Time as an anachronism

Surreal time photo

I’m writ­ing up a paper, and because it’s one I haven’t actu­ally fin­ished yet I quite like it. It ties up some loose ends with pro­ject. It also adds some­thing new to ancient polit­ics without hav­ing to con­tra­dict a lot of people. It’s been going quite well so I’ve star­ted writ­ing up the Introduction and I must have been slightly on auto­matic because I’ve run smack into the ques­tion “What is Time?” A lot of people much more intel­li­gent than me have been banging their heads against this prob­lem for mil­len­nia, so I’ll be doing well to solve it in a couple of para­graphs. I think for my work I’ve man­aged to tighten the prob­lem into two smal­ler ques­tions. Is the mod­ern exper­i­ence of time as a largely object­ive pas­sage of dur­a­tion ana­chron­istic when you look at the ancient world?

Plato in the Timaeus 38c says:

Wherefore, as a con­sequence of this reas­on­ing and design on the part of God, with a view to the gen­er­a­tion of Time, the sun and moon and five other stars, which bear the appel­la­tion of “plan­ets,” came into exist­ence for the determ­in­ing and pre­serving of the num­bers of Time.
trans. Perseus Project CC licenced BY-SA

This means that Plato saw the plan­ets as cre­at­ing time. This is the inverse of how we think of time, because we think time would exist any­way and that time is some­thing that plan­ets move in. So do we need a rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent men­tal model for how ancient people though about time? I’m not sure. For a counter-argument here’s a bit of Clouds by Aristphanes. Strepsiades is bothered about his debts and how he can­not afford to pay them back. He goes to Socrates, to teach him how to think:

Do you, your­self, first find out and state what you wish.

You have heard a thou­sand times what I wish. About the interest; so that I may pay no one.

Come then, wrap your­self up, and hav­ing given your mind play with sub­tilty, revolve your affairs by little and little, rightly dis­tin­guish­ing and examining.

Ah me, unhappy man!

Keep quiet; and if you be puzzled in any one of your con­cep­tions, leave it and go; and then set your mind in motion again, and lock it up.

(in great glee). O dearest little Socrates!

What, old man?

I have got a device for cheat­ing them of the interest.

Exhibit it.

Now tell me this, pray; if I were to pur­chase a Thessalian witch, and draw down the moon by night, and then shut it up, as if it were a mir­ror, in a round crest-case, and then care­fully keep it–

What good, pray, would this do you?

What? If the moon were to rise no longer any­where, I should not pay the interest.

Why so, pray?

Because the money is lent out by the month.

trans. Perseus Project CC licenced BY-SA

In ancient Greece a month was a lun­ation, the period of time from one New Moon to the next. By remov­ing the moon Strepsiades removes months. This seems to back up Plato’s ideas about plan­ets gen­er­at­ing time (the Sun and Moon were πλάνητες ἀστέρες, plan­etes asters or wan­der­ing stars, in the ancient world). But the joke only works if the solu­tion is non­sense. Pulling down the moon is a daft idea, but is the idea that months would cease to have mean­ing too? The Romans lived per­fectly well without lunar months.

Herodotus (II.4.1), writ­ing around the same period, was clear that lunar months weren’t good ways to track time.

But as to human affairs, this was the account in which they all agreed: the Egyptians, they said, were the first men who reckoned by years and made the year con­sist of twelve divi­sions of the sea­sons. They dis­covered this from the stars (so they said). And their reck­on­ing is, to my mind, a juster one than that of the Greeks; for the Greeks add an inter­cal­ary month every other year, so that the sea­sons agree; but the Egyptians, reck­on­ing thirty days to each of the twelve months, add five days in every year over and above the total, and thus the com­pleted circle of sea­sons is made to agree with the cal­en­dar.
trans. Perseus Project CC licenced BY-SA

From this it looks like time is quant­at­ive. For example if today is Tuesday, then even if it feels like a Monday it can’t be Monday because Monday + 1 day = Tuesday. I think this can­not be purely the case for ancient Greece though.

For example McCluskey (2000:18) and Pritchett (2001) both note that the cal­en­dar can pause or skip days. The same is true for months. To keep the Greek cal­en­dar in line with the sea­sons they didn’t insert an extra day every so often, they inser­ted a whole month as Herodotus says above. You end up try­ing to match months against sea­sons and sea­sons have qual­it­ies. These days in the UK we say Spring starts on March 21. In real­ity Spring starts when the weather improves. Spring can come earlier or later. If you’re in a soci­ety that doesn’t recog­nise a fixed num­ber of days in a solar year, like ancient Greece, then the qual­ity of the days become import­ant. The cal­en­dar is used to reg­u­late reli­gious acts and if a cer­tain fest­ival is sup­posed to be at the start of Spring and the flowers or anim­als asso­ci­ated with the fest­ival are not yet out then it’s not the right day and the cal­en­dar needs to be corrected.

