BMCR 2023.07.02

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, 8. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. Pp. xii, 297. ISBN 9789004373471.


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


This illuminating collection traces its origins to a panel on the “Representation of Time in the Hellenistic and Roman World” at the 2015 meeting of the Society for Classical Studies[1] and a subsequent conference at the University of Chicago in 2017, entitled “Down to the Hour: Perspectives on Short Time in the Ancient Mediterranean”, though several chapters were commissioned separately [vii]. Originally a collaboration between Miller and the late Robert Germany, Symons was able to help see the project to completion in his stead.

The great strength of this volume is its presentation of a variety of historical and cultural contexts in which the ancients observed, calculated, conceived of, or referenced units of “short time”. Strictly speaking, this is taken to mean any unit shorter than “the visible daily circuit of the sun” [2], but most often the authors are looking at hours or units of similar length. The nine contributions proceed roughly chronologically, moving from Egypt (Chs. 1, 2) to Mesopotamia (Ch. 3), Greece (Chs. 4-5, 8), and finally Rome (Chs. 4, 6-9). Given, the predominance of contributions on Rome, this volume might be of particular interest to Romanists, eager to move beyond an understanding of short time based primarily on the description of what is done at each hour of a day in Martial 4.8 (which merits a sole mention [230]).

As part of the brief introductory chapter, the editors present their goals: to survey how short time is measured and why it is measured in these ways, to determine how such methods fit with their broader cultural contexts, and to determine what applications of such precise time measurement are attested.

Chapters 1 (Symons, “Sun and Stars: Astronomical Timekeeping in Ancient Egypt”) and 2 (von Lieven and Schomberg, “The Ancient Egyptian Water Clock between Religious Significance and Scientific Functionality”) are a complementary pair, covering Egyptian sundials and star clocks, and water clocks, respectively. These chapters are more expository than argumentative, each presenting a survey of evidence for time measurement based both on observations of heavenly bodies and independent of such observations. Symons disputes some particulars of how Egyptian sundials were used and proposes alternatives to prevailing theories. Much of the second half of Chapter 1 is given over to refutations of Neugebauer and Parker’s[3] interpretation of star clocks (tables of which stars would be visible at which points of the night), arguing that they functioned more as calendars than clocks. The focus here in on what these sundials and star clocks were capable of measuring. Chapter 2 also provides a technical overview of how Egyptian water clocks worked (to measure the time of the night, in contrast to Greek klepsydrae which functioned more as timers). Much of the discussion centers on how where and when the water clocks were used, in contrast to where and when they were made, which could render their hour markings inaccurate. Von Lieven and Schomberg conclude that misunderstanding, mischaracterization, and poor differentiation of types have hindered understanding of these clocks.

Steele’s Chapter 3 (“Short Time in Mesopotamia”) surveys the contexts in which Mesopotamians used manmade units of short time, as opposed to the units of long time (thought to be given by the gods), which have occupied scholarly attention. A dearth of references in letters gives the sense that units of short time played little role in daily life, while historical texts, too, almost never feature units of time shorter than a day. Steele argues that the rare references found in literary works such as the epic of Gilgamesh serve a primarily dramatic effect. Ritual, medical, and omen texts occasionally indicate when events do or ought to occur, but it is astronomical and astrological texts where short times are most prevalent. The astronomical texts can be impractically precise, such that scholars cannot determine how such fine units of time would have been measured. Horoscopes are clearer, with an hour-like system for the day, and a less precise set of watches for the night.

Jones, in Chapter 4 (“Greco-Roman Sundials: Precision and Displacement”), grapples with the counterintuitive problem of whether a timepiece’s accuracy undermines its precision. He asks whether the paucity of references to subunits of the hour in Roman texts is a function of a lack of instruments to measure such units, noting that Roman hours are generally treated as points at which something happens or blocks during which something happens. He also investigates whether inaccuracies were introduced by sundials being calibrated for their places of manufacture, rather than installation, and whether average Romans using these instruments would have been aware of such discrepancies. It is the same problem of transposition seen in reference to Egyptian water clocks in Chapter 2. After an overview of how a transposition would introduce inaccuracies, Jones analyzes 3D models of 11 sundials to see whether they were calibrated for where they were used. He finds that Roman sundials, though capable of measuring fractional hours, were not used for such and that sundials were also capable of latitudinal displacement with minimal loss of accuracy.

In Chapter 5 (“Cosmology and Ideal Society: the Division of the Day into Hours in Plato’s Laws”), Sattler argues that Plato’s Laws is the first time we see the unit of the hour in Greek philosophy and, possibly, the first time that ὥρα is used as a unit of time referring to 1/12 of a day, rather than to seasons or times more generally. Following an overview of the role time and calendar play in Greek thought from the Archaic period through to Plato, she traces the development of Greek engagement with short time, starting from morning, evening, etc., to watches of the night vel sim., to countable hours. Her argument that the earliest use of ὥρα as “hour” comes not at the end of the 4th century BCE, but in Plato’s Laws, hinges on a reading of Laws 784a1-b1; what others take as a reference to a third part of a day, she takes instead as the third part of an hour during which a council meets. The rationale is that daily meetings of c. 8 hours would be entirely unreasonable for the women on this council, especially given all their other responsibilities, and that 20 minutes makes much more sense. Sattler stresses that Plato was the first philosophical author to use the hour as a temporal concept, offering increasingly pedantic dismissals of Herodotus, Aristophanes, and Xenophon’s awareness of the hour.

