Monday, June 3, 2013

Hail, Caesar! It's About Time!

I had the opportunity to tutor a high school student this week. She had to write a paper on how Julius Caesar had made an impact on Western civilization in a way that is relevant to this day. In assisting with the research for this topic, I learned a great deal about the history of calendars, since she chose his influence over the way we mark the days of the year. Within the space of ninety minutes, we had perused a number of articles on the subject and had a solid outline so she could go home to write the essay for class. Even though she went home to write the paper, the topic stayed with me because I found it fascinating how we came to have the calendar we use today. Maybe it's because I've always been a history buff and even majored in history as half of my pre-seminary double major when I was in college. 

While I was aware of the fact that the Julian calendar was involved somewhere along the developmental line of our current Gregorian calendar, I really knew no more than that. I'm not sure how I got through all those history classes in college with no more than a glancing blow on the topic of the calendar we used to track all of those significant dates and events I was studying, but somehow I did. What I did know already about the development of our calendar, I knew mostly from personal study of the phases of the moon and about how pagan celebrations had been adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in an effort to make Catholicism more palatable to the pagan folk. While we may think very little about the calendar and the importance of having a calendar, beyond being able to glance at our electronic gadgets and gizmos to see what appointments we have this week or month or day, people in ancient times had a very different relationship with time and the tracking of days, months, and years. 

The first thing I asked my student to consider was the purpose of inventing a calendar in the first place. In asking that, we first considered what purpose it serves today. Nearly every aspect of our daily lives is governed by the clock and the calendar. We go to school, we go to work, we go to the doctor, we show up for job interviews or even lunch with a friend based on specific times and dates. Many people consider their smart phones to be their brains, which is a scary thought that deserves further attention at another time. Suffice it to say that civilization as we know it today would be greatly disrupted if some cataclysmic event occurred and caused a drastic shift in the tilt of the earth. Our clocks and calendars would instantly be incorrect on a global scale. If the cataclysmic event itself didn't destroy everything on the planet, the very least that would happen would be that everything would be completely chaotic. 

If you doubt this, take a moment to recall the years of panic that ensued in the nineties when Microsoft realized that the coming of the new millennium was going to wreak havoc on our computers because they hadn't been built and programmed to handle data beyond the year 1999. The very thought of the calendar rolling over to the year 2000 with the existing computer programming  threaten to cripple governments and commerce to a ridiculous degree. Computer technicians worked day and night to make adjustments to existing computers so they wouldn't suddenly malfunction when we woke up on January 1, 2000. I was working for Waldenbooks during this time of trepidation over the implications of this tiny little issue of numbers and dates. As it happened, I was scheduled to open the store the morning of January 1, 2000. While the home office had assured us that they had resolved this issue for our computer systems, we still didn't really know if everything around us would continue to function properly. Would the utility companies be functioning at full throttle? Would the traffic lights work? Would gas pumps and everything else we've come to rely on so heavily still work the way it was supposed to work come that special day? No one really knew, but if you were alive then, you know that civilization as we know it continued on without so much as a hiccup. I was assured by a computer technician I know that this was largely due to all the overtime the computer geeks had been logging in the weeks, months, and years prior to this moment in history. Civilization based on computerization had dodged a bullet, but not without significant cost, all because of a date. 

Understanding how significant calendars and clocks are to our society is one thing, but what about  people in ancient civilizations? When did humanity begin using calendars and why did they bother? What possible purposes could they have had in designing a calendar for daily life? While it's difficult to determine exactly when people began keeping track of time, the fact that they did so a very long time ago is evidenced by historic records from civilizations all around the globe.  Even the earliest of civilizations reveal their belief in the importance of tracking the lunar and solar transitions. The Sumerians, who lived 5000 years ago in what is Iraq in today's world, had a calendar that divided a year into thirty-day months. Their days were divided into twelve periods, with each being the equivalent of two of our present day hours. Each of these twelve chunks of time in a day were further divided into thirty smaller parts, the equivalent of four of our minutes each.  

