That is a blatantly clickbait-and-switch post title. Anyone expecting to read about the origins of romantic outings involving two people will have to look elsewhere. What this post is about is how the idea of assigning consecutive numbers to the years originated.
We now routinely assign a numbered year to events in recorded history, so that I can write that Bishop Ussher’s year of the creation of the Earth was 4004 BCE or that the American revolution was in 1776 CE. This sequential numbering of the years enables us to immediately fix an event in relation to other events. The system seems so natural that one feels that it must have always been in place and did not have to be invented at all, let alone have a definite beginning. But classicist Paul J. Kosmin says that there was a time when this system of numbered years did not exist and that events were placed in a historical sequence using various circumlocutions that had only local validity.
For 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.
In ancient Mesopotamia, years could be designated by an outstanding event of the preceding 12 months: something could be said to happen, for instance, in the year when king Naram-Sin reached the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates river, or when king Enlil-bani made for the god Ninurta three very large copper statues. Alternatively, events could be dated by giving the name of the holder of an annual office of state: something happened in the year when two named Romans were consuls, or when an elite Athenian was chief magistrate, and so on. Finally, and most commonly in the kingdoms of antiquity, events could be dated by counting the throne year of the monarch: the fifth year of Alexander the Great, the 40th year of king Nebuchadnezzar II, and so on.
Each of these systems was geographically localised. There was no transcendent or translocal system for locating oneself in the flow of history.
Where we would write, simply, ‘431 BCE’, Thucydides was obliged to synchronise the first shot of [the Peloponnesian] war to non-overlapping diplomatic, religious, civic, military, seasonal and hourly data points. The dates are intimately tied to central state institutions, dependent on bureaucratic list-making, applicable only within a self-limiting geography, and highly sensitive to political change. Indeed, they are not really dates at all, so much as synchronisms between multiple events, coordinating a network of better and lesser-known occurrences: what is being dated, and what dates it, belong to the same order of things. Imagine giving the date of the invasion of Iraq, your grandma’s birth or American independence in such a manner; and then try to explain this to someone from another country.
So when did people adopt the current system? Kosmin says that it began in the year we now fix as 311 BCE, following the death of Alexander the Great when one of his generals went on to form an enormous kingdom stretching from Bulgaria to Afghanistan. The numbering system is named after this general and called the Seleucid Era.
The Seleucid Era began from Year 1 (set at Seleucus I Nicator’s arrival in Babylon in spring 311 BCE) and continued counting, getting bigger each year: n+1. At the death of Seleucus I, his son Antiochus I did not restart the clock, and nor did any of his successors. For the first time in history, historical time was marked by a number that never restarted, reversed or stopped. It is still going. This was time as we know it – 2019, 2020, 2021, and so on – a transcendent, universal, absolute, freestanding, regularly increasing number. It was unconnected to political events, the life-cycle of rulers or conquest. It was not dependent on an imperial bureaucracy or a scribal elite. It could be used at distance to correlate events.
The number could now be affixed to all manner of objects and documents, unambiguously dating its origin.
It is interesting is that this Seleucid numbering system made ‘the future’ a far more comprehensible concept and enabled predictions to be made of what might happen and when. The system also suggested that the years would increase with no end, but later developments made the ideas of an apocalypse more tangible and suggested an end of the universe.
It is of the highest significance that our earliest historical apocalypses emerged within the Seleucid empire, within this world newly filled with inexorably increasing date numbers. These historical apocalypses are textual compositions that run through a full and extended account of world history, from the deep reaches of the past, through a succession of kingdoms or historical periods, into the Seleucid empire, and then to the predicted end of time itself. These works of end-time prediction do not appear before the Seleucid empire, such as in the Babylonian or Persian kingdoms or in classical Greek city-states. They do not appear outside the Seleucid empire, such as in the other Hellenistic kingdoms or at Rome. It is a phenomenon restricted to the Seleucid empire’s subject populations.
History appears here, perhaps for the first time, as a closed totality: ordered, whole, complete, head to toe.
So what of things like the Mayan calendars? Weren’t they more ancient? The article does not deal with this issue directly but this article says that the Mayan calendar was cyclical.
The Long Count is an astronomical calendar which is used to track longer periods of time. The Maya called it the “universal cycle.” Each such cycle is calculated to be 2,880,000 days long (about 7885 solar years). The Mayans believed that the universe is destroyed and then recreated at the start of each universal cycle.
So dates could be assigned within a cycle but did not continue across cycles. Within a long cycle, there were smaller units but not in terms of calendar years. The lack of a sequential numbering system within a cycle based on years made it more difficult to keep track of relative dates of events.