“time-keeping became universal and linear in 311 BCE”
January 15, 2020 1:10 PM   Subscribe

A revolution in time is a short essay by archeologist and historian Paul J. Kosmin about how the Seleucid Empire invented the practice of an endless year count, still used in calendars today, replacing the regnal or cyclical year naming schemes. And by making it possible to think about the future, it led to the idea of the end of time, the apocalypse. If you want to learn more about Kosmin’s ideas, you can watch his lecture, listen to an interview [iTunes link], or buy his book Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire. Finally, here are a couple of reviews of the book, by G. W. Bowersock [PressReader link] and John Butler.
posted by Kattullus (40 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is very fascinating to me.

Number systems in antiquity really didn't have a good way to deal with large numbers. They tended to roll over from one category to the next: a grain to a cup to a bushel basket, etc. You could deal with, say, 15 baskets, but there was no way to say how many cups that was. It wasn't even a sensible question: a certain quantity of grain was so many baskets and so many cups.

But therein lies the root of the place value system, still not quite discovered. It's sorta sad we didn't settle on base-60, the way this system seemed do be going, based on sensible divisions of larger quantities (though we still do this with time and angles).

Anyway, to have a way to count years in a uniform system first requires a counting system that can extend indefinitely. That was imported from India where it first developed, and though I have only watched the video halfway through, I would be surprised if that point doesn't come up. The Seleucids would have had the most contact with India in that era.

Secondly, I've been fascinated by the reckoning of weeks. We seem to have done that for a very long time and it certainly goes back to the ancient Hebrews. The Romans didn't switch to a seven day week until the third century (they'd used 8 day weeks until then). We've probably counted weeks consistently for about 8000 years. But when was the first Sunday?
posted by sjswitzer at 1:52 PM on January 15 [12 favorites]


Side remark, Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire is one of the greatest book titles ever. Makes me want to write something like "Gravity and its Adversaries in the late Suiones tribal period". Except of course I'm not sharp enough. But still, fantastic title and subject matter.
posted by aramaic at 1:54 PM on January 15 [8 favorites]


What year is it? It’s 2019, obviously. An easy question. Last year was 2018. Next year will be 2020.

I'll admit, I laughed pretty hard at this.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:07 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


Nice read!
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 2:07 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Actually, I take that back. Although the Indians had invented the place value system in antiquity, it was not adopted in the west until shockingly late, promoted by Fibonacci in 1202. Nevertheless, you would still need to be able to deal fluently with large numbers for the system to work.

If I remember my history of mathematics correctly, the Greeks did develop such a system, perhaps influenced by the Indian one, that was--if you squinted--a place value system*. Amazingly, they later abandoned it in favor of a Roman-numeral based system that was much harder to work with.

* As I recall, the first nine letters of the alphabet represented 1-9, the second nine 10-90, and the next nine (I kid here because we've run out of letters, but they actually invented new letters for this!) 100-900. So you could get up to some pretty big numbers.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:22 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


This is really cool, thank you.
posted by PMdixon at 2:23 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


* As I recall, the first nine letters of the alphabet represented 1-9, the second nine 10-90, and the next nine (I kid here because we've run out of letters, but they actually invented new letters for this!) 100-900. So you could get up to some pretty big numbers.

This reminds me of the counting system in Hebrew, from my vague memories of childhood. What I don't know is if this was actually part of ancient Hebrew or only modern Hebrew.
posted by WaylandSmith at 2:26 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


only in three ways: by unique events, by annual offices, or by royal lifecycles.

Yes, the Roman Fasti was a calendar (308 b.c.e) but denoted the usual 4 hills stuff. Interesting that Appius Claudius Caecus almost the same year, 312, become Censor, ordering construction of the Appian way and Rome's first aqueduct. "He is the first Roman whose life can be traced with historical certainty."
posted by clavdivs at 2:32 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Fascinating! We put so much meaning into dates as time...once you start thinking about it too much it sends you into a real spiral.
posted by sallybrown at 2:35 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


Side remark, Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire is one of the greatest book titles ever.

yes it is
posted by thelonius at 2:45 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


I seem to recall that the Mayans had a calendar system capable of a very long (although admittedly repeating) cycle. This did not predate the Seleucid empire, but was invented independently of it.
posted by adamrice at 2:55 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


sjswitzer: Secondly, I've been fascinated by the reckoning of weeks. We seem to have done that for a very long time and it certainly goes back to the ancient Hebrews.

