Measures from Antiquity and the Bible

How mankind started measuring things. Did we invent anything ?

Summary of this page :

Preliminary note : our love for accuracy is quite recent. Don't expect it from our ancestors.
Welcome to the kingdom of fuzziness.
All the units changed, at least slightly, from place to place and from time to time. There won't be too many decimals in the equivalencies given here : keep in mind that many weights for instance were unearthed, but very few were absolutely similar.
After all, compare our weights to those of the Renaissance, only a few centuries away.

Contributors : I want to thank Michael J. Bottomley

Measures of length

These measures were generally derived from the human body. We may find :

Egypt

The basic unit seems to have been the royal cubit or "meh" estimated at 524 mm.
Another unit was the double remen or the diagonal of a square having sides of 1 cubit.
The remen (+/- 371 mm) was essentially used for land measure.
The main subdivision was the digit or "zebo" with 28 digits in a cubit and about 40 in a double remen.

This royal cubit is obviously inflated - maybe the work of an obsequious courtier who pretended it was Pharaoh's. (My personal cubit makes 470 mm !) There was indeed another "ordinary" cubit of 450 mm.

For those who still think in inches, 1 royal cubit = 20.62 " ; 1 remen = 14.6 " or about and 1 short cubit = 17.67 "

Mesopotamia

Also uses the cubit (some think it originated in Sumer).
Its measure varies from 522 to 532 mm.
They had a foot, equal to 2/3 cubit, and a digit equal to 1/30 cubit (therefore 20 digits to a foot.).

There is an exception in Assyria : the cubit is thought to have 640 mm and the foot was 1/2 cubit.

Let's give some examples :

According to findings in Khorsabad, we get another scale : Personal interpretation : we may assume a "palm" equal to 1/7 Assyrian cubit (640 / 7 = 91.43 mm)
The nameless unit would be 3 palms, and a palm contains 20 susi or 5 digits of 18.3 mm.

NB: my sources of information are quite eclectic, not forgetting the contributors ... one sentence in a book, one figure in a magazine, etc. Nevertheless let's make a special mention for the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

In Persia we had :

Greece

generally a foot of 309 mm (12.16 ") subdivided into 16 digits and equal to 2/3 of a (small) cubit - take or leave 4 %.
There was also an older foot of 316 mm equal to 3/5 of a big cubit - 527 mm
The Persian parasang was also adopted quite soon and seems to represent the distance walked in 1 hour.
(Did you ever read Xenophon ? I had to.)
The stadion - whatever its name - was quite widespread throughout antiquity. It is similar to the English furlong and close to 100 toises (fathoms) in Old France. Was it the optimal lenght for a plough furrow ?

Roman Empire

The foot was also widely used across Italy - estimated at 295 mm (11.6 ") give or take a few percents.
It is found also in Etruria. The system absorbed several units from conquered territories. Milliarium was actually the name of the military stones erected every 1000 paces along the Roman highways, to ease the localisation and the maintenance.
The name is, of course, at the origin of "mile".

Rem : Let's come back to accuracy : when the Romans started to organize Northern Gaul and Germania, they used a "Drusian" or "Belgian" foot which was 2 digits longer, or 325 to 330 mm (12.9 ") - rather close to the feet of early medieval England.

Measures in the Bible

Essentially a composite of the neighbouring regions.
Originally, the cubit was used - the same as the royal cubit in Egypt. Later, the smaller cubit took over. Later on, we'll find measures borrowed from the Greeks or the Romans (fathom-like, stadium, mille, parasang, ... whatever the name used in the translation.)

Examples : the stick used in Ezek 40 5 is 6 old cubits long (or 3.15 m - 10' 4")
If your Bible includes 2 M, you'll find in 11 5 the name "schoene" : it is simply a parasang (from "skhoinos")


Area

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under construction Still under construction. I enjoy it ! Please come back from time to time.
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Last updated : Oct. 24, 1997


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