I like to put history in perspective for folks, just to show who lived when. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to create an unbroken line of famous (or semi-famous) people, one life overlapping the next, from the time of Jesus to present day. Two thousand years is a long time to cover, so I’ll break this into two columns—one for each millennium—and keep my comments about the historical figures brief.
And so, without further ado:
Jesus of Nazareth (6 B.C?.- 27? A.D.) – Estimated dates for Jesus’ birth range from 7 B.C. until 4 B.C. His death occurred 33 years later. Otherwise you all know the story, so ’nuff said here.
Pliny the Elder (23-79) – Roman historian who was probably the most famous person to die at Pompeii when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. His nephew Pliny the Younger (61-ca. 113 A.D.) survived to write about it.
Titus Flavius Josephus (37?-101?) – Jewish-Roman historian whose book Antiquatatum Ivdaicarvm (Jewish Antiquities) contains the first known mention of Jesus outside the Gospels.
Claudius Ptolemy (100?-178) – Astronomer whose most famous work, the Almagest, proposed the theory that the Earth is the center of the universe, around which the sun, planets, and stars orbit.
Galen (129-216) – Greek physician and philosopher whose writings profoundly influenced medical theory and practice until the 17th century.
Plotinus (205-270) – Roman writer generally regarded as the founder of the Neoplatonic school of philosophy.
Diocletian (245-316) – Roman emperor known for ordering the last great persecutions of the Christians. Strange as it may seem, before dating years from the birth of Jesus, Christians began their calendars with the first year of Diocletian’s reign (284 A.D.) The emperor created a lot of martyrs, and early Christians very much admired martyrs. Ironically, they used “A.D.” as their designation—not anno domine (in the year of the Lord) as now, but anno Diocletiani, in the year of Diocletian.
Eusebius (300?-359) Proponent of Arianism, a heretical doctrine which stated that God came before Jesus, meaning Jesus was not of the same substance as God and therefore had not always existed. It was to settle the Arianism question that Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. One cannot overstate the importance of Nicea to the history of Christianity. It affirmed the Trinity (in the form of the Nicean Creed), developed the formula for calculating the date of Easter (the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox), and fused church and state in a way that is still having repercussions today.
St. Augustine (354-430) – Great theologian from the African town of Hippo, best known for his books Confessions and City of God.
Attila the Hun (408-453) – The “Scourge of God” conquered much of central Europe, sacked Rome, then, on his wedding night, died quietly in his sleep of a nosebleed.
Asclepigenia (410?-485) – Admittedly, this is an obscure one, but one didn’t often find female philosophers in the fifth century A.D. Asclepigenia instructed Proclus, considered the last of the great Greek philosophers, in the teachings of Aristotle and Plato.
Boethius (480-524) – Theologian and writer who, for unknown reasons, was executed for treason. He wrote his most famous book, The Consolation of Philosophy, while imprisoned awaiting his fate.
Dionysus Exiguus (475?-560) – His name translates as “Dennis the Short.” He was an abbot who was asked by Pope John I to calculate the date of Easter for the next year. In the process he came up with a simple idea that has had worldwide ramifications ever since. Using a cycles of the moon and biblical evidence, he counted backward to what he believed was the year of Jesus’ birth. Since the concept of zero had not been invented, he called that year 1 A.D. (anno Domine) and used that to date every year thereafter. His dating reform wasn’t noticed much in his own time, but gradually it caught on, though its use didn’t become commonplace for another 200 years.
St. Columbia (521-597) – Irish abbot and missionary who moved to the Scottish isle of Iona to convert the Picts. He also founded a monastery there.
Mohammed (570-632) – I suspect you all know his story, too. The founder of the world’s second largest religion, Mohammed is not viewed by his followers as divine. To Moslems he is simply the last and the greatest of the prophets who was instructed in a vision to purify and complete the work begun by Judaism and Christianity.
Paschal (625?-692) – Perhaps you’ve heard of the Anti-Christ? Well, Paschal was the anti-pope. After the death of Pope Conon in 687, rival factions within the Roman population elected both Pascal and Theodore II to succeed him. Neither man would renounce his claim, so after a couple of months the higher clergy intervened, electing Sergius I as the legitimate pope. Theordore submitted to Sergius immediately, but Paschal refused. The Roman army ended up imprisoning him in a monastery until his death five years later. There is a Paschal listed in Catholic saints books, but that’s a different fellow.
The Venerable Bede (672-735) – He was a really, really smart guy mired in the swamp of ignorance that was England in the Dark Ages. He’s best known for his book An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This book not only described the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon tribes to Christianity and gave an excellent picture of daily life during those times, but also popularized the A.D./B.C. dating system Dionysis Exiguus created 200 years before.
