Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity

This article first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 16, Fall 2016.

October 19, 2016 – April 23, 2017
Rachel Herschman, Curatorial Assistant

An intricate mosaic depicting severazl men in robes sitting and standing under a tree with a landscape in the background. See text of article for further description. Roman Mosaic Depicting the Seven Sages (“Plato’s Academy”) Stone, H. 86 cm; W. 85 cm, Villa of Titus Siminius Stephanus, Pompeii 1st century BCE–1st century CE, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli: 124545 © Institute for the Study of the Ancient World / Guido Petruccioli, photographer The ancient Greeks and Romans contributed more than any other past civilization to the rise of time’s dominion over individual and public life. Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity explores the ways in which they organized time, marked its passage, and linked it to their understanding of the larger universe. The exhibition brings together more than 100 objects from international collections, comprising both tools of time reckoning and items—many of them rarely on public display—that illuminate the social role, perception, and visualization of time and its relationship to the cosmos. In so doing, it opens a window onto the roots of our modern system of time measurement, as well as how our understanding of it influences our conceptions of the world and our place in it.

Greek philosophers and astronomers conceived of the cosmos, or universe, as a self-contained space in which Earth stood at the center, surrounded—and profoundly affected—by the constant motions of the heavenly bodies and the constellations of the zodiac. In developing time-keeping devices that explicitly aligned the passage of time with these movements, they linked time to the celestial powers that they believed shaped the environment and human destiny. As Professor Alexander Jones notes in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, “What distinguishes our experience of time from that of the Greek or Roman is that our time technology . . . conceals the science on which it is based, where ancient time-telling devices were individual, local illustrations of the cosmology in which their designers believed.”

Time and Cosmos explores and interweaves the practical and iconographic aspects of time and its relationship to the heavens. The exhibition’s opening gallery provides an overview of time-telling technology with a display of eleven sundials—the emblematic clock of Greco-Roman antiquity—and water clocks, devices that would have been found in public places such as gymnasia, as well as on private estates. The examples on view encompass an enormous diversity of historical periods, geography, and geometry, ranging from one of the earliest Greek sundials in existence, made in Oropos during the late 4th century BCE, to later examples from Greece, Italy, North Africa and elsewhere.

In addition to the time-keeping devices, this gallery presents a great variety of objects that illuminate the role of time in belief systems. Greco-Roman astrology, for example, sought to link time and astronomy to human lives by deducing an individual’s character and destiny from the horoscope—the arrangement of the sun, moon, and planets in the zodiac at the instant of his or her birth. Seen here are two exceptionally rare examples of astrologer’s boards—each featuring a combination of Babylonian and Egyptian imagery—on which astrologers displayed clients’ horoscopes while providing oral commentary.

Another highlight is a Roman mosaic from a villa in Pompeii, dating from the first century BCE–first century CE, that depicts the Seven Sages, or Plato’s Academy, gathered in an olive grove. The superbly crafted image brings time and cosmos together, with one of the philosophers explaining the globe of the heavens, while a pillar topped by a sundial, representing daytime, is in the center of the background, and oil lamps, representing nighttime, are depicted on the left side. Elsewhere, a superlative second–fourth century CE marble relief depicts the Roman god Mithras slaying a bull. The image is circled by representations of twelve zodiacal signs, organized so that Scorpio is simultaneously in its place in the zodiac and participating in the sacrificial act.

In the second gallery, Time and Cosmos explores time in both the private and public spheres, with examples of the material objects that gave temporal structure to the daily life of both individuals and the community in such areas as religion, commerce, agriculture, and law. Among these objects are six portable sundials. Precursors of the modern-day watch, these were prestige objects largely owned and used by those at the upper echelons of society. But they were also used by professionals, as seen here in a remarkable installation of objects from a physician’s tomb from the late first century CE, where a portable sundial was deposited along with medical instruments and pills for eye ailments. Another example of a portable sundial provides a superb example of ancient precision metalworking, with nested rings that functioned as images of circles on the celestial sphere.

Much of communal life, from feast days, to religious rituals, to the harvest, to local government, unfolded according to publicly displayed calendars that measured time in months and years rather than hours. Greek calendar inscriptions typically provided a month-by-month listing of festivals, sometimes specifying the animals to be sacrificed for each one, while the ancient Romans also used publicly displayed calendars as a means of civic and cultural organization: dates when the courts and assemblies could or could not meet were inscribed or painted, as were various festivals and other key events. The (probably) first-century CE calendar known as the Menologium Rusticum Colotianum includes a range of information for each month. For the month of January, for example, inscriptions range from measurements (the month has 31 days, the days are 9 ¾ hours long), to astrological information (the sun is in Capricorn), to agricultural and religious activities to be undertaken (“Stakes are to be sharpened,” “Willow and cane to be felled,” and “Sacrifices are made to the Di Penates”).

Time and Cosmos includes several digital displays, including one in this gallery that is devoted to the Antikythera Mechanism, a sophisticated simulator of time cycles and the motions of the sun, moon, and planets. Discovered in 1900–01, when excavation of an ancient Greek shipwreck uncovered pieces of a bronze device consisting of complex systems of gears and dials, it is today recognized as the most important artifact of ancient science that archaeology has ever brought to light.

Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity opens to the public on October 19, 2016 and runs through April 23, 2017. The exhibition is open Wednesday to Sunday from 11am to 6 pm with a late closure at 8 pm on Fridays. A free guided tour is offered each Friday starting at 6 pm.

Exhibition programming will run through the exhibition’s duration. Please visit the ISAW website for updates on when these events will take place.

Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity is accompanied by a catalogue, co-published by ISAW and Princeton University Press. It will be available for purchase in the ISAW galleries and on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and press.princeton.edu.

This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue have been generously supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Arete Foundation, a private donor, the Selz Foundation, an anonymous foundation, Louise Hirschfeld Cullman and Lewis B. Cullman, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Leon Levy Foundation. Additional funding provided by Frances Marzio and Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund.