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Introducing the Classical world
Introducing the Classical world

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3.1 Ancient time

Timelines have been created for this course. Like all timelines, they provide sets of important events and dates in the periods being studied, but in addition this one allows learners to add their own dates as they work on the various periods being studied.

In this course we would like to illustrate some of the issues that arise in connection with timelines, so you will be working with a ‘general’ timeline as an example. The next activity should give you a flavour of working with timelines.

Activity 5

Read quickly through the ‘general’ timeline given below. As you read through it, don't try to remember every entry, but for now think instead about the sort of entries. What sort of entries have been entered on the timeline?

1600–1150 BCE Mycenaean civilisation in Greece.
c. 1250 BCE Traditional date of the Trojan War.
900–800 BCE Homer active. Greek alphabet created from Phoenician models.
753 BCE Traditional date of the founding of Rome.
509 BCE Founding of the Roman Republic.
508 BCE Cleisthenes’ reforms in Athens. Often taken as the start date for democracy.
490 and 480–79 BCE Persian invasions of mainland Greece defeated.
431–04 BCE Peloponnesian War: Sparta eventually defeats Athens.
399 BCE Trial and execution of Socrates.
359–36 BCE Philip II is King of Macedon. Eventually defeats Athens and Thebes.
336–23 BCE Alexander (‘the Great’) is King of Macedon. Greatly increases his kingdom.
300–100 BCE Alexandria is prominent centre of learning in the Greek world.
295 BCE Battle of Sentinum: Romans defeat Etruscans, Umbrians and Gauls and so dominate Italy.
264–41 BCE First Punic War: Rome against Carthage.
218–01 BCE Second Punic War: Carthaginians led by Hannibal ravage Italy.
149–46 BCE Third Punic War.
146 BCE Macedonia becomes Roman province. Corinth is destroyed by the Romans. Carthage is destroyed by the Romans.
121 BCE Murder of Gaius Gracchus.
88–82 BCE Civil war between Marius and Sulla.
49 BCE Julius Caesar starts a civil war by crossing the Rubicon.
44 BCE Julius Caesar murdered (15 March).
31 BCE Octavian defeats Antony and Cleopatra at Actium and becomes sole ruler.
27 BCE Octavian receives title Augustus.
CE14 Tiberius becomes second Emperor.
CE 69 Civil war: ‘the year of the four emperors’ ends with Vespasian victorious.
CE 79 Eruption of Mt Vesuvius destroys Pompeii and Herculaneum.
CE 98–117 Trajan is Emperor.
CE 117–38 Hadrian is Emperor.
CE 235–84 ‘Third century crisis’: a period of anarchy.
CE 284–305 Diocletian is Emperor.
CE 306–37 Constantine I is Emperor.
CE 410 Sack of Rome by the Goths.


There are obviously different ways of classifying the entries. Perhaps the most obvious distinction is short events of less than a year, and longer events happening over a span of time. Another way of classifying would be to say that there are broadly political entries (wars, successions of rulers, and so on) and broadly cultural entries (civilisations, artistic achievements, and so on). Or we could say that some entries are about individual people (lives, deaths) while others are about more anonymous events (wars and so on).

Obviously, choices have been made about the sorts of things to include in drawing up the timeline (in this case by the course authors). These choices have been driven by a view of what matters more and what less, but also by what can easily be put on a timeline and what can't. What sort of clothes or music were fashionable in Sparta in a particular year? When in the Roman empire were suicide rates highest? These points aren't entered on the timeline, partly because it is too difficult to apply a date to them or the necessary information is simply not available from the ancient world. Perhaps they aren't very important. But even if they are, we simply don't have the precise sort of information that would allow us to give an answer.

Effectively, we are trying to make two points, both of which you should take forward with you for future reference:

  1. There is more than one way of exploring ancient Greece and Rome. Different people ask different questions, and – back to the timeline – are interested in different dates. The more you take care to ask your own questions and explore what interests you the most, the more you will get out of studying this subject. The dates on the timeline are significant, and we hope by reading through them you have already begun to learn about the Classical world, but they aren't the only important dates and they are not a definitive list of what happened in history. They are the result of a process of collection and selection. You can use the timeline to add your own selections and develop a personalised timeline.

  2. Timelines need to be treated with care in another way too. They tend to privilege events for which we know a date. Since there are many things that are somehow important, for which we don't know the date, there is a risk that they get forgotten. One remedy is to introduce approximate dates, ‘circa’ (c.) or ‘from … until … ‘, but that only goes so far. For everything you read on a timeline, and for everything you learn, it's worth asking yourself what else you're not reading and not learning because they have not been selected.

Now you’ll take your next step in your work on ancient chronology.

Activity 6

Read ‘People, worlds and time’ from Experiencing the Classical World by Phil Perkins. As you read it, ask yourself how it is relevant to the timelines. Does it change the way you think about them in any way?

People, worlds and time [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .


Like all exploring, this is to some degree personal. So here are our three points. You are likely to have different ones.

  1. To start with the most prosaic, there is the issue of BCE/CE. As discussed earlier, this course adopts the format BCE and CE as opposed to BC/AD, and you will have noticed this already on the timeline. The essay both explains some of the reasons (to remove the specifically Christian connotations of BC/AD), and also points out that, in a way, little is resolved, since the year everything is pegged to remains determined by traditions about the birth of Christ. The Greeks and Romans, as the essay points out, wouldn't have used anything like it, and that suggests – inevitably – that the timelines are written from our perspective, and not that of the Greeks and Romans. That's perfectly right and proper, of course, but again raises questions about what is included and what is not. There is no way of telling what the Romans or Greeks would have put in their own timeline (in fact, they would no doubt have had many different views), but one thing is sure: it would have been different from what is on your timelines now. This doesn't make the timelines invalid, but it means that you have to be aware that they will only get you so close in finding out what the Classical world was like.

