Present Shock in Late Fifth-Century Greece

Present Shock in Late Fifth-Century Greece

by Francis M. Dunn


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ISBN-13: 9780472116164
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 11/19/2007
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Present Shock in Late Fifth-Century Greece

By Francis M. Dunn


Copyright © 2007 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11616-4

Chapter One

Civic Time

TIME IS IN many ways a human construct. Poststructuralist criticism has taught us to beware that such categories as male and female, self and other, which might seem fundamental or essential, are actually constructed by particular societies and their institutions. Our precise and pervasive division of the day into hours, minutes, and seconds, for example, has less to do with the nature of time itself than with the need that arose during the Industrial Revolution to organize and control large numbers of workers on various shifts. Time is also in some ways essential. As biological creatures, we are constantly aging and moving toward death; as social creatures, we are constantly adapting to and altering our changing environment. The phases of the moon, the seasons of the year, and the movements of the sun by day and stars by night, for example, represent continual changes in the environment to which humans adapt, yet different societies attach different meanings to these same phenomena. For instance, a traditional, agricultural society will organize its cultural life more closely around the seasons and activities governed by the seasons, such as planting and harvesting, attaching itsown meanings to particular times of the day or year. By contrast, an industrial society will organize its cultural life and assign meanings less around such natural phenomena than around an employment schedule and the division of time into week and weekend, work year and summer or winter vacations.

This chapter has two aims. First, by describing changes in the city's organization of time, it will provide a general context for the chapters that follow. New ways of dividing the day and the year and new ways of situating events of the past show Athens in the late fifth century reconstructing its notion of time, giving it new and often specifically democratic meanings. In view of this, the attempts of Euripides and his contemporaries to express a new understanding of time and the present are part of a development that was widespread in Greece, particularly in Athens. These reconstructions of civic time became more daring toward the end of the century. Second, important aspects of these new schemes for measuring time anticipate specific features of the narratives I shall discuss in later chapters. They exhibit a desire for completeness, a focus less on singular, canonical points than on a continuum often filled with mundane events. The new schemes also suggest a kind of immediacy, viewing events less within a natural or cosmic framework than within a human and collective one-and in some cases dispensing with any larger framework altogether. The fifth-century historian Thucydides is original in both these areas. In this chapter, we shall see how he devises a new chronology independent of larger schemes; in chapter 4, we shall see how his narrative conveys the uncertainties of the immediate present. I shall begin with the smallest units that measure the time of day, turning next to the larger units of the calendar that measure the year and finally to the years, generations, and eras by which historiography measures the past.

Dividing the Day

In measuring the time of day, the ancient Greeks seem to us primitive and conservative. We take for granted the division of the day into hours and minutes; in daily life we measure out seconds on our microwaves, while scientists and engineers operate in a world where time ticks by in nanoseconds. In the classical period, despite an increasingly sophisticated understanding of time, the Greeks used rather crude methods to indicate the time of day. Throughout the fifth century and well into the Hellenistic era, they did not divide the day into hours but instead referred to natural phenomena. The time of day was generally given by the sun's course across the sky. Homer's Achilles indicates that the hero's death may come at any time by saying, "it may be at dawn or afternoon or midday when someone takes my life in battle" (Iliad 21.111-12), and when Herodotus describes the daily changes of temperature in India, he specifies, "at dawn ... the middle of the day ... as afternoon progresses ... even later ... at sunset" (3.104; cf. 4.181).

As the sun provided only three canonical points of sunrise, noon, and sunset, daily routine supplied intermediate stages: the filling of the market (in early morning), the emptying of the market (in late morning), the worker's meal (around midday), and the unyoking of oxen (in the afternoon). In Homer, Odysseus must wait until the time "when a man rises from the market for his dinner, after judging many disputes" (Odyssey 12.439-40; cf. Iliad 11.86) for Charybdis to regurgitate his mast, and heroes fought over the body of Kebriones until the time "when the sun turned toward the unyoking of oxen" (Iliad 16.779; cf. Odyssey 9.58). For Herodotus, indications of the time of day include "when the market is full" (4.181), "until the market empties" (3.104), and "around when the lamps are lit" (7.215), and a character in Aristophanes specifies the time of day as "a little bit after mid-day," at which his interlocutor asks, "When the oxen are released, or later?" (Birds 1499-1500).

