How did historians sync up historical dates of different cultures?

How did historians sync up historical dates of different cultures?

How do people know, say, that some specific event happened in China 1200 BC? Or the Mayans did something in AD 150? Back then, didn't they all use a different calendar system?


The term you're looking for is chronology (Wikipedia's article on the subject is rather sub-par).

In general, there are two major ways of synchronizing dates.

  1. Find an event recorded in more than one calendar. For example, if a treaty was signed on "a.d. VIII Kal. Oct, Julius et Caesar consulibus" and "7.14.19.11.14", you can establish an equivalence between the two and convert dates back and forth; a sufficient chain of conversions will let you figure out what the date would be in a modern system. In practice, you'll want multiple dual-dated events, because of errors in the historical record.

  2. Find an astronomical event that was recorded with a date. Total solar eclipses are especially good for this, since they're rare and only visible from a small area. If you've got even a "within a century or two" idea of how the calendar you're working with aligns to the modern dating system, there's usually only one eclipse that's a candidate. Again, you want multiple events to deal with possible error (eg. an annular eclipse that was recorded as total, or a "great comet" that was on a hyperbolic orbit rather than the short-period comet you thought it was).


The Importance of Historic Context in Analysis and Interpretation

Historical context is an important part of life and literature, and without it, memories, stories, and characters have less meaning. Historical context deals with the details that surround an occurrence. In more technical terms, historical context refers to the social, religious, economic, and political conditions that existed during a certain time and place. Basically, it's all the details of the time and place in which a situation occurs, and those details are what enable us to interpret and analyze works or events of the past, or even the future, rather than merely judge them by contemporary standards.

In literature, a strong understanding of the historical context behind a work's creation can give us a better understanding of and appreciation for the narrative. In analyzing historical events, context can help us understand what motivates people to behave as they did.

Put another way, context is what gives meaning to the details. It's important, however, that you don't confuse context with cause. Cause is the action that creates an outcome context is the environment in which that action and outcome occur.


Meaning of "History"

The word "history" may seem obvious, referring to anything in the past, but there are some nuances to keep in mind.

Pre-history: Like most abstract terms, pre-history means different things to different people. For some, it means the time before civilization. But this does not get at an essential difference between pre-history and ancient history.

Writing: For a civilization to have a history, it must have left written records, according to a very literal definition of the word 'history.' "History" comes from the Greek for 'inquiry' and it came to mean a written account of events.

Although Herodotus, the Father of History, wrote about societies other than his own, in general, a society has a history if it provides its own written record. This requires the culture to have a system of writing and people schooled in the written language. In early ancient cultures, few people had the ability to write. It wasn't a question of learning to manipulate a pen to form 26 squiggles with consistency—at least until the invention of the alphabet. Even today, some languages use scripts that take years to learn to write well. The needs of feeding and defending a population require training in areas other than penmanship. Although there were certainly Greek and Roman soldiers who could write and fight, earlier on, those ancients who could write tended to be connected with a priestly class. It follows that much ancient writing is connected with that which was religious or holy.


The fact that wars give rise to intensive propaganda campaigns has made many persons suppose that propaganda is something new and modern. The word itself came into common use in this country as late as 1914, when World War I began. The truth is, however, that propaganda is not new and modern. Nobody would make the mistake of assuming that it is new if, from early times, efforts to mobilize attitudes and opinions had actually been called &ldquopropaganda.&rdquo The battle for men&rsquos minds is as old as human history.

In the ancient Asiatic civilization preceding the rise of Athens as a great center of human culture, the masses of the people lived under despotisms and there were no channels or methods for them to use in formulating or making known their feelings and wishes as a group. In Athens, however, the Greeks who made up the citizen class were conscious of their interests as a group and were well informed on the problems and affairs of the city-state to which they belonged. Differences on religious and political matters gave rise to propaganda and counterpropaganda. The strong-minded Athenians, though lacking such tools as the newspaper, the radio, and the movies, could use other powerful engines of propaganda to mold attitudes and opinions. The Greeks had games, the theater, the assembly, the law courts, and religious festivals, and these gave opportunity for propagandizing ideas and beliefs. The Greek playwrights made use of the drama for their political, social, and moral teachings. Another effective instrument for putting forward points of view was oratory, in which the Greeks excelled. And though there were no printing presses, handwritten books were circulated in the Greek world in efforts to shape and control the opinions of men.

From that time forward, whenever any society had common knowledge and a sense of common interests, it made use of propaganda. And as early as the sixteenth century nations used methods that were somewhat like those of modern propaganda. In the days of the Spanish Armada (1588), both Philip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth of England organized propaganda in a quite modern way.

On one occasion, some years after the Spanish Armada, Sir Walter Raleigh complained bitterly about the Spanish propaganda (though he didn&rsquot use that name). He was angry about a Spanish report of a sea battle near the Azores between the British ship Revenge and the ships of the Spanish king. He said it was &ldquono marvel that the Spaniard should seek by false and slanderous pamphlets, advisoes, and letters, to cover their own loss and to derogate from others their own honours, especially in this fight being performed far off.&rdquo And then he recalled that back at the time of the Spanish Armada, when the Spaniards &ldquopurposed the invasion&rdquo of England, they published &ldquoin sundry languages, in print, great victories in words, which they pleaded to have obtained against this realm and spread the same in a most false sort over all parts of France, Italy, and elsewhere.&rdquo The truth of course was that the Spanish Armada suffered a colossal disaster in 1588.

