Exhibition Lecture: Geographical Portable Sundials

Reliable Instruments or Roman Fashion Statements?

Richard Talbert

University of North Carolina

This lecture considers one type of Roman sundial represented in the exhibition that has not been sufficiently appreciated from geographical, cultural, and social perspectives. These are the miniature bronze instruments fitted with adjustable rings to accommodate the changes of latitude liable to occur during long journeys – from Britain to Spain, say, or Alexandria to Rome. For rapid reference, these sundials incorporate a list of as many as 30 or more names and latitudes of cities or regions chosen by the maker or owner. 


Comparison of the latitude data with modern calculations reveals that it is by no means always correct. So these instruments could not be relied on to tell the time accurately. This lecture explores the possibility that often they were valued not so much for practical use, but rather as prestige objects which advertised the owner’s supposed scientific awareness, as well as enviable mastery of time and space. In any case, each set of names offers insight into an individual’s ‘mental map’. The names also proclaim Rome’s imperial sway worldwide, and affirm its citizens’ prized freedom of movement. These sundials are ancient forerunners of today’s luxury Swiss watches that offer eye-catching proof of their purchasers’ wealth, sophistication, and cosmopolitanism.  


Richard Talbert, a Cambridge classics graduate, is Kenan professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  His publications include Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World and Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered.  Oxford U. P. will publish his Roman Portable Sundials: The Empire in Your Hand in January 2017.   


Registration is required at isaw.nyu.edu/rsvp

Admission to lecture closes 10 minutes after scheduled start time.

Reception to follow.

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