BMCR 2021.05.12

Zeit in den Kulturen des Altertums: Antike Chronologie im Spiegel der Quellen

, , Zeit in den Kulturen des Altertums antike Chronologie im Spiegel der Quellen. Wien: Böhlau Verlag, 2020. Pp. 688. ISBN 9783412518158 €80,00.

To start with a bad pun: the book presented here, the result of work carried out in the DFG-funded network “Chronos”, is a timely publication. Historicizing temporalities has recently been put back on the historical agenda,[1] and comparative studies that go beyond Greece and Rome are on the rise once more. These developments bode well for a compilation that assembles material from Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as from the Greek and Roman worlds, spanning more than three millennia of history and various languages. The editors describe the book as a “Repertorium” (p. 12), but do not claim to offer the comprehensive coverage usually associated with the word. The same page commends the collection as introductory reading for teachers and scholars, and this is indeed what we get: 60 numbered entries on individual items, each with explanations of technical aspects and a historical commentary, single-authored by one of the 15 members of the network (the exception is no. 38 on the Antikythera mechanism, which has two authors). They are divided into four thematic blocks: there are 12 entries on Egypt (3rd millennium BCE to the Roman period), 15 on the “Orient” (still common in German) and Judaism, 13 on Greece, and 20 on Rome. The precise topic—“time” and “chronology”—is narrowed down somewhat in the introduction, which puts an emphasis on “social time” (also the subtitle of the network) as an object of study, but also gives ample space to the practical aspects of “orientation in time” and to the political manipulation of time as a demonstration of authority. There is little that historians will miss here, with one exception noted at the end of this review.

Neither the book nor the individual contributions (with a few exceptions) seek to argue for a specific hypothesis: the stated aim is to collect knowledge and present it in an accessible way. This review cannot therefore report on and evaluate a “case”, but some further impressions of the content will be helpful. The Egyptian collection starts with the Palermo stone (no. 1), the earliest remnant of annalistic historiography. The entry sets the tone for the rest of the volume: we do not get a full text and translation, but a representative sample on one page. The discussion is presented in a matter-of-fact style, reporting editions and translations as well as similar material and then offering some commentary on the style and function of the text. One might have wished for a fuller investigation into the nature of time as it is presented here—a continuum divisible by royal years and visualized in an orderly, linear fashion. Here as elsewhere, the somewhat speculative questions usually posed in studies of “social time” appear less important than conveying factually accurate knowledge: some may regret this restraint, but it may well increase the book’s value as a handbook. Other entries highlight elite grave monuments with astronomical depictions that in turn inform notions of the passing of time (no. 2-5, 8), but also practical devices such as water clocks and sun-dials (no. 6 and 7). The technical knowledge needed to understand some of these monuments is considerable. The explanations are accessible but also dense; no. 9 in particular (the protector gods of days of a lunar month in the temple of Horus at Edfu) left this reviewer somewhat stranded. The “Oriental” block unsurprisingly gives us quite a bit of astronomy again (no. 17, 19-20, 22), but also makes more space for ritual: seasonal festivals (no. 14, 21), purification rituals (no. 15), and a handbook for incantations (no. 18) all give occasion to reflect on time spans and their rationale.

The Greek section then introduces rather different considerations: among the first five entries are Hesiod (no. 28, cleverly combined with Virgil), Solon (no. 29), Pindar (no. 30), and Callimachus (no. 32). Factual descriptions give way to elegantly written, highly complex but largely self-contained pieces of literary analysis (particularly on Pindar and Callimachus); translations are now taken from standard editions rather than being created by the contributors, unlike as is the case in the majority of the Egyptian and “Oriental” entries. Of course the nature of these “Classical” texts and their scholarly history is quite different from much of the material in the earlier blocks; the change of tone is based on different scholarly traditions and the respective challenges that come with them. This is not to say that the Greek section is devoid of entries on the practical aspects of timekeeping: a Rhodian list of eponyms (no. 31), the Tower of the Winds (no. 37), and the Milesian Parapegmata (no. 38) all make an appearance, and the reviewer is pleased to say that he now understands a bit better what the Antikythera mechanism might have been about (no. 38).[2] The Roman section has the largest number of entries, but it is only here that we get a very clear thematic focus: eight of the 20 entries focus on calendars, e.g. Ovid’s reconstruction of the early history of the Roman calendar (no. 42), Varro’s notes on month names (no. 44), or the calendar reforms of Caesar and Augustus (no. 46 and 49). But there is enough variety here as well: suffice it to point out the very interesting discussions of what it might have meant to donate a clock to a city in newly provincialized Portugal (no. 47), details of the Roman military mailing system and its timekeeping (no. 52), and the ever-exciting question of the origins of Christmas and its relation to the birthday of Sol Invictus (no. 57).

