Of Sundials

The two rooms of the exhibition Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity which is now on show at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, include much of interest for our project. Conceptions of time are often studied exclusively on the basis of written texts, but material remains such as sacred calendars and moulds for parapegmata (tables predicting the weather on the basis of constellations) illustrate some of the competing ways of measuring time in the ancient world. Among the objects on display are a number of portable sundials of the sort that are discussed in a new monograph by Richard Talbert. Some of these sundials include markings for cities spread across the Roman empire, thereby enabling the owner to track different hour-schemes at different points in the empire. They were perhaps not so much practical guides as display pieces, demonstrations of Roman control over the Mediterranean and of the owner’s attempt to control time.

The objects on which I want to focus here are not sundials themselves but their representation in two mosaics. The first of these (on loan from the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier) dates from the third century AD. It shows a balding man with a white beard holding what looks like a large leaf folded at a right angle with six veins on either side. In fact it is a sundial, and it is on this basis that the exhibition identifies the old man as the sixth-century BC philosopher Anaximander. Anaximander is said by a number of sources (Diogenes of Laertius, Eusebius, the Suda) to have invented the gnômôn, a vertical rod whose shadow could indicate by its length and angle both the time of day and the time of year. A different tradition, recorded by Herodotus, held that ‘the Greeks learned about the sundial, its pointer, and the twelve divisions of the day from the Babylonians’, and some modern scholars reconcile the sources by supposing that Anaximander introduced the sundial from Babylon into Greece. It may be better simply to accept that we see a clash between two different ways of conceiving technological innovation: diffusion (typically from Babylon or Egypt) on the one hand, and the wise Greek inventor (prôtos heuretês or ‘first finder’) on the other.

Philosopher and sundial
Mosaic depicting philosopher with sundial, Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, 1907,724, 3rd century CE.

Whatever the origins of the sundial in Greece, the distinctive type of sundial shown in the mosaic poses a problem. The ISAW exhibition notes that it is a type first attested in the Hellenistic era and so an anachronism in a depiction of Anaximander. The problem posed by the mosaic is one that returns again and again in the study of ancient anachronisms: can one tell whether or not a particular temporal slip is deliberate? If an anachronism is unconscious, it seems simply to show a lack of interest in temporal change and so to offer support to the view that the Greeks lacked a developed historical consciousness. If an anachronism such as the mosaic’s sundial is conscious, on the other hand, it can be read as a pointed teleology, mapping out the later improvements set in motion by the inventor. But perhaps with the mosaic a third possibility should be mentioned. The anachronism may lie in our desire to find a specific name for a figure who is not after all identified in the mosaic itself. On the other hand, if the figure is the inventor of the sundial, the mosaic-maker has planted a small detail that debunks the tradition of the prôtos heuretês: given that the shadow cast by the leg of the chair on which the philosopher sits is so open to view, was the gnômôn – which protrudes at the same angle – really such a hard discovery?

The second mosaic in the exhibition comes (via the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) from the Villa of Titus Siminius Stephanus at Pompeii (and so can be securely dated before 79 AD). It shows a group of seven men gathered around a sphere; one of the men is pointing at the sphere with a stick; and behind the whole group a sundial is perched on top of a column. The figures have often been identified either as members of Plato’s Academy (the stick-wielder would then be Plato himself) or as the Seven Sages, a group of wise men attested (with variations in their membership) from the time of Plato who were portrayed together in conversation (however implausibly) in works such as Plutarch’s Symposium of the Seven Sages. On either reading, the mosaic includes an anachronism: it shows an armillary globe, a sphere of rings representing the heavenly bodies – another Hellenistic invention. Rather than thinking of the identification as an alternative, we might prefer to see a deliberate blurring of Plato’s community with the archaic sages (perhaps with the seven figures corresponding to the seven Platonic planets). But there is also a way out of the anachronism. Study of other illustrations of globes led to the suggestion that the figure could be Aratus, the author of an astronomical poem in the third century BC, and this suggestion may in turn receive support from the recently published paintings from the ‘Tomb of the Philosophers’ at Pella, palace of Aratus’ patron Antigonus, in which a man pointing at a globe has been identified as Aratus. If the figure in the Pompeii mosaic is indeed Aratus, it is not the globe that is anachronistic but the grouping of seven men around it – a remnant of the archaic sage tradition.

Seven philosophers or sages
Roman Mosaic depicting seven philosophers or sages, with armillary sphere and sundial, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli 124545, 1st c. BCE-1st c. CE.

Is it a coincidence that these two anachronistic mosaics include instruments associated with the regular measurement of time? The development of new systems for technology can easily lead to nostalgia for simpler eras. Such nostalgia is uttered by characters in ancient comedy who complain that they have to eat at a time controlled by the movement of the sun, not by their own appetites. In the case of our mosaics, the anachronisms produce a more complex form of time that offers resistance to the increasingly precise temporal demarcation of Roman technology. The archaic Greek past serves as an idealised space, an object of wonder, not unlike that strange totality, Greco-Roman antiquity, to which the ISAW exhibition directs our delighted eyes.


Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, October 19, 2016 – April 23, 2017. http://isaw.nyu.edu/exhibitions/time-cosmos/intro

  • R. Lane Fox, ‘“Glorious Servitude …”: The Reigns of Antigonos Gonatas and Demetrios II’, in id. ed., Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedon (Leiden, 2011), 495-519.
  • R.J.A. Talbert, Roman Portable Sundials: The Empire in your Hand (New York, 2017).
  • R.J.A. Wilson, ‘Aspects of Iconography in Romano-British Mosaics: The Rudston “Aquatic” Scene and the Brading Astronomer Revisited’, Britannia 37 (2006), 295-336.

