Tag Archives: time

Long time ago in Bethlehem

The custom of naming years after whoever wore the crown lasted well into the time of the Roman Empire.

Two thousand and some years ago, a baby was born in the town of Bethlehem in Galilee—in the country we now call Israel. The baby was Jesus, son of Mary, the Holy Spirit in human form. He would grow up to begin a ministry that led to His crucifixion and resurrection—in order to save all of humankind. Jesus is the Redeemer; the Christos in Greek; the Mashiach in Hebrew.

The Christian evangelist Luke wrote about the Nativity before there were numbered years. How could he put a date on Jesus’ birth? Here’s how: Luke tells us that Jesus was born while Augustus was emperor of Rome and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Luke knew his readers would remember when those guys were in charge and place Jesus’ birth in that time.

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In fact, it would be 5 more centuries before someone thought of numbering the years.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.


The ancient cheeks

In the ancient world there wasn’t a numbering of years as we have today. People would remember years or events by who was king at the time. For the ancient Greeks time was a cycle, so they didn’t think of time as a progression of numbered years, as we do. The Greeks of each city-state named the years after whoever was their archon (AR-kon—ruler or king) at the time. Later on the Greeks numbered years by a 4-year cycle, called an olympiad. The Olympic games were held every fourth year, then the cycle started over.

For what it’s worth, the Olympic athletes supposedly competed in the nude. The tradition may have begun when one runner somehow lost his gym shorts during a race. Okay, you guys. No. I’m absolutely not going to draw a cartoon of naked Greek runners. What a buncha sickos!

Well, okay. Maybe one cartoon.

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space.

Romulus’ days were numbered

Romulus’ 10-month calendar featured adorable wolf puppies on every slab.

The original Roman calendar was invented by Romulus, the first king of Rome, around 753 bc. The calendar started the year in March (Martius) and consisted of 10 months, with 6 months of 30 days and 4 months of 31 days. The winter season didn’t get any months with names, so the calendar year only lasted 304 days with 61 extra days in the winter. Everybody stayed home during those 61 days and looked at seed catalogues.

Here are the months of Romulus’ calendar:

Martius – 31 Days
Aprilis – 30 Days
Maius – 31 Days
Junius – 30 Days
Quintilis – 31 Days
Sextilis – 30 Days
September – 30 Days
October – 31 Days
November – 30 Days
December – 30 Days

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

We locked a bunch of astronomers in a room and you’ll never believe what happened next!

Roman astronomers trying to get the lunar and solar cycles to match up. I threw a couple of Sun-worshiping Druid priestesses in there, too.

A big headache with ancient calendars is that they had to be constantly updated to make them agree with the movements of both the Moon and the Sun. Months are based on the Moon’s cycles. Years are based on Earth’s orbit around the Sun. ‘Calendae’—we say ‘calends’—is a Latin word for ‘first day of the month.’ ‘Ides’ is the day in the middle of each month. Astronomers (scientists who study the stars and planets) would first determine the ides (when the moon will be full) for each month and calculate the rest of each lunar cycle/month from there. It is a tricky business to get the twelve cycles of the Moon to work out to be the same amount of time the Earth orbits the Sun.

The future!

Can you see into the future? Thinking in linear time allows us to think about the future. It’s not easy, of course. People do use a timeline to plan projects and life goals, so that they can make them happen. In fact, I’m using a timeline for this project—writing this history which I plan to make into a book. Do you think about what you’ll be doing in 5 years? Successful people plan for the future. Holy cow, I sound like I’m selling life insurance.

The Torah (what Christians call the Old Testament), with its timeline of many generations of Jews, was read by ordinary people and changed the way ordinary people think about time and themselves.

In the Torah, ordinary people became important. Religious stories of other cultures were about gods and goddesses. Mortal beings had supporting roles in those stories, like when the mortal Paris judged a goddess beauty contest, or the gods created Enkidu to hang out with the semi-divine Gilgamesh. You don’t get a sense that the gods and mortals have a destiny together, because the stories don’t talk about a future. On the other hand, the stories in the Torah are about ordinary mortals who share a past and future with one God. When ordinary mortals—everybody, us—see ourselves as part of a destiny, the way we think about ourselves is changed. A person with a future, a destiny, has free-will and the mindset to break free of a cycle. You can see how a person with the inheritance of generations of history—aligned with God’s—has more free-will than the person who lives only in a cycle, the now, the present.

Cyclical time

Hades taking Persephone to the Underworld

There are two ways to think about time: as a circle and as a line.

