Sarah Bond: On Saving Time: The Roman Hour and DST

Early 3rd century CE sundial from Ephesus.
About the year 507, the Ostrogothic emperor Theodoric sent a sundial to King Gundobad, the leader of the Burgundians. Cassiodorus' Variae preserves the initial request made to Boethius by the Ostrogoth, who asked him to make a sundial and a waterclock (1.45.9-10). The letter harangues Boethius to bring the wonder and refinement of time to the Burgundians: "May the foreign tribes realize, thanks to you, that my noblemen are famous authorities. How often will they not believe their eyes?" (Ibid. 12, trans. Barnish). The presentation of Gundobad with the timepieces similarly extols the virtues of being able to order time and suggests that it symbolizes the putting away of tribal, barbarian behaviors, in order to adopt the technology of the sages (Ibid. 1.46). To Theodoric, the comprehension of time and the use of inventions to order it were indicators of civility.

Mosaic panel from a villa in
Brading, on the Isle of Wright.
The mosaic depicts an astronomer
and sundial (c. 250 CE).
There is probably no good reason why it is 4:09 am and I am thinking about sundials and waterclocks. However, something you may be intrigued (though perhaps unsurprised) to know about me is that my sleep schedule rather resembles a monk--though I wake up to read and write, rather than to recite matins. I guess what got me going while sitting here in the largely silent city of Milwaukee at this early hour, is that my computer clock only a little while ago skipped from 2 am to 3 am; springing me forward an hour. This occurrence, combined with the fact that while at the APA this year, I saw Andrew Riggsby's poster on quantification in Roman inscriptions, got me thinking: what is the power behind controlling time?

AE (2005), 261. An epitaph for a
deceased infant noting down months,
days, and even hours lived.
The Roman day was organized by light and dark. The amount of lightness and darkness were then each divided by 12, giving you, ostensibly, 24 hours. Yet while most of the world considers the hour a static unit of time--60 minutes to be exact--to a Roman, the hora (hour) was dependent on the amount of light. These were temporal hours, though there was knowledge and use particularly in mathematics of equinocturial hours portioned to be of equal length. As Greg Aldrete has pointed to, a winter temporal hour could be as short as 40 minutes, while a summer temporal hour as much as around an hour and a half (2004: 241). The sixth hour of the night was midnight, and the sixth hour of the day was midday, because each fell halfway through the 12 hour cycle. The first hour of the day was hora prima, then there was secunda (or altera), then tertia, and so on and so forth. In the military, Roman criers often called out these times, specifically every three hours, so as to signal the changing of the guards. Though they could also be used for hour measurement, Romans often used water clocks for shorter periods of time as well, particularly for the time given to an orator. Still, hours were hard to measure. As Seneca noted,  it was hard to gauge the hour precisely, for "It is easier to get agreement among philosophers than among clocks."

Detail from the statue base of the column of
Antoninus Pius (138-161 CE). The obelisk may be
that of Psametik II, which was used by Augustus in his
solarium / horologium and the holder is
likely a personification of the Campus Martius. 
Though Pliny remarks that the populace knew about sundials earlier in the century, a solarium was
brought to Rome from the spoils of the city of Catania in 263 BCE. Notably, it was unfit for Rome due to the change in latitude between Sicily and Rome, but it took 99 years to fix this error. Then Quintus Marcius Philippus, a censor, set up a new, modified version and placed it next to the Sicilian one. These dials became all the rage among the elites, who often placed them in their houses. The most famous sundial is likely that of Augustus, who set a giant one up in the Campus Martius. The mathematician Facundus Novius was later smart enough to place a golden ball on the top of the obelisk of Psamtik II which served as the gnomon, in order to concentrate the shadow it cast. The sundial was not very accurate for hours, it seems, but it did serve to articulate the power and might of Augustus. And, really, isn't that the most important thing?

If there is one man who revolutionized the hour in the West, it is probably Benedict of Nursia. Benedict was highly focused on the hour and the regularizing of habits for the monks, in order to bring about a "temporal discipline" (Borst, 1994: 26). Eating, sleeping, psalms, prayer, and work were highly structured, and in many ways reflect monastic anxiety over any idle time. To keep accurate time dissolved idleness. Discipline in the service of God could thus be achieved.

Byrhtferth’s Diagram; Computus Diagrams
From the Thorney Computus
Cambridgeshire, England; ca. 1102–10
Saint John’s College, Oxford, MS 17
Myth has it that church bells were invented in Nola in Campania in the fifth century, but that it was Pope Sabinianus (604-606) who then employed church bells to alert people of the hours. This helped people to structure their day even further, and for punctuality to become something of a point of pride. After all, being on time indicated one's attentiveness but perhaps also one's piety. This obsession with time is also seen in the medieval tradition of the computusThese handbooks used mathematics to organize and record the calendar, and helped to greatly shape medieval views. To many, unlocking the great order of God's universe was satisfying! This fascination is seen in a valuable resource in our understanding of early medieval conceptions of the temporal, the Venerable Bede's On the Reckoning of Time (725 CE).

I am leaving out a lot of clock history here, but with the advent of the mechanical clock first in China and then in the West in the Renaissance, the measuring of equinocturial hours became much easier and preferred. As a result, people ventured ever farther from the temporal hour dictated by the sun. Man had seized time by the horns, and partially severed its relationship with light and dark.

Countries that use DST are in Blue. 
As usual, it has taken me awhile to get to my point, but here we are. As you wake up this morning, Americans, you have sprung forward with the rest of the nation. You have ostensibly lost a precious hour in your day--at least for a few months. Hudson and then William Willet's invention of Daylight Saving (my husband wishes me to note that it is not Savings, just Saving) Time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was always meant as an economic measure, one that could help save fuel and perhaps promote economic activity. Today, it is also largely a dividing line between East and West. The way I see it, it is just one more manipulation in the history of the hour and a continued use of time to reflect identity; however, it perhaps does return to a link with the sun. The hours may change, but our ability to standardize, control, and manipulate them remains a human obsession. Just like Theodoric's gift to Gundobad, the gift of measuring time was and is seen as a feature of civility, but it is also a lens through which to view any culture.

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