Assume a notable story on a notable day in history—the lunar landing, say—was fabricated. Now assume that 400,000 to 2 million such days were concocted. You begin to get a sense of the scope of New Chronology, the "empirico-statistical" theory that much of human history is a fiction assembled to serve the powerful.

Can you recall your middle-school social studies lessons? How, at some willowy point in your 11th or 12th year, you learned that recorded history begins with the appearance of writing? There were the Mesopotamians with their cuneiform scripts; the Egyptians' hieroglyphs and demotic scrawls; and later, the Greeks and Romans, whose societies form the backbone, for better or worse, of our own—if only because they kept such meticulous records.

We have all sought and found these connections to our past—in museums, in books, in the ground. This is our inheritance. And it is ingrained in us so early, so matter-of-factly, that it permeates most of our existences without demanding critical reflection.

What if it's all bullshit?

Anatoly Timofeyevich Fomenko would like to blow your mind now, please. He will be assisted by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, as well as Sir Isaac Newton.

Since 1980, Fomenko, mathematician at Moscow State University and full member of Russia's prestigious Academy of Sciences, has been the leading proponent of a radical revision of human history—"an improved version of the global chronology of the Ancient Time," as he and collaborator Gleb Nosovsky put it—based on statistical and astronomical analyses.

Fomenko believes there is no reliable written record of human events before the 11th century. Most of our knowledge of earlier cultures is based on texts or copies of texts that date from after that era. From that point on, chroniclers—primarily learned religious scholars—used supposition and arbitrary consensus to fix the dates of key events in history. In doing so, they grafted recent occurrences onto earlier dates—sometimes unwittingly, sometimes perniciously—thus creating numerous "historical duplicates." History appears to repeat itself, Fomenko suggests, because it is thoroughly plagiarized.

In his chronology, the events of the New Testament precede those of the Old Testament—and in any case, most of the stories are concocted to reflect later incidents. Joan of Arc was a model for the biblical character Deborah. Jesus Christ was crucified in Constantinople in 1086. Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece were fashioned by Renaissance writers and artists (the time of the Pharoahs, Fomenko suggests, may have lasted into the 1700s). Aristotle instructed Alexander the Great, who was a tsar, in Moscow in the 1400s. Early English history—from the accepted names and dates to the apocryphal legends of a post-Roman King Arthur—is actually a carbon copy of Fourth Century Byzantium, which is itself a fiction based on late Medieval events.

Speaking of carbon, don't bother relying on carbon dating or other "scientific" chronological methods, Fomenko says: They are premised on the "old" dating system, and hence thoroughly corrupted.

"Does this sound uncanny?" the author asks:

This version of events is substantiated by hard facts and logic – validated by new astronomical research and statistical analysis of ancient sources – to a greater extent than everything you may have read and heard about history before.

In short, he argues, we are Baudrillardian copies without an original. We are in a matrix with Medieval rules. These rules are explained in a seven-volume corpus by Fomenko that opens with Orwell's famous saw from 1984: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." The late Russian social critic Alexander Zinoviev provided the foreword to this master work: "The entire history of humanity up until the XVII century is a forgery of global proportions," he wrote, "a falsification as deliberate as it is universal."

It sounds insane, and it is derided by most modern scholars as "pseudohistory." But in fact, New Chronology has a rich history of its own, with roots in the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment—in the sincere conviction that what is real is what's demonstrable. It just so happens that much of humanity's recollection of history is shakily reconstructed and not so easily demonstrated.

Orwell's old cliché about control of the past may come as a shock to young first-time readers of 1984, but to chronologists, it's old hat. Historical chronology, wrote the German historian Dietrich Hermann Hegewisch in 1854, is necessary "to furnish a principle of order... and to promote the orderly arrangements of social life." The murkiness of humanity's timeline is an age-old problem; absent a solution, society itself cannot function. Entire religious schisms turn on how church fathers set the dates for certain biblical events. This stuff is important.

