Volume 61, Issue 1, June 2021
John Joseph Gallagher
History, Eschatology, and the Development of the Six Ages of the World
Part I: From Antiquity to Tyconius
The sex aetates mundi constituted the defining framework for understanding biblical and salvation history in the Early Christian and Late Antique worlds. The origins of the idea that history can be divided into six epochs, each lasting roughly a thousand years, are commonly attributed to Augustine of Hippo. Although Augustine’s engagement with this notion significantly influenced its later popularity due to the prolific circulation of his works, he was by no means the sole progenitor of this concept. This bipartite study undertakes the first conspectus in English-speaking scholarship to date of the origins and evolution of the sex aetates mundi. Part I of this study traces the early origins of historiographical periodisation in writings from classical and biblical antiquity, taking account in particular of the role of numerology and notions of historical eras that are present in biblical texts. Expressions of the world ages in the writings of the Church Fathers are then traced in detail. Due consideration is afforded to attendant issues that influenced the six ages, including calendrical debates concerning the age of the world and the evolution of eschatological, apocalyptic, and millenarian thought. Overall, this article surveys the myriad intellectual and exegetical currents that converged in Early Christianity and Late Antiquity to create this sixfold historiographical and theological framework. The first instalment of this study lays the groundwork for understanding Augustine’s engagement with this motif in his writings, which is treated in Part II.