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The ancient Romans changed more than the map of the world when they conquered so much of it; they altered the way historical time itself is marked and understood.
In this brilliant, erudite, and exhilarating book Denis Feeney investigates time and its contours as described by the ancient Romans, first as Rome positioned itself in relation to Greece and then as it exerted its influence as a major world power. Feeney welcomes the reader into a world where time was movable and changeable and where simply ascertaining a date required a complex and often contentious cultural narrative.
In a style that is lucid, fluent, and graceful, he investigates the pertinent systems, including the Roman calendar (which is still our calendar) and its near perfect method of capturing the progress of natural time; the annual rhythm of consular government; the plotting of sacred time onto sacred space; the forging of chronological links to the past; and, above all, the experience of empire, by which the Romans meshed the city state’s concept of time with those of the foreigners they encountered to establish a new worldwide web of time. Because this web of time was Greek before the Romans transformed it, the book is also a remarkable study in the cross-cultural interaction between the Greek and Roman worlds.
Feeney’s skillful deployment of specialist material is engaging and accessible and ranges from details of the time schemes used by Greeks and Romans to accommodate the Romans’ unprecedented rise to world dominance to an edifying discussion of the fixed axis of B.C./A.D., or B.C.E./C.E., and the supposedly objective “dates” implied. He closely examines the most important of the ancient world’s time divisions, that between myth and history, and concludes by demonstrating the impact of the reformed calendar on the way the Romans conceived of time’s recurrence. Feeney’s achievement is nothing less than the reconstruction of the Roman conception of time, which has the additional effect of transforming the way the way the reader inhabits and experiences time.
THE AXIS OF B.C./A.D.
It is a practically impossible mental exercise for readers of this book to imagine maneuvering themselves around historical time without the universalizing, supranational, and cross-cultural numerical axis of the dates in B.C. and A.D., or B.C.E. and C.E. These numerical dates seem to be written in nature, but they are based on a Christian era of year counting whose contingency and ideological significance are almost always invisible to virtually every European or American, except when we hesitate over whether to say B.C. or B.C.E.
The axis of time along a B.C./A.D. line is not one that has been in common use for very long. It was sometime in the first half of the sixth century C.E. that the monk Dionysius Exiguus came up with our now standard linchpin of Christ's birth date, but his aim was to facilitate the calculation of Easter not to provide a convenient dating era, and the common use of the numerical dates generated by Dionysius's era is surprisingly recent, despite their apparently irresistible ease and utility. It is true that the eighth-century Bede,for example, will provide A.D. dates, but they are not the backbone of his chronicling technique, which is fundamentally organized around regnal years. Bede's A.D. dates are still felt to be orientations in divine time, from the incarnation of Christ, and are accordingly used for "ecclesiastical events, such as the death of an archbishop, or astronomical events, such as an eclipse or a comet"; they still require to be synchronized with other mundane time schemes and are not an historical absolute in themselves. Even for those who use an A.D. date, it is not necessarily natural, as it may appear to us, to use the reverse dimension of B.C. Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World (1614) refers to the civil years of recent time with the familiar enumeration (though without the A.D. annotation); his history from the creation to 167 B.C.E., however, proceeds without a single B.C. date, using unspecific and relativizing dating schemes that are still essentially those of a universalizing pagan historian such as Pompeius Trogus.