But until science became—well, a science—a certain imprecision was baked into the effort. Ancient cultures could observe the passage of time through astronomy, tracking the movements of the sun, the moon, and the stars; but how they affixed these events on a timeline varied wildly. Even within a single culture, political and religious upheavals brought new timelines. Within two millennia (according to the "old" history, the one Fomenko challenges), citizens of Rome recognized three different calendars: the Roman, the Julian, and the Gregorian. The more time passes, the more necessary it becomes for a chronicler to reconcile all of these disparities, Hegewisch said:

Small wonder, then, that the advent of the scientific method and telescopic astronomy—along with advances in mathematics—spurred some of the earliest serious attempts to make sense of history on an all-encompassing timeline that wasn't based on religious dogma. Sir Isaac Newton seemed singularly qualified for this task, having applied his talent for mathematical reasoning to celestial physics. Newton's contribution, The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, first appeared in print after his death, in 1728. It argued—sometimes haughtily—that the currently accepted timeline of ancient history was wildly inaccurate in places:

Here YOUR MAJESTY will see Astronomy, and a just Observation on the course of Nature, assisting other parts of Learning to illustrate Antiquity; and a Penetration and Sagacity peculiar to the great Author, dispelling that Mist, with which Fable and Error had darkened it.

"Chronologers have sometimes doubled the persons of men," Newton argued, "and by such corruptions they have exceedingly perplexed Ancient History." The Greeks mixed goddess Io with the Egyptian goddess Isis; the Romans lost most of their chronicles to fires set by the Gauls; the Persian timeline of rulers made no sense; and how could the great Egyptian city of Memphis have existed before Homer's day, if Homer never mentioned it? As a result, Newton's own countrymen were adrift, uncertain of their own location in human history: "The Europeans, had no Chronology before the times of the Persian Empire: and whatsoever Chronology they now have of ancienter times, hath been framed since, by reasoning and conjecture."

Newton's chronology moved the English a little closer to antiquity. Events in ancient Greece, he argued, were about 300 years newer than the conventional wisdom held. Egypt's empire was moved forward in time as much as 1,800 years. And so on for most of the ancient civilizations. "And whilst all these nations have magnified their Antiquities so exceedingly," the great mathematician concluded, "we need not wonder that the Greeks and Latines have made their first Kings a little older than the truth."

Critics were unimpressed. One argued that the author had "gone senile in his old age"; another shrugged that Newton "failed to come up with correct judgments in everything excepting mathematics." But the father of gravitational laws was downright subtle when compared with another chronologist who lived around the same time, the French scholar Jean Hardouin.

The son of a bookseller, Hardouin became a Jesuit teacher and librarian who grew interested in dating the classical texts he collected and translated. Hardouin's conclusion—what one later critic called a "literary hallucination"—was that, except for a few works of Cicero, Virgil and some others, all the Greek and Roman texts of "antiquity" were spurious fabrications cooked up by "certain monks of the thirteenth century." Even the Greek translation of the Bible itself was suspect to Hardouin—an assertion scandalous enough that his Jesuit superiors forced him to publicly recant his research in 1708. But he posthumously published several more texts expanding on his theory that Medieval Benedictine monks had basically created classical Rome and Greece and even fabricated all ancient coins:

Why? According to his biography in a 1715 text titled The Charlatanry of the Learned, Hardouin "only declared, elliptically, that when he died the reason would be found written on a piece of paper the size of his hand. The reason, unfortunately, was never found."

By the end of the 19th century, chronological science was lousy with iconoclasts eager to slay long-held shibboleths. Most notable among these was the British historian Edwin Johnson, who undertook a lifelong study of Christian chronology and found it all to be bunk:

St. Paul, the early church fathers, and even the gospels themselves were all concocted in the 1500s by Benedictine monks. Christ and the apostles were wholesale fictions, as was "all English history before the end of the fifteenth century." And, as one of his chapter titles put it, "An Imaginary Period Has Been Created and Called the 'Middle Ages'": The whole era from 700 to about 1400 never actually happened.

A snarky New York Times critic, reviewing one of Johnson's texts in 1904, after the author's death, noted that Johnson was widely accused of having "Benedictines on the brain":

That system, as he explains it, is of a band of "dishonest fabulists organized and disciplined in the use of the pen," "taught to agree upon a dogma and a fable." From their hands came the whole of our Christian literature, the whole of our history, arranged to suit their purposes.

The critic noted that Johnson had, in earlier times, been a Congregationalist minister... and had also translated a key anti-historical text "by Father Hardouin."

On the surface, at least, Fomenko's theory has advantages over earlier chronologists'. He uses statistical analysis to correlate old texts and timelines, seeking convergences and similarities that have escaped the notice of others. He harmonizes an abundance of celestial data and finds that astronomical events attributed to antiquity seems to correspond to more recent recorded occurrences.