The ancient Greeks—like other cultures that relied on farming for food—saw time as a circle, as cyclical. They planted in the Spring;, they weeded and pruned in the Summer; they harvested in the Autumn; they waited through the Winter for the cycle to start over again.

Let me tell you the Greek myth of Persephone. Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility and harvest. Demeter made the seeds take root, the flowers blossom & the fruit ripen. Demeter loved Persephone and everything was literally sunshine and daffodils all year long. At least it was until Hades, the dark god of the Underworld, saw the beautiful Persephone and decided to steal her away to be his wife. Demeter was heartbroken—and while Persephone was gone, Demeter neglected her goddess-duties until the world became cold and barren. Frosty wind killed all the crops; fruit withered on the vine. No grain to harvest meant no pita bread for gyros. No cucumbers for tzatziki sauce. No falafel. The situation became desperate! Finally Zeus stepped in and made them strike a deal: Hades would keep Persephone only half of each year and let Persephone spend the other half with her mom. So while Persephone lives in the Underworld, it’s winter. When Persephone is reunited above-ground with Demeter, there is planting and growth and harvest.

This is an example of thinking of time as a cycle.

Time & space

Yes, yes, I know—my phone has been ringing off the hook with people calling to complain that this history of Western Civilization seems to be a history of telling time. Maybe you have a point. Maybe I have been concentrating too much on how the ancients reckoned time.

This history is about ideas. I want to tell how Western Civilization was shaped by innovation and invention. Look, would it make you all happier if I added a second topic? I admit, so far (even though we’ve only gotten as far as the Sumerians and Egyptians) I *have* been a little obsessed with timekeeping. How about if I start talking about how we’ve measured space?

What if we discovered that there’s a connection between time and space?

For instance: how far can you walk in an hour? If you keep up a steady pace, you’ll cover 3 miles. A long time ago, this unit of measurement was called a league. Most people traveled by walking. They knew that in an hour they could be somewhere 3 miles away. They were using time to measure distance.

Egyptian calendar

An Egyptian man plows a furrow so the lady can sow seeds into it.

Both the Sumerians and Egyptians had economies that depended on agriculture—they grew crops for their food. If you ever planted tomatoes—or onions, or zucchini, or those two-ton pumpkins you see at the state fair—in a garden, you’ll have seen on the seed packages instructions about when to plant. If you plant your tomatoes too late, the fruit will never ripen in time before the first frost. This is why calendars are so important.

The Egyptians’ planting schedule was built around their river, the Nile. Every year the Nile would flood. After the floodwater receded, it left behind nutrient-rich silt that improved the soil. Egyptian farmers had to plant crops as soon as the Nile receded so they could harvest before the Nile flooded again.

By around 2450 bc the Egyptians had developed a calendar whose year was twelve months. Each month was thirty days long (12 x 30 = 360 days). The year was divided into three seasons—Inundation, when the Nile was flooded (Akhet), Emergence, time to plant the crops (Peret), and Harvest, time to gather the crops (Shemu)—of four months each, with five days added to the end of the year.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Egyptian calendar used Base Sixty for counting the days. I’d like to think they sent a nice thank-you note to the Sumerians.


Ancient Egyptian water wristwatches never caught on

Egyptian water clocks

Sundials tell time during the day, when it’s sunny. How did the Egyptians tell time at night?

Way back around 1500 bc (over 3,500 years ago) some clever Egyptian invented the water clock so they could tell time at night. A water clock is a jar with sides that taper from a wide brim to a small base. Almost at the bottom is a small hole. The idea is: you fill the jar with water and water leaks out the hole. There are marks on the inside of the jar for every hour. As the water level slowly sinks, it reaches each mark and that’s how you know what time it is.

It sounds like a swell idea, but I have a few problems with it. Number One: I don’t know exactly how big these jars were, but it doesn’t seem like there’d be nearly enough water inside them to last all night long. Even if the hole at the bottom were a mere pinhole, I think the water would run out in an hour. Did they wake up every hour to refill the water clock? That seems like a pain in the neck.

Number Two: to function as an accurate time-measurer, that jar would need to be filled precisely on the hour. You’d need to coordinate with a friend outside looking at a sundial so he could tell you the moment to fill it up.

Number Three: where did the water go after it leaked out? Did they just let it run all over the floor; did they collect it in another jar?

Number Four: Did their dogs see puddles of water on the floor and think, “What the heck, it must be okay to pee in the house now?”

Number Five: Didn’t the sound of dripping water keep them from sleeping?

This one has a cute little baboon sculpture. But how much water could you put in the reservoir? What is it, an egg-timer?

Dots on the inside walls mark the time as the water level sinks.