BMCR 2005.10.04

Greek and Roman Calendars: Constructions of Time in the Classical World

, Greek and Roman calendars : constructions of time in the classical world. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. London: Duckworth, 2005. 1 online resource (170 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9781849667517 £16.99.

Robert Hannah’s new work on Greek and Roman calendars is a descendant, as he acknowledges in his Introduction (1), of two works in English dealing with Greek and Roman chronology and calendars: Alan Samuel’s Greek and Roman Chronology: Calendars and Years in Classical Antiquity (1972) and E. J. Bickerman’s Chronology of the Ancient World (2nd ed., 1980). Although several monographs on the individual calendars of Greece or Rome and a number of articles on more specialized topics, such as the codex-calendar of 354, have appeared since the publication of these two earlier surveys, Hannah’s is the first book in some twenty-five years to survey this difficult, technical, and important topic. Hannah clearly sets out his goals in the Introduction: he aims, in part, to make available to a “wider readership” the results of his predecessors and to update the story of the Greek and Roman calendars with recent discoveries on these calendars. He further aims to set the time-reckoning devices of the Greeks and Romans on a “stage occupied by real people,” in other words to approach the calendars of the Greeks and Romans from both astronomical and social perspectives. Hannah’s work moves generally in chronological order and covers a wide range of topics including the principal units of time based on observational astronomy, the calendars of the Greeks from the late Bronze Age through the Hellenistic period, the calendars of Rome, and the afterlife of the Julian calendar in the Christian world. It includes a Select Bibliography, an Index of Passages Cited, and an Index of Subjects.

Hannah does not explore in this work the nature and philosophy of time, a topic he says he intends to cover in a future monograph. Chapter 1 deals with the earth-centered observational astronomy that is at the heart of human systems of time-reckoning: the orbiting of the earth around the sun on its tilted axis that makes the seasons, the rotation of the earth around its own axis that creates the sense of sunrise in the east and sunset in the west as well as the movement of stars (with the exception of the circumpolar stars) from east to west, the movement of the sun and planets through the ecliptic (the twelve signs of the zodiac), the precession of the equinoxes due to the earth’s wobble on its axis, the two significant visible morning and evening risings of stars with respect to the sun (heliacal and acronychal), the two significant morning and evening settings of stars with respect to the sun (cosmical and heliacal), and the movement of the moon. This astronomical discussion sets in focus the prime conflict in ancient time-reckoning systems between the solar calendar and the lunar calendar. This chapter is succinct, but it could benefit from more illustrations of the various phenomena discussed; Hannah, for example, includes only three figures (the annual orbit of the sun, a decorative zodiac, and the phases of the moon) compared with the thirteen figures in Samuel’s discussion of the astronomical background of the calendar in his own first chapter.

Chapter 2 deals with early Greek calendars. Hannah discusses the theories of the origin of early Greek calendars; whether they are of eastern origin or native Cretan origin is as yet unclear (18). He points out that, although Homer says little about any form of calendar, overall the Homeric year is seasonal and agricultural. Hesiod’s Works and Days, in contrast, gives a better idea of how Greeks reckoned time through stellar observations, especially for agricultural purposes. In the Archaic period, the moon is at the core of Greek city-state calendars, which had primarily a sacral character. Acknowledgment of this lunar predominance leads to a discussion of early (and probably irregular) intercalary systems that were necessary to bring the lunar year (which has a length of about 354 days) into seasonal agreement with the solar year (which has a length of about 365 1/4 days); attempts at harmonization of the lunar and solar calendars through intercalation create a lunisolar calendar.

Lack of evidence does not allow for a continuous narrative of the development of the Greek calendar after Hesiod, and Chapter 3 moves, of necessity, to the classical Greek calendars, notably those of Athens about which we have the most information. Athens had three systems of time-reckoning: the festival calendar, the political calendar, and the seasonal calendar. The festival calendar was a lunar one in which there were twelve lunar months; the addition of a thirteenth month (inserted at different points according to our evidence) was necessary to bring the calendar into alignment with the seasons. In the political calendar, the year was divided into the ten prytanies (standing committees) of the Athenian boule (council). Evidence seems to indicate that this political, or bouleutic year, was solar in nature in the fifth century B.C. and independent of the lunar festival year (44). The seasonal calendar was a continuation of the farmer’s calendar of Hesiod and, thus, a rudimentary solar calendar. Hannah touches briefly upon the intriguing topic of whether tampering by the Athenian archons had thrown the festival calendar out of phase with the moon (47). Although there is no firm evidence for the fifth century B.C., a regulatory lunar calendar may have existed alongside the lunar festival calendar (49). Using Aristophanes, Clouds 615-26 as evidence, Hannah speculates that the moon’s complaint as stated by the chorus is a reference to a possible brief shift at Athens (with resulting confusion in the religious sphere) from a moon-based calendar to a lunisolar or sun-based one (51). The development of the nineteen-year cycle by either Meton or Euktemon, astronomers active around this time in Athens, might support this possible shift. Hannah continues with a discussion of the importance of parapegmas ( sic; these are more usually called parapegmata in the plural), inscribed stone tablets containing stellar observations or meteorological predictions for days throughout the year. Hannah considers the advantages that would be offered to farmers and priestly officials by the parapegma of Euktemon and concludes with speculation on why a refined lunisolar, or even purely solar, calendar might have failed for political reasons when Athenian hegemony over its allies failed at the end of the fifth century B.C. (70).

