BMCR 2023.01.34

Conceptions of time in Greek and Roman antiquity

, , , Conceptions of time in Greek and Roman antiquity. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. 247. ISBN 9783110739480.

Open Access

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


The present volume offers seven essays dealing with time in the ancient world. The introduction suggests that it is heir to Darbo-Peschanski (Constructions du temps dans le monde grec ancien, 2000, Paris) while being wider in scope (including the Roman as well as the Greek world) and smaller in scale (8 rather than 22 chapters). Contributors are interested in how views of time are realized in written texts or social practices, and so the volume does not address how time was measured or preceived. That hardly narrows the potential ambit of the collection; in practice it addresses widely different aspects of time in widely divergent fields with little connection among them. The introduction mentions the overarching themes of human time, time and language, and time and narrative literature, but these do not organize the collection. Readers will thus find, not a book about time, but a series of independent essays.

The first contribution addresses grammatical time. In “The debate on the question of ‘tense’ and ‘aspect’in the Stoics’ linguistic theory,” Giovanni Manetti takes us on a deep dive into views about tenses of the Greek verb. For reasons that become clearer later on, Manetti begins with Stoic theories of physical time, arguing in particular that the present is not punctual but extended. Then a general account of tense and aspect according to the Stoics is followed by a detailed analysis of scholars’ reconstructions of the relation between them. Manetti endorses the reconstruction of Claudia Márisco whereby the tenses are classified first by aspect (perfective vs imperfective) and then by temporal quantity (definite vs indefinite), adding that the Stoics’ attention to the latter follows from their interest in extended physical time. Like a good review article, this chapter offers a clear and convincing synthesis of research on the topic.

We then turn to cosmological time. Susannah Ashton in “Chance, relativity, and Empedocles’ cycle(s) of time” argues against a mechanistic and deterministic view of time, which she assumes is implied by the Florentine scholia. She does not show that the scholia entail a deterministic model, nor do scholars claim that it does. Empedocles’ cosmos is generally understood to involve a regular cycle of developments at the macrocosmic level while being subject to chance at the microcosmic level; attaching numbers to portions of his macrocosmic cycle as the scholia do does not make the system deterministic. Ashton’s positive argument points to interesting temporal features in Empedocles. The movement of the sun varies, since at one time a day lasted as long as ten months do now, and therefore cannot be a reliable measure of time. The chance interactions of elements or rhizomes make developments unpredictable. The earthborn ancestors of humans emerged during a ten-month-long night, so humans are bound up with changing time-spans. And analogies between the cosmos and living things suggest that the cosmic cycle may be somehow organic. Taken together, we find “a tumultuous explosion of different temporalities.”

Material time is the subject of Richard Hutchins in “Lucretius’ theory of temporality: Aetas in de Rerum Natura.” He begins by teasing out the implications of a passage in Book One, where Lucretius includes time among the accidents rather than the properties of things. Time does not exist in itself but is an outcome of our perception of atomic motions. It follows that time is neither objective nor subjective but relational, arising from material things but only through perceptions of them. What then of Lucretius’ narrative in Book Five, where time might seem to be the vehicle in which earth changes, and plants and animals arise? Hutchins points out that the successive different conditions are material states from which time emerges. In the following narrative of human culture, the understanding of time is connected to philosophical inquiry. Early humans had an empirical apprehension of celestial time in observing days and nights and seasons. This grasp of the material cosmos was upstaged by a superstitious fear of celestial powers, but the exercise of reason can allow humans to regain an understanding of their well-ordered world. Hence reason (ratio) and time (aetas) converge in the closing tribute to human endeavors.

Medical time is the subject of “Le temps des crises chez Galien” by Vivien Longhi. Galen was the great systematizer of Hippocratic medicine, and Longhi argues that he developed the understanding of critical days in two ways. First, he laid out more clearly the different kinds of days, the periods of chronic illness, and the time of a disease’s onset. Second, he situated these within an Aristotelian model of nature ordered according to logos. Just as there is a natural temporal progression in the development of an embryo, there is a natural progression in the course of disease, and the favorable seventh day is “royal” for Galen because it illustrates this ruling function. On one hand, external accidents may disrupt the progression of an illness; on another, the movements of moon and stars can account for certain days being favorable or harmful. Longhi concludes by conceding that Galen’s systematic model runs the risk of favoring dogmatism over empiricism.

