At what point in history could you visit a civilization and be able to ask the average person “what year is it” and they’d know? Not just the priests or scholars or historians, but when the average, uneducated farmer in the field or ordinary peasant laborer would be able to tell you, without hesitation or uncertainty, “why, it’s the Year X, of course!”
I understand that calendars were often reset or new systems imposed due to conquest, revolution, new rulers, and the like. So let’s place an arbitrary limit requiring, say, at least 10 years to have passed since such a reset. In other words, if the society’s calendar measured the date relative to the ascension of King Y to the throne, would ordinary working class folk remember that this is Year 11 of King Y’s tenure?
That’s a silly answer because there is obviously no date that answers your question. The need to know the date or the time) would have spread slowly out from the centres of population where trade was going on, in just the same way as numeracy did. If you are importing spices you need to know what quantity you are buying and when it will be delivered. ‘Next week’ would be fine at first, but if you started a contract then the date might (just as it is today) become important.
If you were a field worker you would mainly be interested in seasons, but anniversaries like the King’s birthday may impinge on your life too.
Do most people on earth need to agree it’s year X, or do most people on earth need to be able to confidently say, “it’s year X!” even though in Egypt they’d be saying ‘year 12 of Ramses’ reign,’ and in Japan (I won’t even hazard, but something relating to when the most recent government took control)?
Also, do you need it to be continuous to now? I think there was probably a period when it was true, and then in the dark ages, a period when it may not have been again. But I don’t know that. In the dark ages, maybe the Julian calendar had taken hold enough, or maybe I’m too Euro-centric.
According to this page, between the Macedonian Empire and the Maurya Empire, ca. 150 BCE, you’d have over half the world’s population.
Wikipedia actually has a great number of pages about the world at different years. Here’s 150 BC, and you can see all the calendars (admittedly, anyone can see a couple are anachronistic. So sussing it out will take some work). I think those pages and some calculations and estimations of how many people under a government knew *when *they were living, and you could figure it out.
I think the concept of a year goes back to the first human societies, if not earlier. That a means to distinguish years with some kind of shared marker would be useful - to keep track of agricultural matters, if nothing else, and probably religious ones - is not hard to envision.
I’d bet that Neandertal tribes had a common year-reckoning scheme. How widely each scheme was shared is a matter of speculation.
I disagree. It is, of course, true that there are questions to which there is no answer. This is, however, not one of them. If we rephrase the question to something like “What was the first year in human history in which the probability that an average, uneducated farmer in the field or ordinary peasant laborer would immediately know the present year under the predominant calendar exceeded 50 %?”, then we can see that there is an objective answer to this question. We might not know the answer, but that does not mean there is none, nor does it mean the question is silly. I think that it is, in fact, a perfectly legitimate question, and even though we don’t know the answer, we can still make educated guesses.
I read there was a major panic in the Christian world as the year 1,000AD approached. A lot of people thought this nice round number meant the end of the world. (We now know that Y2K was the apocalypse).
So for the first widespread knowledge of the year number, that might qualify.
The other option was the widespread Roman empire, which IIRC numbered their years from the alleged founding of the city, so probably everyone in the empire was aware of a specific year - which was a substantial portion of the Mediterranean civilized world.
How deeply either permeated to rural peasants, etc., who knows? But certainly anyone doing business or living in a city in the Roman empire probably knew, just as any clergy or others with a smattering of education knew the Anno Domini.
Rome used two different numbering systems in classical times. The official one (in the sense that it was used in government documents) was based on the two consuls. During the Republic, there were always two consuls as highest-ranking government officials, elected for a year, so the official calendar system refers to years as “during the consulate of X and Y”. This system is well documented, and we have consulate lists for pretty much every year, making the conversion into our calendar feasible. In fact, the prestige of the consuls was so high that the system was used even well into the Empire, when the consulate was more of a nominal nature and actual power was in the hands of the emperor, who did usually not hold the office of consul.
The other numbering system, which appeals more to us because it is more similar to what we are used, is the ab urbe condita system you refer to. It is based on the legendary founding of the city of Rome in 753 BC. This system was not official, however, and it is less “classical” than the consulate-based system, since it was introduced much later.
Ok, in 1422 Portugal was the last Western European nation to switch to Anno Domini . Russia in 1700 or so , but the rest of the world much later.
Now yes, many peasants etc would use the regnal year, Era of the Martyrs , Hijri year (still used), Jewish calendar (still used), Byzantine calendar, AUC, or what not. Thus, as a time traveler, if you asked them, their answer wouldnt help unless you knew what calendar they were using and how to convert.
So, as far as asking ‘the man in the fields’ and getting a correct answer in AD- pretty much not until the 1800s and still not even then in the Muslem world or in much of Asia, Africa or any non-“civilized” areas, say deep in the jungle.
I actually wouldn’t be surprised if most farmers new which year they were in, among civilized nations.
In Japan, the predominant method was to say that this year is the Xth year of the reign of Emperor Tarou. Which X it is might not matter too greatly to the average person, but they would care at least when the Emperor changes, since his style of governance will affect them and because there will probably be celebrations throughout the land.
But similarly to that, it’s likely that the Emperor’s birthday or the anniversary of the Emperor’s crowning would be a holiday in many locations. Even if the farmers don’t really care which year it is, they’d probably be happy enough for an excuse to celebrate something. And likely, part of the celebration would be the number of years that the celebration was about.
The farmer, when asked, might end up being a year or two off, because he’d be trying to remember what the magic number had been back months ago when they celebrated the Emperor and he’d probably just remember roughly what it had been. But asked soon before or after the yearly celebration, he’d probably be able to tell you exactly.
Numbering years in the form of “X years of the reign of Y” is pretty common through history, including the ancient Pharoahs and, I know, the ancient Jews. And while there may not be any explicit mention of the festivals and holidays of the ancient world, there’s no reason to think that humans aren’t human. The people want a festival and the emperor/pharoah/king/etc. will want to be celebrated. Between those, I think that it’s likely that anyplace with a organized, centralized government would have a populace who was aware of which year of who’s reign it was, to within a pretty close margin.
A similar question would be “when did people know what the day of the week it is?” Was the seven-day week common? Did everyone practice Sunday-off (or Sabbath) due to religious reasons? Or was each day like the day before?