Caesar's Calendar by Denis Feeney
How did we get from local time and events to a synchronized history of time?
To modern eyes, history is a timeline with every event tied to it. However, that unification is surprisingly recent.
There is, in fact, no Greek or Latin word for “date.” An ancient date is an event— or, to be more precise, any date is a relationship between two or more events. As inhabitants of the b.c.e./c.e. grid, we simply cannot help thinking of ancient writers as working with dates, which to us are numbers. But they are not connecting numbers; they are connecting significant events and people
The dominance of Linear Time is also equivalently novel. Most of our world runs on cycles, with the diurnal cycle still driving almost all human activity (maddeningly for those who run on different clocks, such as college students). Not long ago, the annual cycle of weather reigned pre-eminent, and we had simple devices for managing that cycle (eg. parapegmata and sundials).
Our modern bias toward linearity occludes naturally cyclic phenomena, especially when they do not line up obviously with existing markers on a timeline. For example, multi-year cycles such as bull-and-bear markets seem even more irrational simply because they timeline poorly.
In actuality, these cycles ebb and flow like the tides, and would seem more natural if only we looked at them with older eyes.
Felix Jacoby published Apollodors Chronik, a study that appears to embody a lifetime’s learning, and that shows no areas of ignorance, he was twenty-five years old. Likewise, for someone who thought he knew something of Roman studies, it was a sobering experience properly to encounter the work of Mommsen
Roman time structures, then, like so many other features of Roman society, are premodern and modern at once, resisting "the simple dualisms that have been used to characterise societies, including industrial versus pre-industrial, agrarian versus urban, cyclical versus linear time."
My translation above (“with the ranks of times deployed”) brings out one possible metaphor, a military one: instead of being in a single array, the “times” have been “deployed out into lines or columns.” Possibly, then, Atticus’s book was arranged in parallel columns, with Greek events, organized around Athenian archons, on one side, and Roman, organized around consuls, on the other. It may have been this novel and useful physical layout that gripped Cicero, as it made the act of synchronous comparison so easy and brought home to him the disparate relationship in event and achievement between the two columns.
These works are part of a long-standing Christian project of synchronizing the new sacred history with the old profane history of the pagans and the old sacred history of the Jews so as to create a new truly universal human history, the plan of God for salvation, one that was regularly interpreted as part of various end-time obsessions.107In this tradition the pagan time lines confront and fi nally succumb to the much greater antiquity of the Hebrew and Eastern tradition, in a classic exam-ple of what Zerubavel calls "out-past-ing" (Eusebius)
The key moment for Gellius is the war with Pyrrhus, which appears also to have been the moment when the Greek scholars Eratosthenes and Apollodorus started taking account of Roman events, or dates.120 This is another of Zerubavel’s moments of “inflated divide”—before Pyrrhus, no contact with Greece; after Pyrrhus, Greece and Rome in tandem.
Diodorus tells us that Scipio wept as he watched the city in flames; when Polybius asked him why, he replied that he was struck by the mutability of for-tune, reflecting that some time a similar fate would overtake Rome. Scipio then quoted from Homer: ("There will be a day when holy Troy shall perish, and Priam, and his people").
In his last book, Truth and Truthfulness,in the course of a bracing chapter on the concept of the his-toric past in Herodotus and Thucydides, Bernard Williams demolishes the struc-ture of “time of gods” and “time of men” that has sometimes been built upon mis-translations of the phrase Herodotus uses to describe Polycrates.
As individuals, too, the Romans devoted great attention to the observing of annual birthdays, unlike the Greeks, who regularly had no anniversary at all, and marked only the day of the month. If you were a Greek and were born on the twelfth day of the month, then each month on the twelfth day you might have an extra bowl of wine and pour a libation; but if you were a Roman you celebrated an annual birthday, just as we do.