How to Look Like You Know History

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Start by memorizing a simple framework, then start filling it in

It was in the 1990s. I was listening to a group of friends discuss their different views on a subject. I don’t remember any details. I just remember it was a religious discussion of some sort and in the course of it, the topic of Islam and Muhammad came up.

“Did he come before or after Jesus?” asked one of the more opinionated participants.

I told him Jesus came about 600 years before Muhammad.

I then intuitively disregarded anything he had to say from that point forward.

My reaction may have been harsh, but it was unavoidable. In any decent discourse, you ought to be able to presume a certain “base level” of knowledge. If you’re talking about something like religion, in which history plays a huge role, it’s not unreasonable to expect others in the discussion to know something about history.

The thing is, it’s not just religion. History plays a role in a lot of subjects. You can trace historically-relevant information to any topic of discussion. Even something as “contemporary” as COVID evokes references to the Spanish Flu and Black Death . . . both historical events.

History, in short, is always relevant.

History, though, can be hard. If you weren’t raised in a home or educational environment that emphasized history, you may not have an historical framework. Without a framework, it’s difficult to fit a set of historical facts into a relevant reference. Without a relevant reference, any set of historical facts can appear to be, and indeed might be for you, just a set of random facts.

Fortunately, I believe it’s possible to develop a simple historical framework by memorizing just ten years.

A Few Caveats

There are a few things to keep in mind about these ten reference points.

First, they’re limited in scope. They are meant to give the reader an historical perspective about western civilization up to the modern era. The resulting framework is limited by space (to the Judeo-Greek-Christian civilization) and time (from the dawn of history to Columbus).

Second, I could have expanded this list to include the other areas, but I simply don’t think it’s possible to condense that much information into ten reference points. It’s difficult enough to provide a framework for pre-modern western civilization, much less to bring in (and do justice to) the rich history of, say, China and Japan, or to add the frenzied modern era. I invite others to provide a set of reference points for those other areas.

It also needs to be noted that the ten years below are not the ten most important years in pre-modern western history. Not at all.

Each year is selected because it has tentacles: from it springs other reference points. For sure, each year features a significant event, but each year isn’t chosen for that reason. It’s chosen because it helps form a “historical web”: if you remember it, it will give you a great reference point to get your bearings in the history of western civilization.

Finally, the list starts at 1300 BC. Historical time is generally considered to start around 3000 BC, but an understanding of the time period from 3000 BC to 1300 BC doesn’t help much to develop a historical framework. For that period, just know this: The era before 1300 BC consists primarily of two things: the earliest parts of the Bible’s Old Testament (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, etc.) and the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

So, with those caveats in mind . . .

The Ten Years

1300 BCMoses leads the Israelites out of Egypt.

We don’t even know if Moses existed. We sure as heck don’t know the exact date, but 1300 is a fairly popular choice among historians so we’re starting with it. From this date, you have the establishment of Israel, which leads pretty much to the entire Old Testament, including Samson, David, Solomon, the prophets, and all those folks.

If you know 1300 BC, you also have a fix on Egypt at its greatness, albeit on the verge of decline.

586 BCThe fall of Judah to the Babylonians.

This is known as “The Babylonian Captivity.” The Israel born of Moses was finished, defeated by the Babylonian Empire, which would, in turn, fall to the first great ecumenical empire: Persia.

Persia would subsequently allow the Israelites to return home in 539 BC.

If you know 586 BC, you have a fix on the termination point of the independent nation of Israel (or Judah); you have a fix on the rise of the Persian Empire, which is the one that would soon invade Greece and bring us the Battle of Marathon and the movie, 300.

399 BC: Death of Socrates.

The greatest city-state killed its greatest man. But what’s important here is that it fixes us at the end of the golden age of Greece, when Athens reigned supreme, and brings us to the verge of the destruction of classical Greece: Socrates taught Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander the Great . . . who would end the Greek city-states and form the greatest western empire before Rome.

27 BC: Octavius becomes the first emperor of Rome.

When Octavius became the first emperor of Rome, the Pax Romana started. Rome’s civil wars were over (for now) and the Mediterranean was calm and peaceful. Trade and commerce became the norm.

If you know 27 BC, you have a fix on many things: the end of the Roman Republic and the start of the Roman Empire, Rome nearing its zenith, the world on the eve of Christianity.

313: The Edict of Milan.

The Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, ending persecutions of Christians.

If you know 313, you know the end of paganism and the rise of Catholic institutions. From the Pope to monasteries, Catholicism would drive the Middle Ages and it was because of the Edict of Milan.

622: Mohammed’s flight to Medina.

This is called the “Hegira” and marks the official rise of Islam. Shortly after the Hegira, Islam ran the table, routing everything before it, utterly destroying the Sasanian Persian Empire (not to be confused with the first Persian Empire that ended the Babylonian Captivity over one thousand years earlier), crippling the Byzantine Empire, and pushing into Europe itself. Huge swaths of the Middle East and northern Africa were Muslim within 20 years. Peaceful trade and commerce across the Mediterranean ceased.

By knowing 622, you have a fix on the rise of Islam and you have a fix on the start of the Dark Ages: western Europe was already on a decline following the disintegration of the western Roman Empire in the 400s (“476” is often the date given for the fall of Rome), but the cessation of trade across the Mediterranean greatly accelerated it.

1000: Stephen crowned king of Hungary.

When the Catholic Stephen became king, the country of Hungary became Christian. It was pretty much the last country to convert to Christianity. All of Europe except a few areas of the far European east was now Christian. Two of the three great forces that menaced Europe and made the Dark Ages especially dark — the Vikings and the Magyars (the Muslims were the third) — were converted and now part of Catholic Europe.

By knowing 1000, you have a fix on the end of the Dark Ages and the rise of what is properly considered the Middle Ages. The relative peace also gave rise to prosperity, which would culminate in the Age of Discovery and the aggression of Europe toward the rest of the world (colonization).

1274: The death of Thomas Aquinas.

I know: This seems like a weird choice on my part, but I picked it because Thomas Aquinas was the greatest mind of the Middle Ages. Philosophers of every stripe, including atheists, acknowledge this Catholic saint’s greatness. He is relevant to our framework because of the synthesis he came up with prior to his death. It was the flowering of medieval philosophy, reflecting the flowering of medieval life in general. It was the high point of the Middle Ages. After him, Europe started a long decline of cultural cohesion that continues to this day.

By knowing 1274 and the death of Aquinas, you have a fix on what years constituted the true Middle Ages (1000 to 1274), the coming of the late Middle Ages and its problems, like the Black Plague, the Hundred Years War, and the Avignon Exile of the Papacy, all of which would occur in the 1300s.

1453: The fall of Constantinople.

Technically, this is the end of the Roman Empire. It is what Edward Gibbon means by the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

By knowing 1453, you get a fix on the beginning of complete Islamic hegemony over the Middle East and the rise of Russia, which fancied itself the “third Rome” (after Rome and Constantinople). It also marks the end of 2,000 years of Roman history (the Roman Republic started in 509 BC).

1492: Columbus.

Love him or hate him, Christopher Columbus’ expedition opened the dawn of the modern era. This year, 1492, gives you a fix on the coming of the new world and the meteoric rise of Europe.

If you also remember that the Protestant Reformation started just a few years later (1517), you have a fix on the two persons — Columbus and Luther — who did the most to bring about the modern era.

That’s it. Ten years. If you memorize them, you have the framework to build a house of western civilization history. If you ever see a similar list for other regions or eras, please pass them along.