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.

Topography as a navigational tool

Looking uphill to the Temple of Apollo, Delphi

This is a quote that I read and then for­got where in the attic I’d left the book. Whenever I found the book I’d then dis­cover Delphi was’t in the index and, as vir­tual worlds are not a pri­or­ity for me, I’d put down again with the inten­tion to return to it later. Finally it’s all come together.

The con­trast between uphill and down­hill views has a rather won­der­ful side-effect, which is quite rel­ev­ant to the design and exper­i­ence of vir­tual worlds. Delphi is a one-sided site in which you are never dis­or­i­ent­ated. Downhill is south­ward, facing the val­ley and the Gulf of Corinth and the warm Greek sun. Uphill is north­ward, facing the tower­ing gray cliffs of Mount Parnassus. There is no con­fu­sion in Delphi today, just as there was none two thou­sand years agom for a tour­ist try­ing to find the sta­dium high up on the north end of town, If you climb uphill with the sun at your back you will inev­it­ably arrive at the sta­dium. You will be at an elev­a­tion 400 feet higher than the ath­letes’ gym­nas­ium in the lower town. Think about how you might incor­por­ate a slope into the topo­graphy of your vir­tual site so that your vis­it­ors have a con­stant reminder of the logic of the lay­out, that there is an uphill side.

O’Neill, R. & Muir, E. 1998. >Web Developer​.com Guide to Creating 3D Worlds. New York: Wiley & Sons.

(pp. 22–23)

Looking uphill to the Temple of Apollo, Delphi

It’s never too early for wine?


It’s nice when things con­nect. There was a press release last week on the earli­est known winery being found in Armenia. The paper is Chemical evid­ence for wine pro­duc­tion around 4000 BCE in the Late Chalcolithic Near Eastern high­lands. Alas, it’s not Open Access so if you want to read it can you can’t use a lib­rary or blag a copy it’ll be expens­ive. It was covered in other blogs, so I wouldn’t nor­mally men­tion it.

Meanwhile another release has come out about some genetic work on grapes in PNAS. I found this while work­ing on AoB Blog. Genetic struc­ture and domest­ic­a­tion his­tory of the grape is open access, but you’ll have to do a search on the title as the DOI isn’t work­ing (as I write this). This dates the domest­ic­a­tion of grapes to no later than 5,000 years ago — and the likely centre of domest­ic­a­tion is the region between the Black Sea and Caspian Seas.

After much fid­dling about I’ve man­aged to set up a map on AoB Blog show­ing where the winery is. You can decide for your­self if the two approaches are com­ing to the same loc­a­tion for the ori­gin of wine.

Solving a mystery with a mystery?


I’ve had a look at the paper Dynamics of Wind Setdown at Suez and the Eastern Nile Delta. As far as I can tell it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I’m not sub­mit­ting this to ResearchBlogging, because half of it I can­not reas­on­ably cri­tique, but the other half is poor. So poor I’ve left this overnight before post­ing, because I thought I was being unfair, but I might be too kind.

To start with the bet­ter part, Drews and Han pro­pose that wind set­down could leave a clear route across a body of water that, if it had happened in 1250BC, would have allowed Israelites to escape from Egypt. It would require sev­eral hours of a steady wind at around 28m/s, but accord­ing to the mod­els it could clear leave clear mud­flats. My ini­tial response is scep­tical because if a lot of things then many more things could hap­pen. The inclu­sion of the report by Major-General Tulloch is there­fore very import­ant, because it means that Drew and Han can show that this effect can hap­pen. That’s import­ant because then, regard­less of whether or not the dis­cus­sion is rel­ev­ant to the Exodus, Drew and Han have found some­thing that may be useful.

The idea that the Exodus was assisted by wind set­down is not new. Doron Nof pub­lished a few papers on this in the 1990s. It’s not com­mon, but there seem to be enough reports to sug­gest that it can hap­pen on shal­low bod­ies of water around the Nile Delta.