The Spanish claims, though described in the language of Queen Elizabeth&rsquos time, have a curiously modern ring. Make a few changes in them, here and there, and they sound like a 1944 bulletin from the Japanese propaganda office.

The term &ldquopropaganda&rdquo apparently first came into common use in Europe as a result of the missionary activities of the Catholic church. In 1622 Pope Gregory XV created in Rome the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. This was a commission of cardinals charged with spreading the faith and regulating church affairs in heathen lands. A College of Propaganda was set up under Pope Urban VIII to train priests for the missions.

In its origins &ldquopropaganda&rdquo is an ancient and honorable word. Religious activities which were associated with propaganda commanded the respectful attention of mankind. It was in later times that the word came to have a selfish, dishonest, or subversive association.

Throughout the Middle Ages and in the later historic periods down to modern times, there has been propaganda. No people has been without it. The conflict between kings and Parliament in England was a historic struggle in which propaganda was involved. Propaganda was one of the weapons used in the movement for American independence, and it was used also in the French Revolution. The pens of Voltaire and Rousseau inflamed opposition to Bourbon rule in France, and during the revolution Danton and his fellows crystallized attitudes against the French king just as yarn Adams and Tom Paine had roused and organized opinion in the American Revolution.

World War I dramatized the power and triumphs of propaganda. And both fascism and communism in the postwar years were the centers of intense revolutionary propaganda. After capturing office, both fascists and communists sought to extend their power beyond their own national borders through the use of propaganda.

In our modern day, the inventive genius of man perfected a machinery of communication which, while speeding up and extending the influence of information and ideas, gave the propagandists a quick and efficient system for the spread of their appeals. This technical equipment can be used in the interests of peace and - international good will. Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo preferred to seize upon this magnificent nervous system for selfish ends and inhumane purposes, and thus enlarged the role of propaganda in today&rsquos world. While the United Nations were slow at first to use the speedy and efficient devices of communication for propaganda purposes, they are now returning blow for blow.

The modern development of politics was another stimulus to propaganda. Propaganda as promotion is a necessary part of political campaigns in democracies. When political bosses controlled nominations, comparatively little promotion was needed before a candidate was named to run for office, but under the direct primary system the candidate seeking nomination must appeal to a voting constituency. And in the final election he must appeal to the voters for their verdict on his fitness for office and on the soundness of his platform. In other words, he must engage in promotion as a legitimate and necessary part of a political contest.

In democracies, political leaders in office must necessarily explain and justify their courses of action to an electorate. Through the use of persuasion, those in office seek to reconcile the demands of various groups in the community. Prime ministers, presidents, cabinet members, department heads, legislators, and other officeholders appeal to the citizens of community and nation in order to make a given line of policy widely understood and to seek popular acceptance of it.

In peacetime the promotional activities of democratic governments usually consist of making the citizens aware of the services offered by a given department and of developing popular support for the policies with which the department is concerned. The purpose is to make these services &ldquocome alive&rdquo to the everyday citizen, and in the long run official information and promotion tend to make the average man more conscious of his citizenship. If the public is interested in the work done in its name and in its behalf, intelligent public criticism of governmental services can be stimulated.

Recent economic changes have expanded the volume of propaganda. Under the conditions of mass production and mass consumption, techniques of propaganda and public relations have been greatly developed to help sell commodities and services and to engender good will among consumers, employees, other groups, and the public at large.


The Historians' Historians

As our 60th anniversary year nears its conclusion we asked distinguished historians to choose their favourite works of history produced in the last 60 years and to name the most important historian of the period.

As our 60th anniversary year nears its conclusion we asked distinguished historians to choose their favourite works of history produced in the last 60 years and to name the most important historian of the period. Their replies are fascinating, revealing a discipline in rude health, of great breadth and prodigious achievement.

Lucy Delap

I would suggest Quentin Skinner as the most important historian, someone who has transformed his field, methodologically and substantively, and had an enormous impact in publishing and supporting more junior scholars. He is an enormously generous and charismatic teacher who has contributed to all levels of the academy.

As for the most important history book – I would hesitate to name a single work, but would prefer to nominate a journal, History Workshop, for its contribution to the creation and ongoing development of many fields, but particularly of social history, women’s and gender history and its engagement with public history. History Workshop has provided a model of intellectual diversity, freshness and political engagement and continues to do so today.

Lucy Delap is Fellow and Director of Studies in History at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge.

Linda Colley

These are impossible, indeed impractical questions to answer, because different parts of the world generate and value different historical work. For example there are works of Jewish history and Black history regarded as foundational in the US, which are barely known in the UK. But here are three historians whose reputations have triumphantly crossed boundaries: Fernand Braudel for his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (completed in 1966) Jonathan Spence for The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds (1998) and Keith Thomas for Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). Braudel has perhaps been the most widely influential, not least because he reminded historians of the vital importance of examining stretches of water and not merely expanses of land.

Linda Colley is Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at the University of Princeton.

J.C.D. Clark

Most of us stand on the shoulders of earlier historians, but Peter Laslett’s superb edition of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1960) came from nowhere and was at once perfection. It founded the modern discipline of the history of political thought and it triggered an earthquake in the interpretation of Locke, the results of which are still being felt. It ties in first place with Conrad Russell’s The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637-1642 (1991). Here, and in his other works, Russell overturned a variety of still-influential teleological interpretations of the ‘English’ civil war, and demonstrated, as historians should, that the answers to major questions are seldom what you expect. But my accolade for most important historian must go to the incomparable François Furet. A Communist himself, he left the party in 1956 in disillusion. With remarkable bravery and almost single-handed among French historians, he broke the Marxist stranglehold on the interpretation of the French Revolution. Like Laslett and Russell, he reinstated the history of ideas and of politics, freed from reductionist imperatives. Which of us has done as much?

