Curious about the HistioGraph? While HistioGraph aims to be authoritative and reliable, it is flawed. The following essay explores some of the issues informing the development of HistioGraph, exposing its weaknesses, then asking for your forgiveness.




The HistioGraph is the latest in a long tradition of history timeline charts that have sought to visually represent human development over time. The development of the history timeline chart moved from genealogy and chronology charts in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and by the eighteenth century, bears a form familiar to those in publication today. The Chart of Universal World History, published in 1753, and Joseph Priestly’s, A New Chart of History, published in 1769, established the basic format of many popular history timeline charts that were to follow.

The great contribution of the world history timeline chart is that it provides a concise perspective of world history. In using the powerful visual medium, it can help us understand the complex narrative of human development.

In its review of the Histomap, one of the more prominent history timeline charts of the 20th century, the (then) New York Tribune observed (c.1930s), ‘it gives one a fresh realisation of the very recent insignificant contribution of those we are accustomed to call the great powers.’

Like its predecessors, the HistioGraph celebrates the volatility of power. It tempers hubris and nationalist pride. This may seem counter-intuitive considering HistioGraph uses national comparisons as the basis of its narrative. But readers will appreciate the true source of power, influence and legacy is not through the ascendance of one nation over another, but in the expression and mutual exchange of ideas that enrich the human condition.

HistioGraph illustrates how the pride we draw from our achievements of today were made possible from standing on the shoulders of giants that came before, and that those giants were scattered across many places, across the ages. In that sense, HistioGraph tells a story about of all of us, regardless of where we were born or where we happen to live.

The HistioGraph also provides a tantalising insight into the future. In learning from the past, we can be certain that the balance of global power and influence will be very different in the 21st century and beyond, compared to today or at any time in the past. Perhaps in the future the very notion of power vesting in nation states will become increasingly irrelevant, as new and other forms and forums of power, influence and legacy will assume centre stage.

Of course history is not what happened in the past, but rather our record and understanding about what happened in the past. The arrangement of this history timeline chart reflects judgements – judgements about the divisions of world history, its apportion into nations, peoples and cultures, their span over time, their confluence with each other, and their relative prominence and influence. These judgements are of course subjective, and flawed.

The aim of HistioGraph is to provide a means to help understand history. If the reader gains a clearer perspective or insight into history or if HistioGraph merely provides a tool for the better enjoyment of history, then its aims will be achieved.

Ashley Admiraal, Melbourne, Australia, 2011

Tracing three and a half thousand years

The year 1500BCE was chosen as the starting point of HistioGraph to provide background context to the development of humanity in the lead up to the Iron Age. This is not to diminish the importance of history before then, but the further back we go, the more tenuous the link to today. Perhaps future versions of HistioGraph will extend time further back.

From about 1200 BCE, West Asia transitions slowly into the Iron Age. This commences a period that shapes the human world of ideas and institutions into a form traceable and recognisable to us today. It brings the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa into an arrangement of contiguous economic and social exchange.

HistioGraph concludes in the present day with 21 nation states. This includes the states forming the G-20 forum or Group of Twenty major economies (the 20th being the European Union), and with the addition of Spain and Iran.

The decision of which nations to conclude with was a difficult one. The G-20 itself has been subject to criticism that it is self-appointed and lacks legitimacy. However, as of today, it is the premier forum for international cooperation and boasts an economic weight and representation that gives it legitimacy. Attaining membership of the G-20, especially for secondary powers, has been subject of negotiation between members states, with the result that membership includes not just the largest economies and nations, but also nations with strategic influence and regional representation.

Spain and Iran were added at the discretion of the author as reflective of their weight and standing in sections of the international community.

Rivers of time

History can be viewed from a number of perspectives: Sociological, cultural, economic, diplomatic or religious perspectives, and others, all form part of the mosaic of historical interpretation.

HistioGraph explores some of these ideas, but does so largely from the perspective of public administration as manifest in the form of nation states. These nation states comprise tidy packages, a prism through which history can be conveyed and understood, offering structure in a form that is instantly recognisable, and of course lending itself well to the graphical form.

Of course not all the ‘rivers of time’ that comprise HistioGraph are nation states. A nation or state implies a unity of public administration. This is not always convenient.

India for example has been through most of its history a collection of many nation states, but is represented in HistioGraph as a single entity. The East and West Steppe are geographical regions that have played host to many nations and peoples over time. Likewise the region of Middle or ‘Meso’ America and the area around the upper Andes mountain range – the Andean region. In some instances, HistioGraph makes reference to peoples, rather than nation states or regions, the Aramaeans for example. The early Franks may be regarded more as a people rather than a nation, a collection of nations perhaps. The Greeks and Phoenicians were collections of city-states, rather than a single nation.

Development of HistioGraph

HistioGraph’s development began from first principles, settling on a vertical page with rivers of time of unfixed width, along a non-linear time grid. Its development drew from authoritative and mainly tertiary sources.

Individual rivers were researched independently, identifying appropriate start and end points (if applicable), as well as relative high and low points of development.

The text in HistioGraph attempts to capture the times, focusing on only the most important events, but mainly offering a general narrative of the trends and influences of the day. It does not contain endless lists of names and wars. It attempts rather, to evoke a sense of what was important or representative of that particular time.