Joseph Scaliger's great work on chronology, De Emendatione Temporum (1583), devoted much space to the question of when Christ was born, but the birth of Christ, so far from being the key benchmark in temporal calculation, is not even included among the historical eras he lays down in book 5. As one sees from Scaliger's practice, a major reason that B.C./A.D. dates were not automatically used as historical markers was that scholars could not agree on when Christ was born. Scaliger's main predecessor in historical chronology, Paul Crusius, in his posthumously published Liber de Epochis of 1578, did not use B.C. and A.D. as his benchmark because he thought that the Gospels could not yield a verifiable date for Christ's birth; instead, he used the Passion as one of his determinative eras, which he "arbitrarily" fixed at the date of "midnight preceding January 1 A.D. 33." The date of the incarnation was not simply a conventional peg in time to these Christian scholars, and the undecidability of the incarnation's position in time as an event overrode the utility that would emerge once the era could be regarded as a convention rather than as an actual count from a verifiable happening. Only in 1627 did Domenicus Petavius, in his Opus De Doctrina Temporum, expound the B.C./A.D. system as a basis for a universal time line for scholars and historians, on the understanding that the reference point of the birth of Christ represented "not the actual event but an agreed upon point from which all real events could be dated." Even after Petavius's work, history continued to be written without the numerical grid until the eighteenth century.
One aim of the present book is to make this apparently bizarre recalcitrance understandable by bringing to light the power and significance of the dating mentality that was surrendered in the transition to the universal numerical grid. It has long been conventional to condole with the Greeks and Romans for never really coming up with a usable numerical dating system. But this teleological view not only makes it hard for us to intuit how the ancients "coped," as it were, without a numerical dating system, but, more importantly, obscures the positive dimension to the issue-what were the advantages and insights that accrued to their visions of history as a result of the chronological systems they did inhabit?
Our numerical C.E. dates are convenient enough in themselves, and they have generated other numerically derived conceptual instruments for us to manipulate, especially the century and the decade. These units are, again, surprisingly recent. We have been thinking in centuries for only three and a half centuries, and in decades for only seven decades. Les Murray puts the century mentality a little late, but his wonderful poem on the subject, "The C19-20," cries out for quotation:
The Nineteenth Century. The Twentieth Century. There were never any others. No centuries before these. Dante was not hailed in his time as an Authentic Fourteenth Century Voice. Nor did Cromwell thunder, After all, in the bowels of Christ, this is the Seventeenth Century!
With all their attendant dangers of facile periodization, their refinements of "long" and "short," and their explanatory epithets of "German" or "American," these units have become indispensable to our apprehension of the rhythms of time.
The centuries, decades, and individual numbered years make orientation in time so easy that we scarcely any more conceive of the process as orientation. The numerals provide a time line that appears independent of focalization. In addition, the Western calendar to which the numbered years are tied is likewise of such rigorous power that we consistently assume the existence of a comprehensive time grid whenever we are working with the past. The consequences have been well expressed by P.-J. Shaw:
A date is the symbol of a moment rather than the moment itself, and a calendar is a device for identifying a day, month, sometimes a year, distinct from a system of reckoning, which is a tool for computing the passage of time. But because the modern (Christian) calendar acts also as the modern system of reckoning and is universally acknowledged as such, the correspondence between day and date, between a moment and its given symbol, is so close that the two tend to be treated as identical. One consequence of this is that the artificial nature of that date becomes obscured; it assumes the privilege ... of a universal law.
TIME WITHOUT B.C./A.D.
The situation was profoundly different for the Greeks and Romans, to a degree that is virtually impossible to recover in the imagination. In the ancient world each city had its own calendar and its own way of calibrating past time, usually through lists of local magistrates, just as they each had had their own currencies, their own weights and measures, and their own religions. As recent disputes over harmonizing currencies or weights and measures have demonstrated, utility is not the only consideration at work in such matters, and modern societies have likewise shown considerable resistance to the harmonizing of time and calendars, as we shall see in chapter 5. Still, ancient societies did not face the uniquely modern challenges to time measurement that came with the ability to move quickly over space. Before rapid stage coaches and railways there was no need for anything but local time, and it was the squeezing of physical space by the increase of speed in connecting separate places that made the harmonization of time standards necessary, with the eventual apparatus of international time zones.
