BMCR 2007.09.17

Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History. Sather Classical Lectures, 65

, Caesar's calendar : ancient time and the beginnings of history. Sather classical lectures ; v. 65. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xiv, 372 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9780520933767. $29.95.

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Table of Contents

Caesar’s Calendar will, I predict, be around for a long time. This engaging book is written in a lively and sometimes amusing manner, so that it deserves a wide audience and should reach beyond classicists to other disciplines, but it is also a challenging work of scholarship, innovative and provocative, and many classicists will want to engage with its arguments.

The book arises from Feeney’s Sather Classical Lectures, and the discipline of the form has shaped the six chapters of the finished work. They are arranged in three pairs; two on synchronism, two on divisions between myth and history (with the origin of Rome and the division between Gold and Iron ages as case studies) and two on Roman schemes of time, the consular lists and the calendar, which bring the author back to a favourite work, Ovid’s Fasti. The preface points to certain deliberate limitations and intentions; the book is largely about public time, and we hear little about private apprehensions and conceptions. The major initial problem to be resolved is that our time and Roman time need to be disentangled because they are so very different.

So the work starts by a work of estrangement. We are used to time being split along an axis that divides the world before and after an event which did not even dominate Christian chronologies until a surprisingly late date. What is utterly comfortable to us was simply absent as an option for pagans; and their particularised and city-based systems made life even more complicated. So F. makes the point that ancient synchronism is not about dates but about events; first you calculate in different systems, different logics, only then do you realise that two events happened simultaneously.

When F. starts to think about historical synchronisms, he is working towards Nepos, of course, followed by Atticus and Varro. There is a moment (20-1) where he deftly gestures to the question of whether synchronism was a tool by which the Romans filled in the missing gaps of their own history; but F. is soon on to one of his first intriguing suggestions, derived from his translation of Cicero Brutus 15, that Atticus’ famous book was organised in columns to bring out the synchronisms, though we need to keep in mind the importance of genealogical descent in this book, which Nepos mentions. It is only with Eusebius that columnar arrangement comes into its own, but we know very little about how much care could be taken with papyri; presumably, if Varro’s Imagines could have pictures and subtitles, a great deal could be done. From Eusebius F. moves to Gellius’ synchronistic chapter ( NA 17.21) and its message that Rome achieved a small degree of cultural equivalence with Athens very late on and then forced themselves into the picture. So comparison becomes key but also revealing. One of F.’s most powerful themes is the way Rome intrudes into other chronological systems as part of the process of imperialism, and this may have been noted by others; in Plutarch’s Sulla 14.10, there is embedded a fragment of Sulla’s memoir, which dates the sack of Athens very precisely, and Plutarch explicitly connects the date with the commemoration of the ancient cataclysmic flood in the month of Anthesterion.

The second chapter looks more closely at the synchronisms which bring Rome into the Greek world. Sicily is the key: Pindar, Herodotus, Timaeus, Polybius and Plutarch all engage with the way that Sicily holds a position between west and east, and is the bridge between them. Sicily brings in Carthage, which takes us to Scipio; Scipio takes us back to Polybius and this takes us east, to Pompey, and the beginnings of universalism, since east and west are now part of the same narrative, and Catullus 11 and Castor of Rhodes in different ways identify the Romans as part of a grander scheme.

So the first two chapters encourage us to think about the problems of time in a world where synchronism has to be created and is not automatic. The next two chapters look at the depth of time. F. starts by arguing that the difference between myth and history did matter to ancient historians, and that we should not collapse it too far; thus, there are attempts being made in the first Greek historians to reclaim mythical time, but these attempts also recognise levels of difficulty. The Trojan War for instance offers a point beyond which it may be impossible to go with confidence, which is significant for the Roman case, given the Aeneas story, especially when the other canonical date, the first Olympic Games, is so close to Rome’s other foundation.