Reliance on the sun and daily routines for telling time continued from Homer until the end of the fifth century, when the classical period introduced a single innovation, the use of a person's shadow to approximate time in the afternoon. In Aristophanes, characters arranged to take their evening meal when the length of their shadow was seven feet (fr. 675) or ten feet (Ecclesiazusae 652), and in a comic routine in New Comedy, a character invited to dinner unexpectedly arrived around dawn because he measured his shadow in the morning (Athenaeus 1.8 = Eubulus fr. 117 Kassel-Austin) or by moonlight (Athenaeus 6.243 = Menander fr. 304) instead of in the afternoon. By modern standards, then, the measurement of daytime was exceedingly simple, relying only on the movement of the sun and the routines of the day, and even in cosmopolitan Athens, invitations to dinner merely specified the length of a person's shadow. Apparently, neither the interests of the polis nor the routines of its inhabitants required any more accurate partitioning of the day. In other aspects of measuring and organizing time, however, late fifth-century Athens was the site of some intriguing innovations.

Buckets of Time

Sometime before 425, an accurate instrument for measuring time was first introduced in the Athenian law courts. This device, the klepsydra, or "water timer," was used in private cases to time the speeches of the plaintiff and defendant. Characters in Aristophanes refer to the klepsydra as an essential piece of court equipment (Acharnians 693; Wasps 93, 857-58); orators in the fourth century give instructions concerning stopping and starting the water (e.g., Isocrates 18.51; Demosthenes 18.139; Aeschines 3.197); and Aristotle explains that different amounts of water, measured by the chous (pl. choes), or "bucket," were allowed in different cases. For example, in a suit for more than five thousand drachmas, plaintiff and defendant were each allowed ten choes of water for the first speech and three choes of water for the second (Athenian Constitution 67).

The device worked much like a modern egg timer, using a given quantity of water to measure out a specific amount of time. The one example found in excavation held two choes of water that emptied in about six minutes. The klepsydra was not a clock. A clock measures time by reference to standard units, such as minutes or seconds; for example, in the mid-third century Ctesibius invented a complicated outflow water clock that marked out the seasonal hours, and much earlier the Babylonians had apparently invented inflow water clocks to measure the intervals between astronomical events. The Athenian water timer, by contrast, simply dispensed a given volume of water. Speeches were allotted the time it took for two to ten choes of water to empty, and there is no reason to assume that vessels of various sizes were not used. Because of water pressure, one six-chous vessel would empty more quickly than three two-chous vessels, and moreover, because of inevitable differences in the outflow tubes, one two-chous vessel would empty at a different rate from another. As a result, the klepsydra did not measure units of time but simply ensured that the speakers on both sides of a case had the same amount of time to speak.

Nevertheless the device was an important conceptual advance. Time was precisely allotted as it had not been before, in this case using liquid measures already established by the city as legal units of exchange. The innovation was closely related to certain changes in the polis. The reforms of Ephialtes earlier in the century had placed much greater demands on the courts, allowing all cases to be heard by a jury in the Heliaia, rather than by an archon. As it became increasingly apparent that jury trials had to be streamlined, the water timer was introduced both to limit the length of speeches and to ensure the fair and equal apportionment of speaking time. Although this novel instrument played an important part in the democratization of justice, it was not otherwise used to measure or regulate time.

Democratic Time

One reason for the limited use of the klepsydra might be the conservative nature of Greek society: despite the intellectual ferment of fifth-century Athens, indications of the time of day were still tied to the movement of the sun and the rhythms of agricultural life. Another reason might be the relative weakness of civic and social institutions: the democratic courts found a new way to manage the speaking time of plaintiffs and defendants, but the polis did not otherwise regulate daily time (contrast the close regulation of nine-to-five days, sixty-minute lunch hours, and swing shifts in the modern workplace). Such explanations are reasonable but perhaps underestimate the constructive changes involved. With the introduction of the klepsydra, for example, daily time, once simply reflected in natural phenomena, was now more firmly regulated by the polis in choes. These units had no relation to natural time; they were purely artificial creations and purely democratic in conception. This democratic management of time had an important precedent, however, in the similarly democratic reorganization of the calendar, which created prytanies as artificial administrative periods to replace the familiar and natural months (as discussed later in this chapter).