I’m see no reason to dis­agree with the phys­ics. Sadly I also see no point in dis­agree­ing with the phys­ics, because no mat­ter how good the phys­ics and mod­el­ing is, the his­tory is bad.

As far as the his­tory goes, the authors state: “The present study treats the Exodus 14 nar­rat­ive as an inter­est­ing and ancient story of uncer­tain ori­gin.” I’m not sure it does. They men­tion Moses crossed the Red Sea in Exodus 14, and that’s as far as the his­tor­ical dis­cus­sion goes. That’s not a prob­lem if the aim of the paper is to exam­ine wind set­down effects in the 19th cen­tury on Lake Manzala, but it’s eccent­ric to ignore the his­tory if you’re attempt­ing to solve a his­tor­ical prob­lem and Exodus is a huge problem.

The biggest prob­lem is whether or not the Exodus happened. There is no archae­olo­gical evid­ence for the Exodus and the evid­ence points to Israel and Judah form­ing from Canaanite king­doms. I don’t see that as a ter­minal prob­lem for the Drew and Han paper — if they’re inter­ested in wind set­down gen­er­ic­ally — but it surely mer­its a men­tion? So if the Exodus didn’t hap­pen, then why is it interesting?

It’s inter­est­ing because even if it didn’t hap­pen around 1300BC, it’s a story that the Israelites told about their ori­gins in the sixth and fifth cen­tur­ies BC. Whether or not those beliefs about what happened seven hun­dred years earlier are accur­ate is another mat­ter. This isn’t an error unique to Drew and Han. There are ancient his­tor­i­ans who treat Thucydides as a source of bank­able facts about Greece in the eighth and sev­enth cen­tur­ies BC, des­pite these stor­ies being later ration­al­isa­tions about why things were the way things were. There’s a great paper by Moses Finley on the Trojan War about how much ‘his­tory’ is roman­ti­cised events. There are all sorts of ques­tions that arise from this. Why did the Israelites por­tray them­selves as out­siders? What does it tell us about rela­tion­ships between the Jews and the self-identified nat­ive peoples? What does it say about rela­tions with Egypt at the time of writing?

Without pay­ing any atten­tion to the his­tor­ical con­text the ensu­ing dis­cus­sion becomes worth­less. Drew and Han move cross­ing of the Exodus to Lake Tanis. What his­tor­ical reason is there for this? As far as I can tell none. The reason they seem to move the cross­ing to Lake Tanis is that if they do so, their effect works. From a his­tor­ical per­spect­ive the argu­ment is “If we assume the cross­ing occurred in 1250BC at Lake Tanis, then we can con­clude the most likely place for the cross­ing was Lake Tanis in 1250BC.” In real­ity they could be right, but if they are why is this not reflec­ted in the his­tory? What was the situ­ation 700 years later? If small wind set­down events were com­mon, could these be an inspir­a­tion for a big event? Whatever this paper explains, it does not explain how the Israelites got the story of their cross­ing of the Red Sea. As far as examin­ing a sup­posed his­tor­ical event goes, the paper is wholly inadequate.

Despite that should the paper have been accep­ted for pub­lic­a­tion? I’m not sure. If the journal were the Public Library of History then def­in­itely not. If how­ever the met­eor­o­lo­gical mod­el­ing is sound, and it con­trib­utes to the under­stand­ing of mod­ern wind set­down, then the world is a bet­ter place for hav­ing the paper pub­lished. If it’s only value is the dis­cus­sion of a his­tor­ical event with no con­sid­er­a­tion of the his­tor­ical con­text then it’s an oddity. It simply replaces a phys­ical mys­tery with another his­tor­ical mys­tery. If you’re inter­ested in the Exodus as a his­tor­ical event then that’s no answer at all, in which case why write the paper?

When I want to read about ser­i­ous bib­lical schol­ar­ship my first stop is Abnormal Interests by Duane Smith. He has a post on the sub­ject .

