the invention of letters the memory of past transactions could not be preserved beyond a few years with any tolerable degree of accuracy. Events which greatly affected the physical condition of the human race, or were of a nature to make a deep impression on the minds of the rude inhabitants of the earth, might be vaguely transmitted through several ages by traditional narrative; but intervals of time, expressed by abstract numbers, and these constantly varying besides, would soon escape the memory. The invention of the art of writing afforded the means of substituting precise and permanent records for vague and evanescent tradition; but in the infancy of the world, mankind had learned neither to estimate accurately the duration of time, nor to refer passing events to any fixed epoch.
For these reasons the attempt at an accurate chronology of the early ages of the world is only of recent origin. After political relations began to be established, the necessity of preserving a register of passing seasons and years would soon be felt, and the practice of recording important transactions must have grown up as a necessary consequence of social life. But of these deliberate early records a very small portion only has escaped the ravages of time and barbarism.
The earliest written annals of the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans are irretrievably lost. The traditions of the Druids perished with them. A Chinese emperor has the credit of burning “the books” extant in his day (about 220 B.C.), and of burying alive the scholars who were acquainted with them. And a Spanish adventurer destroyed the picture records which were found in the pueblo of Montezuma.
Of the more formal historical writings in which the first ineffectual attempts were made in the direction of systematic chronology we have no knowledge at first-hand. Of Hellanicus, the Greek logographer, who appears to have lived through the greater part of the 5th century B.C., and who drew up a chronological list of the priestesses of Here at Argos; of Ephorus, who lived in the 4th century B.C., and is distinguished as the first Greek who attempted the composition of a universal history; and of Timaeus, who in the following century wrote an elaborate history of Sicily, in which he set the example of using the Olympiads as the basis of chronology, the works have perished and our meagre knowledge of their contents is derived only from fragmentary citations in later writers. The same fate has befallen the works of Berossus and Manetho, Eratosthenes and Apollodorus. Berossus, a priest of Belus living at Babylon in the 3rd century B.C., added to his historical account of Babylonia a chronological list of its kings, which he claimed to have compiled from genuine archives preserved in the temple. Manetho, likewise a priest, living at Sebennytus in Lower Egypt in the 3rd century B.C., wrote in Greek a history of Egypt, with an account of its thirty dynasties of sovereigns, which he professed to have drawn from genuine archives in the keeping of the priests. Of these works fragments only, more or less copious and accurate, have been preserved. Eratosthenes, who in the latter half of the 2nd century B.C. was keeper of the famous Alexandrian library, not only made himself a great name by his important work on geography, but by his treatise entitled Chronographia, one of the first attempts to establish an exact scheme of general chronology, earned for himself the title of “father of chronology.” His method of procedure, however, was usually conjectural; and guess-work, however careful, acute and plausible, is still guess-work and not testimony. Apollodorus, an Athenian who flourished in the middle of the 2nd century B.C., wrote a metrical chronicle of events, ranging from the supposed period of the fall of Troy to his own day. These writers were followed by other investigators and systematizers in the same field, but their works are lost. Of the principal later writers whose works are extant, and to whom we owe what little knowledge we possess of the labours of their predecessors, mention will be made hereafter.
The absence or incompleteness of authentic records, however, is not the only source of obscurity and confusion in the chronology of remote ages. There can be no exact computation of time or placing of events without a fixed point or epoch from which the reckoning takes its start. It was long before this was apprehended. When it began to be seen, various epochs were selected by various writers; and at first each small separate community had its own epoch and method of time-reckoning. Thus in one city the reckoning was by succession of kings, in another by archons or annual magistrates, in a third by succession of priests. It seems now surprising that vague counting by generations should so long have prevailed and satisfied the wants of inquiring men, and that so simple, precise and seemingly obvious a plan as counting by years, the largest natural division of time, did not occur to any investigator before Eratosthenes.
Precision, which was at first unattainable for want of an epoch, was afterwards no less unattainable from the multiplicity, and sometimes the variation, of epochs. But by a natural process the mischief was gradually and partially remedied. The extension of intercourse between the various small groups or societies of men, and still more their union in larger groups, made a common epoch necessary, and led to the adoption of such a starting point by each larger group. These leading epochs continued in use for many centuries. The task of the chronologer was thus simplified and reduced to a study and comparison of dates in a few leading systems.
The most important of these systems in what we call ancient times were the Babylonian, the Greek and the Roman. The Jews had no general era, properly so called. In the history of Babylonia, the fixed point from which time was reckoned was the era of Nabonassar, 747 B.C. Among the Greeks the reckoning was by Olympiads, the point of departure being the year in which Coroebus was victor in the Olympic Games, 776 B.C. The Roman chronology started from the foundation of the city, the year of which, however, was variously given by different authors. The most generally adopted was that assigned by Varro, 753 B.C. It is noteworthy how nearly these three great epochs approach each other,—all lying near the middle of the 8th century B.C. But it is to be remembered that the beginning of an era and its adoption and use as such are not the same thing, nor are they necessarily synchronous. Of the three ancient eras above spoken of, the earliest is that of the Olympiads, next that of the foundation of Rome, and the latest the era of Nabonassar. But in order of adoption and actual usage the last is first. It is believed to have been in use from the year of its origin. It is not known when the Romans began to use their era. The Olympiads were not in current use till about the middle of the 3rd century B.C., when Timaeus, as already mentioned, set the example of reckoning by them.
Even after the adoption in Europe of the Christian era, a great variety of methods of dating—national, provincial and ecclesiastical—grew up and prevailed for a long time in different countries, thus renewing in modern times the difficulties experienced in ancient times from diversities of reckoning. An acquaintance with these various methods is indispensable to the student of the charters, chronicles and legal instruments of the middle ages.
In reckoning years from any fixed epoch in constant succession, the number denoting the years is necessarily always on the increase. But rude nations and illiterate people seldom attach any definite idea to large numbers. Hence it has been a practice, very extensively followed, to employ cycles or periods, consisting of a moderate number of years, and to distinguish and reckon the years by their number in the cycle. The Chinese and other nations of Asia reckon, not only the years, but also the months and days, by cycles of sixty. The Saros of the Chaldaeans, the Olympiad of the Greeks, and the Roman Indiction are instances of this mode of reckoning time. Several cycles were formerly known in Europe; but most of them were invented for the purpose of adjusting the solar and lunar divisions of time, and were rather employed in the regulation of the calendar than as chronological eras. They are frequently, however, of very great use in fixing dates that have been otherwise imperfectly expressed, and consequently form important elements of chronology. (W. L. R. C.)