Greeks measuring time

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Greeks measuring time

Postby Publius Dionysius Mus on Wed Nov 27, 2002 5:41 pm

Salvete!

The topic on the Olympics reminded me of how the Greeks measured time:

One of their systems was by counting the years from the Olympiades. For example: "In the second year after the 180th Olympiad". There is an easy formula to calculate what exact year this was:

4(a-1)-b-777

'a' stands for the Olympiad
'b' stands for the years that have past since the Olympiad

In our example: 4(180-1)-2-777 = 59 BC


But a more common system was that of the 'eponymic magistrates'. This system was also used by the Romans, who counted the years by the serving consuls. The same system was used in Athens (with the archonts) and in Delphi (with the priests of Apollo). This is an easy system, also for us, as long as we have lists of those serving magistrates.

Some works on this topic:
AE SAMUEL: "Greek and Roman Chronology", München, 1972.
G DAUX: "Chronologie Delphique", Paris, 1943.
WK PRITCHETT & BD MERITT: "The Chronology of Hellenistic Athens", Cambridge, 1940.
L MORETTI: "Olympionikai, i vincitori negli antichi agoni olimpici", Roma, 1957
BD MERITT: "The Athenian Year", Berkeley, 1961.


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Postby Marcus Pomponius Lupus on Wed Nov 27, 2002 7:38 pm

Salve Mus,

I remember that Aristoteles used the second system in his "Didaskaliai" - a work with brief summaries and other information about the plays that were performed. Instead of giving a number as an indication of what year it was performed in, he simply said, "performed in they year that he was 'archoon epoonumos' ".

But I always wondered if the Greeks didn't keep the other system in mind. For example if they heard "ah yes, Philomenos, sad story, died in the year that Traphales was archoon epoonumos...". Perhaps this is just because I'm not used to such a system, but it seems rather difficult too me to know if that was 36 of 37 years ago... Perhaps the difference didn't really matter all that much to them, but perhaps they kept the other system as a "back-up" ? So would you know anything about this, Mus ?

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Postby Publius Dionysius Mus on Wed Nov 27, 2002 9:32 pm

Salve Lupe!

I have also asked myself this question several times when reading Roman inscriptions with the consuls mentioned. I would also like to point out that our current measurement of the years, the BC and AD system, was developed in the sixth century by Dionysius Exiguus. Before this time all sorts of chronology were used. So I guess people were used with the system. If they read or heard "this happened in the year that x and y were ...", I guess they could find what year was meant. Many official lists must have circulated in those times...

I guess a simple Roman farmer, reading an inscription on a grave next to the road, couldn't tell by heart how long ago that man died; but the more litterate people possibly knew a lot about their own chronology.

Another aspect is this: these chronologies were mostly very local. For example, the Athenian archonts were known in Athens, and the system to mark years with their reign was only used in Athens. Same for the priests of Apollo in Delphi. This set of course a problem when people began to write general histories, looking over the boundaries of their own territory. In this case systems were developed as the one mentioned, by using the Olympiads.

I hope this answers a bit of your question...

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