In the atomized time world of the ancient Mediterranean, expressing dates in a format that would make sense to inhabitants of more than one city presented an intellectual and organizational challenge of a high order, one that it took ancient scholars centuries to meet. The first two chapters will bear this point out in detail, but for now two brief examples may serve to illustrate the practical difficulties. A calendrical date was hard enough. When Plutarch gives a date for the battle of Plataea he says, "They fought this battle on the fourth of Boëdromion, according to the Athenians, but according to the Boeotians, on the twenty-seventh of the month Panemus" (Arist. 19.7). A year date presented its own problems of calibration. When Diodorus Siculus wishes to mark the beginning of "384 B.C.E." he says, "At the conclusion of the year, in Athens Diotrephes was archon and in Rome the consuls elected were Lucius Valerius and Aulus Mallius, and the Eleians celebrated the ninety-ninth Olympiad, that in which Dicon of Syracuse won the footrace" (15.14.1). Comparable mechanisms are observable in all literate societies that have no universalizing numerical dating system but have chancelleries or historians who must make correlations outside the penumbra of their own state. A historian working in Asia who wanted to describe events in what we call 936 C.E. would be using the following synchronisms: "In China, Shi Jingtang destroyed the Latter Tang Dynasty and became Emperor Gaozu of the Latter Jin, inaugurating year one of the Tianfu ('Heavenly Felicity') Era. Meanwhile, Wang T'aejo unified the Korean peninsula under the Koryo Dynasty in his 19th regnal year. In Japan, in the sixth year of Jo-hei ('Consenting in Peace') Era, under Emperor Suzaku, Kino Yoshihito and Fujiwara no Sumitomo fought pirates off the southwest coast of Japan. It was the 33rd year of the 60-year cycle of the zodiac: the Year of the Fiery Monkey."
If you were a Greek or a Roman moving between the ambits of two or more states, it was impossible to have any kind of time frame in your head at all if you could not handily correlate disparate people and events. At the end of this chapter, in the synchronistic chapter from the Attic Nights of the late second-century C.E. writer Aulus Gellius we shall see a sustained example of the kind of correlating work required of a Roman or Greek maneuvering through the past. Here I may illustrate the difficulties with the story Gellius tells to open his chapter, as a justification for the work he undertook in compiling his essay on synchronism (NA 17.21.1):
Ut conspectum quendam aetatum antiquissimarum, item uirorum inlustrium qui in his aetatibus nati fuissent haberemus, ne in sermonibus forte inconspectum aliquid super aetate atque uita clariorum hominum temere diceremus, sicuti sophista ille [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], qui publice nuper disserens Carneaden philosophum a rege Alexandro, Philippi filio, pecunia donatum et Panaetium Stoicum cum superiore Africano uixisse dixit ... In order to have a kind of considered overview of very ancient eras, and correspondingly of the illustrious men who had been born in those eras, so as to avoid by chance blurting out in conversation some unconsidered remark about the era or life of men who are quite well known, as that uneducated sophist did who recently gave a public lecture in which he said that Carneades the philosopher had been given some money by king Alexander, the son of Philip, and that Panaetius the Stoic had been in the circle of the elder Africanus ...
The elder Africanus in fact died when Panaetius was a baby, and it was Africanus Minor with whom Panaetius consorted, while Carneades visited Rome in what we call 155 B.C.E. Even a well-informed modern classicist might struggle to come up with this exact date for Carneades' embassy, but most will be able to straddle the decade, or at least to have him pegged in the right century, and so will handily avoid correlating him with Alexander, who died in what we call 323 B.C.E. I am sure all our hearts go out to that poor sophist, but his blunders bring home how very difficult it is to keep historical events in their correct relative order without our universalizing cross-cultural and supranational numerical dating, which makes it easy for us to maneuver our way around the past, working with larger or smaller spreads of pattern distribution. If users of the B.C.E./C.E. grid were in the habit of making systematic synchronistic comparisons with the Islamic or Jewish calendars, we would know what it was like for the Greeks and Romans; but not many people in the West habitually do that. That is something they have to do. The time imperialism works in the favor of the users of the Christian time grid.
