BMCR 2006.04.33

The History of Time: A Very Short Introduction. Very Short Introductions, 133

, The history of time : a very short introduction. Very short introductions ; 133. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (144 pages) : illustrations, map.. ISBN 9780191517068 £6.99.

Although not centred on classical antiquity, this little gem of a book is not only enjoyable for anyone with classical interests but sheds important light on aspects of antiquity (not just Greco-Roman) and on the classical legacy. Leofranc Holford-Strevens, a distinguished student of Aulus Gellius and co-author of major studies of matters calendrical,1 draws on his encyclopaedic knowledge to provide a genuinely pocket-sized handbook whose size belies its authority. Despite the title, it is — like very many volumes in this splendid OUP series — much more substantial than the term ‘very short’ would lead one to expect. Packed with fascinating information and illuminating observations, it is densely factual but pacily written. We learn about the origins of the modern hours; the evolution of standardized time-reckoning; lunar and solar calendars; the western calendar from Rome to the present; the history of the Easter controversy; the weeks and months; proposed reforms to the western calendar; different ideas of the seasons; the Jewish, Muslim, ancient Greek and Gaulish, Hindu, Chinese, Iranian, and Mesoamerican calendars; and counting years and eras in different systems. All this is encompassed in about 30,000 words.

I never knew till now that the Byzantine hour contained 5 lepta (little things, or indeed ‘minutes’), 20 stigmai (moments), 40 rhopai (impulses), 60 endeixeis (showings), 240 rhipai (blinks), and 2,400 atoma (presumably indivisible; p. 10). I did not know that ‘noon’ derives from the church office of ‘nones’ (nonae), but only because the clerics tended to get ahead of themselves (p. 4). At times nearly every page reflects some aspect of the development of classical cosmology. I have not seen elsewhere so clear an explanation of Roman intercalation and Caesar’s reforms.

One of the most impressive things about the book is its cultural pluralism. Not only do modern non-western cultures receive their due, but a vast range of European literatures and scientific cultures crops up continually. One learns of the haphazard and piecemeal adoption of the Gregorian ‘new style’, which started in 1582. The last Swiss commune adopted it in only 1811 (and then only under Napoleonic coercion, p. 42). As is well known, Orthodox countries fell into line only in the twentieth century, while some Orthodox churches still use the unreformed Julian calendar and are thus 11 days ‘behind’. The days of the week are tabulated in ten languages including pagan Latin and Polish (p. 71). Even classicists may be unaware that the Seleukid era of 311 BC was in use in Yemen after the western Renaissance, and among Nestorian Christians within living memory (p. 119); that the Coptic church still reckons by the era of Diocletian (p. 122); or of how many different dates for the Creation were computed in late antiquity (pp. 120-1). Each of the last, incidentally, made the world considerably older than did Archbishop Ussher more recently, whose year 6000 began on 23 October 1997 (as was noted on the front of the ‘Independent’ newspaper for that day).

Chronological studies can have a contemporary relevance. On a non-classical point of fact, which may be of interest to UK readers, I was glad to have confirmation (p. 16) of my boyhood memory that in 1968 the UK moved to permanent daylight saving time (1 hour ahead of mean solar time) but abandoned it three years later as it made winter mornings so dark in the northern half of mainland Britain (experto credite). Periodically there are proposals at Westminster to adopt permanent ‘summer time’, whose initiators seem unaware of their own history.

This rich text is particularly rewarding as an exercise in stretching one’s mind. To realize the relativity of, for example, what the West commonly calls the Millennium is liberating. The same goes for New Year’s Day. Then again, how genuinely common is the ‘Common Era’?2


1. See B. Blackburn and L. Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Companion to the Year (Oxford, 1999); B. Blackburn and L. Holford-Strevens, The Oxford Book of Days (Oxford, 2000).

2. See H.-S.’s trenchant remarks about AD and BC (unnumbered p. [xiii] of the preface).