Not to derail my own post, but I believe the theory is that the seven day week is a semi-natural timekeeping unit because the moon, through waxing and waning, divides easily into four periods, marked by the new moon, full moon and the two half moons. Therefore once humans started keeping time by tracking the waxing and waning of the moon, the seven day week followed logically from that.

posted by Kattullus at 3:00 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


I'm enjoying the lecture, but his remarks to the effect that it 'is' universally the year 2020 are distractingly ethnocentric. There are other calendars, and, unless they've all disappeared this week, some traditional peoples who are getting along just fine with their own ideas of time.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 3:33 PM on January 15 [5 favorites]


"The end-times achieved a kind of temporal integration, like the backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything. They converted the experience of one-thing-after-another into a narrative plot. No longer was time passing away, empty and irredeemable, tick-tick-tick; it now had meaning and an ending, tick-tock."
From the first link.

It is neat that alot has been written about history, time, and memory recently. But the above passage struck as I was watching a movie, just now.

"I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn't work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time. By its order....I remember moments in-between...and this was the end".

From the opening scene of 'The Arrival '

Odd, as the space craft are mirror like but the plot, the stories, question of discovery or destruction resonates.

Great post, thanks dude, there goes my night off :) I'm thinking what about the average folk, say in the Roman empire, was there etchings of little Gaius " age X/ III cubits tall" on Pompeii s' walls. Or personal dates, clues to denote passage of time off the calendar of empire.
posted by clavdivs at 4:46 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Secondly, I've been fascinated by the reckoning of weeks. We seem to have done that for a very long time and it certainly goes back to the ancient Hebrews. The Romans didn't switch to a seven day week until the third century (they'd used 8 day weeks until then). We've probably counted weeks consistently for about 8000 years. But when was the first Sunday?
You're right--the week is a fascinating construct. The rest of timekeeping works fine without it. I see you mention the 28-day lunar month in a later post as a natural explanation. But a 14-day week would work equally well, or alternating 8 and 6-day weeks (spun somehow as religiously significant), or just the lunar month.

There are a lot of choices in calendars that I think probably come down to "we have to do something, and this is something," like the wildly-different lengths of months. We can come up with some explanation for each of the choices, but it may be that someone sometime just made a choice and others went along with it? Anyway, fun post and fun comment.

Not sure where your 8000 years comes from? The Hebrews don't claim to have been around that long based on their calendar and as you mention, the Romans used a different week. But 2000 years is a long time too.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:42 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


If I'm not mistaken the distinction between "Tick tick" (time going on for ever, eternity, undifferentiated) and "tick tock" (beginning leading to ending, apocalypse, transformation & fulfillment) comes from Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 5:46 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


Addendum. 'Arrival' not the arrival. Yes, they do not look like mirrors per say but the overall plotline smelted in technics, I get mirror as the 'Vanity Vair' says: "...Louise finally cracks the alien language—communicated with inky, circular symbols—and in doing so, is able to think like the aliens, who are not bound by the linearity of time. Like the aliens, she sees her past, future, and present together...
To tie the past, present, and future together aesthetically, Vermette designed Louise’s settings for all three—her home, her classroom, and the spaceship—to resemble one another. “You can see elements of the horizontal ship chamber where Louise communicates with aliens reflected in her house and in the classroom. All three have this big white wall representation—at her house, with the big glass window overlooking the hazy lake. In her classroom, you have her whiteboard. And the chamber is divided by the big glass window. . . For Louise, the idea of the chamber was pre-conveyed in her world.”

Can new myth's and legends form without henge's of past, oceans of present and shards of future? Should legends even be, in this and coming age?

"While chronology and dating might at first seem not the most exciting of things, they are the stuff that history is made on, for dates do two things: they allow things to happen only once, and they insist on the ordering and interrelation of all happenings. Every event must be chained to its place in time before it becomes an available object of historical articulation. And the modes by which we date the world, by which we apprehend historical duration and the passage of time, frame how we experience our present, conceive a future, remember the past, reconcile with impermanence, and make sense of a world far wider, older and more enduring than any of us."

Ok, no. Human events, from the singular to global are not "chained" to the linear chronological schematic so to say. It's not a chain but a branch from the chronology, are people merely a chain in the chronology?

