BMCR 1998.07.15

Der Lauf des rollenden Jahres. Zeit und Kalender in Rom. Lectio Teubneriana VI


The revolution of 1989 collapsed numerous barriers between east and west, one of which was the intangible wall that had for some time caused the Teubner publishing house to produce independently in Leipzig and Stuttgart. To celebrate the post-revolutionary situation, the newly reunited enterprise created the Lectiones Teubnerianae. These lectures have been an annual (and gala, if the proceedings surrounding the Graf lecture are any indication) event since 1992, with speakers of the highest calibre, and topics that appear strikingly interesting. The most recent installment is, as the Germans might say, “klein aber fein.” The ideas offered up and their wider implications are in inverse proportion to the number of pages upon which they appear. This disjunction between the significance of the themes raised and the space in which they are adumbrated means, however, that the reader must, to a greater degree than usual, work along with the author.

The first three sections, equivalent (in pages) to the first half of Graf’s lecture, offer a number of broad thoughts about the whole business of reckoning and representing the passage of time. They thereby serve as introduction to a fourth section (the second half), which deals with one specific problem. A very brief fifth section concludes the piece.

Graf begins (section I) with two types of time: on the one hand the objective, immutable (by humans), natural course of things, and on the other hand the subjective temporal rhythm, namely, that fashioned by people. An official calendar, then, is a group’s cultural construction of its own activities over the course of time; but this man-made structure, which seeks to regulate the yearly doings of its makers, is inevitably linked, to one degree or another, with the inescapable realities dictated by nature. Modern, essentially literate, societies tend to impose with some thoroughness their own concerns upon the natural flow of things. The effectively non-literate community will usually function differently, calculating (and ordering) time according to the relationships between actions of the present and other events, either past or future: “immer ist der Kalender eine Abfolge erlebten Tuns” (p. 14). Coming to the Roman world specifically (section ιἰ, where the elite was largely a literate class and the rest of the community largely illiterate, Graf detects a basic, underlying calendar reliant upon the natural, astronomical year, with months divided into Kalends, Nones, and Ides. This division of time is argued to have determined, in the main, the rhythms of private life. Two other methods of reckoning time overlay this system, and these are portrayed as having dominated the public sphere: (a) the market calendar, with its cycle of eight-day periods, and (b) the irregular festal calendar. The Feriae publicae might even be perceived (section III) as a kind of counterbalance to the more orderly first part of the month, these festivals having occupied mainly the days that fell after the Ides. It is wise also to keep in mind the numerous new holidays that came in the wake of the imperial system, and which served to complicate the festal calendar. This is all followed by two observations, whose ramifications should not be underestimated. First, different social groups will have had significantly different experiences of the public festivals; Cicero, e.g., might employ the occasion of raucous public celebration for rest and discussion at a secluded country villa. Secondly, many of these public events were hardly visible, were, rather, sacrifices quietly conducted by a few priests at an obscure cultic site.

This set of various observations leads into the fourth part of the lecture (pp. 24-39). Graf’s goal here is to show that the sequence of the old-fashioned Feriae publicae, in particular those celebrated during the period December through March, was not random. Instead, each festival could (and can) be understood only in the context of what preceded it, and that which would immediately come after it. Herein lies Graf’s principal argument, which is also embodied in the title: the Roman calendar is not to be perceived as an abstract scheme of “Zeitverwaltung” (like our modern calendar), but, rather, as a process which unrolled itself over the course of the year, and which brought the world’s natural rhythms and Roman society’s constructed time into a kind of ritual harmony. The festivals from December through March, then (section V), represented in their rites the passing away of one natural year, and the coming to be of the next. On the social and political plain, they recalled Rome’s history, offering up a demonstration of culture’s eventual triumph over the feral time that had gone before.

