BMCR 2019.03.20

The Construction of Time in Antiquity: Ritual, Art, and Identity

, , The Construction of Time in Antiquity: Ritual, Art, and Identity. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. xii, 296. ISBN 9781107108967. £75.00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Our temporal frameworks are so fundamental to our experience of the world that we can easily forget they are not universal. Although, by now, timekeeping has become standardized across much of the world, each component of our current system—e.g., the idea of dividing the globe into time zones, or the notion that our primary temporal unit, the second, should be defined in relation to a caesium atom—represents a choice that was made by humans in response to specific cultural and historical circumstances.

The Construction of Time in Antiquity, edited by Jonathan Ben-Dov and Lutz Doering, explores, in their words, “the relationship between time and human agency” (p. 3) as it is articulated within a variety of cultures (including Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian) and social contexts (political, legal, medical, historical, theological, and artistic). This volume celebrates the diverse and complex ways in which people shape—and are, in turn, shaped by—their own temporal concepts and structures. In addition to nuanced case studies, the thirteen contributing authors also present useful lenses and heuristics that will help future researchers to navigate this exciting, burgeoning field.

The sociocultural history of time and timekeeping in antiquity has begun to attract an increasing amount of scholarly attention. In the 1990s and early 2000s, pioneers in the field, such as Jörg Rüpke, Denis Feeney, Robert Hannah, and Sacha Stern, began to encourage readers to consider calendars and other timekeeping devices not only as scientific instruments, but also as political tools that could be used to reinforce, subvert, or modify group identities.1 Over the past decade, scholars have also begun to examine other temporal constructs (such as the sundial, the hour, or the concept of kairos) through sociocultural lenses. Institutions like Berlin’s Einstein Center Chronoi, for example, and the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies have recently made such topics the focus of sustained research projects, and several conferences in 2017 and 2018 alone have advanced the conversation.2 Ben-Dov and Doering’s edited volume is one of the first interdisciplinary and multi-authored books to emerge from such endeavors and will undoubtedly become a standard within the field.

The Construction of Time in Antiquity developed out of a conference with the same title, which the editors organized in 2013. The volume’s fourteen chapters (one co-authored introduction and thirteen stand-alone contributions) represent revisions of and additions to papers presented during the original program. Academic professionals and graduate students will likely derive the greatest benefit from this book, as its authors assume a certain amount of background knowledge. Because of the volume’s interdisciplinary nature, however, most of its contributing authors are careful to frame their arguments so as to be accessible to specialists outside of their own fields.

The wide range of perspectives represented in this volume is one of its greatest strengths and most important contributions. This collection invites readers to draw interesting comparisons across geographical regions, historical time periods, and cultural contexts, and it puts many types of evidence in conversation with each other, including statues, friezes, vases, lectionaries, the Antikythera Mechanism, and texts from a variety of genres. The contributors themselves represent institutions in six countries and include many well-established scholars as well as a few new voices. One could, however, wish for greater diversity in a couple of areas. For example, only three of the thirteen authors are women. Furthermore, while the book’s title promises to address “the construction of time,” broadly speaking, the majority of its chapters focus specifically on calendrical time, leaving other kinds (e.g., chronological or daily time) underrepresented.

The chapters are not arranged chronologically but instead cluster around interesting constellations of themes, which are revealed in pages 3-5 of the introduction (a full list of authors and titles is included at the end of this review). Ben-Dov and Doering explain that the first three chapters (Ben-Dov, Stern, Rüpke) “are concerned with time, ideology, and identity,” while the two that follow (Steele, Hannah) “investigate the interplay between time, science, and ideology.” The next four chapters (von Lieven, Verderame, Kim, Kattan Gribetz) “explore [time in] the fields of myth, metaphor, and visual art,” and the last set of four (Doering, Stökl Ben Ezra, Hayward, Leonhard) “deals with time in Jewish and Christian ritual and calendrical practice.” Because the relationships between these themes are so complex and the volume itself so wide- ranging, it would have been helpful if the chapters had been grouped under section headings that underlined their shared themes. Nevertheless, the interleaving of contributions by Classicists, Assyriologists, Egyptologists, Art Historians, and Biblical Philologists is thought-provoking and encourages readers to make interdisciplinary, cross-cultural connections.

