We know quite a lot about the past from looking at the things it has left
lying around; and the most detailed knowledge we have of the past comes from
what people of the time wrote down. When they wrote it with intent to give a
future reader a clear account – albeit usually with at least some bias
– of what happened, we call it history; when they wrote it for other
reasons (such as accounts to keep trade honest or to help an owner keep track of
what he owns), one could argue that our interpretation of it is more
archeological than historical, but we usually treat the reading of such records
as history anyway (they are, if nothing else, more apt to be honest). As a
result, the scope of history is limited to the era of written records – to
which this page is devoted. For events prior to the invention of writing, see
I measure time backwards from the present (nominally 2001 –
see below for why) and all of history falls within the range
of times ago that I'd naturally represent in kilo-years, a.k.a. millennia
– writing emerged within the last ten millennia and anything more recent
than a century (tenth of a millennium), while genuinely history, shades into
current affairs and the mythology of present political realities, so I chose to
leave it to others. If you want information on closer time-scales than the last
century, seek elsewhere: and please be sensible enough to bear in mind that any
author, whose writings you can hope to read, is close enough to the
socio-political realities of the events discussed that you should engage your
best talent for skepticism (especially if what they say agrees with
your prejudices) in assessing the veracity of their accounts of the recent
My main aim here is merely to record the time-line of our past, in which the
order of events takes centre stage, even when the events in question are
unrelated – proper histories generally (and properly) tell a cogent story
of related events, ignoring unrelated events elsewhere; but, here, I want to
provide the framework for seeing how those disparate stories' time-lines match
up. As a result, although this page treats the last ten
millennia because what we know of them is predominantly from written
records, I include here the things we know from other sources.
570 to 92 yr ago: superstitious law courts
1431, May 30, Rouen,
France: Jean d'Arc burned at the stake
with spirits; April 1909, the same maid of Orleans was canonised on grounds
of those spirits being deemed angelic.
Bruno is burned at the stake for his heresies. There is some debate as to
whether his heterodox views on cosmology – identifying stars as suns, with
planets of their own, in an infinite universe – contributed to The
Digges publishes a re-telling of Copernicus without the outer celestial
sphere, thus introducing the idea of an infinite universe. (In this,
echoing Nocholas of
Kues, who espoused similar ideas 540 or more years ago.)
In 1507 a Scottish
alchemist, John Damian, lept off the ramparts of Stirling castle, intent on
flying to France. It's not clear how far he got, but modern researchers suspect
he actually did fly a short way (before infamously breaking his leg on landing
in a midden).
At least 830 years
distillation of aqua vitae in abbeys, recorded in
1170 on Henry II's invasion. English taxes were being levied on the alembics
used for this as early as 1276.
Al Kindi (Baghdad, died 873 CE) improved
distilling techniques to obtain rose essence.
1.591 k yr ago
Sack of Rome.
1.689 k yr ago: conversion of Constantine
The official date, 312
AD, at which the Roman Empire switched from oppressing christianity to promoting
it. The oppression had actually been limited: there was official persecution in
249 AD under Decius and 303–304 AD under Diocletian, probably with other
outbursts of varying officialness, but generally the Roman Empire protected all
religious minorities from the general population's antipathy. The general
population resented the christians because they didn't honour the gods,
so all the bad things that happened were clearly their fault, the gods'
punishment on the general population for tolerating the atheists in their
midst (much as some who now call themselves christians now blame bad
things on certain of their fellow citizens).
1.734 k yr ago
Athens sacked by Goths.
2 ky ago: start of the common era
This is the
nominal date of Christ's birth: but it's fairly clear that – even for
those who accept the historical reality of the man in question – the late
Roman and dark age tracking of dates, combined with poor back-tracking through
the centuries in which years were referred to relative to the reigns of assorted
rulers, introduced something like four years of inaccuracy. (For example, the
biblical account of a bright star moving about the sky can fairly sanely be
matched to Chinese records of a comet if we accept a four year discrepancy.) The
Christian system of year numbering refers to years since this nominal
start-point as anno domini or AD; somehow, the world has been
persuaded to use the same numbering but described as CE (for Common Era) instead
of AD, despite religious and calendrical differences. The year before 1 CE
(a.k.a. 1 AD) is thus the first year before the common era, 1 BCE (a.k.a. 1 BC,
the first year before Christ, albeit this leaves me a little confused as to
whether Christ is supposed to have been born near the end of 1 BC or near the end of 1 AD; there is
no year zero in this system); earlier years are correspondingly numbered
backwards, so the n-th year BCE is 2000+n years ago – I chose 2001 CE as
my nominal reference date to make that arithmetic easy !
49 BCE, January 10th, Julius Caesar paused on the banks of
the Rubicon, a river formally marking the border between Italy and Gaul, the
province to which he'd been sent with his army. Roman law forbade him to bring
his army out of his province: he had to return to Rome and present himself to
the senate's judgement of how he'd fared in his campaign; but he knew political
machinations were afoot by his enemies. If he took his army with him, he broke
the law; if he didn't, he was defenceless against ruthless opponents. While he
mulled this dilemma (according to his later account), some of his soldiers
crossed the river to enjoy music being played by a shepherd on the other side;
Caesar took this as his cue to take his army to Rome, thereby starting a civil
war pivotal to the Roman republic's later tranformation into an empire.
2.264 to 2.146 k yr ago
wars; Rome and Carthage fought for dominance of the Mediterranean.