"Every event must be chained to its place in time before it becomes an available object of historical articulation"
I mean ya but the author needs to remember the gingerbread vendor at Stalybridge Wakes in 1850. As Carr said: This element of interpretation enters into every fact of History"
('What is History', Edward Carr)
posted by clavdivs at 5:55 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


TBH, I'm just going by the authority of Wikipedia here: "A continuous seven-day cycle that runs throughout history paying no attention whatsoever to the phases of the moon was first practised in Judaism, dated to the 6th century BC at the latest."

So that would be about 8000 years. Which is a ridiculous amount of uninterrupted time in human terms.
posted by sjswitzer at 5:57 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


If I'm not mistaken the distinction between "Tick tick" (time going on for ever, eternity, undifferentiated) and "tick tock"

That is interesting, think the author snaffled his ending from this work?

I always thought it was wristwatch vs. big expensive stationary clock.

How Marxist.
posted by clavdivs at 6:02 PM on January 15


I came at this from a History of Science/Math POV and I wished to read more about that. But, engaging on his main point, he seems to be delineating a distinction between dynasties and empires. As well, a concept of a future you could understand in epistemological and legal terms. I don't know that I'm convinced that this is when that happened, but it must have happened at some point.

So, while I'm not completely convinced that the Seleucids "invented the future" it must be the case that someone first conceived of the "timeline." I'll give him the benefit of doubt. Obviously he's thought about it more that I have.
posted by sjswitzer at 6:31 PM on January 15


6th century, not 6th millennium. 2600 years.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:59 PM on January 15 [4 favorites]


Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending.

...embarrassed to say I'd completely forgotten about that text (where the [expletive] is my copy? I'm sure I had a copy somewhere). Jeez, if only every American evangelist were legally required to read it before speaking in public.
posted by aramaic at 7:09 PM on January 15


Wow, mind blown. I can quibble a little – I don't know about other Middle Eastern faiths, but I'd say that Balaam's prophecy in Numbers 24 (see earlier chapters for context) is apocalyptic; and it's certainly much older than the comparable chapter in Daniel. None the less, I agree that the idea of a timeline is conceptually huge.

The Jewish technique of counting with letters is called gematria and it's essentially identical to the Greek version. It's not a place-value system: the letters themselves are numbered 1-9,10-90,100-400 starting with alef and ending with tav. Doing maths in it is quite impracticable and I would have said that it had only been used for Biblical exegesis, were it not that the name itself is cognate to an English word for applied mathematics: gematria/geometry. So I guess it's more generally useful than I would have supposed.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:13 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


The funny thing about the Greek and Hebrew number systems is that they were so close to have developed a place-value system. All they really needed was the invention of zero. And the sad thing for the Greek system is that they regressed to the Roman system.
posted by sjswitzer at 7:26 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Yeah but Balaam used the cosmos for Smiting purposes, not ending of the cosmos.
posted by clavdivs at 7:31 PM on January 15


I don't know that they were that close? The whole point of those that you the same symbol for the ones, tens, etc. To my non-historically-informed view, if the Greeks were using letters for 1-9 and then different letters for 10-90, they had something more like a decimal-based Roman numeral system. Adding zero wouldn't have changed that.
posted by mark k at 7:34 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]


That is interesting, think the author snaffled his ending from this work?

I always thought it was wristwatch vs. big expensive stationary clock.


The "tick tick" vs "tick tock" is almost definitely quoting Kermode.

Wristwatches (or at least portable watches) "tick tock" too - they also have an escapement that strikes the gear alternately at different angles, it just might be a bit less audible because it's much smaller. I think the difference btw the two is much more figurative than literal.

I'm fascinated by the slow and often contested movement of timekeeping technologies through empires. My go-to example for this kind of cool history-of-tech narrative is in the year of Queen Victoria's accession (1837) time was standardized across England. Prior to that each town set its "noon" by the moment the sun was directly overhead that village - that is, London's noon was a few minutes earlier than Birmingham's noon. This is fine as far as it goes until you have a rail system that relies on accurate timing between cities, and the guy in charge of operating a switch on the line btw London and Birmingham is using his own time, shared by neither of the trains.

At the point at which it became clear that wouldn't work, they chopped a wedge of the earth that would encompass England - say 15 degrees of longitude - and set the national time to the average, or mean, time of that slice - call it Greenwich Mean for the royal observatory there. The overlap between England's expansion of imperial power (itself underwritten by the capacity to more accurately measure longitude earlier, historically, than any of the other imperial powers) and its capacity to impose English imperial order on time itself is a near perfect overlap.