The quality of the chapters is consistently high. In the interest of space, I would like to focus on four that seem—at least, from my own Greco-Roman perspective—to introduce to the study of ancient time and timekeeping some promising critical lenses. The first of these, in terms of sequence, is the chapter by Jonathan Ben-Dov (Ch. 2: “Time and Natural Law in Jewish-Hellenistic Writings,” pp. 9-30). Here, Ben-Dov makes an interesting observation: while Israelites of the Biblical period did not use their calendar as a means of differentiating themselves from non-Israelites, Jews of the Hellenistic and Roman periods frequently employed calendrics in their efforts to subvert imperial systems. The Hellenistic period emerges from Ben-Dov’s discussion as a watershed “moment” in which Jewish communities begin (a) to define their own quintessentially Jewish calendars and (b) to endeavor to make those calendars correspond to natural phenomena. To explain these shifts, Ben-Dov ultimately points to two features of the Hellenistic world: its increasingly “global” and agonistic political environment and the growing interest in this period in “nature as an object for observation and as a model for imitation”(p. 27). Ben-Dov’s chapter identifies politics, theology, and natural philosophy as key ingredients in Jewish calendar formation and illustrates the complexity of their interactions.

John Steele’s chapter (Ch. 5: “Real and Constructed Time in Babylonian Astral Medicine,” pp. 69-82) demonstrates that practitioners of Babylonian astral medicine employed different temporal modes depending on whether their goal was to describe a patient’s symptoms or to predict the right moment to perform a certain action. In instances of description, Babylonian physicians relied on what Steele calls “real time”: typically, durations, given in days or months, which were based on actual observations and could be “either independent of or fixed within the calendar” (p. 80). When making predictions, however, Babylonian physicians relied on “constructed time”, which involved the mathematical manipulation of schematic 360-day calendars (distinct from the 384-day Babylonian civil calendar). Steele’s chapter highlights the tensions that can arise between “real” and “ideal” temporal frameworks and raises important questions about the considerations that might lead an individual or community to favor one over the other in particular contexts.

The chapter by SeungJung Kim (Ch. 9: “Toward a Phenomenology of Time in Ancient Greek Art,” pp. 142-173) offers an important counterpoint to many of the volume’s other contributions. Firstly, Kim focuses on a temporal unit, kairos or ‘opportune moment’, that—unlike, for instance, the years, months, and days measured by calendars—is typically represented as having no meaningful duration. Moreover, Kim explores not only the intellectual construction of kairos, but also its physical construction—namely, how Greek artists of the Classical period translated the experience of a kairotic moment into sculpted and painted media. Kim productively considers how a phenomenological approach to ancient time and its artistic representation can help us to better understand the lived experience of time in antiquity. She applies this approach quite effectively in analyzing a 3D digital reconstruction (prepared by herself and artist Dave Cortes) of the lost Lysippan statue of Kairos. Kim’s contribution neatly bridges the divide between the fields of ancient technology and art history and allows her to explore with greater precision how a viewer’s “interaction with the actual three-dimensional statue unfolds both in space and in time” (p. 151).

Finally, I would like to draw attention to the chapter by Sarit Kattan Gribetz (Ch. 10: “Women’s Bodies as Metaphors for Time in Biblical, Second Temple and Rabbinic Literature,” pp. 173-204). In this chapter, Kattan Gribetz considers the intersection of time and gender from both male and female perspectives. She observes that male Jewish writers of these periods frequently employ metaphors of labor and birth to talk about eschatological time and often relate lunar and calendrical cycles to the cycles of women’s bodies. Kattan Gribetz proceeds to contrast the prominence of women’s bodies in temporal rhetoric with their actual exclusion from official time-related activities, such as the ritual of witnessing and sanctifying the new moon. Kattan Gribetz notes how “the mapping of these times onto women’s bodies ironically highlights their forced distance from the unfolding [timekeeping] process” (p. 197). The lens of gender has not been frequently applied to ancient time and timekeeping, due in no small part, of course, to the scarcity of sources. Kattan Gribetz offers an important contribution here, one that will undoubtedly inspire further research.

