BMCR 2024.05.05

The ordered day: quotidian time and forms of life in ancient Rome

, The ordered day: quotidian time and forms of life in ancient Rome. Cultural histories of the ancient world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023. Pp. xiv, 458. ISBN 9781421445175.



“I am in time, and I speak about time, but I do not know what time is.” Augustine or Walter Map was right, time is hard to know. Consider the day. It is one of time’s more vivid and natural units, because of the apparent diurnal motion of the Sun. Days go by forgettable if ordinary, and yet quotidian repetition shapes lives, not to mention society. The younger Pliny, regarding the routines of his peers, said as much: Roman methods of atomizing the day both created lived banality and made it a cornerstone of social order. James Ker uses this insight to open The Ordered Day: Quotidian Time and Forms of Life in Ancient Rome, the value of which appears first in the clarity of organization it bestows on a subject that is as protean as its terms: day, time, hour, season, etc.

In three parts this book argues for the emergence and centrality of a concept of the everyday in the Roman world. Part one is a history of day-ordering technologies that allowed the day to become a unit of socio-cultural time, an interface between nature and the myriad social purposes of days, not least as an ordering device for empire. Part two is a more intimate exploration of “time portraits” (2) or “day patterns” (115), in which the careful arrangement of days served as the basis of social hierarchies and the ethical discourses that justified them. Part three samples the reception of the Roman day in monastic and liturgical contexts, concluding with early modern antiquarian investigations that spawned a modern literature on daily life in Rome exemplified by Jérôme Carcopino.

The introduction puts to rest any doubts about the timeliness of this book: we time-heads live in a moment made exciting by new scholarship and exhibitions, built upon earlier developments in the philosophy and sociology of time. For Romans, the day was at once manifestly natural and a primary coordinator of social order. The latter function was made possible by the day’s “basic parameters of synchronicity, sequence, and frequency (as well as duration; time location, that is the time at which something happens; and change)” (5). Ker charts a course between an extreme cultural relativism that would see Roman daily time as unlike any other culture’s and, on the other hand, a transhistoricity that would see our 4 am as their 4 am. Ker understands the Romans to have had something called here, in a vital four-part definition, clock time: the partition of the day into units; precision in scheduling;  devices for keeping daily time; and the “migration of time authority from the sun’s apparent course to other loci” (8).

While this book is deeply familiar with the scholarship on sundials and other ancient time devices (readers will encounter names such as Sharon Gibbs, de Solla Price, Richard Talbert, Alexander Jones, Jérôme Bonnin, et al.), there is a strong emphasis on literary analysis (hence the foregrounding of work such as Jean Starobinski’s 1984 essay “L’ordre du jour,” Christine Kondoleon’s 1999 article “Timing Spectacles: Roman Domestic Art and Performance,” Anja Wolkenhauer’s 2011 book Sonne und Mond, Kalendar und Uhr, and Daniel Gargola’s 2017 book The Shape of the Roman Order: The Republic and its Spaces). Indeed, this book can double as a sort of reference work or assembly from literary sources of “anecdotes, sourcebook style,” although it is hardly just that (119). More to the point: Ker sees literature as a time technology, orienting its authors and readers into quotidian experience.

Part One (“Ordering History”) is a diachronic history of Roman clock time. Chapter One (“In Search of Palamedes”) sets the figure of Palamedes, a person lauded in antiquity as the first inventor of hours, against a differential and nonteleological view of the division of the day. Ker moves deftly over a massive body of evidence, contextualizing and explaining clearly the difference between seasonal and equinoctial hours, the significance of numbered hours in postal archives from third century BCE Ptolemaic Egypt, the functioning and uses of sundials and water timers, fears of loss of control over the body prompted by its subjection to social schedules, diurnal timekeeping in Athens (the history in this chapter does not start or end in Rome), and the place diurnal metrics held in local, personal, and regional cosmologies. If the focus of the chapter rests on the middle republic, a coda switches to passages in two letters by Cassiodorus written in the voice of Theodoric the Ostrogothic king. These passages combine a providential view of clock time (in contrast to earlier cited thoughts from a Plautine parasite preserved by Aulus Gellius; the parasite views clock time as bad, oppressive) with wonder at the power of Roman artifice embodied in timepieces.

Chapter Two (“The Long-Legged Fly?”) turns to Julius Caesar, who might have some claim to being a real-life Palamedes. Ker pairs a tentative dating of certain timekeeping methods in the Roman world with sensitivity to the strategic use or non-use of temporal precision in Livy, Cicero, Caesar, and the author of de Bello Africo. Years and months are the units of time most readily associated with Caesar, but Ker makes the case for him as “a historical actor who contributed to putting the diurnal grid more front and center in the coordination of Roman social and cultural life” (78).

