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by Brian Schrader

Measuring Sticks

Posted on Mon, 26 Jun 2017 at 10:37 AM

Humans have a notoriously bad grasp of large numbers. We can see that 10 is 9 more than 1 and we have some feeling as to just how much "9 more" really is, but the difference between 100 and 200 isn't as easy to gauge, let alone 1,000,000 and 1,000,000,000. When I'm dealing with these kinds of huge numbers, I try to boil it down to a simple comparison between things I already know: an iPhone is worth almost 5 months of groceries for example.

The same approach helps when dealing with historical timelines. WaitButWhy did something similar a while back by using generations of people to measure history. For things on a broader timescale, I've started using a few different metrics. For example, Issac Newton died roughly before the founding of the United States1. In fact, if we use the United State's age as a measuring stick, it leads to some interesting comparisons (because it's me, all of the comparisons are going to be to Roman history):

  • The Fall of the Byzantine Empire was (roughly) twice as long ago as the founding of the United States is to today.
  • The Fall of the Western Roman Empire was over six times as long ago as the founding of the U.S.

That means that as ancient as we think the Byzantine Empire is today, we're twice as close to them, as they are to the fall of their western half! It's crazy, but using this method we can also compare historical time periods, and this is the meat of what I'm getting at with all this.

Recently, I've been reading Mary Beard's fantastic book, SPQR, and even though I've been down the rabbit hole of Roman History over four other times2 I keep finding new fascinating things, and the biggest one is always the sheer scale of the timelines involved. We never really stop to think about just how long the "ancient" world was around compared to our "modern" one. To keep this short, here's an example:

The founding of the city of Rome is, mythically, 753 BCE, and the toppling of the kings and the establishment of the republic was in 509 BCE. Using our measuring stick from before means that the age of the legendary 7 Kings of Rome was roughly the same as the age of the current United States, and that the Roman Republic (509 BCE-27 BCE) was, somewhat conveniently, exactly twice as old as the United States is today. For completeness, the Empire lasted a bit longer but was also about double the U.S.'s current age (by traditional dating of the fall of the west). All of that comes together to mean that the Roman state, from fiery birth to limping death, lasted five to nine times longer than the United States has been around, depending on which ending date you use.

Even with all that context, what's really crazy is that the height of ancient Egyptian civilization was over 14 times as long ago as the founding of the United States, or about 2.3 times as long ago as the founding of the Roman Republic. We've all seen that meme that Cleopatra was born closer to the current day than the building of the Pyramids at Giza, but it's also impressive to see just how much closer to us she really is.

Our popular retelling of the founding of the United States is already starting to become somewhat of a mythical folktale and the founding of Rome is shrouded in unsolvable mystery, so I can only imagine the kinds of stories the Romans told each other about the foundings of the even more ancient to them Egyptians, or near prehistoric kingdoms of Mesopotamia.

1. Yes, I know there's 50 years missing in there, but go with it.
2. My Roman history tours in chronological order: The History of Rome podcast, The History of Rome by Livy, The History of Byzantium podcast, and full re-listening of the History of Rome.
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