Constantine II (ca. 700-769) – No, not the great Roman emperor who converted to Christianity, this Constantine was another of those pesky anti-popes. He was a soldier, and with the help of his brother Toto (who was definitely NOT in Kansas!) he managed to get himself elected pope. He was later deposed by the Lombard army, a move that was ratified by a council of bishops from Italy and France. Those synods of bishops anyway…
Charlemagne (742-814) – Literally, “Charles the Great,” he was the son of Pepin the Short (no relation to Dennis). Obviously inheriting his genes from his mother’s side, he was said to be uncommonly tall and quite fat. He carved out an empire that encompassed virtually all of Christian Europe. Although probably illiterate himself, Charlemagne was renowned as a patron of learning. Due to a favor to Pope Leo II, he was given the title Emperor of Rome, a title we know as the Holy Roman Emperor (although that term was never used in real life.)
Johannes Scotus Erigenia (810-877) – Another renowned philosopher, historian and general bon vivant, John wrote a number of books. His main focus was on integrating Neoplatonic thought with Christian belief. His efforts had a profound influence on late medieval and early Renaissance thinking.
Alfred the Great (849-899) – An Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex, Alfred remains the only monarch of England to be called “the Great.” He was a warrior, poet, composer, scholar, and advocate of learning. Against overwhelming odds his army defeated the Danes, preventing them, at least temporarily, from overrunning all of England. He also commissioned The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an ongoing historical record that continued until 1154.
Pope John X (ca. 865-928) – Not all that important, as popes go, but his army did defeat the Saracens who invaded Italy in 914. The real reason I mention him is to discuss papal numbering oddities. For convenience I’ll use Arabic numerals rather than Latin. The last Pope John—the 23rd—died in 1963. Because of this number, one would assume he was the 23rd pope named John. Not so. Get out your calculators, because here’s why: first, a couple hundred years after the fact, historians misread the Liber Pontificalis (The Book of Popes) and assumed there was a pope between John 14 and John 15. There was not. Although now sometimes referred to as Pope John 14b, no such person existed. But for this reason, Pope John 15 is sometimes referred to as John 16—because, see, the mythical 14b would have been 15 had he existed, so the John following him would be 16, and each subsequent Pope John one number higher than they actually were.. Confused yet? Bummer, but it gets worse. In 997 an anti-pope came along who called himself John 16. The next valid pope known as John followed him in 1003. He was referred to as John 17, not to acknowledge the legitimacy of anti-pope John 16, but because of the mythical Pope John 14b, who would have been 15, making 15 16 and 16 17. But wait, we’re not done. With the mythical pope and the anti-pope, clerics tried to correct for the discrepancy in numbers, but sometimes they overcorrected. So when the pope who should have been John 20 was elected, he called himself John 21, although he was actually only the 19th legitimate pope named John. Finally, another anti-pope wandered onto the scene, calling himself Pope John 23rd. He died in 1415. There wasn’t another Pope John, legit or otherwise, until 1958. He completely ignored anti-pope John the 23rd, rightfully so, and also called himself John the 23rd. There will be a quiz, little buckaroos, but in the end, just remember that there were only 21 popes named John, even though the list goes to 23. There was never a legitimate John 16 and no John 20 at all.
St. Dunstan (924-988) – Born near Glastonbury, England, Dunstan fought hard to establish royal authority, which the royals duly exercised—against Dunstan. His fortunes rose and fell with each new Anglo-Saxon king named Ed (Edgar, Edward, Edmund, Edwy, whatever—who can keep track?) At one point he was accused of practicing black magic. Later, however, he rose to become Archbishop of Canterbury. In that capacity he established and reformed monasteries and sent missionaries to invade Scandanavia, which was only fair, since the Vikings had been invading England for a century.
Brian Boru (942-1014) – Great Irish king who managed, 1002, to bring all of Ireland’s tribes and independent kingdoms under one banner (his), thereby uniting the entire island for the first time. Despite his greatness, the only reason some of our older readers might recognize his name is because Ronald Reagan claimed to be a descendant of his. Sorry, Brian, you can’t pick your relatives…
Aethelred “the Unready” (968-1016) – “Unready” is a bad translation of the Anglo-Saxon word “Unraed,” which meant “of unwise council.” Aethelred Unraed became king when he was 10 years old and, despite his incompetence, ruled until the end of his life, with the exception of 1013-1014, when the Dane Sweyn Forkbeard exiled him to Normandy. When Sweyn died in 1014, Aethelred came back to reign another two years. By all accounts he was a rotten ruler, but did manage one accomplishment: he fathered two future kings of England, Edmund Ironside and Edward the Confessor. The Confessor (now St. Edward) may have been a good guy in general, but his duplicity led to the most famous battle in English history. Seems he promised the English throne to both Englishman Harold Godwinson and Frenchman William the Bastard (AKA the Conqueror). When the Confessor died and Godwinson claimed the throne, William was not amused, and in 1066 he brought a bunch of his friends to a little town called Hastings and, well, you know the rest.
And so, gentle readers, we come to the end of the first part of our journey through history. The next column will cover the 11th through 21st centuries, and some of the nice folks who lived then.