J.C.D. Clark is the Joyce C. and Elizabeth Ann Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas.

Tom Holland

Fernand Braudel’s masterpiece, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, more than any other work of history published in the 20th century, showed just how immense and indeed almost Olympian, a historian’s scope legitimately can be. Famously, despite its title, it ranges across time from the Bronze Age to the present day and includes everything from zoology to numismatics within its astoundingly capacious embrace. Rarely has a single book expanded the horizons of a discipline to such potent and enduring effect.

Some great historians pull down the dividing lines that have traditionally served to demarcate chronological periods and construct entire new models on their ruins. Others bring to light reaches of the past that have hitherto been ignored by the mainstream of their profession. Peter Brown, uniquely, has done both. It is thanks principally to him that there is now a field of study called ‘Late Antiquity’, straddling the two previously hermetically sealed dimensions of ancient and medieval history. It is thanks to him as well that religion and the process of religious change has been entrenched as the focus of study for historians of antiquity and the early medieval world – with implications for the study of more recent periods that are only now starting to come into focus.

Tom Holland‘s The Shadow of the Sword: Global Empire and the Rise of a New Religion will be published by Little, Brown in April 2012.

Joyce Tyldesley

As I am a professional Egyptologist, my choices are all firmly Egypt-based. With the excitement of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb over, the past 60 years have been a time of calm consolidation in Egyptology. Barry Kemp’s Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation (1991) is perhaps the first modern Egyptian history book to break away from the traditional and rather staid king-based chronological format to present a cultural history that really explains the ideas behind the development of the Egyptian state. It is an excellent read. My second choice is a more personal one. Kenneth Kitchen’s Pharaoh Triumphant (1985) was the first book really to bring an ancient Egyptian king – Ramesses II – to life. Kitchen, writing as if he actually knew Ramesses, shows that it is possible to pull together the disparate threads of archaeological and textual evidence to tell the coherent story of an ancient king.

It is difficult to pick just one important historian, but I have chosen Kenneth Kitchen. The sheer breadth of his output is staggering, from the most scholarly of translated texts to popular history. At the same time he has been an inspiring teacher and a constant guide to young students taking their first tentative steps in the Egyptological world.

Joyce Tyldesley is senior lecturer in Egyptology at Manchester University.

Linda Porter

I am happy to answer this and, in doing so, to go back to my roots in 17th- and 18th-century history – and not the Tudor period about which I now write. My choices also reveal something of my influences as a historian – and my age.

For me the most important history book of the last 60 years is, without question, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963), a towering work that put social history firmly on the map and is still on university reading lists today. Not everyone agrees with it, of course, and it has its flaws, but its aim was to give voice to the forgotten, to rescue them, as Thompson himself put it, from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’. In this it magnificently succeeded.

The greatest historian is a difficult choice but my vote goes to Christopher Hill for his work on the 17th century and the English Revolution. He transformed the way people thought about the Civil Wars and his output was astonishing. And yes I was trained by a Marxist historian (the late Gwyn A. Williams) and I am proud of it. We are, I fear, a dying breed.

Linda Porter‘s latest book is Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr (Macmillan, 2010).

Richard Cavendish

It is desperately difficult to answer this question, but I suggest the most important book is Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas, a rare case of a top academic historian taking the history of magic seriously as an important part of the history of ideas in Europe.

The most important historian is Fernand Braudel for the huge scope of his books on the history of the Mediterranean, civilisation and capitalism and the rest. His focus on social and economic developments and on the lives of so-called ‘ordinary’ people have been tremendously influential.

Richard Cavendish is a historian who writes ‘Months Past’ for History Today.

Helen Rappaport

I’m afraid I can’t give you a conventional answer and what I say comes from a bit left-field. Neither choice is strictly speaking ‘pure history’ but based on a subjective view, reflecting what has had a direct influence on my own approach to writing history.

Elizabeth Longford’s Victoria RI (1964) was a real trailblazer in opening up our understanding of the queen and the history of the monarchy in a new, engaging and populist way. It has been my personal benchmark for writing about the Victorian period. But, far more importantly, Longford set the scene for a whole new school of women’s history writing and historical biography that followed, exemplified by Antonia Fraser, Jenny Uglow, Kathryn Hughes, Claire Tomalin and Amanda Foreman.

Without a doubt the work of the great historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin has had a profound influence not just on my love of 19th-century Russian history and literature but also on my understanding of the figures of the Russian intelligentsia – Bakunin, Belinsky, Herzen, Tolstoy – who shaped that century. Berlin’s collection of essays Russian Thinkers (1978) was a landmark work and by far the most enlightening voice on all things Russian. He made me want to understand Russia better and to write about it – and that for me is the mark of a great historical writer.

Helen Rappaport is the author of Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy (Hutchinson 2011).

Hugh Brogan

‘Important’ in this context is a meaningless, bombastic word and the field of history is far too vast, the labouring historians in the field far too numerous, for any answer to be valid. I can think of only one work and one author that in the last 60 years have fundamentally affected humanity’s perception of an important part of its past: The Gulag Archipelago (1973) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. There has been a whole library published of remarkable works in the innumerable divisions and sub-divisions of written history, but I cannot discuss even those which I have read in the terms you propose.

Hugh Brogan is Research Professor in History at the University of Essex.

