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Dates: Are they reliable and does it matter.
May 12, 2011
4:04 am
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Neil Kemp
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Whilst watching “Rome's Greatest Battles – Actium” on the National Geographic channel this week (I don't get out enough, obviously), I was struck with a thought that comes along every time I think about ancient events – who, or what, gives quantification to the timeline? This was stated as being 2nd September 31 BC, as there was no BC when this happened and a different calendar was in use anyway, how do we arrive at this date for modern use? Can anyone out there answer this one for me and likewise for any ancient event?

Also, I wonder on the relevance of dates to the average soldier fighting in battle. Hastings took place on October 14th 1066, as we all know, but did the average person around at the time even know dates or times – or more a case of work in daylight, go to sleep when it's dark, sow in Spring, reap in Autumn? 

So, bottom line, are dates reliable? how and when were they quantified to modern use? why are we so hung up on knowing the exact time, on the exact day, that events over 2000 years ago took place anyway? 

May 12, 2011
5:56 am
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MegC
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I think this is a great question!  I think dates both do and don't matter.  I mean, clearly Christ wasn't REALLY born on December 25th, but Christians celebrate his birth every year on that day and it doesn't really make any difference.  I think someone has determined he was probably actually born in late spring or something like that.  But the accuracy clearly has no affect on the celebration, but, interestingly, if it were to change to, say, May or something like that, it would cause the church seasons to be way off!  All the sudden, Christmas would be in Pentecost and Epiphany would be in June!  That would cause quite a tizzy!

Clearly we know enough about ancient calendars to be able to equate their dates to our modern calendar, and I think it's useful to know as it gives you an idea of what time of year you're dealing with.  For example, a battle fought in the middle of winter means that the soldiers weren't just fighting each other, but also cold and potential starvation which may have affected the outcome of the battle or the war for that matter.  Likewise, one historical event frequently leads to another historical event and knowing the dates helps to create a “big picture” so to speak of the whole event.  And sometimes knowing the dates lends a whole new perspective to the situation:  For example, knowing that Mendel and Darwin were working on their theses simultaneously is impressive, knowing that Darwin had a copy of Mendel's paper on his desk, unread, when he died is both sad and even more impressive, but realizing that, probably because of that, Mendel's work almost disappeared into obscurity.  Imagine how everything would have changed for Darwin if that paper had arrived sooner!  Imagine how everything would have changed for Mendel!  And, finally, I think it helps give you a frame of reference for what ELSE is going on in the world at the same time (which has always been my favorite part of history)

Grand scheme of things?  Dates probably don't matter THAT much, but I think that they provide just another piece of the historical puzzle that helps you to better understand what's going on.

"We mustn't let our passions destroy our dreams…"

May 12, 2011
9:41 am
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Neil Kemp
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Meg, I would concur with most of what you say, in the case of Mendel and Darwin I find it easy as this, in effect, is contemporary history, once thousands of years have passed since the occurrence of events, they almost become surreal and legend can become “fact”. One problem I am sometimes guilty of is viewing history through modern eyes and evaluating the past by our own standards today. I think as a society we also tend to view the age we are living in as an end product, that everything in history has been designed in order for us to arrive in the here and now, with this being the perfect existence. Simon Schama came up with this viewpoint and I have to agree, it is hard for us to see ourselves as just another part of the ever moving flow of history. Who knows, in five hundred years time they could be talking about us on some forum!  As we view most of the disasters of the past in this way, such as plague, pandemics, global wars and the like, we find it very hard to accept that these events can still happen to us right now, to this end we are less prepared for disaster in our world than those living in medieval times. As a society they possessed less knowledge than we do now, yet had a greater understanding of what could go wrong, we have far greater knowledge now, yet somehow expect nothing to go wrong, which is why, when it does, there is almost an air of end of the world panic in public and media circles (don't the newspapers just love a good apocalyptical headline!).