I have attempted to provide here just a taste of what Graf offers in this dense piece. It would be well worth keeping his remarks in mind when dealing with most matters Roman and (in almost any sense) calendrical. To give but one example, Denis Feeney has recently pointed out that Ovid’s inclusion of astronomical data in the Fasti serves to bring two different temporal patterns together; the one (astronomy) is Greek, the other ( fasti) is Roman. The result can be perceived as part of a larger Augustan program. However, given the arguments delineated above, it might well be urged that Ovid’s thought in weaving together fasti and astronomy went significantly beyond the mixing of things Greek and Roman, making it even more interesting and even more complex — and thus more Augustan. In sum, to read through this Lectio Teubneriana is the task of an evening; but to think through the numerous possibilities it provokes will take significantly longer. This is stimulating scholarship.

I have seen only the one lecture by Graf. The previous Lectiones are: (I) R. Merkelbach, Die Bedeutung des Geldes für die Geschichte der griechisch-römischen Welt; (II) W. Burkert, Platon in Nahaufnahme. Ein Buch aus Herculaneum; (III) J. Latacz, Achilleus. Wandlungen eines europäischen Heldenbildes; (IV) A. Henrichs, “Warum soll ich denn tanzen?” Dionysisches im Chor der griechischen Tragödie; (V) M. West, Die griechische Dichterin. Bild und Rolle. The point is elsewhere illustrated perfectly, and amusingly, by the (supposed) experience of a Turkish writer, residing in contemporary Germany, who returns to his home village so as to discover the exact calendar date of his birth — a necessity in European society. He first attempts to solicit this information from his mother, who, he remarks in passing, neither reads nor writes. After thinking for half an hour, she informs him that he was born on the day when she, having sent his father off to the forest to cut wood, and all the other children out to the fields to work, suddenly went into labor. The author’s birth caused her not to notice the disappearance of the family’s valuable bull, which made the day doubly (and highly) significant in the family’s history. That is the “date” of his birth. Various similar calculations by others in the village follow. See S. Dikmen, Wir werden das Knoblauchkind schon schaukeln. Satiren (Berlin: EXpress Edition, 1987) 24 ff. The very thin Roman line between the public and private spheres, especially for the elite, might profitably be worked into Graf’s line of thought here — or vice versa. In this regard, cf. in particular A. Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton 1994). It is perhaps also worth mentioning two fairly recent books on markets and fairs in the Roman world, although they are not essential to Graf’s line of argument: J.M. Frayn, Markets and Fairs in Roman Italy. Their Social and Economic Importance from the Second Century BC to the Third Century AD (Oxford 1993); L. de Ligt, Fairs and Markets in the Roman Empire. Economic and Social Aspects of Periodic Trade in a Pre-Industrial Society (Amsterdam 1993). D. Feeney, Literature and Religion at Rome. Cultures, Contexts, and Beliefs (Cambridge 1998) 125 ff. on Ovid and the Fasti. [I thank my colleague Michèle Lowrie for bringing this book to my attention.] To suggest (tentatively) another example, Graf’s ideas might also have a place when thinking about what has been called Horace’s calendar-like self-description in Odes 3, on which, J. Griffin, “Cult and Personality in Horace” JRS 87 (1997) 55 ff. The reference to Bourdieu (1972) in n. 6, which, so far as I can see, is nowhere clarified, should probably be to P. Bourdieu, Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique, précédé de trois études d’ethnologie Kablye (Geneva 1972). The book edited by Binder and Ehlich (n. 15) was published in 1996. Also on nundinae (n. 15), see L. de Ligt, ” Ius nundinarum and immunitas in I. Manisa 523″ EA 24 (1995) 37-54. On the beginning of the Roman calendar year and the festivals of March (pp. 35 ff.), see G. Radke, “Römische Feste im Monat März” Tyche 8 (1993) 129-142. I list two further items, which happen to have come to my notice, and which may be of interest to those working on the kind of matters raised here: M. Cristofani, Tabula Capuana. Un calendario festivo di età arcaica (Florence 1995); L. Magini, Le feste di Venere. Fertilità femminile e configurazioni astrali nel calendario di Roma antica (Rome 1996).