenient sections. Between −4000 and +2000, the extent of 'History' as usually conceived, there have been 60 centuries, which seems too many sections for an overview. Keeping the same factor of 4 we arrive at an Age of 400 years, giving us 15 Ages of History (plus the Present from 2000 to 2400 which will be the 16th Age). So, for this new 2020 revision I have decided to use an Age of 400 years.

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. 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 meet Tycho Brahe, joining astronomical theory to observational data (and the year Giordano Bruno was burnt for heresy). I thought at the time that this division led to some neat divisions in earlier ages, but have since concluded that this can not be sustained.

The start and end of any generation or century or age does not necessarily mark any particularly significant event in history. The fact is that 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 who has made significant contributions, must be treated the same.

Of the 15 ages of History however 8 Ages cover the Palaeohistory period −4000 to −800, which we treat within one web page, and 7 ages cover the Recorded History from −800 to 2000. The period of Prehistory, to which we also devote a single web page extends back an equal distance of 15 Ages to −10,000. Of course it would also be possible to divide Recorded 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.


Sources of Information

Many of the links in the original list have gone missing over the years. I have so far only attempted to trace a few new addresses. The links given here are mainly those that have survived. There are of course sgnificant omissions, since this is work in progress.

History Guide H.
History of the World W.
Timelines and Scales of Measurement @
Timesearch @ - part of:
History World @ - by Bamber Gascoigne.
Chronology W
WebChron @ - a collection of chronologies on specific subjects.
Chronology of Science and Science Fiction @
HyperHistory @ - a graphical representation.
Map of Science @ - with biographical notes.

Ancient History Source Book F
Medieval History Source Book F.
Modern History Source Book F.

Timetable of Greek Mathematicians W
The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive M
Chronology of Mathematics M
Chronology of Mathematics @
Chronology of Money @
Chronological Methods@

Chronology of Egypt - by UCL @
Chronology of Egypt - by Sanders @
Chronology of Egypt - by Crystalinks @
Chronology of Egypt - by Hawass @
Chronology of Egypt - by David Rohl W
Chronology of British History by Smith @
Chronology of Chinese History by UMD @
Chronology of Irish History by Fianna @

Chronology of Ancient Rome @
World War Two in Europe @

Immanuel Velikovsky (1895 - 1979). Revised chronology, related to solar system events. W @ @ @ @
Graham Hancock: Theory of a lost ancient civilisation. W @ @
Erich von Daniken (1935 - ) The 'ancient astronauts' theory. W @

PRINTED SOURCES CITED, and abbreviations used
[CCH] Cassell's Chronology of World History, ed. Hywel Williams, 2005.
[CBD] Chambers Biographical Dictionary, eighth edition 2007.
[CWH] Chambers Dictionary of World History, third Edition, 2005.
[TAA] Past Worlds: The Times Atlas of Archaeology 1988 (reprint 1996).