I'm going to pick up the author's book. It sounds like he's telling a very similar story about the Seleucids. Great post, OP.

Edit: Oops, I stand corrected! Greenwich Mean Time (or "Railway Time") was adopted across England in 1847, according to Wikipedia. Even so, though.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 7:39 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


On the main topic: I read the NY Review a bit ago and now that I've read the Aeon essay by the author themself I'm still not sure whether the author is really claiming--let alone making a convincing case--that they invented time rather than just prototyping a notational system.

The whole point of a genuine, Kuhnian paradigm shift is it's supposed to be nigh impossible to get in the head of people who worked pre-shift, but it still just seems to be we're kind of saying they flipped the calendars on different intervals. I'm sure this impacted how they talked and even thought about things, but is the strong version of the claim that they invented linear time supposed to be taken literally?
posted by mark k at 7:41 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]


extremely-my-shit.com

thank you, this is rad.
posted by capnsue at 7:43 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


I want a 4X game where you don't get stats about your empire before you've invented numbers, and then you still can't count above the limitations of your number system until you discover advanced numbers (place values).
posted by I-Write-Essays at 10:45 PM on January 15 [6 favorites]


For people who like this kind of thing: Scott Manley - The Perfect Calendar & Elizabethan England's Secret Plan To Weaponize It.
posted by Pendragon at 1:20 AM on January 16 [1 favorite]


Greenwich Mean Time

Small tangent: I used to live in London, and my local train station sat right on the Prime Meridian. I used to tell people that I regularly caught trains in the eastern hemisphere just because I liked the way it sounded.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:49 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


So that would be about 8000 years. Which is a ridiculous amount of uninterrupted time in human terms.

Oops! It was ridiculous indeed and very wrong. More like 2600 years. Amusingly I had made a place-value error, misreading century as 1000 years somehow and then repeatedly failed to give the result a reasonableness check.
posted by sjswitzer at 6:53 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


"Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire is one of the greatest book titles ever."

Second only to "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind".
posted by Billiken at 6:56 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


Damn zeros sneaking into our math, throwing us off by factors of 10. Nobody would confuse DC for MMMMMM, that’s for sure.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:50 AM on January 16 [5 favorites]


Interesting historical information but seems a bit of a stretch. Nobody ever had apocalyptic ideas before then, but that is an assertion with little evidence given. Interesting speculation, but a bit sapir- whorf for one thing, no?
posted by blue shadows at 1:21 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


The book title out of context would have me thinking I was downloading the kindle sample of the latest weird steampunk multi timeline adventure I needed.

However this is still cool and very interesting.
posted by affectionateborg at 1:23 PM on January 16 [1 favorite]


blue shadows: Nobody ever had apocalyptic ideas before then, but that is an assertion with little evidence given.

With the caveat that I haven’t read the book, in the interview he goes into it a bit. As far as I understood him, Kosmin is saying that apocalyptic traditions seem to arise independently in at least three places within the Seleucid Empire at around the same time, and nowhere else, and that his hypothesis is that this new conception of time is what causes people to start thinking about the end of time.
posted by Kattullus at 1:49 PM on January 16


sjswitzer: "Secondly, I've been fascinated by the reckoning of weeks. We seem to have done that for a very long time and it certainly goes back to the ancient Hebrews. The Romans didn't switch to a seven day week until the third century (they'd used 8 day weeks until then). We've probably counted weeks consistently for about 8000 years. But when was the first Sunday?"

AskMe: Why is today Thursday, rather than tomorrow or yesterday? I'm not asking why we have a seven day week; I'm asking whether we know how this specific cycle of seven days got started off. And, has it ever been interrupted?
posted by Rhaomi at 4:25 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Wristwatches (or at least portable watches) "tick tock" too - they also have an escapement that strikes the gear alternately at different angles, it just might be a bit less audible because it's much smaller. I think the difference btw the two is much more figurative than literal.

It's also a rule:
http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160908-the-language-rules-we-know-but-dont-know-we-know
You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig, or ‘cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one.

All four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip. Every second your watch (or the grandfather clock in the hall makes the same sound) but we say tick-tock, never tock-tick. You will never eat a Kat Kit bar. The bells in Frère Jaques will forever chime ‘ding dang dong’.

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.
posted by sebastienbailard at 12:03 AM on January 22


« Older Binge and Purge   |   “It just adds that sour, spicy, savory element to... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments