Calendars of the Ancient Near East

Access ancient Jewish, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Roman calendars to better understand the Bible

The two primary parameters that shape human thinking, regardless of culture, antiquity, or language, are space and time…spacetime for the physicists among us. It is difficult to understand any communication without a common understanding of these parameters. Such simple phrases as “See you tomorrow” require both parties to have a similar understanding of “tomorrow”.

The Bible records over 4,000 of history, from the earliest human settlements from Mesopotamia to Arabia to the cosmopolitan Roman Empire. It thus covers dozens of cultures, nations, and tribes, each with their own understanding of space and time. The Quran doesn’t do this, and neither do the Vedas, the Tripitaka, or any Sutra. The Bible stands alone – no other book is like it.

However, the vastly different understandings of key concepts in Bible, such as space and time, make it tough to understand. Christians are baffled, and skeptics ridicule us and our Scriptures, calling both “incoherent” or worse. Moderns reading the Bible have to cross a gap of at least 2000 years, multiple languages, and many cultures. Further, the Bible is not written as typical modern history, although its historical accounts are reliable. It hits the highlights. As a result, readers tend to “telescope” events, believing that they occurred over days or weeks when in fact they happened over months or years.

We read about Moses’ law, David’s wars, and Elijah’s miracles, and think that Moses was legislating, David fighting, and Elijah working wonders all of the time. They weren’t. Each man was living life, including the slow, discouraging parts, just like we do. Nehemiah, for example, received the report of Jerusalem’s broken down walls in November but didn’t leave for Judah until the following spring. In the meantime, he prayed to ask God for guidance and prepared. Nehemiah’s trip from Susa to Jerusalem (over 900 miles) took up to two months by caravan. The walls of Jerusalem were begun in July and completed in early September. Ezra’s festivals followed soon after.

The calendars below, taken from, can help modern Bible readers understand when events occurred in Scripture. Please also see Timeline of Events in the Iron Age and Calendars, Cultures, and Politics.

Date in History

Date in History

Henry Ford may have believed that “history is bunk”, but most people at most places and most times have disagreed with him. History is a record of people, and peoples – who they were, what they did, and why. History tells stories of courage and cowardice, of selfishness and selflessness, and of victory and vanity. Descendants discover who they are, why they are, and what they should do, from their ancestors. As such, history is the record of the universe.

People who pride themselves in science, technology, engineering, and math often disparage history, forgetting that the historical record of discoveries past provides the foundation for discoveries present that will launch us into discoveries future. No one need repeat the experiments of Pasteur or the thinking of Einstein because we have the historical record of what they did.

Celebrating accomplishments of those who have gone before us is important, and fun. Children thrill to stories of David and Goliath, and teens wonder at the work of Galileo and the Wright brothers. Families can use history to provide examples, teach lessons, and build a sense of identity.

  1. On each day of the year, know what happened that day. Pick things that are important to your family and friends to celebrate.
  2. Learn more about the people and the event.
  3. Make the celebration real with food, music, costumes, related stories, and the symbols of the people involved (flags, coat of arms, etc.)
  4. When you can, travel to the places where these events occurred.

Learn about history, and enjoy it. Your life, and that of those you love, will improve as a result.

Useful Greek and Roman Quotations

Pithy Prose for Politicians, Preachers, Professors, Pundits, and Public Speakers.

Better be wise by the misfortunes of others than by your own.

In critical moments even the very powerful have need of the weakest.

It is thrifty to prepare today for the wants of tomorrow.

Aesop (620 BC – 560 BC)


Courage is of no value unless accompanied by justice; yet if all men became just, there would be no need for courage.

If all men were just, there would be no need for valor.

If I have done any deed worthy of remembrance, that deed will be my monument. If not, no monument can preserve my memory.

It is not the places that grace men, but men the places

It isn’t positions which lend distinction, but men who enhance positions.

Agesilaus the Second (443-359 BC, King of Sparta 401-360 BC)


Music is part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior

Who would give a law to lovers? Love is unto itself a higher law.

Music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, (A.D. 475-523?, Roman Statesman)


Familiarity breeds contempt, while rarity wins admiration. Apuleius (124 – 170)


Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.

Misfortune shows those who are not really friends.

Liars when they speak the truth are not believed.

Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime.

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)


A happy life consists in tranquility of mind.

Advice is judged by results, not by intentions.

Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.

Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)


Acquaintance lessens fame.

Here is a field open for talent; and here, merit will a have certain favor, and industry is graced with its due reward.

No one is free who does not lord over himself.

No one is more miserable than the person who wills everything and can do nothing.

Say not always what you know, but always know what you say.

To do no evil is good, to intend none better.

To do nothing evil is good; to wish nothing evil is better.

Claudius (10 BC-54 AD, Roman Caesar)


By desiring little, a poor man makes himself rich.

Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.

Happiness resides not in possessions and not in gold; happiness dwells in the soul.

Hope of ill gain is the beginning of loss.

If thou suffer injustice, console thyself; the true unhappiness is in doing it.

Now as of old the gods give men all good things, excepting only those that are baneful and injurious and useless. These, now as of old, are not gifts of the gods: men stumble into them themselves because of their own blindness and folly.

The wrongdoer is more unfortunate than the man wronged.

Democritus (460-370 BC Greek)


He who confers a favor should at once forget it, if he is not to show a sordid ungenerous spirit.

To remind a man of a kindness conferred and to talk of it, is very much like reproach.

Beware lest in your anxiety to avoid war you obtain a master.

Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.

Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.

A man is his own easiest dupe, for what he wishes to be true he generally believes to be true.

The readiest and surest way to get rid of censure, is to correct ourselves.

What we have in us of the image of God is the love of truth and justice.

Demosthenes (384 BC – 322 BC)


The laws of nature are but the mathematical thoughts of God. Euclid (325 BC-265 BC, Greek mathematician)


Short is the joy that guilty pleasure brings.

Do not consider painful what is good for you.

Waste not fresh tears over old griefs.

Your very silence shows you agree.

A bad beginning makes a bad ending.

Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.

Euripides (484 BC – 406 BC)


One good turn deserves another.

What power has law where only money rules.

You see a louse on someone else, but not a tick on yourself. —In alio pediculum, in te ricinum non vides

Gaius Petronius Arbiter (27-66 A.D, Emperor Nero’s advisor)


There is nothing more foolish than a foolish laugh. Risu inepto res ineptior nulla est

I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do so. I do not know, but I feel it, and am in agony.

It is difficult to suddenly give up a long love. Difficile est longum subito deponere amorem

Gaius Valerius Catullus (c.84 B.C. – c.54 B.C. Roman lyric poet)


A man’s character is his fate. Heraclitus (540 BC – 480 BC)


Force has no place where there is need of skill.

Great deeds are usually wrought at great risks.

Haste in every business brings failures.

Herodotus (484 BC – 430 BC, Greek historian & traveler)


What is food to one man is bitter poison to others.

Such evil deeds could religion prompt.

Nothing can be created from nothing.

What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.

The falling drops at last will wear the stone.

Lucretius (96 BC – 55 BC)


It is easier to do many things than to do one thing continuously for a long time.

Our minds are like our stomachs; they are whetted by the change of their food, and variety supplies both with fresh appetites.

The pretended admission of a fault on our part creates an excellent impression.

We excuse our sloth under the pretext of difficulty.

We must form our minds by reading deep rather than wide.

Marcus Fabius Quintilian (35 – 90) Roman orator


After I’m dead I’d rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.

An angry man opens his mouth and shuts his eyes.

Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternatives.

The best way to keep good acts in memory is to refresh them with new.

The first virtue is to restrain the tongue; he approaches nearest to the gods who knows how to be silent, even though he is in the right.

Marcus Porcius Cato (95-46 BC, Cato the Younger)


Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst. Marcus Valerius Martialis (40 – 103)


Wait for that wisest of all counselors, Time.

Fishes live in the sea, as men do on land: the great ones eat up the little ones.

For famous men have the whole earth as their memorial.

Trees, though they are cut and lopped, grow up again quickly, but if men are destroyed, it is not easy to get them again.

Pericles (490 BC – 429 BC)


To add insult to injury.

The mind ought sometimes to be diverted that it may return the better to thinking.

The humble suffer when the mighty disagree.

There is danger in both belief and unbelief.

Men in however high a station ought to fear the humble.

Aggression unchallenged is aggression unleashed.

It is destruction to the weak man to attempt to imitate the powerful.

Phaedrus (15 BC – 50 AD)


Mankind is poised midway between the gods and the beasts.

Knowledge, if it does not determine action, is dead to us.

Knowledge has three degrees-opinion, science, illumination. The means or instrument of the first is sense; of the second, dialectic; of the third, intuition.

Plotinus (204 or 205 C.E., Egyptian Philosopher)


Those who know how to win are much more numerous than those who know how to make proper use of their victories.

There is no witness so dreadful, no accuser so terrible as the conscience that dwells in the heart of every man.

Polybius (205 BC – 118 BC)


Faith is not sure, if you cannot turn love to quarrel; may my enemies obtain a mild mistress.

Let each man pass his days in that wherein his skill is greatest.

Let no one be willing to speak ill of the absent.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Afflicted by love’s madness all are blind.

Propertius Sextus (c. 50-16 B.C.), Roman elegist.


Man is the measure of all things.

There are two sides to every question.

Protagoras (485 BC – 421 BC)


Moderation in all things.

There is nothing so easy but that it becomes difficult when you do it reluctantly.

Publius Terentius Afer “Terence” (195-159 BC)


Another such victory over the Romans, and we are undone. Pyrrhus Molossian (c.318-272 B.C, King of Epirus)


It is better wither to be silent, or to say things of more value than silence.

Sooner throw a pearl at hazard than an idle or useless word; and do not say a little in many words, but a great deal in a few.

Pythagoras (582 BC – 507 BC)


Not even the gods fight against necessity.

Simonides (556 BC – 468 BC), from Plato, Dialogues, Protagoras


I grow old learning something new every day.

In giving advice seek to help, not to please, your friend.

Let no man be called happy before his death. Till then, he is not happy, only lucky.

No man is happy; he is at best fortunate.

Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath.

Rich people without wisdom and learning are but sheep with golden fleeces.

Society is well governed when its people obey the magistrates, and the magistrates obey the law.

Speech is the mirror of action.

Solon (636-558 BC, Greek Statesman)


Arguments about Scripture achieve nothing but a stomach ache and a headache.

He who lives only to benefit himself confers on the world a benefit when he dies.

Hope is patience with the lamp lit.

Nothing that is God’s is obtainable by money.

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

You can judge the quality of their faith from the way they behave. Discipline is an index to doctrine.

You cannot parcel out freedom in pieces because freedom is all or nothing.

Tertullian (160-240, Roman theologian)


Know thyself.

The past is certain, the future obscure.

A multitude of words is no proof of a prudent mind.

Thales (640 AD – 546 AD)


Justice is simply the advantage of the stronger.

Justice or right means nothing but what is to the interest of the stronger.


Thrasymachus (5th century B.C., Greek philosopher)

Men naturally despise those who court them, but respect those who do not give way to them.

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage. Wars spring from unseen and generally insignificant causes, the first outbreak being often but an explosion of anger.

The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.

The strong do what they have to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

It is frequently a misfortune to have very brilliant men in charge of affairs. They expect too much of ordinary men.

Be convinced that to be happy means to be free and that to be free means to be brave. Therefore do not take lightly the perils of war.

The secret of Happiness is Freedom, and the secret of Freedom, Courage.

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.

Men naturally despise those who court them, but respect those who do not give way to them.

Thucydides (born ca. 460-455 B.C. Greek Historian)


Criticism comes easier than craftsmanship. Zeuxis (464-400 BC)





Calendars, Cultures, and Politics

People follow calendars, but they also create and use them to advance their personal and political agendas.

In the absolute sense, time is dictated by the rhythms of nature as determined by the Creator. In the past it was viewed as the distance in history (as opposed to geography) between events. In that mindset, the idea of saving time was ludicrous. Time progressed at its own rate and rhythm and man could do nothing to change those realities. Ancients often wanted tasks to be quick and efficient just like moderns do, and for many of the same reasons, to maximize the duration of pleasant experiences and minimize that of unpleasant ones. However, in the ancient mind time was not like money, which could be stored. It had to be used.

Calendars are a way of dividing time into days, fortnights (14 days), and years. They are unnecessary in hunter-gatherer societies but are vital in agricultural societies. Calendars require reading, and in many ways form the foundation on which math is built. They allow man to track the weather, record planting dates, and schedule religious festivals. Calendars allow travelers to track long trips, and help coordinate the movements of merchants with their caravans and generals with their armies. This article is a brief summary of calendars in world history, and how people use them to reflect themselves.

The idea that time can be divided has endured from the beginning of humanity. The movement of sun and moon divide time into roughly equal segments. These segments are known as days, fortnights, and years. The idea that time is linear, not circular, makes counting years important. It was no longer adequate to welcome a new year; royal bureaucrats labeled them “the first year of King XXXX”, “the third year of King YYYY”, etc. The invention of the clock in Medieval Europe brought the idea that time could be divided not only by natural rhythms but by human ones.  Combined, these ideas give modern man his view of time.

Since nations must cooperate with each other in trade and other areas, all modern countries measure their days as 24 hours long and fortnights as 14 days long. Years are also more or less than same all over the globe. Other characteristics of measuring time, such as the names of months and years, the location of holidays on the calendar, and the identity of the first year, are highly political.

The Julian calendar was instituted by Julius Caesar in 46 BC to align dates for military and economic purposes in the Roman Republic (509-27 BC). Extending from modern Portugal to Syria and Belgium to Egypt, the Republic confronted a bewildering array of calendars, including the original Roman calendar, and Greek, Egyptian, and Persian ones. Astronomers and mathematicians had long known that a year was 365.25 days long, but only with this period of peace imposed by Roman arms (Pax Romana) did anyone have the power to align the disparate time systems. Though technically Caesar’s reforms applied only to the Roman calendar, within a century calendars in other provinces of the Empire aligned themselves with his. Since the previous Roman year was only 355 days, 46 BC had to be extended for several weeks to allow 45 BC to begin on 1 January. Having 12 months, 365 days and an additional day every three or four years, the Julian calendar became the standard in the Roman and later, Western world.

In 1582 the Gregorian Calendar, which made small improvements to its Julian ancestor, was adopted throughout the European world, which included the colonies in North and South America, India and the trading islands of the Pacific. Since the 16th century marked the beginning of European global domination, by the 20th century, every nation on earth used the Gregorian calendar, at least internationally. The Gregorian calendar remains the most common calendar worldwide.

The Islamic Calendar is a lunar or luni-solar calendar, not a solar one, and includes 12 months with 354 days. The first year is 621, the year Muhammad and his few followers escaped Mecca to Medina. It is used for religious purposes and to date certain events. The abbreviation is AH (Latin Anno Hegirae, “the year of the Hijra”). Authors writing about Islam, for example, will often use two dates in their work. The first surviving evidence of use of this calendar is AD 643/AH 22. Islamic calendars differ throughout the world, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia using slightly different versions.

Other calendars abound, largely for religious and political purposes. The Hebrew Calendar is a luni-solar calendar used predominantly for Jewish religious observances.  The French Revolutionary Clock and Calendar were used from 1793 to 1805. Its purposes were to convert France to a decimal system and remove all traces of religion and royalty from French life.  In the North Korean (Juche) Calendar the first year is 1912, the birth year of the “Eternal Ruler” Kim Il Sung. It officially replaced the Gregorian calendar in North Korea on 9 September 1997 (Juche 86). Day and month stay the same but the year is calculated by subtracting 1912 from the current year.

Russia retained the Julian Calendar (orthodox version) until 14 Feb 1918. After the communists took over in November of that year, they developed the Soviet Union Calendar and implemented it from 1929-1940. In keeping with Communist efforts at modernization and productivity, it implemented continuous 5 and 6 day work weeks, unlike the interrupted seven day week (Sundays off) in the Western World.

These are only a few of the many calendars that have been and are being used around the world. Calendars must be aligned to foster trade, communication and security within and between regions. However, they are also a reflection of the times and the people that implement them. Different peoples celebrate different holidays at different times. Even using a Gregorian calendar, New Years in the West is 1 January, but in Iran it is Nowruz (the first day of Spring), 19, 20, 21 or 22 March.

While no man can change time, every people has used its calendar to reflect its religion, politics, culture, and values. Having begun millennia ago, it is not likely to change now. While continuing to follow a standard to facilitate the activity of the modern world, we can enjoy the individuality of people groups, past and present, by looking at their calendar.

Historical Sites Destroyed

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Regardless of religion, nationality, culture, or theme, historical sites are a precious and irreplaceable legacy of man. They must be preserved.

History is the story of man, who we are and where we came from. More importantly it is the story of God’s work with and for man. As such every part of it is important, even parts that don’t please us or fit our world view. Not every historical location can be saved because man today needs space just as man yesterday did. However, we need to save as much as we can. Sometimes we ruin irreplaceable artefacts through ignorance. Worst of all is the intentional destruction of historical sites by those who disagree with what they represent.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is notorious for destroying irreplaceable historical sites in Iraq and Syria, especially Christian and Muslim. The Afghani Taliban has done the same in Afghanistan, notably the Buddhas of Bamiyan (March 2001). However, some sites are shattered by other powers, often in times of war. Allied bombing leveled the 6th century monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy in World War II (1944). American-led forces fighting ISIS have devastated Mesopotamian historical sites, and Russian bombing has done the same.[1]

Below is a list of historical sites that have been destroyed. We should discover what we have lost, repair what we can, and help prevent losing more in the future. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) tracks World Heritage sites, including those at risk.


History is the story of man, who we are and where we came from. More importantly it is the story of God’s work with and for man. As such every part of it is important, even parts that don’t please us or fit our world view. Not every historical location can be saved because man today needs space just as man yesterday did. However, we need to save as much as we can. Sometimes we ruin irreplaceable artefacts through ignorance. Worst of all is the intentional destruction of historical sites by those who disagree with what they represent.

Below is a list of historical sites that have been destroyed. We should discover what we have lost, repair what we can, and help prevent losing more in the future. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) tracks World Heritage sites, including those at risk.

Historical Sites Destroyed

Early American Medicine

This summer my family and I explored Fort Ligonier, an eighteenth century British fort in Western Pennsylvania, and the Bushy Run Battlefield, a historic site of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). My children opined about what it must have been like to live in those days. As we looked at the hospital buildings, however, my daughter said “the thing that I would miss the most is 21st century medicine. “

She is not alone. Some people attend Renaissance Fairs and pretend to live in Medieval Europe. Others reenact the Civil War or other major conflicts. No one that I have ever spoken to, however, wants to give up modern medicine. Not that modern medicine is perfect. Too often it is impersonal, profit driven, complicated and expensive. However, compared to much of existed before, it is miraculous. We would do well to remember that, and be thankful for it.

Early American Treatments

Much of European and American medicine in the 17th and 18th centuries was based partly on the idea that health required the removal of toxins from the body, and partly on teachings of the Greek physician and philosopher Galen. Practicing during the Antonine Plague, Galen refined the Hippocratic theories about imbalance of humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) causing disease. Because of the toxin theory, primary treatments of “heroic” physicians in the era focused on eliminating toxins. Patients would be bled with leeches or cutting veins open to remove blood toxins, blistered with rubbing and mustard plasters on the skin to eliminate skin toxins, and given ipecac (causing vomiting) or calomel (causing diarrhea) to purge the intestines. These treatments and other drugs often did more harm than good. Surgical interventions could be equally frightening; total dental extraction was a common treatment for arthritis until the early 20th century.

There were exceptions, as some drugs were effective. Quinine from cinchona bark treated malaria, digitalis from foxglove helped heart failure, colchicine helped gout, laudanum (opium) improved pain, and alcohol, which served as a solvent for most liquid medicines, made almost everything feel better.[1]

Nonetheless, with disease and death decimating every population, people were desperate for almost anything that they thought might help. The success of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was due in large part to the cooperation of the Native Americans they encountered. A big reason that these tribes helped the intrepid explorers was because Lewis and Clark tried to heal the Indians, as they would have called them. The two were as skilled as any physician of their day; one morning Clark saw four men, eight women and a child, giving liniment for painful joints and laudanum for hysteria.

More science was filtering into medicine. In the early 1800s Dr. Benjamin Dudley told his colleagues that their patients would do better if they boiled their surgical instruments. Dr. J Crawford wrote articles suggesting the mosquitos were the source of malaria and yellow fever.[2]

Native American Medicine

Indian healers or “medicine men” used a variety of local herbs to combat illness. Sweat lodges were used for lung disease, skin disorders, and rheumatism.[3] They emphasized fluids, nutrition and rest, and avoided some of the “heroic” treatments of the white man. Native Americans used willow bark, now known to contain salicylates similar to modern aspirin, to treat pain and fever. Medicine men were skilled at reducing broken bones. Further, medicine and religion were intertwined so their rituals often aided in the healing process. As a result of these practices, patients under of the care of Native American healers sometimes did better than those under European care.

Diphtheria became a greater problem as populations grew, and it would often kill by suffocation because an inflammatory membrane blocked the patient’s airway. A medicine man would force a sinew covered in sandburs and buffalo fat down the throat of a diphtheria patient. The melting fat would adhere to the inflammatory membrane and the healer would pull it out.[4]

Explorers, soldiers and pioneers typically lived on hard bread, salted beef, whiskey and coffee. Indians ate more leafy vegetables and the viscera (organs) of animals. These often contained high levels of vitamin C and so the natives were less likely to get scurvy.

Native Americans suffered terribly, however, from Old World infectious diseases. Lacking centuries of acquired immunity, whole Indian villages perished from smallpox, measles, and influenza. White mortality from smallpox was less than 30%, and mortality from measles and flu was far less. Alcohol was another scourge that afflicted Native Americans in their encounters with European settlers.

The Medical Marketplace in the 18th Century

The medical profession in the 21st century includes a bewildering variety of practitioners, from allopath (Doctor of Medicine, MD) and osteopath (Doctor of Osteopathy, DO) to physician’s assistants (PA), midwives, and nurse practitioners (NP). Modern medicine also has homeopaths, chiropractors, and others. Most of medicine, however, is highly regulated and practitioners need to meet high academic standards and undergo rigorous training for their credentials.

The medical marketplace was no less varied, albeit far less regulated, in 18th and 19th century America. Allopaths practiced “heroic medicine” such as bleeding patients, blistering them, or giving the purges such as “thunderclappers” to clean their bowels. Under the theory that “like treats like” and “small doses cure”, homeopaths provided tiny doses of herbs and other chemicals in the hope of cure. Herbalists used larger doses of botanicals to heal. Inoculators specialized in giving inoculations and vaccines, and midwives delivered babies, especially in the West. Much of this specialization was a product of advertising. Indian healers advertised natural, Indian remedies. Bone setters and “cancer specialists” proclaimed their skills in local newspapers.[5]

There was notable overlap between the groups. For example, all used plant products to try to heal. Effective medicines at the time including colchicine (gout), digitalis (CHF), quinine (malaria), and laudinum (pain). Many drugs were dissolved in alcohol and made into elixirs, making the patients feel better if not actually doing them any good.

Medical care was expensive and not widely available on the frontier. When a doctor (of whatever type) arrived in town, the success or failure of his first case would mark him as competent or not. In the 19th century, both before and after the Civil War, towns sprang up at rivers, railroad junctions, mining locations, forts, and many other places. If a doctor was not successful in one area he could just move on to the next. Some physicians would “circuit ride” with ministers, providing medical services while the other provided spiritual services.

Physician training was through a medical college or apprenticeship, but some “physicians” simply bought their degrees through a “diploma mill”.

Medical Care in the Civil War

At the start of the war, medical providers, as well as everything else, were in short supply on both sides. They needed to rapidly expand their medical staffs and sometimes took on physicians with specious credentials. In time, however, the demands of combat casualty care weeded these men out. The medical departments, Union and Confederate, became highly professional. By this time, almost all physicians had stopped bleeding their patients.[6]

In a battle, the assistant surgeon would trail about 100 yards behind the forward line of troops, followed by personnel of the infirmary corps to evacuate the wounded. Triage developed similarly on both sides. Morning sick call was done by regimental surgeons. The minimally injured were returned to duty immediately while the moderately injured were treated immediately. Soldiers who were severely injured after a battle were given laudanum and were placed under a tree to die. The few who managed to rally, defying the expectations of the triage staff, would receive care after the other soldiers. Wounds that penetrated the abdominal cavity were almost always fatal. Chaplains were assigned to each field hospital, and they served to comfort the sick and dying and mediate disputes between Union and Confederates soldiers.

Chloroform was the primary means of anesthesia, sometimes augmented by whiskey. Since the Minie ball did far more tissue damage than a traditional spherical musket ball, wounds were more serious. Men hit in the torso usually died, but those with extremity wounds could survive. Amputations were common. Germ theory would not be widely known or accepted for at least another decade, and Joseph Lister’s revolutionary surgical sterilization with carbolic acid also lay in the future, so infections were common. For head injuries, trephination was done at site of skull fracture if possible, or over parietal bone when not. Overall, 90% of combat injuries were from the Minnie ball, 80% of the wounds were on the extremities, 70% of soldiers with amputation survived, and 46% of soldiers undergoing trephination survived. Enlisted and junior officers with amputations would be discharged. Higher ranking officers (those on horseback) could remain on active duty.

During the battle of Gettysburg, the Confederates had a field hospital at the Daniel Lady farm. After the battle there were 8000-9000 wounded confederates and 1300 wagons. A torrential storm hit on July 4, slowing the withdrawal but also slowing the Union pursuit. The Confederate wounded were in a wagon train 17 miles long under the command of General Boden. At Green Castle Union civilians attacked the wagon train. Later Union cavalry attacked and captured 100 wagons. Finally the retreating Confederates had to wait five days to cross the swollen Potomac River. Lesser wounded men walked 45 miles to a hospital in Winchester.

As deadly as combat was, disease and non-battle injuries killed more soldiers on both sides. During the Civil War, 53 of every thousand soldiers died from disease. This is 2-3 times as many as died from battle related injuries. Unfortunately medical treatment was poor. Diseases such as malaria could be successfully treated with quinine, but most infectious diseases could not. Having little to offer, physicians might use “blue mass”, a combination of mercury and flour that was made into pills and used for many diseases.

Suppositories could be made with hog fat to ensure that it would melt when in the rectum. Beeswax was used for making medications as well. Mercury, unfortunately, is a toxin and “blue mass” probably hurt more than it helped. Blue mass and other chemicals also found their way into pills. The druggist would combine the active ingredient with the pill base, such as flour. He would then roll a small amount of the mass on a pill rolling board, forming a long strand that he would then cut into individual pills. Once the mass had dried, the pill was ready to give to the patient.

Civil War medicine boasted some vivid personalities. Brigadier General William A. Hammond, an early Surgeon General of the Union Army, tried to prohibit the medical use of mercury compound such as blue mass and calomel. He immediately faced a storm of resistance, was court martialed, and was discharged. Jonathan Letterman was General George B. McClelland’s chief medical officer. He devised an ingenious medical evacuation and ambulance system at Antietam. Letterman hospital was opened in California only five months after Gettysburg. Dr. Hunter McGuire was the chief physician and surgeon of Confederacy. Sally Tompkins, a nurse, was the only woman commissioned in Confederate army. She was given the rank of captain.


After Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine against smallpox in 1796, vaccines became an important part of medical practice. This is not to say that immunizations were immediately accepted, much to the contrary, but medicine finally had a powerful weapon against infectious disease. Missionaries took the smallpox vaccine to inoculate Native Americans as part of their ministry. When the Gros Ventres Indians on the Milk River in Montana contracted smallpox in 1869, the US Government provided sent in blankets, supplies and medicine.[7]

Sex-related issues

Babies were generally born at home under the care of female relatives and a local midwife. Complications were rare, but fetal and maternal mortality were much higher than today, especially on the frontier. Women were expected to deliver, put the baby to breast, and then get back to work. This may have been harsh for some, but such practice had the advantages of getting the mother up and avoiding both pneumonia and blood clots associated with bed rest.

Gonorrhea and syphilis were ubiquitous in the 19th century. Indian women, soldiers, explorers, miners and prostitutes traded venereal diseases among themselves incessantly and there was no effective treatment. Gonorrhea usually showed symptoms in men but not in women, who could easily become sterile from pelvic inflammatory disease. Syphilis caused symptoms in both sexes, and often led to heart disease, or neurosyphilis and insanity. Mercury compounds were used to treat chancres and other external manifestations of syphilis, but could not affect the course of the disease. No one knows whether Meriwether Lewis died of suicide or homicide when he perished in 1809, but many historians think that neurosyphilis played a role.

Unwanted pregnancies occurred as well. Abortion was practiced within both Native American and White communities, but delivering the child to other family members or to an orphanage was a common alternative.


People sometimes bemoan the weaknesses of modern medicine, failing to remember what came before. While we work to improve technology, as well as compassion, in present day healing, it is always useful to look back and see how far we have come. It is also useful to recognize the heroism as well as the frailties, and the acceptance as well as the bigotries, of those who have gone before us. We can only hope that our descendants do the same for us.

[1] Volney Stelle, Bleed, Blister and Purge, pp6-7

[2] Volney Stelle, Bleed, Blister and Purge, pp4-5

[3] Volney Steele, p19

[4] Volney Steele, p 20

[5] Steele, p5-6

[6] Volney Steele, p 8

[7] Steele, 39

The Year in Disaster and Emergency History

16 Jan – In the Marcellus Flood, also known as the Grote Mandrenke (“great drowning”), up to 100,000 people died across the British Isles, the Netherlands, northern Germany, and Denmark (1362).

17 Jan – Kobe, Japan was demolished by a 7.2 (Richter scale) magnitude earthquake, resulting in almost 7000 deaths and 300,000 people left homeless (1996).

28 Jan – An O-ring on the Space Shuttle Challenger leaked during lift off, sending sparks towards the main liquid fuel tank and causing a massive explosion after 73 seconds that destroyed the vehicle. The seven person crew survived, until the cockpit impacted the Atlantic Ocean after falling 10.5 miles from space (1986).

30 Jan – In the worst maritime disaster in history, the German passenger liner Wilhelm Gustloff carrying over 10,000 refuges was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea. 1236 people survived (1945).

31 Jan – A major North Sea storm raised water levels to 16 feet above normal, breaching dikes in Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium. Over 600,000 acres of farmland, 200,000 farm animals, and 2,000 people were destroyed (1953).

1 Feb – The Columbia Space Shuttle, having been damaged when some insulation penetrated the outer shell of the left wing on lift off (16 Jan), burned up on re-entry, immolating the seven astronauts on board (2003).

2 Feb – One of the greatest winter storms in history, the Groundhog Day gale hit the north Atlantic coast of the US and Canada (1976).

15 Feb – A devastating hurricane struck Hamburg, pushing record amounts of water up the Elbe River, breeching dikes and flooding large sections of the city. 340 Germans died (1962).

26 Feb – In the Buffalo Creek Flood, a dam holding coal slurry from the Pittston Coal Company burst, spilling 132,000,000 gallons of black waste water on to 16 villages, killing 125 and injuring 1100 (1972).

6 Mar – The roll-on roll-off ferry Herald of Free Enterprise, while traveling from Zeebrugge to Dover, hit a sand bar. Her cargo doors had inexplicably not been closed and so she filled with water, capsized and filled with water within minutes. The ferry held 459 passengers and 80 crew, but despite the fact that all of this happened in only 30 feet of water at the mouth of the harbor and rescue boats were nearby, 193 people still perished (1987).

10 Mar – 1099 miners in Northern France died as a result of a dust explosion in the Courrières mine disaster, the worst in European history (1906).

11 Mar – Islamic terrorists in Madrid bombed four commuter trains, killing 191 people and injuring over 2000 (2004).

11 Mar – A 9.0 magnitude earthquake off the north eastern coast of Japan caused a tsunami which inundated 433,000 square kilometers of land, killed over 11,000 people and caused serious damage to the nuclear reactors at Fukushima, which caused an atmospheric radiation release (2011).

16 Mar – The oil tanker Amoco cadiz lost rudder control and then hit a rock off the coast of France, spilling 230,000 tons of oil (1978).

18 Mar – The oil tanker Torry Canyon hit a reef off the coast of England, spilling 120,000 tons of oil into the Atlantic ocean (1967).

20 Mar – Members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo attacked the subway system in Tokyo sarin gas, a potent nerve agent, which killed 12 and sickened over 3,000 (1995).

24 Mar – A tractor-trailer caught fire in the Mount Blanc Tunnel between France and Italy, starting an inferno in the tunnel that claimed other vehicles and killed 29 people (1999).

27 Mar – A Boeing 747 operated by KLM and a jumbo jet operated by Pan Am collided on the ground on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, causing both planes to erupt in a fireball from which only 61/643 survived (1977).

3 Apr – In an event known as the Super Outbreak, 148 tornadoes hit Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, the entire Midwest, and New York, the South and Canada within 18 hours, leaving over 300 dead and causing over $3.5 billion in damages (1974).

14 Apr – The RMS Titanic, part of JP Morgan’s White Star Line and one of the most fabled ships in history, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank, taking 1522 passengers to the bottom (1912).

18 Apr – An earthquake of 8.25 magnitude on the Richter scale hit San Francisco, followed by a four-day fire, which destroyed 25,000 buildings and killed 3,000 people (1906).

26 Apr – The worst mining accident in history occurred in Benxi, China, when coal dust exploded, trapping miners. The Japanese Army sealed the mine without allowing evacuation, and 1549 perished (1942).

26 Apr – During a routine test, the Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, experienced a core meltdown, exploded, and released large amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere (1986).

1 May – A dust explosion in the winter quarters of Scofield Mine in Utah killed over 200 miners, one of the worst mining accidents in US history (1900).

3 May – An earthquake, estimated at 7.1 on the surface magnitude scale, killed over 30,000 on the island of Rhodes, off the southwestern coast of modern Turkey (1481).

6 May – The German zeppelin the Hindenburg burst into flame as it was landing after a flight from Frankfurt Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey. 62 of 97 passengers escaped (1937).

7 May – The RMS Lusitania, a British passenger liner which also carried a cargo of war materials, was hit by a torpedo from a German U-boat and sank in 18 minutes, taking 1200 people to the bottom of the Atlantic (1915).

17 May – British bombers attacked dams in the Ruhr Valley, destroying the Mohne and Eder Dams and releasing five billion cubic feet of water. 2,000 people, including over 700 from Eastern Europe in a forced labor camp, were killed (1943).

29 May – A tractor trailer crashed into a line of vehicles in the Tauern Tunnel in Austria, setting off a chain reaction which killed 12 (1999).

3 Jun – A high-speed Inter City Express (ICE) train with a faulty wheel hit a bridge piling near Eschede, Lower Saxony, in what was the greatest rail disaster in German history. 101 people were killed (1998).