Lucy Worsley

For me the most influential historian of the last 60 years is Mark Girouard. That’s because in my own discipline, architectural history, he put the people back into what had become a realm reserved exclusively for connoisseurs. Long before the ‘new art history’ movement of the 1980s he was looking at buildings as the concrete reflection of the society that produced them, rather than just as works of art. The other reason he’s been so influential is his effortless brilliance as a writer. His books are life-affirming, humorous, quirky and brimming with revelatory ideas. I would pick out Life In The English Country House: A Social and Architectural History (1979). It really is the textbook for everyone in the business of curating historic houses today.

Lucy Worsley is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces.

Richard J Evans

History books are important in different ways. I would include Fritz Fischer’s Griff nach der Weltmacht: Die Kriegszielpolitik des kaiserlichen Deutschland (1961), the book that opened up the whole history of 19th- and 20th-century Germany by destroying the taboos that had surrounded the question of continuity between the Kaiser’s Germany and Hitler’s Third Reich, as well as putting on the table a series of unasked questions about the origins of the First World War. But Fischer’s book was traditional in methodological terms, so for importance in the latter sense I’d go for Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou (1978), which more than any other book put micro-history on the map and showed how, with the aid of theory (in this case anthropology), small and intimate subjects could be made to say big and important things. Finally, among books that make us rethink what we are doing as historians, I’d go for E.H. Carr’s What is History? (1961), wrong-headed in many ways, but which raises as no other book had done before the crucial questions of relativism, objectivity, truth and knowledge in the study and writing of history and does so in a way that is enjoyable as well as provocative, which no doubt is why it is still being read today.

There are plenty of great historians who have had little lasting effect on the way we write history or who are not much read outside the profession, or who close down subjects rather than open them up. Eric Hobsbawm is not among them. Wherever you look, from British labour history to the general crisis of the 17th century, from the ‘invention of tradition’ to the periodisation of the 20th century, he has always seen the big picture, raised the crucial questions and developed new ways of understanding the past. He is undeniably the best-known historian in the world today: his combination of intellectual rigour, stylistic brilliance and broad, comparative, worldwide perspective is an example to us all.

Richard J. Evans is Regius Professor of Modern History at the University
of Cambridge.

Jonathan Phillips

R.I. Moore’s Formation of a Persecuting Society (1987) is a deftly written and thought-provoking book. The 12th century was a time when a resurgent papacy sought to establish and create boundaries of power and belief Moore shows how this was achieved and in doing so provides a brilliant framework in which to place so many of the changes that affected medieval Europe during this dynamic period.

Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (1999) is an important book because it brought alive the medieval Muslim world in a way that no previous text had done a huge range of source material, much of it unfamiliar to non-Arabic readers and vast numbers of illustrations, all combined to show the reaction of the Muslims to the crusading age.

Jonathan Riley-Smith’s What Were the Crusades? (1977) is a slim book with a simple title. Therein lies its success and longevity by posing this challenging question he did much to generate decades of debate among scholars.

Jonathan Phillips is Professor of the History of the Crusades at Royal Holloway University of London.

Michael Burleigh

F.W. Maitland’s Domesday Book And Beyond (1897) sticks in my mind after nearly 40 years. Among living historians I would pick out Hugh Thomas: either his Spanish Civil War (1961) or his History of Cuba, which I recently read and which seemed incredibly fresh though written in 1971.

Michael Burleigh is the author of Moral Combat: A History of World War Two (Harper Press, 2010).

Hywel Williams

Geoffrey Elton for sheer stamina, productivity, originality and commitment to finding out the truth about the past. R.J.W. Evans for Rudolf II and his World: A Study in Intellectual History, 1576-1612 (1973). The Mitteleuropa of the late Renaissance, presided over by an occluded aesthete-emperor, was revealed for the first time to a wide readership in this graceful work with its astonishingly polyglot command of the sources.

The publication of Fritz Fischer’s Griff nach der Weltmacht, translated as Germany’s Aims in the First World War, was a significant public event in the history of the German Federal Republic after the Second World War. It is a work of diplomatic, political, international and intellectual history. In blaming the Wilhelmine Reich for starting the war it began a major debate in Germany about its identity and culture.

Rees Davis, author of The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles, 1093-1343 (2000), was just about the only medievalist writing in English in the late 20th century who was comparable to Marc Bloch in his ability to produce powerfully explanatory hypotheses on the basis of deep digging in specific localities. Evidence drawn from Marcher Wales informed Davis’s elegantly framed hypotheses about the differing fortunes of the nations that have coexisted on our archipelago.

Hywel Williams is author of The Age of Chivalry: Culture and Power in Medieval Europe, 950 to 1450 (Quercus, 2011).

Chris Wrigley

Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) is a highly original study, rich in insights and fresh in its approach to social-cultural history. To use the title of Peter Laslett’s fine work, Thomas’s book took me back to ‘the world we have lost’.

Tony Wrigley’s The Population History of England 1541-1871: A Reconstruction (1981) is a social science masterpiece in the recovery of the demographic past of England. It is a book that has changed our understanding of population in its period.

Ian Kershaw’s two-volume Adolf Hitler (1998 and 2000) is based on painstaking research and excellent judgement. It is a major contribution to modern history.

Eric Hobsbawm is my choice for historian. His work is marked by his ability to take long views in time and broad views, often comparative (across continents and cultures), the fertile nature of his insights (launching so many other scholars on intellectual journeys) and by incisive yet highly literate writing. From such early work as Primitive Rebels to the present he has been a historian whose work has been hard for other historians to ignore.