We turn to narrative time in Sophia Papaioannou’s contribution, “Temporality and ekphrastic narrative in the Aeneid.” Papaioannou considers three ekphrases that each comprise a number of scenes: the murals on Juno’s temple in Carthage, the sculptures on the temple of Apollo at Cumae, and the scenes on the shield of Aeneas. The first narrates episodes from the Trojan War which do not follow chronological order and do not seem to follow a spatial arrangement; their thematic arrangement as battle scenes excluding Aeneas is taken to indicate an open and self-referential narrative. The sculptures at Cumae by Daedalus are not narrated in chronological or spatial sequence; their theme is deception, while omission of Ariadne’s abandonment may allude both to Catullus 64 and Dido in Book 4, which Papaioannou calls “regressive temporality.” The scenes on Aeneas’ shield are narrated in chronological order, although the series is selective and non-continuous; the series ends with the battle of Actium, which marks both the end of history and a new beginning in a pattern replicated in the reorganized calendar. The ekphrasis thus embodies the temporality of Augustan ideology.

Historical time is addressed by Emmanuel Golfin in “La compréhension du passé chez les premiers historiens grecs: Étude sur les emplois de πάλαι et d’ἀρχή.” Golfin tabulates the occurrences of these words and their relatives (especially παλαιός and ἀρχαῖος) in Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, finding a marked preference for the latter in Herodotus, for the former in Thucydides, and a slight preference for the latter in Xenophon. Herodotus’ corresponding interest in origins (ἀρχαί) can be connected with the motif of πρῶτος εὑρετής and his lack of hellenocentrism. Thucydides’ contrasting interest in elapsed time (πάλαι) can be connected to his concern with present events and mechanisms of change. Xenophon’s slight preference for origin-words belies his concern with contemporary history. Herodotus’ interest in origins allows him to incude some non-rationalized myths; Thucydides’ interest in elapsed time admits mythic elements only in confirming his view of change in the present; Xenophon’s lack of interest in the past means he makes no use of myth except to report an orator’s citation. These distinctions are summed up by contrasting Herodotus’ search for past causes with Thucydides’ interest in present process and Xenophon’s concern with moral order.

Finally we come to ‘secular time.’ In “The transformation of the saeculum and its rhetoric in the construction and rejection of roman imperial power,” Susan Bilynskyj Dunning traces the religious and political uses of the term from the Late Republic to Late Antiquity. The ludi saeculares instituted under Augustus drew upon associations of saeculum with a hundred-year span and with the foundation of cities to let the emperor inaugurate a new age for Rome. Subsequent emperors held Saecular Games to mark their own reigns as new beginnings and to connect them with the peace and prosperity of the first principate. By the third century, emperors proclaimed their reigns as inaugurating a new age even without the games, while Christian writers increasingly contrasted the present secular age with the eternal world beyond. Dunning’s story is rich in detail, and concludes by noting that the Roman saeculum was not used to mark temporal periods, and does not fit into categories such as linear versus cyclical or progress versus decline.

As this summary should indicate, individual essays are well-written, original and largely persuasive. Scholars of many interests and specialties will find something rewarding between the book’s covers.


Authors and Titles

Richard Faure, Simon-Pierre Valli, Introduction: From theoretical to practical time in antiquity

Giovanni Manetti, The debate on the question of “tense” and “aspect” in the Stoics’ linguistic theory

Susannah Ashton, Chance, relativity, and Empedocles’ cycle(s) of time

Richard Hutchins, Lucretius’ theory of temporality: Aetas in de Rerum Natura

Vivien Longhi, Le temps des crises chez Galien

Sophia Papaioannou, Temporality and ekphrastic narrative in the Aeneid

Emmanuel Golfin, La compréhension du passé chez les premiers historiens grecs: Étude sur les emplois de πάλαι et d’ἀρχή

Susan Bilynskyj Dunning, The transformation of the saeculum and its rhetoric in the construction and rejection of roman imperial power