BMCR 2020.11.44

Down to the hour: short time in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East

, , Down to the hour: short time in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. Time, astronomy, and calendars: texts and studies, volume 8. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. Pp. xi, 297. ISBN 9789004373471 €135,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book consists of 9 articles focussing on different sources testifying to the role and aspects of short time intervals in the different cultural centres of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. The chapters are the revised versions of papers presented at the conference “Down to the Hour: Short Time in the Ancient Mediterranean Near East” (organized by Miller in 2017, Chicago). The issues treated and questions posed are important, diverse and comprehensive. The contributors comprise ten experts in such different fields as literature, history, history of science, papyrology, and material culture of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. The sources analysed span from 2000 BC to 600 AD. Therefore, we do not get an easy-to-read overview over time measuring in the Mediterranean and Near East; but 9 vistas into the investigations and findings of 10 experts from very different disciplines. They bring together, for the first time, perspectives on the interplay between timekeeping technologies for short time Intervals and their social contexts in the old high cultures of Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Before reviewing the book, I shall start with a few general comments and thoughts. The earliest objects treated in this book come from ca. 2000 BC. At that time, the complex societies in Egypt and Mesopotamia had highly developed bookkeeping, calendars and means to intersect day and night into smaller intervals. But how to measure time when you do not know what time is – or how to define it? That is a very difficult task. Is the length of a day well represented by the horizontal arc from the point of the sun’s rising to the point of its setting? Or is it better to look at the lengths (or movement) of the shadow cast by the moving sun? Or what about the moving stars at the nightly sky: do they give a usable means of time keeping? Or will the water flowing out of a little hole in a big bowl deliver a practical instrument for measuring time? How to harmonize the methods (which of two methods is better if they do not give the same result?) and how to standardize time measuring methods? Here I have tried to describe the situation of people in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, as they started to intersect the day and night in smaller units of time. The situation in Greece and Rome was of course much better; they could build upon the knowledge, methods and technologies already developed.

The introduction gives the scope, aims and themes of the book (I quote p. 2):

• To assess key short timekeeping methods and, where possible, to describe, their technical and conceptual development;
• To explore why certain timekeeping technologies were preferred to others in different contexts across the ancient Mediterranean;
• To investigate how these technologies influenced and were influenced by social and cultural structures, intellectual trends, and modes of expression; and
• To detect “Imprints” made by time-related activities, which we now see evidenced in a wide variety of textual and material contexts.

These different aims are broad and important and carried out in the diverse chapters. The “conceptual models for studying ancient timekeeping” are presented in section 1.1, while section 1.2 elucidates “how hourly timekeeping intersects with other intellectual developments”. Finally, titles and summaries of the contributions are listed.

In “Sun and Stars: Astronomical Timekeeping in Ancient Egypt”, Sarah L. Symons presents comprehensively and systematically the archaeological records of ancient Egypt that relate to measurement of short times. Symons compares 12 methods which were used for time measurement through 12 significant questions to the format, output and technique of the instrument, including: Where does time come from? What was the object used for? How is time reported to the user? Is this object’s time supposed to match that told by other objects in its class or beyond its class? Then she gives a detailed presentation of all known types of objects utilizing astronomical phenomena as time indicators, and she refers to (astronomical mythological) texts relevant for the object in question. Four types of sundials are presented and the diagonal star clocks are treated and explained in detail. Symons analyses the decan stars in more detail than Neugebauer and Parker,[1] weakening one of their conclusions. She shows convincingly that it is quite impossible to find actual stars which have their heliacal rising on the right date, and which also rise at regular time intervals during the night. Therefore, the decans were used to define (uneven) time intervals during the night. Concluding, she notices that each type of sundial, star- or water clock maintains its own relationship with time, and that the link between these devices, if any, remains obscure.

Alexandra von Lieven and Anette Schomberg’s “The Ancient Egyptian Water Clock between Religious Significance and Scientific Functionality” follows. The cultural and religious aspects of the hour are discussed on the basis of Egyptian ritual scriptures. The water clock is presented, using the clepsydra from Karnak as a model. The iconography indicates that the clepsydra was used as alternative to the decans of the diagonal star clocks to measure the hours of the night. For each of a civil year’s 12 months, a row of holes inside the clepsydra was used to find the actual hour of the night. The functionality of the out-flow clock, form, and hour scales are treated in detail. Schromberg stresses that 11 hour markers are enough since “at the end of the 12th hour, the Sun had risen or set. (This remark might be misleading, when arguing on the Karnak clepcydra, which measured night hours. But of course, other clepsydra may have been constructed to measure day hours.) Schromberg argues that month nine (and not month 10) corresponded to summer solstice, the shortest night. This would imply that the Karnak clock is around 250 years older than formerly estimated. The power of tradition is evident once again: Despite the fact that much better functioning clocks were available, such clepsydra were used in Egyptian temples in the Late Middle Ages to determine the right time for sacrifices and rituals.

John Steele in “Short Time in Mesopotamia” gives a very nice and pedagogical survey of where and how precise times and short times were used. He introduces the two types of short-time reckonings used in Mesopotamia: seasonally-varying time units, where day and night are split into 3 watches each, and the fixed-length time unit bēru, subdivided into UŠ and NINDA. Then he illustrates how short times were used in all kinds of cuneiform writings. He selects examples where points of time or short times were mentioned: in letters, historical texts, literary texts, medical texts, omen texts, and in astronomical texts. Only in the astral sciences, short-time indication, reckoning and measuring was used extensively; but outside the astral sciences short time indications appear very rarely. He therefore concludes that short time was of comparatively little importance in everyday life in Mesopotamia.