Ker’s Chapter 6 (“Diurnal Selves in Ancient Rome”) looks at the relationship of short time to patterns of daily life in a Roman context. He draws primarily on Seneca, especially Epistulae morales 122. Ker establishes normal patterns of Roman elite life in order to show how Seneca presents a counterexample to such normality, via the example of those with more nocturnal schedules, whom Seneca treats as morally flawed. Ker concedes this may simply be an opportunity for Seneca to disparage those with whom he disagrees. The morality of time and the notional Roman’s use thereof seems an overriding concern for Ker, and it is difficult when reading this chapter to gauge whether his interest is in the use of time in people’s daily lives or simply in the use of time as a literary construct to define one’s ethical character.

In Chapter 7 (“Time, Punctuality, and Chronotopes: Concepts and Attitudes Concerning Short Time in Ancient Rome”), Wolkenhauer continues the theme of Roman daily life, looking at the intertwined concepts of punctuality and lateness. She connects the development of timekeeping technology to increasing time awareness among Romans and to a need for timepieces that could record ever-finer units of time. With a focus on the elite, she shows how different standards applied in urban contexts (where specific actions were deemed appropriate at certain times), as opposed to rural contexts (where there was more flexibility in scheduling one’s day). The overwhelmingly literary source material limits the analysis. Epigraphic evidence, treated at length by some authors she cites but given limited attention in her chapter [4], provides a window into time awareness among other social classes, especially regarding units finer than an hour.

Heilen’s Chapter 8 (“Short Time in Greco-Roman Astrology”) stands out for its clear and erudite presentation of a complex topic. After explaining the uses of hyperfine units of time in horoscopes, he adds that the difficulty inherent in measuring such intervals formed the basis for much ancient criticism of astrology and its practitioners. He argues that such instances of precision are more about giving the appearance of accuracy, rather than being demonstrations of the accuracy possible by observing the heavenly bodies, and finds that these units had a primarily theoretical significance, but struggled to find practical applications.

Finally, Chapter 9 (“Hourly Timekeeping and the Problem of Irregular Fevers”), by Miller, uses a treatise of Galen, wherein he differentiates himself from contemporaries by recording fevers at certain hours, as a case study on  ancient observations of the progression of fevers. Galen is presented as exceptional in his use of hours, rather than days, to chart fever progressions, but Miller concedes that he was merely more rigorous than contemporaries in his use of hours, showing greater interest in measuring durations in hours, as opposed to simply noting times. This chapter is more interested in Galen’s argumentation than in his use of short time, and Miller is unable to articulate whether Galen’s reasoning represents applied methodology or a rhetorical exercise.

In an edited volume some measure of inconsistency is to be expected. While this collection provides insightful overviews of topics from Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman contexts, its parts do not necessarily form a coherent whole. Some contributions are expository overviews, others advance new arguments; some sample broad evidence pertaining to entire societies, while others limit themselves to the works of single authors; some make themselves accessible by providing translations to ancient texts, others do not; some provide approachable introductions, others are deeply technical and will bewilder all but the most advanced specialists.

The crowning achievement of this volume is that it brings together disparate examples of contexts in which short times were used in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds. Several themes recur across contributions: the precision of time units vs. the accuracy with which they can be measured, the utility of measuring short time, the development of technologies for measuring short time, and the accessibility of such time keeping technologies to ancient peoples. Despite the editors’ goal of putting the contributions “in conversation” [3], the authors at times seem unaware of their co-contributors’ discussions of related topics, and it is a shame that the editors did not add in cross-references more consistently throughout the volume. Scholars consulting individual chapters will not necessarily be pointed to others that might enrich their research in unexpected and rewarding ways. Likewise, the lack of a brief concluding chapter to tie together the various contributions seems a missed opportunity. Thankfully, such quibbles do little to detract from a thoughtful and well-produced collection.


Authors and Titles

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



[1] Curiously, the first sentence of the book dates this to 2016 [vii], but otherwise the volume seems free of factual errors.

[2] The editors’ definition here seems limiting, as it excludes the night, when the sun is not visible, yet many of the contributions deal with the measurement of short time at night. While some languages distinguish easily between “day”, being the period when the sun is up, and “day”, referring to the nychthemeron (the 24-hour cycle of a day and a night), English struggles here.

[3] Otto Neugebauer and Richard A. Parker, Egyptian Astronomical Texts (3 vols.). Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1960-1969.

[4] E.g., Franco Luciani,  “Ultimi minuti di vita: Le suddivisioni dell’hora nelle epigrafi funerarie latine,” in Franco Luciani, Chiara Maratini, and Annapaola Zaccaria Ruggiu, eds., Temporalia. Itinerari nel tempo e sul tempo. Padua: Sargon, 2009, 121-144.