Reckoning Time

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Reckoning Time


Measuring Time. Three natural periodicities must have been evident to humans quite early in history: the rising and setting of the sun (day), the waxing and waning of the phases of the moon (lunar month), and the alternation of the stars in the night sky in concert with the changing seasons (solar year). Late in the fourth millennium b.c.e., with the advent of the ability to count abstractly beyond two or three, the period relations among the day, lunar month, and solar year must have become evident; the lunar month consists of either twenty-nine or thirty days, and the solar year consists of slightly more than twelve lunar months.

Naming Months and Years. During the Early Dynastic period (circa 2900 - circa 2334 b.c.e.) each city maintained its own system of naming months and years; the days of the month were numbered. Year names might refer to a military campaign, the building or restoration of a temple, the presentation of a special cult statue, the installation of a high priest or priestess, the construction of a city or defensive wall, or the excavation of a canal. During the reign of the Akkadian king Naram-Sin (circa 2254 - circa 2218 b.c.e.), the need to coordinate activities throughout the empire resulted in the systematizing of the calendrical system. Each year was named for a significant event that occurred in that year. Among the year names attested for Naram-Sin are:

Year in which Naram-Sin received from the temple of Enlil the mitum-weapon.
Year in which Naram-Sin destroyed Maridaban.
Year in which the city wall of Agade (was built).
Year in which (Tuta-napshum) the en-priestess of Enlil was chosen by means of omens.
Year in which Naram-Sin reached the sources of the Tigris and the Euphrates and was victorious against Senaminda. (Sigrist and Damerow)

Until a name was chosen, each new year was called “The year after (the name of the previous year).” The ancient scribes maintained lists of official year names in their correct order. Without such lists, it would have been impossible to calculate the number of years that had elapsed between one year and any other. Unfortunately, no list of Akkadian year names has been discovered. The system of naming years after significant events continued in southern Mesopotamia through the end of the Old Babylonian Period (circa 1595 b.c.e.).

Dating by Regnal Years. Some existing evidence suggests that, toward the end of the Early Dynastic III period (circa 2400 b.c.e.), several Mesopotamian city-states were numbering their years in accordance with the length of time the local ruler had been on the throne. This system eventually came to replace the system of year names in Babylonia and remained in use until the early Seleucid period in the early third century b.c.e. Determining the length of time between one year and any other during a given reign is a simple subtraction problem. But determining time spans across reigns requires a king list naming the rulers in correct chronological order with the lengths of their reigns.

Eponym Systems. Assyria, in northern Mesopotamia, employed an eponym dating system throughout its history, from the Old Assyrian period (circa twentieth century b.c.e.) through the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (610 b.c.e.). In an eponym system, each year is named for an annually appointed high state officer called the limu-official. During the Neo-Assyrian period the limu-office rotated among the king, high palace officials, commanders of the army, and provincial governors. As with the system of year names, the eponym system demanded that accurate lists be maintained. Nineteen fragmentary Assyrian eponym lists have been recovered, permitting their order to be established securely for the period 910-649 b.c.e. This system for naming years appears to have served as the model for the later annual Greek archonship and Roman consular dating schemes.

Dating by Era. The first true system of dating in which years are consecutively numbered beyond some significant starting point, regardless of reign, began in the Seleucid period during the early third century b.c.e. In 292 b.c.e., during the twentieth year of his reign, Seleucus I appointed his son Antiochus as coregent. Following the assassination of Seleucus in 281 b.c.e., Antiochus I was apparently faced with a dilemma: should he or should he not count the twelve years as coregent with his father toward the total length of his own reign, that is, should 280 b.c.e. be year one or year thirteen of his reign? Antiochus, perhaps because he took the throne as coregent with his own son Seleucus, obviated the problem by continuing his father’s year count: 280 b.c.e. became year 32 of what later became known as the Seleucid Era. The system of dating by the year of the Seleucid Era spread across the ancient Near East and, while spawning imitators, remained in use for many centuries.


The method of selecting officers for the annually appointed limu, or eponym office, seems to have varied throughout Assyrian history. For the century beginning with the reign of Shalmaneser III (858-824 b.c.e.), the order appears to have been relatively fixed with the king holding the office in the second year of his reign, followed by the commander-in-chief (turtanu). The sequence thereafter was not rigid, but included three state ministers—the chief cupbearer (rab shaqe), the palace herald (nagir ekalli), and the chief steward (masennu)—followed by the governors of major cities within the empire. The exact order was apparently determined by the casting of lots, that is, by randomly drawing or throwing dice, each die (puru) bearing the name of the prospective officeholder. The nearly cubical (27 x 27 x 28 millimeter) clay die of the chief steward Yahali, who held the limu-office in 833 b.c.e. and again in 824 b.c.e., is inscribed in cuneiform and reads:

Ashur, the great lord! Adad, the great lord! (This is) the die of Yahali, the Chief Steward of Shalmaneser, king of Assyria; governor of the city of Kibshuni, the land of Qunmni, the land of Mehrani, the land of Uqi, (and) the land of Erimmi; chief of customs. In his eponoymy (assigned to him) by his die, may the harvest of Assyria prosper and thrive. Before Ashur (and) Adad, may he throw his die.

The Akkadian word puru is etymologically related to the name of the Jewish festival of Lots or Purim, its name reflecting the casting of lots to determine the most propitious day on which to carry out a pogrom against the Jews of the Persian Empire during the reign of king Xerxes (485-465 b.c.e.).

Sources: Alan R. Millard, The Eponyms of the Assyrian Empire 910-612 BC, State Archives of Assyria Studies, 2 (Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1994).

Carey A. Moore, Esther: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, volume 7B (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971).

K. Lawson Younger Jr., “The Die (Pūru) of Yahali (2.1131),” in Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, volume 2 of The Context of Scripture, edited by William W. Hallo with K. Lawson Younger Jr. (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2003), pp. 271-272.


William W. Hallo, “The Concept of Eras from Nabonassar to Seleucus,” Ancient Studies in Memory of Elias Bickerman, special issue of Journal of the Ancient Near East Society, 16-17 (1984-1985): 143-151.

Hallo, “The Nabonassar Era and other Epochs in Mesopotamian Chronology and Chronography,” in A Scientific Humanist: Studies in Memory of Abraham Sachs, edited by Erle Lichty, Maria deJ. Ellis, and Pamela Gerardi, Occasional Publications of the Samuel Noah Kramer Fund, 9 (Philadelphia: University Museum, 1988), pp. 175-190.

Alan R. Millard, The Eponyms of the Assyrian Empire 910-612 BC, State Archives of Assyria Studies, 2 (Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1994).

Marcel Sigrist and Peter Damerow, “Mesopotamian Year Names: Neo-Sumerian and Old Babylonian Date Formulae,” Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, University of California at Los Angeles and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science