The ease and apparent naturalness of our dating system conspire to beguile us into overlooking the fact that all of the dates it generates are themselves ultimately synchronisms. The centuries-long work on constructing a coherent historical chronology on an axis of B.C.E./C.E. time has been absorbed and naturalized so thoroughly by all of us that we can take it completely for granted, and forget just how much synchronistic work our predecessors going back to the Renaissance had to do in order for us to be able to say something like "Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 B.C.E." This project of domestication has brought incalculable benefits in terms of convenience and transferability, but it is one that students of antiquity should be regularly defamiliarizing, because we lose as much in historical understanding as we gain in convenience when we cloak our discrepant ancient data with the apparently scientific unified weave of the Julian calendar and the B.C./A.D. system.
EVERY DATE A SYNCHRONISM
Not just in terms of European history, but in terms of anything we call a "date," it is the case that "every chronological statement is, in a sense, a synchronism," grounded on the correlation of past events. Indeed, relativity has made it clear that there is no absolute time to be sought in science any more than in history; just as in history, the apparent absoluteness of physicists' time is actually a matrix for connecting events: "Time and space ... are not real extensions but only conceptual, mathematical devices that are used to situate events and measure the intervals between them." The ability to synchronize, to construct relationships between events separated in time and space, underpins our apprehension of time at fundamental levels of cognition. Antonio Damasio, in his studies of brain function in patients with physical damage to various parts of the brain, has investigated patients who have lost their sense of past time, so that they have no sense of chronology: "How the brain assigns an event to a specific time and places that event in a chronological sequence-or in the case of my patient, fails to do so-is a mystery. We know only that both the memory of facts and the memory of spatial and temporal relationships between those facts are involved." Marriages, bereavements, new jobs, new houses, births of children-these greeting-card moments appear to be the hooks by which we organize our apprehension of our lived "private" time, and these hooks are regularly attached to memorable events in the "public" sphere that provide comparatively fixed points of contact. Mark Twain's comments on this dating function of the Civil War in the South are famous: "The war is what A.D. is elsewhere: they date from it. All day long you hear things 'placed' as having happened since the waw; or du'in' the waw; or befo' the waw; or right aftah the waw; or 'bout two yeahs or five yeahs or ten yeahs befo' the waw or aftah the waw." One of my favorite modern examples is the ghastly moment in Joy in the Morning when Bertie Wooster comes within an ace of losing the brooch entrusted to him by Aunt Agatha to deliver to Florence Craye at Steeple Bumpleigh. If he had lost it, he says, "the thing would have marked an epoch. World-shaking events would have been referred to as having happened 'about the time Bertie lost that brooch' or 'just after Bertie made such an idiot of himself over Florence's birthday present.'"
The examples of Damasio, Twain, and Wodehouse can serve to remind us that B.C.E. and C.E. dates do not speak for themselves, even if it usually feels as if they do. The numbers are not just numbers. We may feel as if we orientate ourselves in European history since archaic Greece on an axis of pure numerals, but those numbers are charged with event-laden significance, and the emptiness of a merely numerical time grid comes home to someone like me as soon as I read a history of a country about whose past I am relatively ignorant, such as premodern China. If I open a book on China before 1500 C.E. I am immediately adrift in an ocean of digits, for the events that have generated those numbers have no instinctive significance to me. The only way the time lines of Asian history can come to make sense to a novice like me is after a process of immersion in the events, so that the numbers are more than numbers, or else, as I find in my case, precisely through a process of synchronism: the date of an event in Asian history may stick in my head if I can find a link with a contemporary event in European history, so that the number thereby becomes meaningful, and memorable.
Excerpted from Caesar's Calendar by Denis Feeney Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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List of Illustrations
1. Synchronizing Times I: Greece and Rome
2. Synchronizing Times II: West and East, Sicily and the Orient
3. Transitions from Myth into History I: The Foundations of the City
4. Transitions from Myth into History II: Ages of Gold and Iron
5. Years, Months, and Days I: Eras and Anniversaries
6. Years, Months, and Days II: The Grids of the Fasti
Posted July 2, 2014