Chris Wrigley is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Nottingham.


Electronic Sources

While there is ample amounts of information on material culture and the American home in print there are also many quality electronic resources. Online collections of homes, online lectures, and entire university programs on material culture can all be easily accessed here.

Library of Congress: Material Culture

A "crazy quilt" from a North Carolina home

The Library of Congress has created a collection of American material culture focusing on folk art. The website focuses on folk material culture and vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture is a category of material culture, in reference to the building styles of a culture. The study of vernacular architecture follows the different architectural styles that reflect the attitudes of the times.

William J. Levitt's prototype suburban home

The Material Culture of New York City

A New York Times online article present the history of New York City through 50 pieces of material culture. The objects ranges from all aspects of daily life in New York City. One of the most helpful pieces covers the development of the suburban house. William J. Levitt created a prototype suburban home that could be quickly and cheaply constructed. He saw the ensuing wave of white middle class American families leaving the city and seeking new suburban homes.

University of Delaware Program on Material Culture

University of Wisconsin-Madison on Material Culture

University of Wisconsin-Madison-Digital Library of Material Culture

Both the University of Delaware and the University of Wisconsin-Madison contain numerous resources on material culture. Each website provides collections, programs, and academic works on material culture.

An advertisement for a mail order home from 1926.

University of Massachusetts Lowell Electronic Libraries

University of Massachusetts Lowell digital collection of elements of style. The website contains a series of galleries of paintings,photographs, and advertisements. The galleries follow the progress of the American household in both rural and urban settings during the 19th and 20th century. One of the galleries covers mail order homes of the early 20th century. Each advertised home reflects the values of America with captions noting practicality, elegance, and distinction.

The National Building Museum-Exhibit on the American Home

The National Building Museum’s exhibit on House & Home in America captures the development of the American home. The National Building Museum introduces the exhibit as “a kaleidoscopic array of photographs, objects, models, and films that takes us on a tour of houses both familiar and surprising, through past and present, challenging our ideas about what it means to be at home in America. Remarkable transformations in technology, laws, and consumer culture have brought about enormous change in American domestic life.” The interactive exhibit demonstrates the values associated with the materials used in the construction of homes and the significance of home ownership in America.

The Elements of Style: The Art of Fine Furniture-Making in America Then and Now

The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a online lecture on furniture in America from the 17th century to the present. A scholarly discussion of many pieces of material culture from American homes. The discussion takes many angles as the furniture is analyzed from a business perspective, an artistic point of view, and a cultural interpretation.

Early American Material Culture

David Jaffee a professor of new media research at Brad Graduate Institution presents a short lecture on items from the early American home. He reviews the significance of paintings, globes, and furniture to middle class families of 19th century America.


A Brief History of Human Sex

Birds do it, bees do it, humans since the dawn of time have done it.

But just how much has the act really changed through the millennia and even in past decades? Are humans doing it more? Are we doing it better? Sort of, say scientists. But it's how people fess up to the truth about their sex lives that has changed the most over the years.

Humans have basically been the same anatomically for about 100,000 years—so what is safe to say is that if we enjoy it now, then so did our cave-dwelling ancestors and everyone else since, experts say.

"Just as our bodies tell us what we might like to eat, or when we should go to sleep, they lay down for us our pattern of lust," says University of Toronto psychologist Edward Shorter. "Sex has always offered pleasure."

Sexuality has a lot to do with our biological framework, agreed Joann Rodgers, director of media relations and lecturer at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

"People and indeed all animals are hard wired to seek out sex and to continue to do so," Rodgers said in a recent interview. "I imagine that is evidence that people at least like sex and even if they don't they engage in it as a biological imperative."

It is nearly impossible to tell, however, whether people enjoyed sex more 50 years ago or 50,000 years ago, said David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of "The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating" (Basic Books, 2003).

There is "no reason to think that we do more now than in the past, although we are certainly more frank about it," Buss told LiveScience.

Indeed, cultural restraints—rather than anything anatomical—have had the biggest effect on our sexual history, Shorter says.

"To be sure, what people actually experience is always a mixture of biological and social conditioning: Desire surges from the body, the mind interprets what society will accept and what not, and the rest of the signals are edited out by culture," he writes in his book, "Written in the Flesh: A History of Desire" (University of Toronto Press, 2005).

That's not to say that cultural norms keep people from exploring the taboo, but only what is admitted to openly, according to archaeologist Timothy Taylor of Great Britain's University of Bradford.

"The idea that there is a sexual line that must not be crossed but in practice often is, is far older than the story of Eve's temptation by the serpent," he writes in "The History of Sex: Four Million Years of Human Sexual Culture" (Bantam Books, 1996).

Modern advances

Religion especially has held powerful sway over the mind's attitude towards the body's carnal desires, most sexual psychologists agree. Men and women who lived during the pious Middle Ages were certainly affected by the fear of sin, Shorter said, though he notes there were other inhibiting factors to consider, too.

"The low priority attached to sexual pleasure by people who lived in distant times is inexplicable unless one considers the hindrances that existed in those days," Shorter writes. He points especially to the 1,000 years of misery and disease—often accompanied by some very un-sexy smells and itching—that led up to the Industrial Revolution. "After the mid-nineteenth century, these hindrances start to be removed, and the great surge towards pleasure begins."

Many historians and psychologists see the late 1800s as a kind of watershed period for sexuality in the Western world. With the industrial revolution pushing more and more people together—literally—in dense, culturally-mixed neighborhoods, attitudes towards sex became more liberal.

