Calendars and Their Discontents

Our Western calendars will soon be moving on from 2022 to 2023. Since most of us are used to living with calendars that count forward inexorably year after year, it may be hard to grasp that the idea was, at one time, revolutionary and even provocative.

In the ancient world, most peoples’ ways of tracking time were cyclical rather than linear. Observing the natural cycles of day and night, the moon’s phases, and the turning of the seasons led people to construct methods of tracking time that always returned to the same starting point. In small-scale agrarian societies, there was rarely a need to keep track of time periods longer than a year or to know exactly how long ago events out of living memory had happened. Larger, more organized societies began to think on longer time scales, but still within a cyclical framework. Monarchic states like Egypt, Babylon, and Persia dated events by regnal years: the year in which a new king acceded to the throne was year 1, the next year was year 2, and so on, until the king died and the cycle started over again with year 1 of the next king.

Sometimes the idea of the cycle was even more important than the reality: some Egyptian inscriptions record thirty-year celebrations for kings whose reigns lasted only ten or twenty years. A king was expected to celebrate his thirtieth year, so it was recorded in inscriptions whether it had happened or not. The cycles of regnal years were thus treated as if they were as natural and dependable as the rise of the sun and the waning of the moon. These calendars had no defined beginning or regular way of determining how far back events of the distant past were.

For those with an interest in the past, these cycles could be organized in order. Many states, from the Assyrian Empire to the Roman republic, kept annals, records of reigning figures and significant events on a year by year basis. The structure of the calendar in which these events were recorded, though, continued to prioritize the regular return of cycles rather than linear movement forward.

The first Western calendar to have a defined beginning and a linear count of years was initiated by the Seleucid dynasty after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire. One of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, was appointed governor of Babylon under Alexander’s successor in 311 BCE. A few years later, Seleucus broke away and declared himself king of a new kingdom stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the borders of India. Rather than use regnal years like earlier kings, Seleucus instituted a new calendar that was backdated to begin with his appointment as governor and continued numbering the years from then on, never resetting when a new king came to power.

The novelty of Seleucus’ calendar was a response to the unusual nature of the kingdom itself, a cobbled-together empire of diverse peoples, many of whom had traditions of civic life and imperial rule thousands of years older than the upstart Macedonian warlords now running the show. Seleucus’ calendar was meant to unify the many peoples of his realm but also to mark a definitive break with the past. The Seleucid dynasty was to be unique, its claims to power not dependent on anything that had come before. Its subjects should not be allowed to imagine that the Seleucid kings might have their time and then fall to be replaced by new cycles of native rulers. The Seleucid era was intended to be eternal, and the way it counted endlessly into the future, never cycling back, was a key part of the regime’s propaganda.

Like all imperial propaganda, however, the Seleucid calendar met resistance. Local people throughout the empire continued to use their own traditional ways of marking time alongside the official calendar. Other powers responded by creating their own linear calendars with different starting points. An inscription from Greece known as the Parian Chronicle takes the idea of a definitive turning point and inverts it, recording historical events in terms of how far in the past they happened before a defined date. This chronicle made an implicit challenge to the Seleucid kings in two ways. First, the date from which it counted back was the date of a major treaty between Greek cities and the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, one of the Seleucids’ major rivals. More subtly, by looking backwards rather than forwards, it emphasized the antiquity and historical importance of the Greek cities in contrast to the parvenu status of the Seleucids.

Other peoples found other ways of challenging the Seleucids’ claims to authority. Among the Jewish people, who struggled for freedom from Seleucid rule, the new calendar inspired a rethinking that made the shift from cyclical time to linear time a rallying point against oppression. If time could have a definitive beginning, it could also have a definitive end. Apocalypticism, the belief that the end of the world was foreseeable, even imminent, became one of the unifying ideas of Jewish resistance to Seleucid rule. Apocalyptic narratives gave an urgency to resistance: if the world was coming to an end, then the time to act in the name of justice was now. They also inspired the hope that no matter how powerful the Seleucid king and his armies might seem, the divine plan for the world was greater.

This apocalyptic thread remained part of Jewish thought, if not always in the mainstream, even after the defeat of the Seleucid kings. It saw a revival when the Jews faced another imperial intrusion under Rome. Rome had its own linear calendar, counting years forward from the supposed founding date of the city in 753 BCE, and apocalyptic narratives were as useful in organizing anti-Roman resistance as they had been in the face of the Seleucids. The early Christian movement took shape in the turmoil of this time and took on the idea of a foreordained end to time as part of its own narrative.

Something as seemingly straightforward and utilitarian as a calendar can have complicated layers of meaning. Enjoy 2023!

Image: Ancient sundial, photograph by Ad Meskens via Wikimedia (Currently Side Archaeological Museum, Side, Turkey; Roman period; stone and metal)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.