In developing HistioGraph, the most difficult editorial decisions involved three key issues, namely the inclusion or exclusion of peoples and nations, the appropriate width or weight to assign each river, and finally their spatial distribution and arrangement. The final element in the development of HistioGraph involved the use of colours to express relationships.

Inclusion and exclusion

The first issue was the most difficult. Why are the Kushites of Meroe excluded, but the kingdom of Aksum included? What of the indigenous peoples of North America? Successive kingdoms of Korea? The Celts? Why is India included as one nation, when it might more appropriately be represented as distinct nations as Europe is? These are difficult questions to answer and were the cause of lengthy deliberation by the author, usually over a long walk.

HistioGraph is not a comprehensive account of world history. Its space and scope is limited. Determinations had to be made, and were based on three guiding criteria: Power, influence and legacy. Inclusion or exclusion in HistioGraph does not imply a judgement of value or worth, but is rather a reflection of the authors understanding of the level of bearing against these three guiding measures.

Power has traditionally been assigned as a function of geographical range, population base, and military and economic capacity. Influence and legacy are more qualitative concepts, exerting affect on their neighbours and contemporaries, and the descendants and inheritors of their traditions. The ancient Greeks, Israelites, the Spring and Autumn period in China, the early Arab empire, Italy during the Renaissance, the United States of the 20th century, to name a few, all left an enduring legacy that in different ways helped influence the lives of all of us today. Accordingly, they and others are given a prominence that exceeds the traditional measures of power.

River width

The same criteria of power, influence and legacy, are also applied to inform the second key editorial issue, that of the relative widths of the rivers of time. Typically a nation commences, grows, peaks, then declines and eventually falls. Other times a river may undergo a number of expansions and contractions reflective of relative fluctuations in power and influence over time.

The reader should be careful not to interpret too literally the assigning of widths. This is perhaps the most inexact of HistioGraph’s charms. While a wider river implies a greater relative dominance or capacity over another, such comparisons can be misleading and should be used as a guide only.

Comparing China to Spain for example is fraught with value judgement that is beyond the scope of HistioGraph to convey. The relative widths of Canada, South Africa, Spain and others, at present day are represented with the same width, but these are clearly very different nations, on separate continents, and with qualitative differences in relative power, influence and legacy.

The most appropriate way to interpret width is within the river itself. China offers the best example, where changes in width are intended to convey periods of strength, unity and culture, against periods of upheaval, weakness and stagnation. Even here the HistioGraph approach is rather coarse, having assigned widths typically only in one hundred year blocks.

HistioGraph is neither detailed nor subtle.

In most cases, a minimum width is assigned to a river for design necessity. Australia and Argentina are clearly nations of lesser global reach than some of their contemporaries, but are nonetheless assigned a wide prominence – just enough to fit the words in.

Arrangement of the rivers of time

The third major editorial issue concerns how the rivers are spatially arranged. Reading from left to right corresponds nations generally with West to East. The Americas to the left of Europe and Africa, flowing into West Asia, Central and South Asia, then East Asia. This is also applied at the intra-continental micro level, for example Portugal to the left of Spain, and the Pagan kingdom to the left of the Khmer. Of course applying this rule for concurrent peoples in the same longitude is problematic, and in such cases, such as the kingdom of Aksum or the Mongol empire, a general ‘best fit’ logic is applied.

Sometimes the West-East rule is not applied at all, and rivers are co-located to express strong relationships that may not have a strictly geographical basis. The Phoenicians for example are placed beside their offshoot, Carthage. Mexico aside the United States. China is kept to the right of Japan and Korea inverting the West-East logic. This one is a contrivance for visual purpose only. China looks indomitable, the stalwart of the East and of the world, holding the right margin of the HistioGraph from beginning to end – the only nation that does so.

Colour and shade

HistioGraph also uses colour to express relationships. Successor states of former empires such as those of the Mongol empire or the Abbasid Caliphate appropriately share a close colour resemblance. Likewise close cousins such as Assyria and Babylon, Austria and the Holy Roman Empire. Graduated colour changes are also used to highlight periods of transition from one nation to the next, the absorption of one into another, or a merger or split.

Issues do arise with the use of colour and the delineation of rivers. Should for example the Fatamids, the Ayyubids and the Mamluks be represented as three separate rivers? What about the dynasties of China? Why do the Latin American states break apart at 1900? These are editorial decisions made by the author and reflect difficulties in applying standard rules to such a mosaic of diversity.

A final note

Clearly there are inconsistencies in HistioGraph. Sometimes absolute accuracy has been compromised to maintain a visual logic. Events may not all have occurred exactly where they are represented, but should at least be accurate to within a generation or two. The author asks for your indulgence.

Except in the case of extreme acts of violence, the author has taken care not to apply strong value judgements to the material. HistioGraph aims to be balanced and respectful.

As noted at the start of this essay, history seeks only to represent the past, and HistioGraph provides one interpretation where any number of alternatives might also be equally or more valid. This essay goes on to explore some of the difficulties in attempting to convey the historical narrative in graphical form.

And yet with these flaws acknowledged, the HistioGraph can make claim to be perhaps the most authoritative history timeline chart of its kind.

Of course HistioGraph cannot act as a complete reference of history. But it is hoped that HistioGraph may provide one resource to assist an individual’s wider inquiry of understanding the world today, and our place in it.