Except that his data aren't all that harmonious. Take his reliance on early astronomical data: When there's a conflict between Ptolemy's recording of a celestial event and the existing historical record, Fomenko doesn't assume Ptolemy got it wrong; he simply concludes Ptolemy lived 700 years later than historians believe. To make his smooth charts correlate earlier and later epochs in history, he has to be selective in picking his data points; is there an unpleasant hump in this curve? Maybe those two kings were really one king. See how nicely that flattens things out?

Take, for example, Fomenko's assertion that Jesus and Pope Gregory VII were really the same person, duplicated into the historical record about 100 years apart—with Christ living in the Middle Ages. To make his case, Fomenko spends an entire chapter correlating the astronomical record with events described in the gospels. Yet he never addresses the glaring differences in the two men's biographies—like how Christ was executed in his thirties, while Pope Gregory died of old age while in exile in his sixties.

There's also his thing about how the whole of humanity before the Renaissance was basically dominated by Mother Russia.

Indeed, one need only look at his seven-volume master work to see that he's preoccupied with history having Russian underpinnings; early Rome, Jerusalem and London were really phantoms of Byzantium, the seat of a huge Turko-Russian empire that was misinterpreted as a series of ancient Western civilizations. The infamous Tatar Yoke—the conquest of Russia by Mongols in the 1200s, which Russians talk about like it just happened yesterday, a traumatic event that they believe prevented them from permanent worldwide cultural domination—never really happened, Fomenko says, because the Mongols were themselves Russians.

For a people left adrift by the failure of Soviet communism—a people predisposed to conspiracy theories, haunted by notions of past greatness and territorial dominance, who have placed their faith again in a strong nationalist president—the appeal of Fomenko's revisionist timeline is obvious. One critic calls Fomenko's scholarship "a symptomatic example" of the Russian's "need to construct a new collective identity in the Soviet aftermath (profited by the Russian government to prompt a new form of patriotism)." The problem, says another critic, extends far beyond New Chronology:

Fomenko is telling an old story about Russia in a slightly new way at a time when Russia is struggling to make the transition from empire to nation-state. He is the inspiration behind an underground war waged by self-styled "modern" historians whose task is to recover a usable past for the post-Communist world.

Ironically, no one has done more to popularize Fomenko's work than a hardened opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin: The famous world chess champion Garry Kasparov.

In a 2003 online essay, Mathematics of the Past (available now only in archived form), Kasparov says that as far back as childhood—the fount of all great ideas, obviously!—he "began to feel that there was something wrong with the dates of antiquity." Kasparov proceeds to recount how, reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he found countless contradictions: How could ancient Romans accomplish so much without good maps? If humans were growing in stature over time, how were ancient soldiers so much stronger and larger than those of Gibbon's day? And how could they have achieved such advances in math and architecture using only Roman numerals?

Fortunately, Kasparov found an answer, like manna from heaven:

About five years ago, I came across several books written by two mathematicians from Moscow State University: academician A.T. Fomenko and G.V. Nosovskij. The books described the work of a group of professional mathematicians, led by Fomenko, who had considered the issues of ancient and medieval chronology for more than 20 years with fascinating results. Using modern mathematical and statistical methods, as well as precise astronomical computations, they discovered that ancient history was artificially extended by more than 1,000 years. For reasons beyond my understanding, historians are still ignoring their work.

The reasons aren't that difficult to understand, as one critic's side-by-side fisking of the Kasparov essay shows. But they haven't stopped Kasparov from collaborating with the New Chronologists—writing an introduction to one of their books, and gifting them a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1771, "where we found a large number of valuable and interesting materials confirming and extending the conclusions that we had reached," Fomenko writes.

Asked in a 2001 interview what was the true history of the world, Kasparov replied:

I'm not trying to give any definite answer. What I'm trying to prove is that we have enough gaps, enough discrepancies, enough simple falsifications to conclude that probably this history was an invention of a later time.

Here is the fundamental seductiveness of the conspiracy theory—any conspiracy theory. It is, ironically, a product of our modern, enlightened, post-superstition approach to knowledge. It's grounded in the notion that reason and logic—even truth—are out there somewhere, accessible to any mind that's smart enough and dispassionate enough. It appeals to libertarians, to Real Men of Genius who refuse to acquiesce to the consensus of other men without seeing their work. It is a reasonable, self-confident skepticism that easily deteriorates into hubris: Hey, we're just asking questions here... He who controls the past controls the present. Who controls the past?... Open your eyes, sheeple...

To such men, it never occurs that their critiques could be conditioned or motivated or manipulated, too.

[ Illustration by Jim Cooke; source photo via Wikipedia]

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