The liberalization of sexuality kicked into high gear by the 1960s with the advent of the birth control pill, letting women get in on the fun and act on the basis of desire as men always had, according to Shorter.

"The 1960s vastly accelerated this unhesitant willingness to grab sex for the sheer sake of physical pleasure," he said, noting that the trend of openly seeking out sex just because it feels good, rather than for procreation alone, has continued on unabated into the new millennium.

Global variations

But despite the modern tendency towards sexual freedom, even today there are vast differences in attitudes across the world, experts say.

"Cultures vary tremendously in how early they start having sex, how open they are about it, and how many sexual partners they have," said Buss, noting that Swedes generally have many partners in their lifetime and the Chinese typically have few.

An informal 2005 global sex survey sponsored by the condom company Durex confirmed Buss' views. Just 3 percent of Americans polled called their sex lives "monotonous," compared to a sizable 26 percent of Indian respondents. While 53 percent of Norwegians wanted more sex than they were having (a respectable 98 times per year, on average), 81 percent of the Portuguese were quite happy with their national quota of 108 times per year.

Though poll numbers and surveys offer an interesting window into the sex lives of strangers, they're still constrained by the unwillingness of people to open up about a part of their lives that's usually kept behind closed doors.

And what if we weren't bound by such social limitations? Taylor offers the promiscuous—and very laid-back—bonobo chimpanzee as a utopian example.

"Bonobos have sex most of the time . a fairly quick, perfunctory, and relaxed activity that functions as a social cement," he writes. "But for cultural constraints, we would all behave more like bonobos. In physical terms, there is actually nothing that bonobos do that some humans do not sometimes do."


10 Historians on What Will Be Said About President Obama's Legacy

As President Barack Obama wound down his eight years in the White House and President Donald Trump took office, TIME History asked a variety of experts to weigh in on a question: How do you think historians of the future will talk about on his time in Office? Where will he fit in the ranks of presidents past?

While all agreed that his presidency was historic&mdashand that there’s a lot we can’t know until time passes&mdashopinions differed on what his most lasting legacy will be. Below is a selection of the answers they submitted by email and phone:

Laura Belmonte, head of the history department at Oklahoma State University and a member of the U.S. Department of State’s Historical Advisory Committee on Diplomatic Documentation:

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama&rsquos extraordinary capacity to tap people&rsquos deepest aspirations collided with domestic political divides that severely limited his ability to build an enduring legislative program comparable to the New Deal, the Great Society, or the Reagan revolution.

Historians&rsquo assessment of Obama&rsquos presidency will be mixed. While he will be lauded for guiding the nation off the precipice of a global economic catastrophe and for extricating America from two protracted, inconclusive wars, Obama&rsquos aggressive use of executive power in the face of congressional obstruction imperils his biggest achievements in restructuring health care and the financial sector, immigration reform, environmental protections, labor policy and LGBT rights. Expansive executive actions also undergird more troubling aspects of his presidency such as drone warfare, deportations and domestic surveillance. His successors inherit an emboldened regulatory state that can be used to dismantle or weaken Obama&rsquos initiatives&mdasha reality that underscores the fragility of Obama&rsquos political legacy.

H.W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin:

The single undeniable aspect of Obama’s legacy is that he demonstrated that a black man can become president of the United States. This accomplishment will inform the first line in his obituary and will earn him assured mention in every American history textbook written from now to eternity.

For all else, it’s too soon to tell.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian and author of bestselling biographies:

In the near-term, he brought stability to the economy, to the job market, to the housing market, to the auto industry and to the banks. That’s what he&rsquos handing over: an economy that is in far better form than it was when he took over. And you can also say he’ll be remembered for his dignity, grace, and the lack of scandal. And then the question is in the longer term what have you left for the future that will be remembered by historians years from now. Some of that will depend on what happens to health care.

People will see enormous progress in the lives of gay people, and a president helps sometimes those cultural changes take place or at least he gets credit when it happens. In terms of foreign policy, he ended combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. How did that affect the Middle East? That’s something the future will have to figure out. And I suspect one of the signature international agreements was the climate change agreement in Paris, which would be a marker perhaps of the first time the world really took action together to slow climate change. The question will be what happens to that agreement now again under Trump.

Syria will probably be a problem for him. He himself told me, when I interviewed him, that that was the decision that haunted him the most&mdashnot that he had had two decisions and made the wrong one, but he said maybe there was some other decision out there that he didn&rsquot have the imagination or the inventiveness to figure out.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association:

Ranking presidents requires a certain amount of hubris, if not arrogance. I take seriously historian E.P. Thompson&rsquos admonition about &ldquothe enormous condescension of posterity,&rdquo knowing that our political principles and moral certainties will seem less obvious to scholars of future generations. So I approach this assignment with the same trepidation that I had when I commented the morning after Election Day 2008 on the &ldquohistoric significance&rdquo of that election. It remains tempting to paint Barack Obama&rsquos election as a step toward healing the nation&rsquos great wound of racism, even if not the expiation of what George W. Bush referred to as our &ldquooriginal sin&rdquo of slavery at the opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture.

It didn&rsquot happen. Obama&rsquos election ironically had the opposite effect. The President&rsquos opponents questioned his legitimacy from the beginning. The leader of the opposing party declared that the highest priority&mdashmore important than the public good&mdashwas to make sure Obama would not be reelected. This imperative failed, but the racism that runs so deep in American culture was unleashed as it had not been for two generations. The bandages have been ripped off the sores, which are now open and festering in public culture.

