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Eusebius Introduces his Tabular Timeline System

Circa 308 CE to 326 CE
Eusebius, The Bodleian Manuscript of Jerome Version of the Chronicle of Eusebius, edited by John Knight Fotheringham, fol. 34.

Eusebius, The Bodleian Manuscript of Jerome Version of the Chronicle of Eusebius, edited by John Knight Fotheringham, fol. 34.

Between 308 and 311 Eusebius Caesariensis (Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius Pamphili), a Roman historian, Christian polemicist, and Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, wrote The Chronicon, or Chronicle (Greek, Pantodape historia, "Universal history").  For the next 18 years Eusebius continued to revise this work, and though Eusebius's Greek text was lost, the work was preserved in Eusebius's final draft (326) by its translation into Latin by Jerome, and by its translation into Armenian.  

One of Eusebius's innovations in this work was a tabular system to coordinate events drawn from several distinct historiographic traditions. His use of the tabular format was influenced by the columnar arrangement of Origen's Hexapla, with which he was familiar. Eusebius's Chronicon became a fundamental text for the development of historical writing in the Middle Ages. 

As Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams wrote in Christianity and the Transformation of the Book (2006, p. 136), Eusebius's Chronicle made it possible "to fix a whole world on paper" by aligning data from various strands of biblical and Near Eastern historiography. Eusebius divided his Chronicle into two parts, the Chronography and the Canons. The Chronography is a tabular list of synchronisms of Greek, Roman, and Jewish history; the Canons is a systematic chronicle of world history and following nineteen ancient states down through time, culminating in one column representing the Roman empire. To Grafton and Williams the importance of the Hexapla for Eusebius was that it trained him to read parallel texts "word by word", comparing them closely and allowing the discrepancies to remain (pp. 169-170).

As first compiled, the Chronicon consisted of two parts: in the first (‘the chronography’),

"Eusebius treated the history of each ancient people or empire separately, listing their rulers or magistrates, the years of their reigns, and the events which took place in those years; in the second (‘the chronological canons’), he tried to reconcile the various chronologies and historical narratives current in the ancient world, by laying out their histories in a tabular format which would allow the reader to look across the columns and to compare what was going on in the different kingdoms at the same time. It was second part which was revolutionary, and it was this section which was translated and made available to the Latin West by Jerome. Eusebius’ Chronicle no longer survives in the original Greek. An Armenian translation exists in two versions, though the end of book one and start and end of book two are lost in both.  

"The tabular layout was achieved by making use of a new type of manuscript, the codex. Consisting of sheets folded and stitched together in the manner of a modern book, this type of book largely supplanted the scroll between the second and fourth centuries. Eusebius took each ‘opening’ in his codex and divided it up into vertical columns. The events of the period were listed in two broad columns, one at the centre of each of the opposing pages. To their left and right were columns of numbers giving the years according to the regnal chronologies current in the period in question. Into the column to the extreme left Eusebius put an index of years divided into ten year intervals, the next he headed as [Kings] of the Persians (or of whichever empire was dominant at the time), and that to the extreme right he headed [Kings] of the Egyptians for as long as they lasted. When a new power came along he added an extra column for them, and when they failed their column vanished with them. The ascent of a new king was placed in the column of his kingdom, but, given a horizontal line of its own, as though it had happened between years. Thereafter the series of numbers in this kingdom’s column would be restarted, running 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on.  

"Merton 315 illustrates this layout. Consider, for example, fols. 49v and 50r, which cover the years 1196–1182 BC in Eusebius’s reckoning. It is to these years that Eusebius assigns the Trojan War. In this opening three rulers come to the throne: the judges of the Jews Esebon and Labdon, and the pharaoh of the Egyptians Thuoris. Some attempt has been made to distinguish the columns by using different coloured inks—red, green and black. Notice also that the entries on folio 49v are very much concerned with issues of chronology: ‘In the book of Judges [11:26], Jephthah says from the era of Moses to himself is reckoned to be 300 years’; ‘After Hesebon in the book of the Hebrews, Aelon is considered to have ruled as Judge over the people for ten years, which the seventy translators do not have.’  

Further into the text, once the Romans have overrun the other major empires of the Mediterranean world, the need for multiple columns is reduced, and the work proceeds on single pages rather than by two-page openings. Note also that Eusebius starts his tables, not with the date of Creation, but with the earliest date in the Biblical narrative which he could correlate securely with the chronologies of the other peoples—namely, the birth of Abraham. He places this event in the 43rd year of the reign of Ninus, king of the Assyrians—2016 years before the birth of Christ. Writing in 379 or 380, Jerome, for his part, extended Eusebius’s coverage from AD 327 to 378—or as he puts it in his preface, from the twentieth year of Constantine to the second of the Emperor Valentinian. But note also that Jerome claims to have modified and added much to the annals between the Fall of Troy and 327/the twentieth year of Constantine.  

"Theories as to the purpose of this chronicle vary. One common view is that Eusebius produced the work as a preparatory step towards the writing of his Ecclesiastical History, because he needed to reconcile the chronological data from various Greek sources—Porphyry, Castor, Erastothenes, and so on—with that found in Scripture. The problem with this view is that the chronological scope of the two works is so very different. Another view is that the aim was to show how the national histories of the Mediterranean world fitted into the overarching scheme of Salvation History—how, that is, they fitted into God’s grand plan for the redemption of humanity. The problem with this theory is that Eusebius starts, not with creation, but with the birth of Abraham—at a point when the world was already, according to his reckoning, 3,184 years old. Another approach focuses on Eusebius’s revision of the received Christian chronology of Sextus Julius Africanus. Whereas Sextus had placed Christ’s death in the 5,500th year of world, Eusebius’s chronology implied that Christ was born in its 5,199th year. This can be seen as an attempt to deflate millennial expectations, because the former dating when combined with the belief that the world would last six millennia—an idea that Sextus had helped to promote—implied that the Second Coming would take place in AD 500. Eusebius’s revised chronology, on the other hand, rejuvenated the world, implying that the sixth age would continue until 799/800. The problem with this theory is that Eusebius does not use annus-mundi chronology as his fundamental system of reference, nor does he make mention in his chronicle of the dangers of millennarianism. There were chroniclers who were much involved with countering this danger, such as Bede and Isidore of Seville, but they are wholly explicit about their concerns, and they use annus-mundi chronology to organise their annals.  

