Calendars in Antiquity by Sacha Stern

Book Review by Philip Matyszak

Almost everyone these days has a calendar close to hand, either displayed on the wall or digitally on an electronic device. We seldom think of a calendar as anything other than a means of reckoning the date, but as this book points out, calendars are much more than this.

Sacha Stern takes us back to a time when the date was pretty much a matter of opinion, and the days of the months varied from city to city - as indeed did the names and lengths of the actual months. Sometimes the number of months was insufficient to fill the actual year, so that the calendar fell out of synchronization with the seasons, and at other times the year was extended at the whim of a ruling politician.

This was not because the people of antiquity did not know better. Stern argues, and demonstrates with extensive footnotes, that even in Babylonian times the technical expertise existed to create a stable calendar which accurately reflected astronomical and seasonal phenomena. However, Stern presents a near-incontrovertible case that calendars are and were a social construct and the very flexibility which we find so confusing today was regarded as a positive attribute in ancient times.

For a start, without an actual calendar, modern man is at a loss to know the date. Since most original calendars were lunar (a month is a 'moon-th' even though the modern month does not track the phases of the moon), an ancient Greek could make a fair assessment of the date by glancing at the night sky. However, if celebrations for a festival were delayed, or the harvest came in early, the leaders of an ancient city could choose to simply shorten or extend the month in question.

The time it takes for the moon to go from new to full and back twelve times takes less than a year, so a lunar calendar constantly falls short of the solar year, and needs a month inserted every few years to keep it synchronised. This book describes in considerable technical detail the process of inserting these months (intercalation), and the different cycles extending over decades in which years should be inserted. He also examines in detail why intercalations did not happen as they should, and concludes that this was mainly for political reasons.

It was also for political reasons that stable calendars were finally introduced. With the growth of empires, it became necessary for people often thousands of miles away to be literally on the same page when calculating when things had happened or were to happen. The Egyptian calendar (or an Egyptian Calendar - this book discusses in detail the existence of alternative Egyptian calendars) was unique in having a stable 365-day year. The absence of of leap years meant that the calendar wandered through the seasons over the centuries, but the model was tweaked by Julius Caesar to form the Julian calendar which became the Gregorian calendar which is essentially the western calendar of today.

The author points out that Caesar's motive was probably short-term political; to take power from the priests who had formerly - and very badly - administered the Roman calendar. He also spends some time pondering whether the development of fixed calendars is a macro- or micro-historical trend without reaching a firm conclusion either way. However, he does firmly reject the idea that a fixed calendar represents a step forward for humanity, rather than an adjustment for changed circumstances. (Wouldn't you like August to be a bit longer?)

The book claims to be written for the general reader. There are indeed occasional nods in this direction. For example when he first mentions Attica the author scrupulously tells us this is the polis of which Athens was the largest settlement. He then plunges into issues such as the Merritt-Pritchet controversy over whether Aristotle's model of the prytanic calendar is a schematic simplification. The assumption is that the reader is either up to speed with the developments painstakingly documented in footnotes which often take up more space than the actual text on a given page, or will take the time to become so.

Consequently this is a book which requires a certain degree of concentration. The text is necessarily dense, as this typical extract demonstrates:

‘The dates in the first Book of Macabees can only be reconciled with each other if one assumes that some are Macedonian (from the autumn) and some Babylonian (from the spring) e.g. in 1 Macc. 4.52 the month of Chasleu (Kislew see Table 5.2) is identified as the ninth month which implies the Babylonian count with a New Year from the spring. (p.235)’

Other sections are considerably more technical, and depend on previous argument, so this is emphatically not a book to dip into for a casual read.

The final sections involve the Christian calendar and the calculation of Easter. The author argues that the universal celebration of Easter on the same date was contrived by the emperor and church as an instrument to create social and political unity. For this reason alternative dates - once the subject of amicable disagreement - now became heresy, and dissenters from the mainstream church deliberately chose different Easter dates precisely to underline their distinctiveness.

Given the emphasis of the author that the church stressed social unity over Lent (that one man not fast while another feasts) it is somewhat inexplicable that no mention is made of the Ambrosian calculation of Lent which differs from that elsewhere, with the result that the people of Milan celebrated (and still celebrate) carnival at a different time to the rest of Italy. By the argument of this book, such diversity should have been ruthlessly stamped out. At the very least the issue should have been dealt with in a book which examines much more minor issues in great detail.

Another omission - though this time deliberate - is discussion of what the calendars were actually for. There is little mention of the events and festivals which the calendars were used to calculate, because, as the author points out, this ground has been exhaustively covered already. Those curious about such matters are referred to the extensive bibliography. This book is essentially a comprehensive and detailed academic thesis arguing for the social and political origins of ancient calendars, and a rejection of the idea that the modern, fixed calendar represents the onward march of science.

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