Was Obama then a failure? No. American public culture has failed. We were not ready for a black president. He cedes power on Friday to the very people who questioned his legitimacy and denied him the right to govern. They have already begun to demolish his accomplishments. But historians eventually will also calculate the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, look back on the results of the opening to Cuba, appreciate his admittedly belated environmental activism, and notice that his Administration was virtually scandal free.

Lori Cox Han, professor of political science at Chapman University:

Presidential legacies can be complicated and nuanced, yet simple when it comes to the basics: Win two terms in office, get big things done on your policy agenda, and keep your party in power. Barack Obama accomplished the first, with impressive wins in 2008 and 2012 based on an optimistic message of &ldquohope and change.&rdquo Obama&rsquos strategy on the campaign trail brought together a diverse coalition of voters that suggested a dramatic shift in public policy priorities. Yet, the Democratic dominance was short-lived. As Obama leaves office, the Republican Party is stronger than it has been since 1928 and will control the White House, both houses of Congress, a large majority of governorships and state legislative houses. Time will tell how long Republicans can hold this majority, but the GOP is nonetheless poised to undo many of Obama&rsquos accomplishments. The irony is that Obama leaves office with a solid approval rating and more popular than President-elect Donald Trump. Unfortunately, Obama&rsquos personal popularity could not transform the hyper-partisan environment that dominates so much of our political process.

Timothy Naftali, Clinical Associate Professor of History and Public Service at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum:

President Obama, with laser-like focus, tried to change the way we thought about what our government does for us at home and what it does abroad. In so doing, he strengthened and broadened the social safety net and redefined the American engagement with the world. We will see in the coming years what the American people want to preserve of those changes. One thing we don&rsquot have to wait to conclude is that President Obama avoided the second-term curse that afflicted too many modern presidents. He&rsquoll leave office scandal-free. That&rsquos a key part of the Obama legacy because of his presidency’s unusual symbolic importance. President Obama, by virtue of being elected, had already secured the first sentence in any future historical account of his life: &ldquoHe was the first African-American president.&rdquo And then as president he showed his determination to be more that a breaker of barriers. Nevertheless it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of that single achievement, and the care he took to leave it untarnished, and for that we don&rsquot have to await the verdict of history.

The other thing I might add is that President Obama is among those presidents most aware of history. I look forward to reading what he has to say about his legacy.

Barbara A. Perry, Director of Presidential Studies and Co-Chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia&rsquos Miller Center:

Obama&rsquos most lasting policy legacy will be saving the American economy from the &ldquoGreat Recession.” As he entered office, the U.S. financial structure was in free fall, nearly bringing the nation&rsquos banking, investment and credit systems to a halt. The “misery index&rdquo (unemployment plus inflation rates) soared to almost 13% in 2009. President Obama righted the ship through a stimulus package (including infrastructure improvements), expanded relief of failing banks and investment firms, and the bailout of the American auto industry. The &ldquomisery index&rdquo has been cut in half (6.29%) as he completes his two terms, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which had sunk to 6,000 in 2009, is now just shy of 20,000.

Moreover, nothing can ever repeal the landmark election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president. The dignity and grace that he and his family brought to the White House will constitute his most enduring legacy.

Katherine A.S. Sibley, professor of History and director of the American Studies Program at St. Joseph&rsquos University.

As our first African-American president, re-elected by wide margins, Barack Obama&rsquos ascent into office was path-breaking. Though many profess their ironic sense that race relations have become more fraught during his tenure, it was Obama who provided the opening for a long-needed national conversation on this topic&mdasha conversation he started in 2008 in Philadelphia where he spoke of a &ldquoracial stalemate&rdquo that &ldquoreflected the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through.&rdquo

I find him reflecting in some ways both John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Obama&rsquos relative youth and the inspiring hope for change his often-soaring rhetoric has offered certainly echo Kennedy&rsquos attributes further comparisons may be seen in legislation from healthcare to civil rights. In addition, both had First Ladies who were significant assets to their administrations. But President Obama&rsquos often incremental and pragmatic approach, as well as his habit of borrowing from the opposing party&rsquos policies, also show him to resemble Eisenhower. In contrast to both of those predecessors, however, he had to deal with a starkly oppositional Congress bent on undermining his agenda, and that situation has certainly affected his initiatives.

Nikhil Pal Singh, Associate Professor in the Departments of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University:

Barack Obama became President after years of attritional warfare, and in the midst of a financial crisis that posed systemic risks to the U.S. and world economy. In the face of these obstacles, he avoided scandal, faced down right-wing brinksmanship, refused to debase common political discourse and achieved a measure of success in areas of foreign and domestic policy, including economic recovery, the Iran nuclear deal and the expansion of health insurance provision. The significance of Obama&rsquos standing as the nation’s first black chief executive should never be dismissed. Though racial inequality and racist animus persists, Obama&rsquos success signals longer-term normative and generational shifts favorable to displacing the long historical precedence of white racial nationalism in American life. But, with respect to other pressing issues&mdashreducing widening economic inequality, moving beyond overly militarized approaches to foreign policy and confronting the ecological damage of climate change&mdashObama made only marginal, even negligible gains, and did not achieve the progressive, political breakthrough he promised. His soaring oratory and dignified bearing will be fondly remembered for its vision of a more perfect union&mdashone that President Obama was decidedly unable to deliver.

Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University:

In terms of legislation, Obama achieved some big things: health care, the economic stimulus, financial regulation and more. Those are big changes in what government does and the kinds of activities it undertakes. He expanded the social contract. Taking it all together, in a polarized era, that&rsquos a pretty substantial record. After 2010, he used executive power to move forward on immigration policy, climate change and a historic nuclear deal with Iran. The question is, does it last? We just don&rsquot know that. His legacy is also leaving the Democratic Party in pretty bad shape, so that puts his legacy at even greater risk. He&rsquos not like FDR&mdashFDR accomplished a lot in policy but he left the party in a strong position by the time that his presidency ended. He&rsquos more like Lyndon Johnson in that he got a lot of things on the books but his party might have been in weaker condition when he left office than when he started.


Some historians have taken issue with the depiction of Hamilton as an abolitionist.

Although slavery isn't a prominent topic in the musical, some historians say that the show exaggerates Hamilton's "anti-slavery credentials." The most explicit instance comes when Hamilton calls out Jefferson as "a slaver" during their first of two "Cabinet Battle" numbers. During a debate on the founding of a national bank, Jefferson argues that the federal government shouldn't bear responsibility for state debts since the South has none, to which Hamilton responds: "Your debts are paid 'cause you don't pay for labor." And in the closing moments of the show, Hamilton's widow Eliza reflects on how he could have "done so much more" to fight slavery had he lived.

In his book, Chernow depicts Hamilton as an "uncompromising abolitionist," and per The New York Times, historians are divided on whether this is accurate. Hamilton was a founding member of the New York Manumission Society, created in 1785, which pushed for an emancipation law in New York State, and he was publicly critical of Jefferson's racist views. But as historians have noted, Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Schuyler owned slaves, and Hamilton himself may have too.

During an interview with NPR's Fresh Air this week, Miranda addressed the question of slavery within the show. "Hamilton, although he voiced anti-slavery beliefs, remained complicit in the system, and other than calling out Jefferson on his hypocrisy with regard to slavery, doesn't really say much else [in the show]," he noted. "I think that's actually pretty honest. He didn't really do much about it. None of them did enough."

Some critics have also taken issue with other aspects of Hamilton's characterization, suggesting that he was less of a hero than the show depicts. A 2016 New York Times analysis of the musical notes that Hamilton was "an unabashed elitist who liked big banks, mistrusted the masses and at one point called for a monarchal presidency and a Senate that served for life." Writing in The Washington Post at the same time, history professor Nancy Isenberg argued that Burr was actually a much more progressive politician than Hamilton, despite being the show's antagonist. "Burr was in most ways more forward-thinking, by our standards, than his nemesis Hamilton, and the romantic recasting of Hamilton&rsquos life story comes at the expense of a true progressive champion," she wrote.


Early life and career

Tacitus was born perhaps in northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul) or, more probably, in southern Gaul (Gallia Narbonensis, or present southeastern France). Nothing is known of his parentage. Though Cornelius was the name of a noble Roman family, there is no proof that he was descended from the Roman aristocracy provincial families often took the name of the governor who had given them Roman citizenship. In any event he grew up in comfortable circumstances, enjoyed a good education, and found the way open to a public career.

Tacitus studied rhetoric, which provided a general literary education including the practice of prose composition. This training was a systematic preparation for administrative office. Tacitus studied to be an advocate at law under two leading orators, Marcus Aper and Julius Secundus then he began his career with a “vigintivirate” (one of 20 appointments to minor magistracies) and a military tribunate (on the staff of a legion).

In 77 Tacitus married the daughter of Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Agricola had risen in the imperial service to the consulship, in 77 or 78, and he would later enhance his reputation as governor of Britain. Tacitus appears to have made his own mark socially and was making much progress toward public distinction he would obviously benefit from Agricola’s political connections. Moving through the regular stages, he gained the quaestorship (often a responsible provincial post), probably in 81 then in 88 he attained a praetorship (a post with legal jurisdiction) and became a member of the priestly college that kept the Sibylline Books of prophecy and supervised foreign-cult practice. After this it may be assumed that he held a senior provincial post, normally in command of a legion, for four years.

When he returned to Rome, he observed firsthand the last years of the emperor Domitian’s oppression of the Roman aristocracy. By 93 Agricola was dead, but by this time Tacitus had achieved distinction on his own. In 97, under the emperor Nerva, he rose to the consulship and delivered the funeral oration for Verginius Rufus, a famous soldier who had refused to compete for power in 68/69 after Nero’s death. This distinction not only reflected his reputation as an orator but his moral authority and official dignity as well.


Historical Perspectives


Living in the era of body piercing and tattoos, we need to adopt a historical perspective to understand why women of the past endured corsets and sported bustles.
Library and Archives Canada / C-115931

“The past is a foreign country” and thus difficult to understand. What could it have been like to travel as a young fille du roi to New France in the 17th century? Can we imagine it, from our vantage point in the consumer society of the 21st century? What are the limits to our imagination?

Understanding the foreignness of the past is a huge challenge for students. But rising to the challenge illuminates the range of human behaviour, belief and social organization. It offers surprising alternatives to the taken-for-granted, conventional wisdom, and opens a wider perspective from which to evaluate our present preoccupations.

Taking historical perspective means understanding the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional settings that shaped people’s lives and actions in the past. At any one point, different historical actors may have acted on the basis of conflicting beliefs and ideologies, so understanding diverse perspectives is also a key to historical perspective-taking. Though it is sometimes called “historical empathy,” historical perspective is very different from the common-sense notion of identification with another person. Indeed, taking historical perspective demands comprehension of the vast differences between us in the present and those in the past.