15 Jun – Carrying 1300 passengers from the local German community in New York City, the paddle steamer General Slocum, named after a Union general, caught fire as it traveled up the East River. Paint which had been applied only a few days before ignited, covering the ship in flames, and preventing the lifeboats from being lowered. 1,021 people died (1904).

17 Jun – In Britain’s worst maritime disaster, German Luftwaffe aircraft attacked and sunk the RMS Lancastria, killing over 3,000, near Saint Nazaire, France (1940).

7 Jul – Muslim terrorists attacked the London subway and a double decker bus with bombs during rush hour, killing 56 and injuring over 700 (2005).

25 Jul – The Concorde, one of the world’s only supersonic passenger jets (with the Tupolev Tu-144LL), ran over a piece of titanium left on the runway by an earlier departing flight, which blew its tire and started a series of fires. Ultimately the Concorde crashed into a hotel, killing nine crew, 100 passengers, and four onlookers (2000).

28 Jul – In heavy fog, a B-25 accidentally flew into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building in New York City. The three man crew and 14 people on the ground died and 26 were injured (1945).

28 Jul – At least 250,000 people died when an 8.2 magnitude earthquake hit the Chinese city of Tangshan (1976).

6 and 8 Aug – Approximately 80,000 people in Hiroshima and 50,000 people in Nagasaki were killed in the only atomic weapon attacks in history (1945).

12 Aug – A torpedo failed to fire and then exploded in the forward section of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk during routine exercises, causing it to sink and killing all but 23 of 118 crew members. The survivors died within four hours (2000).

Aug – 195,000 acres of wildlands in Galicia, Spain were consumed by more than 2,000 forest fires, as much as 80% started by arson (2006).

22, 26, 27 Aug – Volcanic eruptions on the island of Krakatoa (near Indonesia) blasted 4 cubic miles of ash and rock up to 50 miles into the atmosphere and releasing the energy 10-100,000 Hiroshima-power atomic bombs (1883).

24 Aug – Mount Vesuvius erupted outside the Roman city of Pompeii, burying the city and the region in ash and killing an estimated 17,000 people (79).

11 Sep – 19 Muslim terrorists hijacked four US airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon, killing 3,056 people. The fourth airliner was probably intended to hit the White House but passengers fought back and the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania (2001).

21 Sep – The German ship sailing ship Pamir, a trainer for the merchant marine, was delivering 4,000 tons of barley from Argentina to Germany when she encountered a hurricane, capsized and sank. Eighty crewmen perished, including many cadets (1957).

28 Sep – The automobile and passenger roll-on roll-off ferry Estonia, traveling from Talinin to Stockholm, sank in the frigid Baltic Sea after her forward doors broke in rough seas, killing 852 on board (1994).

4 Oct – A cargo laden Boeing 747-200 flown by the Israeli El Al Airlines crashed into an apartment complex in Amsterdam’s Bulmermeer district shortly after takeoff. The three man crew, one passenger and 39 residents in the buildings died (1992).

9 Oct – A landslide on Monte di Toc into the Vajont reservoir sent a massive surge of water over the top of the Vajont Dam, flooding the nearby villages of Erto, Casso, and Longarone in the Piave Valley and killing over 2,000 (1963).

13 Oct – A Uruguayan Air Force plane crashed in the Andes Mountains while carrying a rugby team to a match in Chile. 33/45 passengers survived the crash, but by the time they were rescued 72 days later, only 16 people still lived, many having eaten their dead companions to stay alive (1972).

24 Oct – A wastewater lagoon in Germany breeched its dikes, pouring 121 million gallons of watery muck into nearby iron mines and trapping fifty of 129 miners. Over the next two weeks, in a series of dramatic rescues, 21 more were rescued (1963).

24 Oct – Two tractor trailers collided head-on in the Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland, killing 11 people (2001).

1 Nov – On All Saints Day, an earthquake later estimated at 9 on the Richter scale devastated the wealthy and modern city of Lisbon, killing more than 60,000 of the 275,000 inhabitants. The severity of the chaos prompted what may be the first modern recovery and reconstruction plan, and helped future generations consider how to prepare for and respond to natural disasters (1755).

1 Nov – A chemical plant owned by the Sandoz company in Basal, Switzerland caught fire, and the water used to fight the fire was contaminated with toxic chemicals from the plant, contaminated the local drinking water supply and the Rhine River (1986).

24 Nov – A powerful snowstorm, known as the “Storm of the Century”, struck the northeastern US with subzero temperatures and winds over 100 mph. 353 people died as a result (1950).

25 Nov – Suffering from the single greatest number of November tornados in US history, 27 powerful tornados struck the Midwest on Thanksgiving Day, killing 76 and wounding 400 (1926).

28 Nov – A fire inexplicably started in the fashionable Boston nightclub, the Coconut Grove, rapidly growing into an inferno and killing 492 people of the over 1000 people in the overcrowded club (1942).

1 Dec – The Great Fire of Brisbane, Australia, destroyed 50-100 structures but caused no deaths (1864).

3 Dec – A Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked methyl isocyanate, killing 3800 immediately, 6000 within days, and injuring 150,000 more (1984).

5 Dec – Unusual climactic conditions including a cold fog cause air pollution to be concentrated close to the ground in London, causing “The Great Smog” and killing up to 12,000 people in subsequent months (1952).

7 Dec – “The Great Storm” leveled thousands of buildings and sank 700 ships in Southern England (1703).

7 Dec – The Spitak Earthquake in northwestern Armenia killed over 25,000 and injured hundreds of thousands more (1988).

21 Dec – Pan Am flight 103 disintegrated after a bomb planted by Islamic terrorists exploded in its luggage compartment, killing 259 passengers and 11 people on the ground (1988).

26 Dec – A 9.0 earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered a tsunami which hit coastal regions of Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and East Africa, killing over 230,000 people (2004).