You too can have an ass like Cleopatra


@Simon_Perry on Twitter has poin­ted out a web­site of someone who’s a rather aggress­ive sales­man. I’ve had to hand in my Pedantry badge that I earned in the cub scouts because my first reac­tion was that the cham­pagne vin­egar in this facecream isn’t likely to be nat­ural. This is miss­ing the point because as far as I can tell noth­ing sold by Totally Natural Skincare is totally nat­ural. But there is a gem among the junk.

Skimmed milk product by Totally Natural Skincare

Cleopatras bath milk
Used by Cleopatra, except she used asses milk! A beau­ti­ful sooth­ing and relax­ing bath milk which nour­ishes the skin and releases its floral oils and cocoa but­ter in the warmth of the bath leav­ing you smooth as silk. This Bath milk also con­tains our own rose petal soap. thus cleanses as well as moisturising.

As sales pitches go Used by Cleopatra, except she used asses milk! is a clas­sic — and not just because the product includes cocoa (from the Americas). You need to think about what bathing in asses milk means.

Amanda Barrie gives the defin­it­ive per­form­ance of Cleopatra in Carry on Cleo

To be hon­est, I don’t know where the idea that Cleopatra bathed in asses’ milk came from. There’s no con­tem­por­ary source that I know of that says it. Pliny the Elder writ­ing around a cen­tury later said that women bathed their cheeks in it seven times a day to remove wrinkles. The key bit is “Poppaea hoc Neronis prin­cipis instituit, bal­nearum quoque solia sic tem­per­ans…” Natural History 28.183. Pliny says that Poppaea, wife of Nero first did this, and even filled her bath-tubs with the milk.

Nero was not fondly remembered by the Roman élite after he died, and neither was Poppaea. By say­ing that Poppaea intro­duced the prac­tice, Pliny is not just say­ing it’s some­thing that extremely vain people would do. Nero and Poppaea were con­sidered moral dregs. The fact that Poppaea used whole baths of the stuff high­lights her extra­vag­ant and waste­ful nature. Even though the élites were wealthy, the pur­suit and flaunt­ing of wealth on per­sonal effects was con­sidered effem­in­ate and unRo­man. Instead Romans were sup­posed to flash their cash by put­ting on events for the the people, or build­ing pub­lic works. If as part of those works, they had to have grand vil­las and employ the best sculptors to fur­nish them, then that was the way life went.

Cassius Dio (62.28) was scath­ing of Poppaea’s pur­suit of luxury:

The extremes of lux­ury indulged in by this Sabina (Poppaea) O will indic­ate in the briefest terms. She cause gil­ded shoes to be put on the mules that drew her and caused five hun­dred asses that had recently foaled to be milked daily that she might bathe in their milk. For she bestowed the greatest pains on the beauty and bril­liancy of her per­son, and this is why, when she noticed in a mir­ror one day that her appear­ance was not comely, she prayed that she might die before she passed her prime.

So if Poppaea inven­ted the milk bath, why is it asso­ci­ated with Cleopatra?

Egypt was wealthy because of its agri­cul­ture. It was pres­ti­gi­ous due to the antiquity of its civil­isa­tion. So the Romans had to find a flaw in Egypt to jus­tify their rule. The flaw was in the moral char­ac­ter of its rulers. By say­ing Cleopatra bathed in asses milk, the later authors were say­ing some­thing about the cor­rupt nature of the last of the Pharaohs. By asso­ci­ation Mark Anthony’s rela­tion­ship with Cleopatra sul­lied him. Bathing in asses milk might have said some­thing about Cleopatra’s beauty, but it was some­thing along the lines of “She was beau­ti­ful, just like a pros­ti­tute with plenty of make-up.”

So while Totally Natural Skincare aren’t say­ing this product isn’t exactly the same as used by Cleopatra, they’re imply­ing it’ll have the same effect. Buy their products and you too can be just like an ancient whore.

Incidentally, if you’ve ever thought that bathing in asses’ milk doesn’t sound prac­tical, you’re prob­ably right. Seneca writ­ing in the Controversiae recor­ded that brothels stank. Not just because of the cos­met­ics, but also from the cheap per­fume used to try and hide the smell.