While the Greeks shared com­mon reli­gious beliefs, on the details they were fiercely inde­pend­ent. In this period tak­ing part in a reli­gious event was a polit­ical state­ment about belong­ing to a polis, a city-state. Non-citizens did not have the right to par­ti­cip­ate in the events in the same way as a cit­izen. So if reli­gion was used to define us from them and the cal­en­dar was a reli­gious tool, then a neut­ral object­ive count is not good enough. They wanted to be able to have their own dis­tinct­ive calendrical cycle. I think that’ll be some­thing I need to cla­rify. It’s not that the Greeks couldn’t make an accur­ate cal­en­dar. It’s that, for the job they wanted it to do, a less pre­cise cal­en­dar was bet­ter.

Where does that leave Herodotus? Clearly the Greeks weren’t stu­pid and if Herodotus knew that a three-hundred and sixty-five day cycle made sense, you can be sure many in his audi­ence did too. But Herodotus had his own axe to grind.

Herodotus was writ­ing towards the end of the fifth cen­tury BC. Athens and Sparta had been rivals for dec­ades con­test­ing the power vacuum cre­ated by the defeat of Persia. Herodotus wrote about the Persian War, not his own time. His aim was to recall a Panhellenic glory shared by all Greeks. A three-hundred and sixty-five day cycle wouldn’t inher­ently dis­solve all intra-Hellenic dif­fer­ences but it would social bonds between the Greeks. I don’t think it was a con­scious polit­ical state­ment, but I think the com­ment on the Egyptian cal­en­dar reflec­ted the Panhellenic ideals you find else­where in the History.

Every so often someone will tell me ‘there’s no such thing as ancient sci­ence’. Usually when I’m asso­ci­ated with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Science. They’re right. Science is a mod­ern social con­struct that doesn’t fit neatly on to the ancient world. On the other hand it is a con­veni­ent label for attempts to pro­duce gen­er­al­ised explan­a­tions and prac­tices, without imme­di­ate recourse to super­nat­ural beings, estab­lished with at least the attempt of a pre­tence at rational jus­ti­fic­a­tion. And it’s good enough for the much cleverer people who write the vari­ous volumes in Routledge’s Sciences of Antiquity series. But I agree with the idea that if you’re not aware of the dif­fer­ence, it’s some­thing that will come back to bite you. In the same way, I’m not sure that the way we think about Time can applied back to the past. The dif­fi­culty is that it’s such a slip­pery sub­ject I don’t know if I always have a grasp about how I think about Time in the present.


McCluskey, S.C., 2000. The Inconstant Moon: Lunar Astronomies in Different Cultures. Archaeoastronomy, 15, p.14–31.

Pritchett, W.K., 2001. Athenian Calendars and Ekklesias, J C Gieben.

4 thoughts on “Time as an anachronism

  1. Sarah May

    Interesting post. I read the Plato dif­fer­ently though:
    “came into exist­ence for the determ­in­ing and pre­serving of the num­bers of Time.“
    the num­bers of Time is not the same thing as Time itself, I read it to mean the meas­ur­ment of Time. So the plan­ets came into exist­ence to meas­ure time. Time can still exist independantly

    • Alun

      Thanks, I think that’s a very good point. Looking at Timaeus 38b:

      Time, then, came into exist­ence along with the Heaven, to the end that hav­ing been gen­er­ated together they might also be dis­solved together, if ever a dis­sol­u­tion of them should take place;

      That allows Time and Heaven to be con­nec­ted but still dis­tinct. In many ways that’s a big help because earlier texts like Hesiod’s Works & Days don’t use astro­nomy as the sole arbiter of time. It makes the pro­gres­sion of astro­nomy as a time­keep­ing tool a bit more coherent.

      There is a small prob­lem in that ‘num­ber’ is a dif­fi­cult concept. Pythagoreans say num­bers as… umm… this is where I lack the vocab­u­lary. I think it be bet­ter to say Pythagoreans saw num­ber as the basis for real­ity, so Time might be a mani­fest­a­tion of the Numbers of Time not the other way round. Or it might not. And there’s a whole other debate on how Pythagorean Plato was. Seeing as the paper isn’t ‘Everything about Greek Cosmology’ I’ll ignore the num­ber issue and con­cen­trate on the timekeeping.

  2. Thanks Alun, this is very use­ful to me!

    Isn’t it rather Newtonian to say time is inde­pend­ent of move­ment? Someone work­ing with relativ­ity would say the only way to meas­ure the passing of time is to watch a reg­u­lar phys­ical pro­cess, which is why so many thought exper­i­ments have clocks attached to them.

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