The argument here is significant, and some key moves are made. First, when the Greeks started writing about Rome in the fourth century, the Romans could not have had a clue about how old Rome was; the Greeks decide Rome’s foundation was associated with the Trojan War; then the Greeks decide to go for the eighth century. Using an important argument by Purcell,1 which in turn goes back to arguments about the possibility that the Romans began counting around 509 with the dedication of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Capitolinus, F. claims that the Romans did not have much of a clue about the depth of their earlier history, and when they eventually came to any conception of this, it was a Greek answer they used. F.’s argument here is very carefully phrased — for instance he does not argue, as Wiseman did, that Romulus and Remus were invented in the late fourth or early third century, but he thinks they had no chronological bearings until a Greek author decided upon them, and the shape of the story we see is largely Greek. In a paragraph (91-2) he dismisses those who see in the archaeological record corroboration of an eighth century moment of foundation ‘as if tradition was capable of preserving a chronological structure until it could be fixed in its historiographical format.’ So the question becomes ‘who on the Greek side champions this downdating?’ and F. proposes Timaeus of Tauromenium, and suggests that he was trying to fit Rome into an essentially Greek pattern (and may have managed to do this in a way that was not possible for Carthage). The next step belongs to Fabius Pictor, who noted that Rome was a colony, like Cumae for instance, and of similar date. There is then a period of fluctuation between different ways of telling time, with a Greek version, followed by the essentially Greek poets, Naevius and Ennius, who emphasise the Trojan connection, and a Roman version, as in Cato, who eschews Olympiads (D.Hal. 1.74.2), and chooses a late date calculated in Roman terms. This whole argument, like any argument on the subject, is made problematic by the fact that we do not know how any author managed the gap between the Trojan War and the Romulean date, once Eratosthenes had fixed the Trojan date, without inventing an Alban king list; even F. expresses himself baffled by how Ennius could have both an early Trojan War date and make Romulus Aeneas’ grandson. The chapter concludes with other re-foundation moments, including the fire of 64 AD and Tacitus’ implicit comparison with Camillus ( Ann. 15.41.2).

This is a very important chapter, and it will be read with attention by anyone working on the development of Rome’s foundation stories. Aeneas and Romulus are only part of a rather wider perception of Italy and its Greek connections, though. The need to explain more generally the nature of the population of Italy leads to the account for instance in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, which for all his interest in Rome, reveals that his sources were looking at a broader picture. This is no less artificial, of course, and entirely Greek, but whilst we are concerned about a particular story, there was also a drive to understand the background of the Etruscans, Samnites, Sicels and so forth, and it is hard to be sure how much Ennius for instance brought from those arguments, which are also important for Cato the Elder. So whatever Timaeus is doing, it is not just fixing Rome’s chronological problems, but creating a grid for the Italian peninsula. Whether F. is right in claiming that before Timaeus ‘the data bank for the Western Mediterranean was more or less empty’ (94) is perhaps more disputable.2

The fourth chapter is about ages of gold and iron, and is a reflection on some key moments in the debate between hard and soft primitivism. Hesiod, Callimachus, Catullus, Virgil, Seneca and Calpurnius Siculus are drawn in to illustrate the continuing significance of models of a fall from innocence.

The fifth and sixth chapters engage directly with the introduction of a new calendar by Julius Caesar. First, F. looks at anniversaries and saecula and notes the possibility of Ennius using a millennial structure to underpin the Annales; he moves on to anniversaries, and notes that only with Caesar’s calendar and the regularity it introduces can one begin to contemplate anniversaries at the same point in a year. Both Ovid in the Fasti and Virgil Aeneid 8 play with the consequence of this new shaping of time.

Finally we arrive at the Fasti themselves, the calendars and the lists of magistrates and triumphs inscribed in the Augustan period. Again, there is a potential connection with Ennius and Fulvius Nobilior’s temple of Hercules and the Muses which may have seen an early version of the Fasti. F. interrogates both the content and the appearance of the Augustan Fasti, and demonstrates how the positioning of Augustus’ own name eventually changes the nature of the consular Fasti, and how the monthly calendar enshrines Julian time (partly by the new month names, partly because the imperial anniversaries are included). F. is excellent on Tacitus and what happens to annalistic history under the empire, and a careful analysis of passages of Varro in de lingua Latina and de re rustica shows a Roman in the process of becoming accustomed to a different way of reckoning time; the key change is that Varro in the later work can be more confident of the association of meteorological phenomena with the calendar, since the slippage which had occurred is now to be avoided. Ultimately, the Roman calendar remains profoundly Roman, connected with the city and its anniversaries; it was available for, but not imposed upon, the empire.

This summary does little justice to the wealth of information and ideas that can be found in this book. There are numerous readings of specific passages that ground the argument, and are novel and penetrating. The endnotes demand careful attention; a lot of scholarly work takes place in last third of the book, and also some cracking jokes and pieces of useful trivia; look out for the number thirteen, Rostovtzeff’s birthday and the number of people you need in a room to guarantee a 50% chance that two will have the same birthday.

The number of areas touched upon means that this work really does take forward the study of Roman conceptions of time; individual contributions on festivals such as Beard on the Parilia,3 or the use of the calendar such as Rüpke’s important work.4 or even the development of Roman historiography, the most important of which for this book is Purcell’s argument cited above, are now brought into the same conversation; the organization of time and its role in shaping Roman ideas about themselves is at once clearer and more nuanced.