2.285 to 2.212 k yr ago: Archimedes
The nearest the Romans got to
decisive contribution to mathematics was killing Archimedes on the beach at
Syracuse in 212 BCE. Archimedes, aside from his prolific contributions to
mathematics and physics, invented several machines of war which helped keep the
Romans at bay for some years.
2.332 k yr ago: Alexandria
Alexander the Great founded
Alexandria, in Egypt, in 332 BCE as part of his campaign of
conquests. There may well have
been an earlier settlment dating back to as much as 3 k yr ago.
2.336 to 2.323 k yr ago
The reign of Alexander III (The Great) of
Macedonia; preceded by his father, Philip II, from 2.359 to 2.336 k yr
The Pythagorean school of thought, in the 500s BCE,
considered the world a sphere (and believed it to orbit the Sun); Aristotle
(384–322 BCE) threw in some supporting evidence; Eratosthenes
(276ish–196ish BCE) measured its curvature fairly accurately.
2.6 k yr ago
Foundation of Marseilles, by Greeks from the West of
Asia Minor (now Turkey).
founded: April 21, 753 BCE according to tradition; archeological evidence
suggests c. 775 BCE. Rome is ruled by kings until 507 BCE.
2.814 k yr ago
by Phoenician settlers fleeing from the political turmoil in the city of
Tyre. (814 or 813 BCE, according to a not necessarily reliable source.)
2.9 to 2.7 k yr ago
Villanovan or early Iron Age period in
central Italy, followed by an Etruscan period from 2.7 to 2.48 k yr ago.
3 k yr ago
Early proto-Canaanite (precursor of Hebrew alphabet)
of pottery, might be the oldest known text in the Hebrew language.
3.3 to 2.7 k yr ago
The urnfield period of the late bronze
age in western Europe.
3.39 to 3.37 k yr ago
Early North European
beer. The Egtved girl
was buried with, among other things, a bucket of beer.
3.55 to 3.07 k yr ago:
Egypt's new kingdom brought
stability to an area spanning 1.2 Mm, from Nubia (now Ethiopia) in the South to
Palestine in the North. Rough contemporaries include a Kassite state (3.53 to
3.16 k yr ago) in Lower Mesopotamia, an Assyrrian state (3.4 to 3.05 k yr ago)
in Upper Mesopotamia, a Hittite new kingdom (3.4 to 3.2 k yr ago) in Asia
Minor (now Turkey) and Cretan palatial civilisations (see the Aegean Bronze age,
below). Biblical chronologies put Israel's conquest of Canaan at around 3.2 k
yr ago, half way through this period.
Early extraction of iron from ores (as distinct from
working naturally-occuring meteoric iron) may go back as far as 3.8 k yr in
India; certainly by 3.2 k yr ago it was being practiced in southern India and
(by hittites) in The Middle East.
4 k yr ago: Banking
The Akkadian karrum
(literally quay but meaning market and the traders associated
therewith; the goods travelled by river, so arrived at the quay) of Ashur
(later: Assyria) controlled trade, levying taxes, keeping its own warehouses and
offering warehouse space to merchants; but also holding goods and money on
behalf of private merchants and, thus, functioning as
a bank of deposit.
Beginning around 4 k yr ago, people in South
America began working metals, initially starting with naturally occurring copper
and precious metals. This lead (eventually) to the reinvention of metalurgy
(around 2 k yr ago).
4.1 to 3.8 k yr ago: Egypt's middle kingdom
had a secure
border with Nubia (Ethiopia) to the South.
4.55 k yr ago: the Great Pyramid
Built for the pharoah Cheops,
a.k.a. Khufu, and still not fully explored – but Dr. Zahi
working on it.
Late Neolithic: Ötzi the iceman was
killed, at age 45, but his body was preserved in an alpine
glacier. His clothes
suggest a pastoral and agricultural life-style. He is now believed to
5.5 k yr
– home city of Gilgamesh (and writing,
distillation in mesopotamian Iraq; a basic still was depicted around 3500
BC; probably for extracting plant oils as
– after two thousand years of metal-working, people work out how to obtain
metals from ores and combine them into alloys, starting with bronze, which had
spread to India by about 4 k yr ago.
The civilisations in and around Mesopotamia (from Egypt to the Indus) evolved
writing – a prerequisite of history and a major boon to research, hence
technology, of all kinds – out of their assorted systems of
7.3 k yr
in south-eastern Europe. Diverse cultures throughout the Eurasian-African
super-continent have developed systems of marks (for example, on pottery –
which, by now, has spread all over) for various purposes.
Balkan sites show the most ancient evidence of metal-working. Initially, people
worked with naturally-occurring copper, precious metals and even iron.
10ish k yr ago
using clay tokens to represent (at least) agricultural goods; in time, they
take to enclosing sets of such tablets in sealed clay containers, then to
marking such containers with symbols indicating what tokens are within; these
markings ultimately develop into writing.
As in my pages on the scale of things, I
link to relevant sources where practical: but books aren't amenable to HREFs and
I may yet find some sites so worthy of plunder as to justify mentioning the site
URL here as well as the URLs of particular quotes above.
D. Curtin, Cross-cultural trade in world history; notably p. 68
(banks in Ashur).
The birth of classical Europe – A history from
Troy to Augustine, Simon Price and Peter Thonemann, Penguin. Includes a date chart between bibliography and index.