It will be clear from the examples that there is no overarching definition of “time” that motivates the choice of examples: the emphasis is on variety, on different ways to measure, organize, experience, or write about time. There are a few cases where the connection with (concepts of) time is vague and some where it is hard to spot at all. No. 13, placed at the beginning of the “Oriental” block, is a capable discussion of the historical reliability of Hittite annalistic writing – this is good to know, but somewhat out of place here (perhaps the idea is to create a parallel with no. 1 on the Palermo stone?). The same can be said about no. 15 on purification rituals: they happen at specified times, as many things in life tend to do, but that is all we learn about time here. No. 45 discusses in detail Cicero’s emotional reaction upon receipt of Atticus’ (lost) liber annalis: would it have been very different if Atticus had given him some timeless poetry? However, such cases are rare, and in general the relationship of a text or monument to time (if not always to “social time”) is clear enough.

The editors have put significant effort into giving the book a unified appearance. Each thematic block starts with an introduction that covers largely similar ground, adapted to the respective cultures. Each entry is organised in the same way, with the text (or, as with the Tower of the Winds, a description of the monument) followed by contextual information, an explanation of technical aspects, and a “socio-cultural evaluation”. There are numerous cross-references that link related entries across different cultures. This 60-fold repetition of the same basic structure facilitates the identification of parallels, but it also leads to entries that can stand on their own, a bit like encyclopedia entries. As a result, no attempt seems to have been made to avoid repetitions. Identical information appears on p. 29 and 98 (on the beginning and end of Egyptian days), on p. 26, 122 and 132 (on the Egyptian calendar), and on p. 130 and 138 (two different contributors introducing the temple of Hathor at Dendera). The Roman block is particularly prone to this repetition because it focuses so heavily on calendars. We are told on three separate occasions that ancient claims about an original Roman calendar with 10 months are wrong (p. 457, 473-474, 489-490), and if a reader who gets to the end of the book still does not know about Caesar’s calendar reform and the failure of the priests to handle its intercalation requirements, it is not for lack of emphasis: it is explained on p. 458, 501-508 (no. 46: Suet. Iul. 40.1-2), 526, 534-535, and 616, by four different contributors. Reading the book from cover to cover may thus remain a task for reviewers, not for the intended readership. However, doing so does occasionally yield additional insights that are not made explicit in the book. Thus we learn in no. 49 about Augustus’ calendar reform that the priestly intercalation mistakes after Caesar’s reform were called a vitium by Macrobius and Solinus but mere neglegentia by Suetonius (p. 535); attentive readers will remember the discussion of no. 46, where Caesar’s own reform is justified by the very same Suetonius with priestly vitium pre-46 BCE, whereas Cicero merely saw it as neglegentia (p. 505). This overlap in both terminology and topic would have made for a good comparative discussion, but as no. 46 and 49 were assigned to different contributors, we do not even get a cross-reference.

A selection of 60 sources from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman antiquity cannot possibly be criticized for omitting important pieces. One can always debate priorities: might not one of the many entries related to Caesar or Augustus have been relegated to a side note to make room for something as important and innovative as the first continuous era in history, established by Seleucus I and sanctified in the “temple of day one” at Babylon?[3] But such debates may well be futile and would inevitably be shaped by individual research interests. One gap should nevertheless be addressed, because it goes well beyond minutiae. While not everyone will be familiar with concepts of “social time” as explained in the introduction, most readers will probably agree on a definition of time as a succession of events from past to present to future – the usual meaning given in dictionaries. The book has a lot to say about pasts, and quite a bit about the ways people measured time in the present. The future, in contrast, is absent from the book. This reviewer has found a single explicit reference on p. 627—a side-note on Evagrius Scholasticus and his attempt to predict future plagues using indiction cycles. There is nothing in the introduction and nothing in other contributions to suggest that “orientation in time” does not stop in the here and now (although it is arguably implied in the entries on astronomy). Perhaps the editors simply adhere to the traditional view that ancient societies did not have a future; perhaps the focus on practical matters such as calendars justifies the exclusion of such famous passages as Augustine’s discussion of praeteritum, praesens, and futurum (Confessions 11.14).[4] However, one might have expected a book designed as introductory reading to say something on all three aspects commonly recognised as constituting “time”.

The book is well produced, with very few mistakes and good quality of images. Readers whose knowledge of decans and heliacal risings is a bit rusty will be grateful for the glossary provided at the end. All things considered, this is an interesting volume: it does not make the coherent case that a more focused question would have allowed for, but it is difficult to imagine a reader who will not learn something new here. The book thus provides a helpful service both for teachers looking for solid information and for scholars who are interested in the historical study of time.


[1] See for example the “Viewpoints” section in Past & Present 243 (2019).

[2] Of course, the authors could not yet incorporate the new study by Freeth et al. that recently made many headlines.

[3] Discussed in detail by P. Kosmin, Time and its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire, Cambridge (MA) 2018. In our book, the Seleucid era is mentioned on p. 285, but only to explain a date – as the text is Babylonian, the beginning of the era should here be corrected (spring 311, not 312 BCE).

[4] See e.g. L. Hölscher, Die Entdeckung der Zukunft, Frankfurt am Main 1999; more recently B. Shaw, “Did the Romans Have a Future?” JRS 109 (2019), 1-26.