Slightly off subject I know, but it just seemed to follow on from the main discussion, just another piece in the puzzle as you put it and that, after all, is the age we live in and what we all are.

August 1, 2011
4:28 pm
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Anne fan
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I can't remember his name but I know it was a monk in the sixth century who worked out the dates. He was about six years out as modern dating techniques have Herod dying in 4BC rather than 2AD (ish) but given how long ago he was writing and the lack of scientific techniques we have available I don't think he did too bad a job.

 

The length of the year wasn't worked out correctly to begin with which is why you get the transition from Julian to Gregorian calendars in 1751 and the missing days which caused a lot of protest (somehow this explains why the tax year moved from 25 March to 6 April but I can't quite remember why). Also, different countries followed different ways of dating which adds to the confusion.

 

Pope Gregory the Great ordered Christian missionaries to take over the existing pagan feast days and use their celebrations in a Christian light. Hence the midwinter festival of Yule became Christmas (birth of Jesus and light coming into the world), Easter is a moveable feast because it's based on the lunar calendar and is held near Passover (which would be historically correct). In England the pagan festival nearest that point was Eostre's. There are also other examples of the Christian church paying special attention to the pagan festivals: the great new year festival of Samhain became All Saints (or all Hallows); midsummer became the festival of St John the Baptist; Imbolc became Candlemas – presentation of Jesus at the temple; Spring equinox was the annunication; lammas (Aug 1) was one of the feast days of St Peter and some calendars had it as the transfiguration of Jesus; May Day is both Saints James and Philip. The only one which doesn't seem to fit is the autumn equinox but then the Christian church did have Whitsuntide to fit in, which meant they had an extra one in May!

 

I think my answer to the question about whether dates are important or not depends on whether we're sure we know it or not. I'd not be too keen on someone insisting Anne was executed on 20 June 1535 because we have too many records giving the correct date but where the date isn't certain I'd be happy with a best guess.

August 1, 2011
9:25 pm
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Anyanka
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Neil Kemp said:

Whilst watching “Rome's Greatest Battles – Actium” on the National Geographic channel this week (I don't get out enough, obviously), I was struck with a thought that comes along every time I think about ancient events – who, or what, gives quantification to the timeline? This was stated as being 2nd September 31 BC, as there was no BC when this happened and a different calendar was in use anyway, how do we arrive at this date for modern use? Can anyone out there answer this one for me and likewise for any ancient event?


Lots of civilisations  had thier own calanders. The Egyptians had one based on the annual flooding of the Nile. The Romans based thiers  on the founding of Rome.There's  Chinese and Japanese calanders too…and who can forget that the world is going to end  next year because the Mayans thought so.

 

The current system of BC/AD ( or BCE/CE before common era/common era, I know some  some Christians dislike this term)is the one we use now. Most of the dates for  western civilisations are easily converted due to the literacy in monsteries which sprung up during the dark ages though out Europe.

It's always bunnies.

August 1, 2011
9:59 pm
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Bill1978
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and who can forget that the world is going to end  next year because the Mayans thought so.

Bit off topic, but I have had to spend nearly all year explaining to my students why the world isn't going to end in 2012 and explaining the idea that the Mayans developed there calenders for many years as opposed to the now regularly used 12 months. And that to say it ends next year is like predicting the world will end every year on December 31 because the calender says so and you were too lazy to go and buy a new calender (or make one in the Mayans case). I know you weren't saying that Anyanka, I just needed to vent my frustration over people's gullibility. And just to finish off, if I'm wrong, who is going to be around to tell me?

 

Back to the topic, you have raised an interesting point Neil that I haven't given much thought to. It is interesting that the mdern era is obsessed with the actual date of things. Does it really matter if it was 12th February as opposed to 15th February. I personally would be happy with February. Of course this goes for the really, really old stuff where there is no written record. I understand needing to know dates for something like the Tudor Period as there is written documents with dates on them that help piece the puzzle together. But for things like Battle Of Hastings, I'm quite content to just be told a month and a year.