Chapter 4 deals with reconstructing Greek calendars after the fifth century B.C. Here Hannah discusses the great variety among Greek calendars and especially correspondences in reconstructions of the names of the months in the calendars of Athens and Delos (a dependency of Athens) and the calendars of Athens and Delphi; several tables in this section show these correspondences. In the following section, the Macedonian calendar, the most widely-attested Greek calendar thanks to its spread after Alexander’s conquests, is presented as a fusion of the lunisolar Macedonian calendar with two much older, sophisticated calendars: the lunisolar Babylonian calendar and the almost-solar administrative calendar of the Egyptians (which was only 1/4 day shorter than the solar year). The three sets of synchronisms provided in the second century A.D. by Ptolemy in the Almagest demonstrate how closely the Macedonian calendar fused with the Babylonian and the Egyptian calendars. Essentially the Macedonian lunisolar calendar was drawn at some point, variously debated by scholars, into the more sophisticated Babylonian lunar calendar, but the assimilation between the Macedonian calendar and the Egyptian calendar, involving a shift to an almost solar calendar, resulted in the end of the Macedonian lunisolar calendar in Egypt (95-6). The discussion of synchronicities in this chapter is very technical and makes little attempt to show the “real people” behind these calendars.

Chapter 5 is a summary of the current understanding of the Roman calendar. Its length is only about a third of the length of the previous chapters that deal with Greek calendars, which indicates the emphasis that the work places upon systems of Greek time-reckoning. Hannah notes that the Roman calendar was probably always twelve months long and lunisolar from the start (99), and he discusses, in turn, the significant Roman figures who played a role in the creation and evolution of the Roman calendar: Romulus, Numa, Julius Caesar, and Augustus. The origin of the calendar is ascribed to Romulus and Numa, two legendary figures from the eighth-seventh centuries B.C. Numa made the calendar lunar (as is evidenced perhaps by the tripartite division of the months into Kalends, Nones, and Ides, which seem to represent notional lunar phases). Numa further subdivided the month into days for secular and sacred business. Hannah carefully works through the notations for the month of June on the calendar from Antium (84-55 B.C.), the only Republican calendar that predates the reforms of Julius Caesar. He then moves on to the thorny issue of intercalation in the Roman Republic, which was due, as in the Greek system, to the failure of the lunar calendar to stay in step with the solar year. Hannah mentions only briefly the causes for haphazard intercalation in the past: Cicero ( On Laws 2.29) blames negligence, but Suetonius ( Caesar 40) accuses the priests of “impropriety and corruption on behalf of their business and political friends” (111). And yet, as Hannah notes, the Roman calendar showed evidence both of being seriously out of step with the seasons and of working reasonably well. Caesar’s reforms (which form the basis of our own calendar) were a response to the calendar’s significant drift in the 50’s B.C. Hannah spends only about one page on Caesar’s reforms before moving on to agricultural calendars and the continued interest among Romans in the kind of information that appears on parapegmata. Hannah sets out the problems that occurred after Caesar’s reforms because of the failure of the priests, for some reason, to follow properly Caesar’s instructions for intercalation, which was occurring every third year instead of every fourth year until rectified by Augustus in 9 B.C. To correct the problem, leap days were omitted in 5 B.C., 1 B.C, and A.D. 4, and the calendar began functioning properly only from A.D. 5-8. The year 10/9 B.C. was a significant one for Augustus, as Hannah notes (120); in this year Augustus erected a huge sundial in the Campus Martius with an Egyptian obelisk as its gnomon. Hannah ends with a discussion of the difficult problem of determining the birthday of Augustus (September 22, 23, or 24). The concluding discussion of the horoscope of Augustus follows generally from that of Pierre Brind’Amour, Le calendrier romain: recherches chronologiques (1983) and Tamsyn Barton, “Augustus and Capricorn: Astrological Polyvalency and Imperial Rhetoric,” JRS 85, 33-51.

Chapter 6, entitled “Afterwords,” is the least successful and covers somewhat cursorily the afterlife of the Julian calendar in different regions of the Roman Empire (Hannah does admit here that he can cover only parts of the story of the calendar’s life at this stage). Hannah moves quickly through the establishment of New Year’s Day in the calendars of the Roman province of Asia and the Near East, the chronicle of 354 (which he compares to the previously-discussed calendar of Antium), the order of the days of the week, the calculation of the dates of Easter, calculation according to the Era of Diocletian, and B.C./A.D. versus B.C.E./C.E. The chapter ends abruptly with a paragraph on the correct identification of the start of the twenty-first century (technically 2001 not 2000, in spite of all the millennial celebrations in 2000).

Because of the nature of the topic, Greek and Roman Calendars has the unenviable task of finding a way of pleasing both specialist and non-specialist alike. Specialists may find that the work lacks scholarly depth (the work contains only page references not scholarly footnotes); specialists might also question the omission of some recent works on the Roman calendar from the Selected Bibliography, such as Fritz Graf, Der Lauf des rollenden Jahres. Zeit und Kalender in Rom (1997) (for a review, see BMCR 1998.07.15), and Joerg Ruepke, Kalender und Öffentlichkeit: Die Geschichte der Repräsentation und religiösen Qualifikation von Zeit in Rom (1995) (for a review, see BMCR 1996.03.07). Non-specialists might desire more tables and greater help through Chapters 4 and 6, a bibliography of ancient sources showing the most authoritative texts for consultation, and a short glossary for speedy reference of technical terms that appear throughout the work, such as acronychal rising, cosmical setting, equinox, heliacal rising, heliacal setting, lunisolar, Metonic cycle, octaeris, parapegma, and solstice. Finally, the work covers a good deal of complex territory and could use a conclusion to draw together all the observations made about current understanding of Greek and Roman calendars and about ancient time-reckoning in general. In large measure, however, the work succeeds as a short and updated overview of Greek and Roman calendars and the problems that beset our understanding of them and as an invitation to further reading and research.