Anachronism in Oxford: the case of the Marmor Parium

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is home to one of the more intriguing objects to have survived from the ancient world, the central fragment of the Marmor Parium, a historical chronicle inscribed on stone. The Marmor Parium, regarded by the museum as one of its ‘greatest treasures’, has long been a focus for explorations of ancient historiography and questions of anachronism in ancient texts, from the time its text was first published in the 17th century. Set up on the island of Paros during the third century BCE, the inscription lists events from Greek myth and history, starting with the accession of King Cecrops, the half-man, half-serpent first king of Athens (in our 1581 BCE), and finishing with the conflict between Demetrius and Cassander, in a series of largely formulaic entries referred to as ‘epochs’; here is the entry for the end of the Trojan war, in Rotstein’s translation.

24. From the time Troy was conquered, 945 years (= 1209/8 BCE), when [Menesthe]us was king of Athens, in his ⟨twenty⟩ second year, in the month of Th[argeli]on, in the seventh day, (counting) from the end of the month.

The last readable entry is for our 299/8 BCE, but most of its text is damaged or missing, and it’s possible that the end of the inscription is likewise lost. The Oxford section includes the entries for the dates 895-355 BCE.

Jacoby’s drawing of the Oxford section of the Marmor Parium (IG XII.5 444).

The Marmor Parium offers some intriguing insights into ancient thinking about the past, as well as raising many questions (for example, quite why an Athenocentric history should have been inscribed and displayed in Paros). With its long chronological span stretching deep into the past, it has been an invaluable document for thinking about problems of ancient chronography, despite the brevity of its entries and its focus on literary rather than political history. It combines two dating systems, one with years expressed in numbers counted backwards from a fixed point, the time of composition, and one with years identified by king or archon. Genealogy and chronology run in parallel, although the former changes gear in line with political changes, and the latter has many peculiarities.

The inscription has long been studied in Oxford, where Marmora Oxoniensa, edited by Joseph Chandler (1737-1810), was published in 1763, containing an improved version of its text. This edition was used by an early commentator, Joseph Robertson (1726–1802), who had concerns about the authenticity of the inscription. Some of these arose from its chronological errors: these included ‘prochronisms’ where events were placed too early (such as the birth of Euripides, in epoch 51), and ‘parachronisms’ in the Sicilian events of epochs 53 and 55 where the temporal confusion is broader (Robertson 1788: 166-7). Robertson is more broadly concerned with authenticity beyond this particular text; he also discusses the poems of Thomas Chatterton (1752-70), which he feels display ‘some apparent anachronisms’ (Robertson 1788: 204), which had recently been revealed to be Chatterton’s work rather than those of a mediaeval bard. It is intriguing to think that our project echoes the interests of these early scholars.

robertson parachronism
Robertson on parachronism, from The Parian Chronicle, 1788, p. 167.

Despite the gaps and losses, the Marmor Parium’s text shows how an ancient chronicle can combine past times and spaces that we would regard as quite distinct in kind into a single narrative structure – the spatium mythicum, a world in which the king of Athens can have serpent form and the spatium historicum, a world in which the city is a trophy for the warring successors of Alexander the Great’s disintegrating empire. In this sense, the structures modern historiographers attempt to impose on Greek accounts of the past, and the distinction between historiography and mythography, look as if they might themselves be anachronistic retrojections alien to the ancient sources.

While the Marmor Parium’s apparently unbroken chronology suggests continuity, recent research has pointed to subtleties within its narrative and language that mark some changes in the style of its account. Veit Rosenberger finds evidence in the chronicle’s entries of the ‘floating gap’ between the mythical and historical past; following the details of various events we treat as mythical, the period between 1202/1 BCE and 604/3 BCE has very few entries, but then more is recorded for subsequent years. Rosenberger argues that the second of these shifts in the frequency of recorded events marks the starting point of Greek literary history, possibly in the work of the historian and mythographer Hecataeus. The stone therefore encodes a frozen ‘floating gap’ that marks the start of Greek written historical accounts. The second section of the stone, the Paros fragment, covers dates that fall within the 80 years before the chronicle’s composition, and thus within the scope of oral history at the time of composition. But a physical gap of text, covering a critical 19-year period, lost between the Oxford and Paros sections makes it impossible to identify the exact date at which this increased level of detail begins.

The afterlife of the Marmor Parium is as intriguing as its origin. The first section was acquired by Lord Arundel’s agents in Smyrna (and so divorced from its archaeological context) and arrived in England in 1627, and drawings and transcriptions were made and published soon afterwards in Marmora Arundelliana, along with the rest of the Arundel collection of classical inscriptions, by John Selden. Selden’s publication is the only record for this section, which was lost between 1627 and the donation of the Arundel collection to Oxford in 1667, most likely during the turmoil of the Civil War; it was possibly used as building material to repair Arundel House. Editors ever since have been striving to improve Selden’s text, occasionally with enthusiastic supplements and emendations. More recent editors wish, anachronistically, that Selden, and indeed Felix Jacoby (1876-1959) in his two editions, had been able to use Leiden convention markings for doubtful characters and spaces (Rotstein 2016: 17-20).

A further section of the chronicle, covering the dates 336 BCE to 299/8 BCE, was discovered on Paros in 1897, sparking a further flurry of editions and commentaries. That section is now on display in Paros; as Rotstein observes, the history of the marble (variously identified as Arundellian, Oxonian, and Parian) is itself a microcosm of the history of the ‘early European appropriation of antiquities’ (Rotstein 2016: 5). Museum visitors, whether in Paros or Oxford, may wonder how much more legible or accessible the stone, with its tiny lettering, was to its original readers in Hellenistic Paros.