Roman-Time-art - 2/25/17
"How the Romans Kept Time" by THLady Lorraine Devereaux.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
This article was first published in "The Clarion", the newsletter for the Barony of Forgotten Sea in 2015.
How the Romans Kept Time
by THL Lorraine Devereaux
I thought I'd talk a little about how people in Rome and its provinces kept time.
According to Pliny the Elder, the early Romans (c 450 BC) announced only sunrise and sunset. They added the hour before sunset and noon approximately a hundred years later. The Roman consuls' apparitor, standing at the Senate House, announced it was noon when he saw the sun was between the buildings known as The Beaks and the Greek Lodging. When the sun was between the Maenian column and the prison, he shouted that it was the last hour of the day. Of course, this only worked on sunny days.
Pliny the Elder says that the Romans adopted the time-measuring "social conventions" of the Greeks, dividing the day (daylight) into 12 "hora," more or less approximating one of our 60-minute hours. Theoretically, the hours of the night were numbered the same way the daytime hours were, but in practice nights were broken up into four "watches," each three hours long.
Dividing the daylight into 12 equal sections meant that a summer hour was several minutes longer than a winter hour. In Rome the difference on the summer solstice was a 76-minute daylight hour and a 44-minute nighttime hour. But in the northern provinces the difference was more dramatic. In London on the summer solstice a daylight hour was 82 minutes long and a nighttime hour was 38 minutes long. And of course in the winter the ratios reversed, with a three-hour nighttime watch in London lasting more than four of our 60-minute hours.
This practice of using horae inequales, or unequal hours continued throughout the Middle Ages, despite the fact that many of the time-keeping devices of the day, such as water clocks and candle clocks, measured equal hours. Those equal hours were "translated" into unequal hours for more than a thousand years, only changing when the great mechanical clocks arrive during the 14th century.
The Roman day began when the sun rose. In some of the provinces, though, the native people began the day at dusk. In both Britain and Jerusalem the day started at sunset. In Britain they still have leftovers in their language, such as a "fortnight," from the old practice of starting the new day when the sun set. But for Romans the first hour of the day began when the sun was half above and half below the horizon.
The hours of the day were named beginning at daylight with the first hour (prime), then the second, third and so on, proceeding to dusk, or the appearance of the evening star (vespera). And these hours were named for the time when they ended. For example, sext, the sixth hour, which would be our noon, began at our 11 am and ended at our noon. It didn't begin at noon and end at 1 pm.
As the Republic, then the Empire, grew, the hours of the day were called aloud in Roman cities. Not every hour, though. The Romans preferred to think of the hours of the day in blocks of about three hours each. These hours were the first hour (prime), the third (terce), the sixth (sext), the ninth, (nona) and dusk (vespera). On the equinox that works out to about 6 am, 9 am, noon, 3 pm and 6 pm. These three-hour chunks were called by the ending hour. For example, the "hour" from 9 am our time to noon our time was called terce. And from noon to 3 pm it was nona – the whole three hour block.
It can be confusing. If someone said an event happened during nona, it could have happened anytime between noon and 3 pm. Or it could have happened anytime between 2 pm and 3 pm. Unless they are more specific, it's difficult for historians to tell.
If you were a Roman citizen in, say, the third century AD living in a city, you would hear someone call out the three-hour chunks of day. But there were sundials on walls and in public areas where you could see for yourself what time it was. By 200 BC, sundials were so much a part of Roman life that Roman satirist Maccius Plautus complained that "The gods confound the man who first found out how to distinguish hours! Confound him, too, who in this place set up a sun-dial, to cut and hack my days so wretchedly into small portions."[[i]] Plautus claimed the city "is full of these confounded dials." Finds in Pompeii, for example, confirm that sundials were numerous in urban areas.[[ii]]
Of course sundials are useless when the sun doesn't shine. In 159 BC the Romans built their first public water clock in a roofed building. Although the Romans had been using sundials for perhaps three hundred years, Pliny the Elder said that "The division of the daylight had not been marked for the Roman Public" before this public water clock was installed.[[iii]] Simpler water clocks were in use as well.
The Roman legal system adopted the Greek method of limiting "judicial eloquence" by using water clocks to time court proceedings.[[iv]] Lawyers were given three containers of water, each holding about 20 minutes worth of water. The water containers were poured into a vessel that dripped slowly, and when all three of the lawyer's water containers were empty, he could no longer speak, call witnesses or do anything else. It made for shorter trials.
But sundials were the pride of Roman cities. In 10 BC a giant sundial more than 160 yards wide was erected on the Field of Mars in Rome. It used a 70-foot-tall Egyptian obelisk (seized by Emperor Augustus at Heliopolis – the spoils of war) as the gnomon.[[v]]
By the 1st century AD, urban Romans lamented the "abandonment of rural 'simplicitas,' " which they linked with the introduction of the clock (meaning both the sundial and the water clock). In his poems Martial satirized city life with its daily rounds "completely filled up and regulated according to the hours."[[vi]] And by the 2nd century AD, Artemidorus of Daldis wrote in his book The Interpretation of Dreams that " 'a clock signifies occupations and undertakings, movements and the start of transactions. For men keep their eyes on the time in all that they do. And so, if a clock falls apart or is broken, it means bad luck and death. …' " Clearly urban Romans were time conscious and lived "life according to the clock" by 200 AD.[[vii]] Their attitude to time pressure as measured by clocks is strikingly similar to our own.
The Roman time conventions survived into the Middle Ages because they were adopted by the Christian church. It was easy to know when to pray if you timed your prayers to when the announcement for terce or nona was made. After all, you could hear someone shouting it. These three-hour chunks evolved into the canonical hours of the Middle Ages, which were still known by their Latin names well into the 14th century. And as churches and monasteries built bell towers to ring the hours, rather than shout them, they took over the function of public time keeper after the Empire fell in the west.
[[i]] Titus Maccius Plautus, from a fragment of his play "The Boeotian Woman," 3rd century BC, preserved by Aulus Cornelius Gellius (2nd century AD) and translated and published in several books and websites related to time, time management, sundials and similar themes. See http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/ E/Roman/Texts/Gellius/3*.html#ref13 (accessed May 6, 2012), which traces the verse fragment to FR. V. 21 Götz; II, p38, Ribbeck. Translation by Thornton and Warner. Other sources include Mayall and Mayall.
[[iv]] Greek litigants were given a certain number of jugs of water (3.2 liters) that drained in three to four minutes. "Speeches were made not 'according to the time' but 'according to the water.'" Later Roman court clepsydrae were larger and took about 20 minutes to empty. Dohrn-van Rossum, 23-24.
[[v]] Jona Lendering, "Rome: Horologium," Livius: Articles on Ancient History, http://www.livius.org/ro-rz/rome/rome_horologium.html">http://www.livius.org/ro-rz/rome/rome_horologium.html (accessed on January 12, 2012); "Solarium Augusti," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solarium_Augusti">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solarium_Augusti (accessed on January 12, 2012).
Copyright 2015 by Lorraine Gehring. <lorrainegehring at gmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.