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this day in ancient history

about this day in ancient history
Everyone has seen a feature in their local newspaper called something like "Today in History". Unfortunately for we devotees of ancient Greece and Rome, that particular feature tends to give rather short shrift to the time period we would all like to read more about. To a certain extent, this is understandable: we quite simply do not have definite dates for a great many of the major events of the ancient world. At the same time, matters of figuring out calendrical equivalencies (say that ten times fast) have filled scholarly papers for generations and often an equivalent date simply is a matter of educated guesswork. But even when we do have absolute dates, it is an unfortunate feature of post-postmodern culture that many of the names and events are meaningless to the vast majority of people and so not worth relating. This Day in Ancient History is an attempt to fill this obvious lacuna in the mass media and provide readers with an idea both of the significant 'historical' events which occurred on a particular day as well as provide an idea of what festivals or other cultural activities the people of Ancient Athens or Rome might have been celebrating on a particular day.

About the Roman Calendar
Prior to the reform (replacement is a better word) of the calendar by Julius Caesar, the Romans used a calendar which was made up of twelve familiarly-named months of varying lengths: Martius, Maius, Quintilis (later known as Julius), and October each had 31 days; Ianuarius, Aprilis, Iunius, Sextilis (later known as Augustus), September, November and December each had 29 days; Februarius had 28 days. That provided for a 355-day year which is, probably uncoincidentally, the length of a lunar year. Obviously it wouldn't take very long for such a calendar to get out of whack with reality, so it was the practice (apparently) to regularly 'intercalate' a month (i.e. insert a new month) of 22 (sometimes 23) days in alternating years after the festival known as Terminalia (Feb. 23). This month was referred to as Intercalaris and would have the last five days of February added onto it, resulting in a month of either 27 or 28 days. [Something I've never quite figured out: given the apparent importance of birthdays to the Romans (to judge by epigraphy), when they claimed to have lived 'x number of years, x number of months, x number of days', how long were the years?].

Unfortunately even with the provisions for intercalations, the calendar of the Roman Republic often went out of whack anyway and Julius Caesar decided to fix things once and for all (or so he thought). By virtue of his being pontifex maximus, he threw out the old calendar and replaced it with a calendar which had 365.25 days, which astronomers in Egypt and elsewhere had long known to be the actual length of a 'tropical year'. Caesar also fiddled with the number of days in the months to what we are used to, and made provisions for an extra day in February (February 24 happened twice; that would be handy if you had a term paper due, no?). Unfortunately, because the Romans counted inclusively and the folks who told Caesar about this calendar didn't, subsequent pontifices were adding a day every three years instead of every four, and so Augustus would later have to correct this.

The final thing to note about the Roman calendar is that they had a somewhat peculiar system of deciding the 'number' of the day. The first day of every month was known as Kalendae (the 'kalends'); the fifth day (or, in certain months, the seventh) was referred to as Nonae (the 'nones'), the thirteenth (or, in certain months, the fifteenth) was referred to as Idus (the 'Ides'). All other days were referred to by counting backwards from these fixed points in the month. And so, for example, while the Roman equivalent of January 1 would be Kalendae Ianuariae (often abbreviated Kal. Ian.), January 2 would be designated ante diem IV Nonas Januarias (IV Non. Ian). And since January is a day when the 'Nones' falls on the equivalent of the fifth, January 4 was designated pridie Nonas Ianuarias (pr Non. Ian).

The upshot of all this is that This Day in Ancient History provides the date equivalencies according to the calendar implemented by Julius Caesar, using the peculiar system of designating days described above. In some cases, this will be somewhat anachronistic, especially when providing day equivalencies for events which happened (or festivals celebrated) prior to this reform (e.g. there was no such thing as September 30 prior to Julius Caesar's calendar). As far as I'm aware, though, ceteris paribus, the days will only be one or two days off and I'm sure that won't offend the pax deorum.