"Another view is that the purpose was to help new converts to the faith to assimilate the historical traditions of the Middle East and the Jews—traditions which would have been alien to those who had been educated according to the established norms of Greco-Roman education. ‘Visually and succintly’, as McKitterick puts it, ‘it sets out and locates in time the relationship between the various elements of an educated Christian’s universe.’ Of the various theories this one is the most in keeping with the words of Eusebius’s preface, which stresses the simple utility of his tabular arrangement for translating dates from one chronological system to another. We have, he explains, placed the series of years in opposition to each other ‘so as to provide a simple method for discovering in which era, Greek or barbarian, the prophets, kings, and priests of the Hebrews existed, likewise when falsely-believed gods of various nations existed, when demi-gods, when any city was founded, concerning illustrious men, when philosophers, poets, princes, and writers of various works appeared, and any other ancient event, if it was thought deserving of recording’ "(, accessed12-23-2012).

"Ancient and medieval historians had their own techniques of chronological notation. From the fourth century in Europe, the most powerful and typical of these was the table. Though ancient chronologies were inscribed in many different forms, among scholars the table form had a normative quality much as the timeline does today. In part, the importance of the chronological table after the fourth century can be credited to the Roman Christian scholar Eusebius. Already in the fourth century Eusebius had developed a sophisticated table structure to organize and reconcile chronologies drawn from historical sources from all over the world. To clearly present the relations between Jewish, pagan, and Christian histories, Eusebius laid out their chronologies in parallel columns that began with the patriarch Abraham and the founding of Assyria. The reader who moved through Eusebius's history, page by page, saw empires and kingdoms rise and fall, until all of them—even the kingdom of the Jews—came under Rome's universal rule, just in time to make the Savior's message accessible to all of humanity. By comparing individual histories to one another and the unform progress of the years, the reader could see the hand of providence at work.

"Eusebius created his visually lucid Chronicle just when he and other Christians were first adopting the codex, or bound book, in place of the scroll. Like other Christian innovations in book design, the parallel tables and lucid, year-by-year, decade-by-decade order of the Chronicle reflected the desire of early Christian scholars to make the Bible and the sources vital for understanding it available and readily accessible for quick reference. The Chronicle was widely read, copied, and imitated in the Middle Ages. And it catered to a desire for precision that other popular forms—like the genealogical tree—could not satisfy" (Rosenberg & Grafton, Cartographies of Time. A History of the Timeline [2010] 15-16).

One of the earliest surviving manuscripts of Jerome's translation is Bodleian Codex  Lat. Auct. T. II. 26, most of which was written in Italy in an uncial hand about the middle of the fifth century (Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores II [1935] No. 233a.)

"Ff. 1-32 years, are in a late (s.XV?) hand in the priores (long-lines) format. The remainder (A. Abr. 555-2394) is in a fifth century hand, the last leaf is missing, and the one-leaf summary replacing it is either by the same or a contemporary hand. There are marginalia dating from around 1400.

"The manuscript was acquired from an unknown source by Jean de Tillet, Bishop of Meaux, who died in 1570. Du Tillet had obtained authority from Francis I to collect Mss from French libraries; there are reasons to suppose that the Ms. was in the South of France ca. 1400. Pontacus borrowed it from him and cites it by the name of the Meldensis (M). Sirmond, in his edition of Marcellinus (1619, 1696) refers to it as being in Tillet's library. It then passed to the Jesuit College of Clermont at Paris. This library was sold in 1764, when it was acquired by Meerman. On the sale of his library in 1824, it was bought by Gaisford for the Bodleian." This was edited and published in facsimile by John Knight Fotheringham as The Bodleian Manuscript of Jerome's Version of the Chronicle of Eusebius Reproduced in Collotype (1905). In December 2012 an online English translation of this manuscript was available at this link.

Eusebius's Chronicon was first published in print by Philippus de Lavagnia of Milan about 1474-75. The text published was the Latin translation of Jerome with the continuations of Prosper Aquitanus and Matthaeus Palmerius Florentinus. The first printed edition is undated, and the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue (ISTC) ie00116000 states that the edition is "also recorded as [not after 1468?]." As explanation for their estimation of the date of this undated edition, the ISTC states:

"The printer's name appears on the first leaf. The copy in Parma Palatina belonged to Nicodemo Tranchedini who listed this book, among others, in his Zibaldone [an early form of commonplace book] under the date 19 June 1475 (P. Parodi, in Giornale storico delle province parmensi 20 (1920) pp.162-64)

"P. Scapecchi, in L. Fabbri and M. Tacconi (edd.), I libri del Duomo di Firenze (Firenze, 1997) pp.168-70, reports the MS. date 1468 in the copy at Firenze N. Cf. also Ganda(Lavagna) pp.87-88."

Carriker, The Library of Eusebius of Caesarea (2003) 38-40.

(This entry was last revised on 01-05-2014.)

Timeline Themes

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