  2. Next, the discussion in ‘People, worlds and time’ of the beginning and end of the Classical world is relevant. It explains why 814 BCE is often taken as a conventional start date, and why CE 476 (and indeed later dates) serve as the end point. The timelines, though, start earlier, don't include 814 BCE and don't end exactly in CE 476. This underlines the pertinence of the points in the essay about the difficulty of collecting and selecting a precise start and end date.

  3. Our third observation concerns periodisation, the main topic of the essay. The essay discusses at some points the rationale, challenges and dangers of periodisation. However, we find the timelines don't really reflect it. Events are listed chronologically, but it doesn't group them in periods. This is a dimension that seems to be missing from them.

So let's close this gap.

Activity 7

As ‘People, worlds and time’ explains, periodisation is an important tool for getting a handle on the Classical world, and for seeing connections. Table 1.1 of the essay shows a table of periods that are often used to segment ancient chronology. Go through the part of the table labelled ‘Greece’ and try to identify markers for the end and beginning of periods in the timeline. Which entry (if any) marks the end of the Archaic period and the beginning of the Classical period? Which entry (if any) marks the end of the Classical period and the beginning of the Hellenistic period? And so on.


To start with, the earliest period (the Iron Age/'Dark Age’) appears to end at 800 BCE but this date does not appear on the timeline. There is an entry for c. 1100–776 BCE for the ‘Dark Age’, and then 776 BCE is listed as the date of the first Olympian Games, but presumably a slightly earlier date was selected for this imprecise boundary when the table was drawn up. The Orientalising period – within the Archaic period – does not directly appear in the timeline; there is only a mention of the Assyrian empire and a Phoenician source that may be related to anything Oriental. This is because the timeline focuses upon dates and events, while the Orientalising period is most readily characterised by its art. The end of the Archaic period coincides with the entry for 480–49 BCE, the second Persian invasion that is discussed in the essay; yet remarkably, the sack of Athens is not listed in the timeline (you could add it if you wish). A similar omission occurs with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Between these dates, the timeline mentions events and personalities, but it cannot on its own flesh out the character of the Classical period. This would take a more detailed investigation of some of these dates but this is outside the scope of this course. From this activity of mapping periods against the timeline, you can see that the timeline is merely a selection of events and provides an impression of clarity that serves as a framework and starting point for further exploration.

To finish off your initial work on chronology, focus on the first of these boundaries between periods: between the Archaic and the Classical period. ‘People, worlds and time’ has fixed it at the year 479 BCE.

Activity 8

Have another look at the events on the timeline surrounding the year 479 BCE. In addition, have a look at the last three paragraphs of the section on the Archaic age in the OCCC entry on ‘Greece (prehistory and history)’ (below). On this basis, consider ways in which 479 BCE is a meaningful period boundary, and what ways it might be misleading to call this year a period boundary.



As you will have noticed, the events in question come under the heading of the ‘Persian Wars’. We will not go into great detail here, but we would like to say a few things now about the Persian Wars as the end of a period.

Let's start with ways in which they are indeed exactly that: the end of a period. Clearly, the essay isn't alone and the OCCC, too, has 479 BCE as the last date in its discussion of the Archaic period of Greece. There are good reasons. As the OCCC points out, the Persian Wars were immensely important to the way the Greeks understood themselves. Overnight almost, they had become the victors over a mighty empire. The essay stresses that often it is only hindsight that makes us see a particular boundary as significant. In the case of the Persian Wars, this wasn't the case – much fifth-century BCE poetry, drama, architecture, oratory and history-writing was to look back at these events as a turning point.

Yet there are some problems:

  1. There is a problem with the year 479 BCE. Yes, you might say, the Greeks won major military victories in Salamis and Plataea. But this wasn't the end of the Persian Wars: further battles followed later. If you were able to ask an Athenian in the year 478 BCE about the previous year, we suspect he or she would say that a great victory had been won, but that the danger was far from over. In other words, the end of the Persian Wars wasn't short and sharp.

  2. Even the Persian Wars as a whole, with their drawn-out ending, aren't in all ways the end of an era and the beginning of something new. You may have noticed in the OCCC that the Persian Wars were to some degree the result of something called Cleisthenes’ democratic reforms (you can look them up under ‘Cleisthenes’ in the OCCC if you're curious, but this isn't necessary for the point here), which in turn were in some ways a follow-on from Solon's reforms. In other words, the new self-confidence and ‘restlessness’ as the OCCC puts it, goes back a long way. The Greek defeat of the Persians, momentous as it was, can also be seen as part of a continuous development. Finally, it is important to remember that all this is from the Greek perspective. To the Persians, these wars were no doubt a painful defeat. But it was a defeat that didn't threaten their core empire in any way. Our sources are weak here, but it is doubtful that, to them, 479 BCE was the boundary of two periods.

In summary, as soon as you hold a magnifying glass over the boundary of two periods, or indeed over many important historical dates, you find that things get messy. This isn't a reason not to have boundaries. As the essay points out, such boundaries are crucial for structuring and understanding history. But it's equally crucial not to become their slave. Between them, we hope ‘People, worlds and time’ and the work you have already done on the timelines will provide a foundation for your work on the Classical world. We would encourage you to return to them throughout, both to give you a sense of perspective across the ancient world, and to help you think about what it means to say that something happened in a particular year. Finally, once more, we would encourage you to continue customising your timelines.