While there is no handbook to explain the purposes for Stonehenge, it was built over 4000 years ago in England clearly for the purpose of tracking periodic solar and lunar events. The alignment of the stones can accurately predict certain events, including eclipses and the summer solstice. Although the earliest Egyptian calendar was lunar based, somewhere around 3100 BCE, they realized that Sirius (also called the "Dog Star") rose next to the sun every 365 days. Since this was about the same time of the year when the annual flooding of the Nile occurred, they created a 365-day calendar so they could have an accurate prediction for this important yearly event. The Mayans had calendars of 260 days as well as 365 days, using the moon, the sun, and the planet Venus for their calculations. According to their calculations, the creation of the world occurred in 3114 BCE. I find it rather interesting that two significant civilizations (separated by a lot of miles) invented calendars that point to roughly the same time in history as the beginning of time. It seems to imply that the marking of time has been around since the dawn of time, or at least since the dawn of the awareness of time. 

All of this still does not answer the question: Why invent a way to keep track of time at all? What purpose did it serve originally? It appears that choice of calendars and calendar types is cultural and  geographical. The reasons for calculating dates seems to revolve around a few basic needs: 1) measuring how much time has passed since something of great significance occurred, 2) keeping track of the seasons or other significant natural occurrences. This would be of particular importance in colder climates where they would want to know when winter was over and warmer weather could be expected. 3) It was also important to know when to celebrate religious and cultural festivities. The simplest way of marking time in practical terms would be by using the predicable and frequent cycles of the moon. The time that elapses between new moons or full moons is obvious to the naked eye for the most part. There are 29.5 days for the entire cycle to be completed. Most early calendars are lunar based, no doubt because that is easy to track. In Egypt, however, where it was so important to know when the Nile River was about to flood, they had a calendar based on twelve 30-day months with a 5-day festival thrown in at the end of the year in order to keep their calendar in sync with a solar year. This brings us to 4), the importance of the lunar and solar cycles to the planting and harvesting of crops. The irrigation benefits of the yearly flooding of the Nile is incalculable. As other types of interactions between the sun, moon, and crops were learned, they became part of the calendar year. Almanacs (calendars with notations about astronomical events) have been around since the invention of writing itself. Clearly their significance cannot be downplayed in the reasons calendars were created in the first place. 

What does all this have to do with Julius Caesar you ask? Essentially the Julian calendar he instituted with the help of astronomer Sisogenes is what became the calendar we use today with the exception of small corrections that occurred with the implementation of the much more accurate Gregorian calendar. Although the Julian calendar was more accurate than the Roman calendar that preceded it, it was still off by 11.5 minutes per year, which adds up after 1500 years or so. The Gregorian calendar (named after and decreed by Pope Gregory XIII) was finally able to correct that in the late 16th century, but not without great controversy. Much of this controversy had to do with the general discord between Protestants and Catholics during the time of the Protestant Reformation, no doubt. Had it not involved the Roman Catholic Church, it's possible that the new calendar would have been accepted by the masses much sooner. As it was, it took several hundred years for this "new" calendar to be accepted by the majority of countries.  One mustn't be hasty, after all, about changing the face of time, which governs our lives more thoroughly than any church or throne has ever managed to do. Great Britain and its colonies didn't embrace it until 1752, even though Rome introduced it in 1582. Given that Benjamin Franklin was publishing Poor Richard's Almanack in the American colonies from 1732 to 1758, I had to wonder what calendar was the basis for his almanac. What I learned is that he used the Julian calendar until Great Britain and its colonies made the switch to the Gregorian calendar. He dutifully moved his birth date eleven days forward in time to reflect the change in the calendar that corrected the centuries-old discrepancy caused by the Julian calendar. 

If this all seems like much ado about nothing, you have to realize that time is a very serious matter to humans. In order for us to know when to celebrate special days, when to plant and harvest crops, and how to calculate important dates in history so you can pass that Civil War test in school, we have to have some consensus about dates. We may have to play around a bit with times and dates because of time zones and the international date line, but can you imagine how difficult it would be to program our phones or even tell when our photos were taken without the amazing invention of the modern calendar? And to think that we have Julius Caesar, at least in part, to thank for this marvel. My hat, er, laurel wreath is off to you, Julius. You really rocked the world with that one and you were much more efficient about the changeover than the pope was all those hundreds of years later.