Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 27.
Robert Hannah, Greek & Roman Calendars: Constructions of Time in the Classical World. London: Duckworth, 2005. Pp. 170. ISBN 0-7156-3301-5. UK£16.99.
The book begins with a two-page introduction in which Hannah briefly describes the history of the calendar. He then explains the aim of his work -- to study the calendar both as an astronomically-based timepiece and as a social instrument by which people regularised their activities over time (p. 4).
Chapter 1, 'Astronomy and Calendars' (pp. 5-15), outlines the principal units of time: the day, the month, the seasons, the year (both lunar and solar), and the motions of the celestial bodies. The calendar is then considered as a means of coordinating human activities.
Chapter 2, 'Early Greek Calendars' (pp. 16-41), deals with the earliest calendars in the Mycenaean Bronze Age as recorded on Linear B tablets, and those of the Archaic period (sixth century BC), including the description of the star calendar in Homer and Hesiod. The Linear B tablets from Knossos and Pylos give information about the lunar Mycenean calendar which was made up of month-names derived from the names of gods or places. In contrast, the Homeric and Hesiodic year was a solar one, which was based on natural and celestial events such as the risings and settings of certain stars. It is a form of calendar which demonstrates an awareness by the Greeks of an annually repeated series of activities on the land or sea in a given epoch.
The author also lays stress on the distinction between the lunar calendars of Greece and those of the East, as well as on the religious character of the historical Greek calendars. The names of the months in the East were derived from agricultural activities and seasonal phenomena. In Greece, on the other hand, the sacral aspect of the calendar is indicated by the fact that the months were named either after gods who were honoured in those months, or after associated religious festivals which took place in them. The date at which the sacral Greek calendar was formulated remains unknown. The religious nature of these calendars shows that the Greeks made them up to ensure that the festivals and associated rituals were performed at the right time of the year. However, agricultural and therefore seasonal aspects of the festivals were also sometimes associated with a given month (for example, those associated with the cult of the agricultural goddesses, Demeter and Persephone, such as the Eleusinia and the Mysteria in Attica).
The following chapter, 'Classical Greek Calendars' (pp. 42-70), describes the three calendars (festival, political, and seasonal) used in Athens in the fifth century BC. The festival calendar was a lunar one, which served to regulate the celebration of religious festivals and to indicate the specific days of specific months on which the festivals were to be held and sacrifices to be made. It was based 'on observation of the first crescent of the new moon to mark the start of each month' (p. 42). The political calendar provided dates of the ten prytanies of each year's Council of 500 (the boule), comprising 50 citizens drawn by lot annually from each of the city-state's ten tribes. The prytany year was named after the official who was secretary of the first prytany. The seasonal calendar was a continuation of the farmer's calendar of Hesiod. It was a rudimentary solar calendar based on the length of the seasonal year, subdivided by the solstices and equinoxes, and by the appearance or disappearance on the horizon of a number of fixed stars. According to the astronomers Meton and Euktemon, the seasonal calendar was a development of the star calendar or parapegma, which began with the summer solstice. Meton introduced a lunisolar calendaric cycle consisting of 19 solar years and 235 months, of which 110 were 'hollow' (containing 29 days) and 125 full (containing 30 days), making a total of 6940 days. Meton's parapegma was the next stage of development after Hesiod's rudimentary calendar for farmers and sailors. Unfortunately, nothing has survived of it archaeologically. In contrast, later literature and inscriptions provide a good deal of evidence for the organization of Euktemon's parapegma -- an astronomical calendar listing the dates or rising and setting of stars arranged under twelve signs of the zodiac or attached to a civil calendar. The chapter ends with the study of the advantages that the Metonic cycle and the parapegma of Euktemon offered to farmers and priestly officials of late fifth-century Athens.
Chapter 4, 'Synchronisms' (pp. 71-97), studies the modern reconstruction of Greek calendars from the fifth to the second centuries BC and provides a useful foundation for a detailed technical discussion of the synchronisation between the various cities' calendars, such as the Macedonian calendar in the East and the Babylonian and Egyptian ones. The Macedonian calendar spread quickly both geographically and temporally across Alexander's empire and became known the 'calendar of the Greeks' in Egypt and Asia. The contact between the Macedonians and the people of Egypt and the Persian Empire contributed to further synchronisms which clearly demonstrated the close links between the Macedonian calendar, on the one hand, and the Babylonian and the Egyptian calendars, on the other.
Chapter 5, 'The Calendars of Rome' (pp. 98-130), highlights the structure of the Roman Republican calendar and relates how successfully it was kept in alignment with the seasons and the sun. Hannah also gives a political and religious analysis of this calendar. The second part of the chapter deals with the Julian calendar and its political and religious effects. At the end of the Republic, Julius Caesar ordered the adoption of a purely solar calendar, consisting of an average year of three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days. Hannah refers to the great number of intercalary days, which led to an extraordinarily long year, and describes both the discrepancy between this calendar and the seasons and the effect of the Julian changes. The chapter ends with a discussion of the commemoration of the birthday of Augustus in the calendar and the development of the horoscopal astrology in the Hellenistic world.
Chapter 6, 'Afterwords' (pp. 131-57), discusses the 'afterlife' of the Julian calendar in late antiquity. First, the author shows how it was adopted and assimilated in different regions of the Empire. Then, he investigates how the Julian calendar was adopted by Christianity, whose culture dominated the Roman Empire from the beginning of the fourth century onwards. The great number of copies of the Julian calendar given in the inscriptional record from the early Imperial period indicates the speed at which it was disseminated and adopted by a diverse mixture of peoples in the Roman World. The process of adoption of the new calendar highlights how and to what extent the local calendars are changed. The Chronicle (or Chronographer) of 354, which is also known as the Calendar of Filocalus, after the name of its calligraher, Furius Dionysius Filocalus, is a mid-fourth-century Roman codex, whose contents give us a chance to see how much of the pagan past was preserved by the Christian Church early in the medieval period.
The book ends with a select bibliography, an index of passages cited and an index of subjects. All in all there is much information in this slender volume that will help to make Greek and Roman astronomy more comprehensible to beginning students.
Throughout this clear and accurate book, Robert Hannah displays profound erudition about Greek and Roman archaeoastronomy. He lays out the significant role of the calendars, their complex history, and their political and religious nature. In summary, Hannah's book is a very solid, thoroughly-researched, coherent and well laid-out examination of interesting cultures. It is an excellent piece of scholarship and is highly recommended.