August 3, 2011
12:19 am
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Sophie1536
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What an interesting question!

I'm looking forward to reading answers because I've often wondered about all these dates too, didn't most people in ancient times just go by seasons, animals and crops? I'm sure the average person had no idea what the date was, lol!

Excellent question Laugh

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August 3, 2011
9:45 am
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Anyanka
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Bill1978 said:

and who can forget that the world is going to end  next year because the Mayans thought so.

Bit off topic, but I have had to spend nearly all year explaining to my students why the world isn't going to end in 2012 and explaining the idea that the Mayans developed there calenders for many years as opposed to the now regularly used 12 months. And that to say it ends next year is like predicting the world will end every year on December 31 because the calender says so and you were too lazy to go and buy a new calender (or make one in the Mayans case). I know you weren't saying that Anyanka, I just needed to vent my frustration over people's gullibility. And just to finish off, if I'm wrong, who is going to be around to tell me?

 


o/t I'm just a bit bitter because the Rapture never happened. Though I do have a second chance in October.

It's always bunnies.

August 4, 2011
11:44 am
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DuchessofBrittany
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This thread reminds me of a debate class I took as an undergrad. Students had to debate a preassingned topic, and one was about the concept of tradition (which also related to the idea of dates and time). One classmate made a statement along the lines of: well time and dates are artifical concepts, created by humans as a form of management. They are malleable and changeable. So, does it really all matter, since time does not really exist?

I still don't really know how I feel about her statement, but I felt it related to the discussion here, especially to Anyanka and Bill's points. Every culture's concept of time is different, but that does not devalue or undermind the importance of events. Pinpointing an event to a certain date, time, etc. does nothing to explore the cultural, economic,  or religious (etc.) impacts certain event had (although if some connection could be made to some obscure date, people will run with it).

It seems the modern world is more obsessed with dates and time than were our predecessors.

"By daily proof you shall find me to be to you both loving and kind" Anne Boleyn

April 4, 2015
9:48 pm
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Alexandria
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Neil Kemp said

Whilst watching “Rome’s Greatest Battles – Actium” on the National Geographic channel this week (I don’t get out enough, obviously), I was struck with a thought that comes along every time I think about ancient events – who, or what, gives quantification to the timeline? This was stated as being 2nd September 31 BC, as there was no BC when this happened and a different calendar was in use anyway, how do we arrive at this date for modern use? Can anyone out there answer this one for me and likewise for any ancient event?

Also, I wonder on the relevance of dates to the average soldier fighting in battle. Hastings took place on October 14th 1066, as we all know, but did the average person around at the time even know dates or times – or more a case of work in daylight, go to sleep when it’s dark, sow in Spring, reap in Autumn? 

So, bottom line, are dates reliable? how and when were they quantified to modern use? why are we so hung up on knowing the exact time, on the exact day, that events over 2000 years ago took place anyway? 

Many civilisations, such as the Ancient Egyptians, dated things by the year of the reign of their current monarch, as if we were to say that something happened in the 61st year of the reign of Elizabeth II. For this to work with great accuracy you need to know exactly who was monarch and exactly how long each one reigned, so we can only give rough dates – except that in some cases records from another civilsation may allow a comparison, if we know for example that two rulers were contemporaries. The Romans had two ways of dating things, firstly in years from the foundation of the city, and secondly from who had been the Consuls at the time. They kept highly detailed records. The Emperor Augustus, who was the victor of Actium under his previous name of Octavian, kept a highly detailed record of his activities and even published an autobiography (called the Res Gestae). So we know when Actium was. As to the date, we have of course to allow for the changes inthe calendar which have occurred since then, and I’m not sure whether that is always done. Certainly after the change of the calendar in the C18th we might legitimately ask if the 11 days have been taken account of.

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