To reflect on time is unavoidably to be engaged with history. It is perfectly in order then for F. to regard his investigation as touching upon the ways in which the Romans, and those with whom they interacted, began to record and to think in ways which we regard as historical, which involves both linear time, synchronic time, and the ability to move backwards and forwards through time in order to think analogically, which is an important element of Roman historical writing, as endless identifications of alleged retrojections or doublets and so forth indicate. The sweep from Timaeus to Castor of Rhodes, situating this endeavour at Rome at key junctures of the Greek and Roman spheres, is exciting. F. is also acutely aware of the state of play with early Roman studies, and he is right that archaeology is no proof of the literary record before the beginning of the Republic in any real respect. Here the literary accounts in some ways intrude unhelpfully. Our perception of the density of interaction between Central Italians and Greeks in the eighth to sixth centuries is not necessarily greater if viewed through the case-study of Demaratus, and one can categorise this as a story derived from other stories, rather than a story derived from reality, whose contours, if they appear to be familiar and helpful, are still merely the outline of generalities true at other times and in other places. Yet on the shores of Etruria, Latium and Campania, some conversation must have existed between sellers and buyers. Someone explained the Medea myth sufficiently for it to be transcribed onto bucchero pesante in Cerveteri.5 Conceptualising synchronicity seems to me to be overly confined if we have to wait until Timaeus and Eratosthenes come up with fixed points. When did Etruscans locate the myths they observed on their pottery? How did they organize their time? We do not know, but I wonder if in 300 BC, when Appius Claudius Caecus appears to have had the capacity to produce a Pythagorean poem, the Romans were quite as untroubled by their regal past (90, and see now Humm’s huge work on Appius Claudius6). At roughly this time, if not before, statues attributed to the kings were appearing in the Forum. We do not know when or by whom it was decided that Numa and Pythagoras went together, but the fact that this was held to in spite of the evident mismatch with subsequent synchronicities might suggest that some Romans did have a view of their deep past, but that it was not the same as the later view.

One of F.’s main tasks is to create a greater sense of alienation from the ancient world. The Romans just thought differently about time from us. Yet they did think about time constantly, and from a fairly early point. The public calendar has deep origins; it almost certainly has regal elements; and the co-ordination of time was associated with one of the oldest, and oddest Roman priesthoods, the rex sacrorum. Capitoline time is important, if we are right that the Romans started counting from the foundation of the temple, yet counting must have been happening not very far away in Cumae and other Greek colonies. Yet F. is surely right to note the sophistication of the later middle Republican thinking; the contribution of Ennius and Fulvius Nobilior was vital, and is superbly discussed. At the other end of the chronological scope, the simultaneity of the dissolution of the Republic and the introduction of new perceptions and definitions of time is brilliantly conveyed in this book. Reading the inscribed Fasti with attention both to form and content captures the odd mixture of genuine antiquarian interest and a sometimes surprisingly blunt presentation of political reality which emerges in the Augustan period. Many will find Degrassi a more gripping read after F.’s elucidation. One wonders how many such lists existed, just as the calendar was found outside Rome, and one might also set alongside the Fasti the tradition of elogium inscriptions, as another visual but less precise chronograph.

Time is never a neutral concept. It is an organizing principle of immense power, but because it can be used and conceived in so many different ways, it inspires contrasting schemes. It is interesting, in the context of F.’s accounts of annalistic history, to note that Varro thought that he could get as close to Romulus as he could to Ennius through the application of etymology ( LL 5.9, and compare 5.5 for one of the most moving statements of the destructiveness of time). Antiquarian time and annalistic time may be rather different in this respect. In bringing out so many of these complexities, and in inspiring the search for others, F. has produced a tremendously important as well as a terrifically well-written book.

[For a response to this review by John Van Sickle, please see BMCR 2007.11.22.]


1. N. Purcell ‘Becoming Historical: The Roman Case,’ in D. Braund, C. Gill (eds) History and Culture in Republican Rome (Exeter 2003) 12-40.

2. See on similar topics E. Curti, ‘Fra mito e storia: gli indigeni e la percezione del passato,’ in O. Venosa (ed.) Immagine e mito nella Basilicata antica (Potenza 2003) 47-62; F.-H. Massa-Pairault (ed.) Le Mythe Grec dans l’Italie Antique: Fonction et Image (Rome 1999).

3. M. Beard ‘A complex of times: No more sheep on Romulus’ birthday,’ PCPhS 33 (1987) 1-15.

4. J. Rüpke Kalender und Öffentlichkeit: Die Geschichte der Repräsentation und religiösen Qualifikation von Zeit in Rom (Berlin 1995).

5. M. A. Rizzo and M. Martelli, ‘Un incunabolo del mito greco in Etruria,’ Annuario della Scuola Archeologica Italiana ad Atene LXVI-LXVII (1989) 7-56.

6. M. Humm Appius Claudius Caecus: La république accomplice (Rome 2005).