What did ancients themselves have to say about the arrival and development of clock time in Rome? Ker has already anticipated the question, but Chapter Three (“Telling Roman Time”) concentrates on it. Ker triangulates a reading of two extant works (Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and On Your Birthday by Censorinus) with a lost work upon which both depended, Varro’s Antiquities. Varro’s surviving writing does mention the day, particularly the civil day, so Ker starts there, underscoring the appropriation of originally Greek (or at least non-Roman) technology in Varro’s nationalistic antiquarianism, a habit seen also in Pliny. Ker then walks us through the five chronological steps of Pliny’s history of Roman clock time: sun tracking in the built environment of the Comitium; the erection of something called a “sundial clock” (solarium horologium) in 293 BCE; a sundial brought as war booty from Catania by Manius Valerius Messala in 263 BCE; an improved sundial set up by Quintus Marcius Philippus in 164 BCE; and a water clock independent of the Sun introduced by Scipio Nasica in 159 BCE. Censorinus smooths out these distinctions, locating the divisions of the day not so much in technology as in tradition: already before the Twelve Tables, Romans were parsing the day into midnight, cockcrow, dawn, morning, and so forth.

Part Two (“Ordering Lives”), the longest of the book, shows the power daily routines held in crafting ways of life. The economization of quotidian time made possible by clock time was integral to what Ker calls day patterns, written representations akin to the “chronotypes” of John Bender and David Wellbery. The most pointed engagement with the sociology of time is found in Chapter Four (“Days in the Life”), featuring the time geography of the Lund School, Alfred Gell, Ray Laurence on Pompeii, Andrew Riggsby on Pliny’s villas.

Chapter Five (“Three Patterns to Live By”) examines the relation between day-to-day temporal order and normative power, with three paradigms: the farm as fantasized in agricultural manuals; maintenance of bodily health—care of the body—as prescribed by medical writers; and the model for elite citizens provided by the daily routine of the emperor as described in imperial biography. The throughline of this chapter is the embodiment of clock time in the quotidian dimension, to regulate both the self and others. For instance, “the emperor’s routine, occasionally glimpsed in moment-to-moment detail, might serve as a central ‘clock’ for the social activities of the elite, the city, and to some extent the whole empire” (151).

Chapters Six (“Epicurean Days? Cicero and Horace”), Seven (“Literary Days: Martial and Pliny the Younger”), and Eight (“Today in Retrospect: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius”) take up well-known, much-discussed literary days, mostly from letters but from epigrams too. Each of these chapters is about diaries of the self, and each takes pains to elaborate the relationship of the texts to overdetermined literary cultures and authorial postures, which quality makes them hard to summarize adequately. Still, if Cicero and Horace employ a sort of disavowal in recording their daily schedules, Martial and Pliny clock in at the diary factory loudly and performatively, sometimes on adjacent shifts but at different stations and with different hustles (202: “For Martial, the problem is how to negotiate a social position for his poetry and for himself in urban imperial society. For Pliny, the problem is how to perform a literary leisure that maximizes prestige yet remains defensible within the context of his own busy public life.”). The perspective on the day for Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, by contrast, is retrospective and only partly explained through reference to philosophical practice: the day has its own agency as a rhetorical device.

Part Three (“Ordering Knowledge”) explains how “from late antiquity to the modern era, Roman day patterns continued to serve as a medium through which successive audiences could relate to Roman life” (267). Such relationships served both to synchronize with Rome and differentiate from it. In defining Christian lives under monastic rule (the topic of Chapter 9, “Christian Roman Days”), the day of Rome ended up being something of a transposable epistemological infrastructure that could be purged (by Ausonius and Sidonius Apollinaris) of pagan content. Ker is also concerned here with programs of Jewish daily prayer and, at the end, with the daily life of the Thelemites in Rabelais.

Chapters Ten (“La vie quotidienne à Rome”) and Eleven (“Reading Roman Days in Modern Times”) conclude the book with material that will be of interest to anyone who teaches a daily-life-in-Rome style course. The vividness of the day as a temporal unit lends itself to the vividness of understanding anticipated by the daily life approach to Roman antiquity, a proclaimed shift away from the abstractions of epochal history and down to the granular details of, well, the everyday. Ker situates Carcopino’s work in a loose chain beginning in the sixteenth century with antiquarian interest in the public calendar. A survey of criticisms lobbed at Carcopino in the twentieth century functions as a bibliography of enduring interest in the quotidian. Ker then cycles back through Carcopino for a comparative study of his narrative techniques.

This book is the product of a quarter century of rumination on the Roman day (a fact I learned from the acknowledgements). Encompassing so much material, it is conscious of its privileging of order over disorder and its need for supplementation by inquiry into “resistant time tactics, queer temporalities, and counterexamples within ancient data” (349). Still, it makes a good addition to your daily routine.