How we began to count years, months, days and hours

Yoshiyuki Suto, from the Nagoya University.

The Hellenistic world, regarded as the earliest age of globalization in human history, was discussed at the conference Articulating Time in the Hellenistic World, given by Yoshiyuki Suto, a professor of Ancient History and academic staff of the Center for the Cultural Heritage and Texts (CHT) at the Nagoya University..

The emergence of a multicultural society has imposed the need to synchronize calendars and to standardize documentary records and the dating of historical events. "The setting of time was closely related to the sense of social stability," said Suto during the Humanities / Social Sciences Workshop of the second phase of the Intercontinental Academia (ICA), on March 10.

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"We have agreed on the use of units such as hours, minutes, seconds and days to express time, but we do not think about the origin of these markers."

From the observation of the stars, the Egyptians have been the first to count annual periods and also the pioneers in creating 12 subdivisions of time based on seasons. Greek historian and geographer Herodotus wrote on this ability of the so-called "time masters" in 3 BC. "Their calculations are more accurate than those of the Greeks, who added an intercalary month every two years so that the seasons could coincide. The Egyptians counted 30 days for each of the 12 months, adding five days to the total of each year and thus the full circle of the seasons would coincide with the calendar," Herodotus wrote.

Suto has been specializing in the history of Egypt under the Ptolemaic dinasty. "It is interesting to observe not only the advanced knowledge of the Egyptians, but also the unique feature of that moment. During Hellenism there has been the first era of globalization in human history. The creation of huge empires and the division into large kingdoms features a totally different time in comparison to the previous one," he said.

This period was marked by the expeditions of Alexander the Great to Asia, by the first invasion of Rome in Eastern Greece and by the spread of the Greek language. Public announcements and historical events often needed to be recorded in more than one type of spelling or language, and considering the calendars adopted by different peoples, Suto said. Those were common public documents referencing reigns, bishoprics and other historical facts, accordingly to Sumerian, Egyptian or Greek calendars, to avoid mistakes about the date or the fact that they wanted to portray.

Thus, the time synchronization was necessary. In order to date documents, some important reference points have been used, such as the Trojan War, the Flood of Deucalion (the Greek Noah) or the Return of the Heracleidae. A more explicit time series was created from the Olympic Games in Athens. "The new benchmark was based on the list of Olympic winners," Suto said.

To show how time synchronization evolved between the different peoples of ancient history, Suto introduced two basic concepts related to time in history. The first concept compares progressive time and recurring time, where progressive time is connected to a linear chain of events between past, present and future, and recurring time is caracterized by a repeated cycle of events from period to period, such as celebrations. The second concept compares natural time and human time, where natural time is related to astronomical phenomena and nature, and human time is linked to cultural articulations and a personal interpretation of natural time.

Even in ancient societies, natural time did coincide with celebrations and human needs as harvesting and planting, for example. But it was during the Hellenistic period that the definition of beginning and end of basic chronological units occurred, as well as the synchronization of various human times and ways to denote human time in daily life, he said.

There was no way to articulate a unit of time that had more than one year. Besides, there were difficulties to distinguish one year from another in a chronologically progressive time. Initially, the way that was found to do this was giving the name of a magistrate or an elected priest to a year. "It has certainly avoided a lot of trouble, but it was not practical because these references did not give a sense of relative sequence in relation to the facts," Suto said.

The way to mark time progressed in the Hellenistic kingdoms, especially in the Ptolemaic Egypt, the most successful and enduring of them. An alternative system became better known: to count the year from the throne succession of each king. For example, the year of the coronation of Ptolemy I (305-4 BC) was called the Year I of Ptolemy of Egypt.

The establishment of the concept of regular years has not only contributed to the identification of a given year, but also of longer periods. "It allowed to articulate progressive time with the respective period of each king's domain," he said.

This was demonstrated in a 300-name-long king list graphed over a papyrus. The document, entitled Turin Royal Canon, dates from the time of Ramses II and brings the exact duration of each reign. It is unknown why it is the only list of kings of the Pharaonic period.

Ptolemy II, co-regent of his father, Ptolemy I Soter, introduced changes in the calendar. He tried to extend the year of his reign, considering the period during which he was co-regent. "The reason for this is unknown but it is believed that it has been an attempt to extend his authority over the legislators of other kingdoms," Suto said.

After all, the regular year system starting from the year in which a new king succeeded the former one resulted in a convenient way to determine the beginning and the end of each period, Suto said. Thus, the striking feature of the Hellenistic phase was not only the structural and cultural integration of the kingdom. There was also the important time synchronization that in previous periods was locally separated in different parts of the kingdom.