About the Athenian Calendar
About the Athenian calendar only one thing can really be said with certainty: it existed. Other than that, scholars agree that Aristotle (Ath. Pol. 43.2) tells us two things about the calendar in the fifth century:1) that it was a lunar calendar (and so had 355 days) and that the 'prytany calendar' (i.e. the period of time when a particular tribe had control of the agenda of the Council of 500) ran along side it. From there, scholarly opinion is rather diverse: for example, there is one camp which believes that the Athenian year began with the first new moon after the summer solstice, although this is not attested anywhere. There is a camp which believes that the Athenian system of months consisted of alternating 'hollow' (29-day) and 'full' (30-day) months. Another camp would see a different pattern of hollow and full months. There does not seem to be agreement on whether the first month (Hekatombaion) would have been 'hollow' or 'full'. Dates are often given a designation kat 'archonta ('according to the archon'), which seems to be unanimously tied to the regular civil calendar, while we also see dates kata theon ('according to the god') which appears to refer to a strict lunar calendar, so we might have competing calendars [query: which archon did the reckoning?]

As is usually the case in ancient history, the amount of ink spilled on a particular subject is inversely proportional to what we actually know about it, so quite a bit has been written on these matters and, unfortunately, the more one reads, the less one is convinced by any of the arguments. Similarly, the more one reads the more one realizes why the Athenian calendar of the fifth century doesn't get nearly the same press as the Roman Calendar of Julius Caesar. Be that as it may, I have decided that it is possible to make use of an Athenian calendar by a sort of 'fiction' based on the following assumptions:

1. The Athenian year did begin with the first visible New Moon after the Summer Solstice. The visible new moon, for the sake of this calendar, comes two days after the so-called astronomical new moon. I arrived at this both by advice from my colleague George Pesely (at Austin Peay University) and from looking at the lunar images at the Old Farmer's Almanac website.

2. The Athenian 'day' ran from sunset to sunset, and so a particular day actually began 'the day before' by our reckoning and ended on sunset 'the same day' by our reckoning. For all intents and purposes, this means our days and their days are equivalent for the daylight hours.

3. I'm assuming the Athenians had an official who actually went out looking for the first visible new moon (my guess would be the archon basileus) and who would officially announce the beginning of a new month when he observed it. I'm also assuming this official was rather scrupulous in his observations and wasn't influenced by politics or debt problems to fiddle with the calendar (a major fiction in itself!).

4. Given the foregoing, this is what I've come up with: the Solstice came on June 29 of this year (2001). The astronomical new moon coincided with the Solstice. By my reckoning, the first visible new moon would be June 23. This date I have designated Hekatombaion 1.

5. Instead of trying to figure out whether Hekatombaion was 'full' or 'hollow', I'm assuming the archon or whoever would simply wait for the next visible new moon. The next astronomical new moon was on July 20, making July 22 by my reckoning, the beginning of the next month Metageitnion . The same process will be followed for the rest of the year. By next August it will probably be about ten days out of whack, but we can intercalate then (not much happens in the Athenian calendar in August anyway)

My Sources
For matters calendrical, there are quite a few works out there which are worth reading. E.J. Bickerman's Chronology of the Ancient World (London 1968) is a nice introduction to the calendars of the Greek world and Rome, written at a level that a layperson can understand and providing many useful equivalencies of dates, reigns, etc., although other scholars take issue with many of his assumptions. Also embracing numerous (really numerous!) calendars of the Greek and Roman worlds is Alan E. Samuel's Greek and Roman Chronology (Munich 1972), which is part of the massive Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft but still written in English. The Roman calendar gets monograph treatment in Pierre Brind'Amour's Le Calendrier Romain (Ottawa 1983). As for the Athenian calendar, the 'camps' mentioned above tend to be, on the one hand, followers of B.D. Merritt The Athenian Year (Los Angeles 1961) [along with other works] or W.K. Pritchett The Choiseul Marble. Pritchett also collaborated with O. Neugebauer to pen The Calendars of Athens (Cambridge 1947). .

In regards to the events which happened on a particular day, I am indebted heavily to H.H. Scullard's Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (Ithaca 1981) in conjunction with various translations of Ovid's Fasti and H.W. Parke's Festivals of the Athenians (London 1977) in regards to religious matters. Dates of actual events come from various sources, both print and on the web, although my major source for Roman Imperial events is Dietmar Kienast's Romische Kaisertabelle (Darmstadt, 1990).

This page is updated sometime between 9.00 p.m. "the night before" and 7.00 a.m. "of the day". If you prefer, you can receive this feature via email; info on subscribing is over there on the left.
Copyright © 1997-2001 David Meadows
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