This volume contains many other excellent chapters worthy of mention, such as that by Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra (“Seasoning the Bible and Biblifying Time through Fixed Liturgical Reading Systems (Lectionaries)”), which elegantly and engagingly demonstrates how, on the one hand, Christian and Jewish calendars became “Biblified” through the construction of seasonal ritual units linked through narrative, and how, on the other, the Bible itself became “seasoned” as particular passages became increasingly associated with particular times of year. To conclude this review, however, I would like to offer a few minor critiques and an assessment of the book’s production quality.

Some of the very features that make this volume such an important contribution—such as its interdisciplinarity, its thematic organization, and the diverse ways in which the authors interpret central themes—also create certain challenges (ones that edited volumes commonly face). For instance, this reader would have liked the authors or editors to draw more explicit connections between individual chapters. As it stands, no chapter refers to another, and the succinct introduction (six pages, excluding bibliography) does not elaborate on potential resonances. Readers must therefore notice for themselves how, for example, the chapters by Kim and Kattan Gribetz each approach the notion of “embodied” in time in different ways, or how the Babylonian system outlined by Verderame can be usefully compared and contrasted with the Egyptian system explicated by von Lieven.

The volume could also have attained greater conceptual coherence if the introduction had laid out the book’s theoretical commitments more clearly and defined the central terms of its title. Each of these terms—”construction”, “time”, “antiquity”, “ritual”, “art”, “identity”—is polysemous and has been much-debated. One would like to know how the editors of this particular work decided what does and does not belong within each of these categories. Finally, given the title’s ambitious scope, it would have been helpful to include a discussion of the book’s limitations and productive avenues for further research.

The book’s production quality is generally high, although one notices several typos and inconsistencies. The cover image, for instance, is not credited, and Kattan Gribetz and Doering, in back-to-back chapters, make different choices about whether to render Hebrew in Unicode or transliteration. Overall, however, this volume is deeply thought-provoking and a pleasure to read. It will surely become an essential title for anyone interested in the comparative sociocultural history of time and timekeeping in the ancient Mediterranean.

Authors and titles

1. Lutz Doering and Jonathan Ben-Dov,”Introduction”
2. Jonathan Ben-Dov, “Time and Natural Law in Jewish-Hellenistic Writing”
3. Sacha Stern, “Calendars, Politics, and Power Relations in the Roman Empire”
4. Jörg Rüpke, “Doubling Religion in the Augustan Age: Shaping Time for an Empire”
5. John Steele, “Real and Constructed Time in Babylonian Astral Medicine”
6. Robert Hannah, “The Intellectual Background of the Antikythera Mechanism”
7. Alexandra von Lieven, “Divine Figurations of Time in Ancient Egypt”
8. Lorenzo Verderame, “The Moon and the Power of Time Reckoning in Ancient Mesopotamia”
9. SeungJung Kim, “Toward a Phenomenology of Time in Ancient Greek Art”
10. Sarit Kattan Gribetz, “Women’s Bodies as Metaphors for Time in Biblical, Second Temple, and Rabbinic Literature”
11. Lutz Doering, “The Beginning of Sabbath and Festivals in Ancient Jewish Sources”
12. Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra, “Seasoning the Bible and Biblifying Time through Fixed Liturgical Reading Systems (Lectionaries)”
13. Robert Hayward, “The Roman Ember Days of September and the Jewish New Year”
14. Clemens Leonhard, “Celebrations and the Abstention from Celebrations of Sacred Time in Early Christianity”


1. Jörg Rüpke, Kalendar und Öffentlichkeit: Die Geschichte der Repräsentation und religiösen Qualifikation von Zeit in Rom (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1995); Denis Feeney, Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Robert Hannah, Time in Antiquity (London: Routledge, 2009); Sacha Stern, Calendars in Antiquity: Empires, States, and Societies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

2. E.g., “Down to the Hour: Perspectives on Short Time in the Ancient Mediterranean” (University of Chicago, February 2017), “The Day Unit in Antiquity and the Middle Ages” (Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, June 2018), and “Conflicting Chronologies in the Pre-Modern World” (University College Dublin, October 2018).