I think it was D.R. Dicks in his book Early Greek Astronomy to Aristotle who bemoaned the lack of books on Greek Astronomy. He looked back to the 1930s and Thomas Heath’s book on Greek Astronomy for an earlier work on the subject. At the time when I was doing my BA I thought that was a bad thing. Now I suspect it’s not. Rather it shows that when classicists look at astronomy in the ancient world they keep an eye on how it interrelated with society. The result is excellent books like Rosemary Wright’s Cosmology in Antiquity, Tamsyn Barton’s Ancient Astrology and now Robert Hannah’s Greek & Roman Calendars. I’ve just finished my first skim of the book and I’m quite impressed.
One of the big problems I have with a lot of work on archaeoastronomy is that authors often love to give reams of data and announce that it’s up to archaeologists or historians to interpret it. This might sound fine in theory, lots of people producing masses of objective data, but I end up wondering “What is the point?”. Given I’m open to archaeoastronomy that suggests that there’s a problem. Keith Kintigh put it nicely when he said:
[A]rchaeologists see archaeoastronomers as answering questions that, from a social scientific standpoint, no one is asking. To put it bluntly, in many cases it doesn’t matter much to the progress of anthropology whether a particular archaeoastronomical claim is right or wrong because the information doesn’t inform the current interpretive questions. It may be true that a building is lined up within half a degree of true north, but what do I do with that singular fact?
Robert Hannah’s book is interesting first and foremost not because it is about astronomy, but because it is about people.
He starts by explaining why calendars are so important: they regulate social time. He doesn’t fall into the hackneyed claim that accurate calendars are essential for agriculture, and keeps the issue of how a society regulates its social activity at the forefront.
Chapter one is short and introduces the astronomical reasons why a calendar is not a straight-forward device. The explanation is pretty basic, by which I mean he doesn’t get lost in minutiae which might appeal to astronomers, but would bore the average classicist rigid. I’m assuming any classicist with a deep interest in astronomy would already know this information and would skip on to chapter two. However, there is enough information here to supply what is needed to be known.
Chapter two starts with the earliest calendars and explains events such as heliacal rising lucidly. The earliest calendars discussion are from Mycenaean times, but most of the chapter concentrates on archaic calendars. It also tackles the problem of the Olympics, which is brave to say the least. In this chapter there is more of a concentration on symbolism, his work from Electronic Antiquity on the Shield of Achilles makes an appearance.
The calendar as we would recognise it, in the sense of a progression of months is the core of Chapter three. He also refers back to his work on parapegmata, calendrical stelae which have holes for moveable pegs to publically indicate the day. By the holes would be handy comments like Ornis rises this day or Today the heat is at its greatest. He also tackles some of the issues in fixing modern dates to months.
Chapter four, Synchronisms, tackles the ways in which was can correlate the months of other Greek calendars to each other to produce more known dates. This is a chapter I’ll need to read again. This kind of work is a minefield and while I cannot see anything wrong with it, it’s the sort of detail classicists can debate for years. It’s no fault of the book, I need to be sharper with this material.
Rome gets a lot less attention in the book. The only chapter which fully covers the material is chapter five. I don’t think I’m better informed on the Roman calendar, but much of this seemed quite familiar, so I think this chapter is perhaps the least innovative. Still, that is a relative term, there still a fascinating section on Augustus’s horoscope to read.
Chapter six is the oddest chapter in the book. It’s entitled Afterwords, and that more or less sums up the bitty nature of the section. It’s not that the bits aren’t good, but it may have made more sense as a Later Antiquity chapter.
The only big disappointment is that in the back you’ll only find a select bibliography, which doesn’t even list all of Hannah’s major works. On the whole it’s the kind of work I’d like my PhD to be. It’s thought-provoking, original and well-researched but above all it’s accessible without being lightweight. Hannah shows that a scholarly work can use language as a partner to illuminate concepts rather than, as some authors seem to believe, an opponent to be wrestled into sumbission. The icing on the cake is that in paperback it’s affordable. Rather than being one of this ridiculously expensive Kluwer volumes that cost more than the Book of Kells, Duckworth have produced a book that it’s sensible to go out and buy. It’s almost as if they want people to read it. Brilliant!Google+