28 Dec – A hurricane destroyed the central bridge of the recently constructed bridge at the Firth of Tay, Scotland, plunging a six car mail train into the depths and leaving no survivors (1879).

30 Dec – In the deadliest theater fire in American history, at least 602 of an estimated 2200 patrons perished in the Iroquois Theater in Chicago when an arc light shorted and ignited a muslin curtain, rapidly expanding into an inferno (1903).

Useful Latin Sayings

Ab ovo – from an egg

Ad alta – To the summit

Ad astra – To the stars

Ad libitum – at liberty, at one’s pleasure

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – To the greater glory of God – motto of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits)

Alcuns volon ligar – Some desire to read

Alea iacta est – The die has been cast. (Caesar as he was crossing the Rubicon River)

Altiora te ne quaesieris – Seek not things above you.

Ars longa, vita brevis. – The work (art) is long, the life is short. Hippocrates

Aut vincere aut mori – Either to conquer or to die

Bis vincit qui se vincit in victoria – He conquers twice who conquers himself in victory (Publius Syrus)

Bis vivit qui bene vivit – S/he lives twice who lives well

Botulus – sausage

Candor dat viribus alas – Sincerity gives wings to strength

Carpe Diem! Seize the day (Horace)

Caveat emptor – Let the buyer beware

Caveat lector – Let the reader beware

Caveat venditor – Let the seller beware

Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei – The heavens declare the glory of God

Cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore, I am (Rene Descartes)

Conlige suspectos semper habitos – Round up the usual suspects

De omnibus dubitandum – Doubt everything – Karl Marx

Deo Vindice – Under God, our vindicator. (Motto of the Confederate States of America)

Dimidium facti qui coepit habet – He who has begun has the work half done (Horace)

Divide et impera – Divide and rule

Dona Nobis Pacem – Grant us peace

Dum spiro, spero – While I breathe, I hope (a motto of South Carolina)

Dum vita est spes est – While there’s life, there’s hope

E Pluribus Unum – One from many

Ex cathedra – With authority

Ex opera operato – Done in the doing (example – the act of taking the Eucharist confers salvation on the recipient, regardless of the state of his or her heart).

Faber est quisque fortunae suae – Every man is architect of his own fortune

Hoc est enim corpus meum – For this is my body

In necessariis unitas, in non-necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas. In necessary things unity, in non-necessary things liberty, in all things, charity. Rupertus Meldenius, 1627 A.D.

Ipsa scientia potestas est – Knowledge itself is power.

Ipsissima verba – very words

Ipso facto – by that very fact or act

Jus gentium – law of nations

Jus sanguinous – right of blood, usually used regarding citizenship in which citizenship is not conferred by place of birth but by blood relations to citizen parents.

Lex orandi, lex credenda – What you pray is what you believe.

Meum pactum dictum – My word is my bond

Modus operandi – Method of work

Multi famam, conscientiam pauci verentur – Many fear their reputation, few their conscience. (Pliny)

Nemo me impune lacessit – No one provokes me with impunity. (Motto of the kings of Scotland)

Nil desperandum – Never despair

Non ministrari, sed ministrare – Not to be served, but to serve

Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomine Tu o da gloriam – Not unto us, Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.

Nulli secundus /nulli secunda – Second to none

Optimum est pati quod emendare non possis – It is best to endure what you cannot change. -Seneca, Moral Epistles

Per aspera ad astra! Through difficulties to the stars!

Perfer et obdura; dolor hic tibi proderit olim – Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.

Possunt quia posse videntur – They can because they seem to be able to (they can do it because they think they can do it)

Prima facie – “first face”, based on the first impression, accepted as correct until proved otherwise

Primum non nocere – First do no harm

Quemadmoeum gladis nemeinum occidit, occidentis telum est – A sword is never a killer, it’s a tool in the killer’s hands (Lucius Annaeus Seneca “the younger” ca. (4 BC – 65 AD)

Qui audet adipiscitur – S/he who dares wins (or: s/he who wins dares)

Qui tacet consentit – He who is silent agrees.

Quod potui feci; veniam da mihi, posteritas – What I could have done, me you will (please forgive), posterity – The epitaph of Leonardo da Vinci

Quod scripsi, scripsi – What I have written, I have written—Pilate

Res ipsa loquitur – the thing speaks for itself

Sedit qui timuit ne non succederet – He who feared he would not succeed sat still. Horace.

Semper Fidelis – Always Faithful (Motto of the US Marine Corps)

Si vis amari, ama – If you want to be loved, love. Seneca the Elder, This Latin phrase comes from Epistularum Moralium Ad Lucilium, Book 1, IX.

Si vis pacem, para bellum – If you wish for peace, prepare for war.(Flavius Vegetius Renatus c. 375 AD.)

Sic transit gloria mundi – Thus passes the glory of the world

Sine labore nihil – Nothing without work

Sine qua non – Without which no…

Soli Deo Gloria – To God Alone the Glory

Soteer, dominus, et deus – Savior, Lord and God

Studium discendi voluntate quae cogi non potest constat – Study depends on the good will of the student, a quality which cannot be secured by compulsion. (Quintilian Institutio Oratoria, iii)

Tempus edax rerums – Time devours all things (quote from Roman poet Ovid)

Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito – Yield not to misfortunes, but advance all the more boldly against them

Una salus victis nullam sperare salutem -The one safety for the vanquished is to abandon hope of safety

Veni, vidi, deus vicit – I came, I saw and God has won (Polish king Jan Sobieski after defeating Turkish army on the outskirts of Vienna in XVI century)

Veni, Vidi, Dormivi – I came, I saw, I slept

Veni, vidi, vici – I came, I saw, I conquered. (Caesar)

Veritas vos liberabit – The truth shall make you free

Viam aut inveniam aut faciam – “I will either find a way or make one.” Hannibal’s response to his generals telling him that it was impossible for elephants to cross the Alps.

Vincere morbo – Conquer disease!

Vincit omnia veritas – The truth conquers all

Vincit qui se vincit – He conquers who conquers himself.