Two later developments extended the city's daily management of time. At some point in the second half of the century, presumably after the introduction of the klepsydra, the entire day was divided into amphoras (or "barrels") of time. Whereas in private cases a certain number of choes were allotted to the speeches on either side, in public cases the entire proceedings constituted a "measured-through day." Although the details are uncertain, clearly different stages of the trial were each allotted a certain number of amphoras of water. Starting from eleven amphoras (an approximation for the shortest day of the year), these were apparently distributed among the stages of a public case to ensure that each stage had enough time and that the trial would finish before the day ended. The polis, in other words, replaced the natural day from sunrise to sunset with a schematic, standardized forensic day that would not vary from winter to summer. The new divisions of the day correlated not with the course of the sun or social routines but simply with the number of amphoras emptied.

One hundred years later, this partitioning of the day into choes and amphoras was taken a step further. At the end of the fourth century, a large container that could hold more than ten hours' worth of water was built in the agora. Although we do not know exactly what purpose this device served, we do know that it was not a clock able to measure out hours or other standard units of time, since the rate of flow would have varied as it emptied. It was most likely a monumental timer that established a fixed but arbitrary maximum length for meetings or trials, just as smaller timers established fixed but arbitrary maximum lengths for the speeches or stages of a trial.

While it is obvious from a modern perspective what these innovations did not do (i.e., divide the day into a sequence of fixed and uniform minutes and hours), more interesting is what they did do: they created what we might call democratic, rather than capital, time. Modern units of time measure a worker's labor in hours and minutes, promoting the equation of time with money or capital. By contrast, Athenian time was apportioned by water among tribes and disputing parties. Rather than creating fixed units (hours and minutes) that could be treated as commodities of value, the courts created relative units (choes and amphoras) that could be allotted democratically.

By the third century, a more precise division of the day into twelve "seasonal hours" (so called because each hour of daylight in winter was substantially shorter than those in summer) witnessed a proliferation of sundials. The movement of the sun across the sky, so important in the earliest designations of the time of day, remained the central frame of reference. The difference was that this path from sunrise to sunset was now precisely divided into twelve parts by dividing into twelve the corresponding path traced across the face of a sundial by the sun's shadow. This technical innovation had lasting effects: it introduced the seasonal hours that became the standard measure across the Hellenistic world and later the Roman Empire. Prior to this, the only major innovation had been the introduction of the choes and amphoras in Athenian law courts in the late fifth century. Although the klepsydra had little application outside the law courts and was strictly administrative in function, it involved an important conceptual change. In contrast to the sundial, which divided the natural interval from sunrise to noon to sunset, the Athenian water timer introduced a scheme entirely independent of the sun's path, responding to the immediate needs of the democratic trial process and invoking no outside frame of reference. I turn now to analogous but more complex changes in the organization of the calendar.

Partitioning the Year

As in most agricultural societies, the activities of cultural life in ancient Greece were largely governed by the seasonal, or tropical, year. Farmers need to determine the best time to plough, to sow and reap various crops, to prune vines, and so on. Since Hesiod, the Greeks used the solstices, or "turnings of the sun" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and the risings and settings of various stars as their guides. In Works and Days, the poet advises:

When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising begin the harvest, begin plowing when they are setting; they are hidden for forty days and forty nights, and first appear again as the year revolves when the blade is being sharpened. (383-87)

The poet goes on to explain that when Arcturus rises at dusk it is time to prune the vines (565-70), when it rises at dawn it is time to harvest the grapes (609-11), and when Orion rises it is time to winnow the grain (597-99).


Excerpted from Present Shock in Late Fifth-Century Greece by Francis M. Dunn Copyright © 2007 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


CHAPTER 1 Civic Time....................12
CHAPTER 2 Human Time....................37
CHAPTER 3 Present Situations: Euripides....................65
CHAPTER 4 The Strategic Present: Thucydides....................111
CHAPTER 5 The Heuristic Present: Medical Science....................151
Works Cited....................219
Passages Cited....................231

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