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Do You Have the Time? A Look at How Time Was Perceived in Ancient History


As we barrel toward the holiday rush, a UC doctoral student provides a perspective on how ancient civilizations kept track of their schedules.

Date: 12/3/2013 1:00:00 PM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Ashley Kempher

UC ingot   Back in the ‘60s, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was a big hit for pop singer Andy Williams, who had lived in Cincinnati and had attended Western Hills High School. But in this bustling holiday season five decades later, as we shop, visit and celebrate and look ahead to the new year and look back on the old, many of us can feel that aspects of our time are slipping away from us, particularly when it comes to the shopping countdown.

It’s certainly true that back in the ‘60s, Black Friday was a new reference to shopping season the day after Thanksgiving, and stores weren’t competing for even earlier shoppers by opening on Thanksgiving Day.

Back then, Americans would check their pocket watch, or wristwatch or a ladies’ watch necklace (all wind ups, no batteries) to check the time, not glance at their smartphone or the microwave – they didn’t have one.

David Schwei
David Schwei, a doctoral candidate in the University of Cincinnati’s Classics Department

So, what would it be like today if we pretty much had to read the time by checking our own shadow? Hey, it’s what the Romans used to do. It’s not like they could lug around a sundial.

David Schwei, a doctoral candidate in the University of Cincinnati’s Classics Department, takes people back in time to the ancient Romans and Greeks in one of his presentations this year through the Classics Outreach Program. Now in its sixth year, the Classics Department’s graduate students come up with their own topics and develop their own presentations to reach out to middle schools, high schools, libraries and retirement communities. And all of it is free.

The Outreach Program offers more than two dozen topics over the 2013-14 academic year, including Schwei’s talk about ancient coins and his presentation titled, “Do You Have the Time? Ancient Concepts of Time and the Calendar.”

“Telling time for the Romans and Greeks was more based on the sun,” says Schwei, who says as their shadows grew longer in late afternoon, they knew it was time to dine. They often ate out, much like many busy families (who don’t have time to watch their own shadow) do today.

“I think time was more fluid for the ancient Romans and Greeks,” says Schwei. “They got up at sunrise, worked at their business in the mornings, had a midday meal in the afternoon, went to a bath house and then would perhaps go out to dinner. The wealthier people would go to a party.”

Calendars evolved from holding trials and assemblies as well as religious festivals, when businesses would shut down, says Schwei. “At least for the Romans, there would be a calendar inscribed in their town square with the festivals and days where people could have assemblies. Male citizens would take the day off to vote, and trials and assemblies were open to the general public.

“Some people might have had a sundial in the courtyards of their houses, and in the first century AD, there were portable sundials. But some sundials only indicated the time of year – based on the equinox and solstice – so they weren’t great for telling time.”

However, Schwei says it was that system of telling time that influenced our modern calendar. “They had to hold festivals only during certain times of the year. There’s a fragment of a calendar that I show in my talk that ultimately translates to a goddess responsible for mildew, and so there was a festival to make sure she didn’t come in and destroy the crops.

“Julius Caesar and his adopted son, the first emperor Augustus, had to redo the calendar because the civil wars were throwing everyone off. People were using them to delay an election or trial.”

Schwei says he was first intrigued by ancient history when he took Latin in high school.
Schwei's study abroad trip to Rome
Study abroad trip to Rome (Photo by David Schwei)


As an undergraduate in college, the thrilling experience of a study abroad trip to Rome led him to the pursuit of his doctorate, and the Milwaukee, Wis., native says he chose UC for his graduate study because of the Classics Department’s world reputation. He says his involvement in the outreach program not only lets him share his passion and open up worlds of future study possibilities for younger students, but also helps him build his skills in front of a classroom, where he expects to eventually teach either at a high school or the college level.

“The teachers really appreciate this outreach program,” says Schwei. “It’s engaging, it’s free, and the teachers get to speak with people who are as interested and excited as they are about their field. It can be lonely being the only Latin teacher on staff,” says Schwei. “The gladiator talk is pretty popular, too!”

In 2012-13, the outreach program provided 125 individual presentations to 19 different schools, libraries and retirement homes, reaching more than 3,800 students and community members. As a result, Associate Professor and Outreach Program Coordinator Kathleen Lynch says those presentations showcased the talent of the Classics Department’s graduate students, plus demonstrated the many areas linked to this field of study. She adds that next semester, the presentations will be featured as a selection in UC’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

UC’s Classics Department is one of the most active centers for the study of the Greek and Roman Antiquity in the United States. Funding for the outreach program is supported mostly through an anonymous donor and friend to the department.

Classics Outreach Program

Outreach Speaker Requests

UC’s Classics Department