Time Traveling Through History: A Guide to Historical Time Periods

historical time typewriter with the word history and a clock main

Historical chronology refers to the arrangement of historical events in the order in which they occurred. It helps us classify and understand history. The basic divisions of time are decades (10 years), centuries (100), and millennium (1000). A long span of time is a period, which is subdivided into ages and eras. Chronology is helpful but is still partially an artificial way of dividing time.  How we do it influences how we understand history.   

A Basic Definition 

A chronology is a sequence of key events in time.  The term means the “study of time.”  

Historical chronology refers to the arrangement of historical events in the order in which they occurred. It is also the study of how this process is done.  

A timeline is a representation of a sequence of events in chronological order. 

Why Do We Use It? 

Consider Catherine the Great.  A chronological account of her life would list key events in the order they occurred along with the dates involved, including her birth, marriage, becoming queen, and so on, up until her death.  This allows us to have a clear outline of her life.

Historical chronologies provide a basic summary of the events studied in organized time order.  

It helps to provide context to the events that took place.  

A chronology helps show these things and does so in one organized glance at the blackboard, computer screen, or in a notebook.  Try it out.  Have students write a chronology of their day.  

Basic Units of Time 

A person who is mad at you might say “You are on my list!”  We organize things in a range of ways.  All living things are broken into different types of animals, plants, and so on.

Time is also broken down into categories to help organize things.  This is why my music channels are divided by decade (70s, 80s, 90s) or a period of ten years.  Did I age myself?

A century is a period of one hundred years.  There is no “zero” century.  There is in fact no year “zero” at all.  The first century would be the years 1-100.  The second century is 101-200.  We are in the 21st Century (2001-2100).  So, the 21st Century began in the year 2001.

A millennium is a period of one thousand years.  The term “millennial” arose to mean those people who were born between 1981 and 1996, around the time of the second millennium.  

Historical Periods 

A chronology can be used for long blocks of time, including hundreds or thousands of years. Different historians may vary in their exact usage.  

Periods are the largest blocks of time. The period before written history is known as pre-history.  Periods are broken down into ages such as the Stone Age or the Middle Ages.  

“Period” is sometimes used more loosely in historical writing to classify long chunks of time.  For instance, “the Modern Age” might be called a “period.”  And, ages are broken down into eras.  

Middle Ages: The period of European history from the fall of the Roman Empire (376) to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th century. This period is also known as the Medieval period.

Renaissance: A period of European history from the 14th to the 17th century, characterized by a renewed interest in classical art, literature, and learning.

Age of Exploration: A period of European history from the 15th to the 17th century, marked by European exploration and colonization of the Americas, Africa, and Asia.

Enlightenment: A period of European history from the 17th to the 18th century, characterized by a focus on reason, science, and individualism.

Industrial Revolution: A period of history from the late 18th to the early 19th century, marked by the transition from manual labor to machine-based manufacturing and increased urbanization.

Modern Era: The period of history from the late 19th century to the present day, characterized by rapid technological advancements, globalization, and political and social change.

BC/BCE and AD/CE  

There are different dating formats throughout the world.  An American would write the date the Declaration of Independence was signed 07/04/76.  A European would put the month first (04/07/76).  A person in Japan would often put the year first (76/07/04).  A bit confusing!

This shows the importance of knowing basic dating formats.  One subject of confusion in the U.S. is determining how to divide different points of history.  

BC stands for “Before Christ” and AD stands for “Anno Domini”, which in Latin means “In the year of our Lord.”  BCE means “Before the Common Era.”  CE means “Common Era.”

Dating throughout history often was done using an important event as a guide.  Ancient Rome dated things from the founding of Rome.  Jews and Muslims also start their calendar on dates significant to their religion.  Europeans and Americans used the birth of Jesus Christ.

Augustus Caesar lived from 63 BC to 14 AD. The original dating of the birth of Jesus was inexact. Our dating system relied on this inaccurate estimation.  So, historians now believe that Jesus was born around 4-6 BC!  This is a lesson on the value of careful historical chronology.  

It was later recognized that everyone is not Christian.  A new system developed with the same point (Jesus’ birth) used to divide it.  But, instead of using religious imagery (“year of the lord”), we now use the term “the common era.”   

This to many seems more neutral.  The alternate dating would therefore be Augustus Caesar (63 BCE to 14 CE).  What system do you use?  

Check OUT: Should I Use BC Or BCE In The Classroom?

A Couple of Tips 

If there is no abbreviation after the date, it is usually AD or CE.  So, we might say something happened “in 2010.”   A date like “500” is more likely to be confusing by itself.

Consider dates on a type of number line with the year “1” in the middle.  Dates before the first year decrease in number while dates above it increase. The Fifth Century BC would come before the Fourth Century BC.   The Fourth Century CE comes before the Fifth Century CE.

Chronology Affects How We See Events

Chronology is a helpful tool.  History involves a lot of stuff and it is a lot easier to organize events in a way that is easy to remember and understand.  

We should keep in mind that chronology is a somewhat artificial way of looking at things.  History does not always easily break down into convenient periods of time. “The 1960s,” for example,  has themes that overlap with the 1950s and 1970s in various ways.  

And, consider our basic way of breaking down time.  No matter what abbreviations we use, it turns on an event around two thousand years ago.  Does that suggest a certain bias?  Does it mislead students into thinking human history began sooner than it really did?  

Perhaps.  But, any dating system will not be totally neutral.  We just have to remember that.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.