Alexander Jones treats “Greco-Roman Sundials: Precision and Displacement”. Jones notices that astronomical textual sources alone specify times to a precision finer than an hour. He presents the six main types of Greco-Roman sundials elucidating the problem of reading fractional hours on sundials. Then he addresses the consequences of eventually displaced sundials: the hour-boundary points will indicate the correct hour; only a check with the calendar day curves around the solstices would indicate a displacement. Finally, digital 3D Models (with very effective and elegant new methods) are used to determine the latitudes for which eleven roofed spherical sundials were constructed. Three geometrical features are utilized to determine the latitude of each of them. The results agree acceptably in all cases.

In “Cosmology and Ideal Society: the Division of the Day into Hours in Plato’s Laws”, Barbara M. Sattler concentrates on the Greek word ὢρα, which until the late 4th century BC commonly refers to the seasons, or to a special or fitting time to do something. Later the word ὢρα just meant “hour”. Sattler gives good arguments for her claim that the usage of ὢρα meaning “hour” occurred as early as in Plato’s philosophical text Laws. Here the word is used to indicate the duration of daily councils; only when understood as “hour” does the duration of 1/3 of a hora for the daily meetings make sense.

James Ker writes about “Diurnal Selves in Ancient Rome”. By “diurnal selves” Ker understands “the portrayal of a person’s social and ethical life through reference to the temporal patterning of their days”. Examples of day patterns from Greco-Roman literature are quoted together with the suggestion that such hour management was a motive in the characterization of personalities. The main focus is laid on Seneca’s scriptures, especially on his Epistulae morales, where Seneca agitates against those “antipodes” who sleep during daytime and have their acting time during the night. They are anti-social and live against nature.

Anja Wolkenhauer writes on “Time, Punctuality, and Chronotopes: Concepts and Attitudes Concerning Short Time in Ancient Rome”. A chronotope denotes the specific time structuring on a particular location. Based on Pliny’s Naturalis Historia, Wolkenhauer presents the development and methods of time measurement in Rome: Around 450 BC, there were only two and later four fixed moments during the day, whereas around 159 BC, a water clock facilitated the identification of 24 moments each day. Then she concentrates on Roman literature, quoting mostly Pliny, to illustrate the difference in the temporal structure of the particular locations: the political center of Rome (Forum Romanum), the city (urbs), and the country (villa). The forum was the central place for the social regulation of short time (at law court, speaking times were regulated by water clocks measuring short times of 3 to 6 minutes). In the city, short times played a lesser role, and on the countryside even less.

Stephan Heilen analyses “Short Time in Greco-Roman Astrology”. Astrology had a massive cultural impact in antiquity, testified through a huge number of sources: treatises, astronomical/astrological schemes and horoscopes. Heilen gives an overview and explanation of the different types of ancient astrology: horoscopes and schemes of time-rulership for finding the right time for different actions. In most cases the time was given by the hour, i.e. to the standard precision. In all sorts of activities and astrology, a precision down to the seasonal hour was omnipresent. Artificial (or constructed) higher and extreme precision is only found in schemes called the “Egyptian terms” and in special horoscopes, respectively. Astrologers revealed their competence through the precision of their expertise. The validity of their science depended more and more on the accuracy of time measurement. Maybe their needs co-determinated the aim of more accurate timekeeping in the ancient world.

Kassandra Jackson Miller investigates how the “Hourly Timekeeping and the Problem of Irregular Fevers” played an important role in medical debates in the Roman period – especially in the writings of Galen. The question is how to explain the occurrence of irregular periodic fevers. Miller presents Galen’s fever typology, which is based on his conviction that the stocking of certain bodily “humors” (yellow bile, black bile and phlegm) results in varying fever with the period of 24, 48, and 72 hours, respectively. Within this framework, Galen uses mathematical arguments to prove that he is the better physician than his rival colleagues and that his approach for explaining irregular fevers is better and more scientific than theirs. The hourly measurement of fever is important – the hour being the shortest time interval considered.

Concluding remarks: The book is not a textbook on ancient timekeeping, but a typical heterogeneous conference proceeding. It presents new insights and interesting research into the perspectives on the interplay between timekeeping technologies for short time intervals and their social contexts in the old high cultures of the Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome. It is warmly recommended to everyone interested in ancient history and ancient astronomy or time keeping.

Authors and Titles

Sarah L. Symons: Sun and Stars: Astronomical Timekeeping in Ancient Egypt
Alexandra von Lieven and Anette Schomberg: The Ancient Egyptian Water Clock between Religious Significance and Scientific Functionality
John Steele: Short Time in Mesopotamia
Alexander Jones: Greco-Roman Sundials: Precision and Displacement
Barbara M. Sattler: Cosmology and Ideal Society: the Division of the Day into Hours in Plato’s Laws
James Ker: Diurnal Selves in Ancient Rome
Anja Wolkenhauer: Time, Punctuality, and Chronotopes: Concepts and Attitudes Concerning Short Time in Ancient Rome
Stephan Heilen: Short Time in Greco-Roman Astrology
Kassandra Jackson Miller: Hourly Timekeeping and the Problem of Irregular Fevers


[1] O. Neugebauer and R.A. Parker (1960) Egyptian Astronomical Texts I. The Early Decans. Providence RI. Brown University Press.