Calling time

Time is whatever it is.

But what a culture does with time, how it gets organised, can be one of the most revealing things about a culture. The books listed at the bottom of this post have lots of interesting things to say on the topic, but this is a blog about how the Romans organised time, and ultimately how the ordering of time became, like pretty much everything else that the Roman elite concerned themselves with, a means for political assertion and self-promotion.

(Quite a lot of what the Romans did with time is still with us, as it happens, too.)

I’m currently writing about the Fasti, Ovid’s poetic account of the Roman calendar (fasti is the closest Latin word to “calendar”). One book devoted to each month, the Fasti should have extended to twelve of them, but Ovid’s exile to the Black Sea in AD 8 did for that. As Ovid left it, the end of the poem arrives prematurely on the last day of June (the conclusion of the sixth book, in other words), exactly halfway through the year–a marked and meaningful place to end a poem that should have lasted the full twelve months. Ovid is doing his best to underline how unsatisfactory an ending it is, how much better a poem this would be if he could just be allowed home to finish it…

In one respect at least, though, the Fasti finds an appropriate place to wrap things up. June 30 was the foundation date for the Temple of Hercules of the Muses (aedes Herculis Musarum). Such cult birthdays were important material for Roman calendars, and the Temple of Hercules of the Muses, as well as boasting an impressively odd name, was one of the most culturally significant locations in the city of Rome, as we shall shortly see.

This final notice in Ovid’s Fasti celebrates the cult of Hercules of the Muses, focusing on the recent renovation of the temple by the emperor Augustus’ stepbrother, L. Marcius Philippus, in 29 BC, and on Philippus’ daughter, Marcia, who had connections both to the royal family and to Ovid’s wife–potentially useful to an exile. But as Ovid and his Roman readers were well aware, this temple had a rich history before 29 BC, and particular relevance for Ovid’s poem about time since it was intimately associated both with Roman poetry and with Roman timekeeping.

The temple of Hercules of the Muses had originally been dedicated in 184 BC or thereabouts by M. Fulvius Nobilior. He may in fact have simply added a portico for the Muses to an existing temple of Hercules (the details are contested), but at any rate Nobilior decorated this new foundation with statues of the Muses that he had looted on campaign in Aetolia, Greece, from a palace that had once belonged to Pyrrhus of Epirus, one of Rome’s most daunting enemies from a century earlier. Nobilior was thus a ruthless and successful Roman general, and at the same time a sensitive devotee of Greek high culture. Nobilior’s temple with its statues of the Greek goddesses of the creative arts encapsulates the paradox of Rome’s cultural conquest by the Greece it had conquered (to paraphrase Horace). Along with the nine Muses, furthermore, came a statue of Hercules realised as Musagetes, “Leader of the Muses”, strumming a lyre.

It appears that this temple became a meeting place for Roman poets under the gaze of their patron deities; and Cicero, in his defence of the poet Archias in 62 BC, cites Fulvius’ act of “dedicating the spoils of Mars to the Muses” as an instance of the inseparability of military heroics and poetry, part of his argument that martial achievement might as well not happen if there weren’t poets like Archias around to celebrate it. What drove the association of this temple with poetic activity most of all, though, was what a poet who had actually accompanied Nobilior on his campaigns in Greece did with it all. Q. Ennius was the national poet of Rome before Virgil came along, his epic poem Annales a history of Rome from the fall of Troy to his own day. But within this poem Ennius seems to have given special prominence to Nobilior’s temple. According to an influential reconstruction, Ennius’ account of Nobilior’s victory in Greece and the foundation of the cult of Hercules of the Muses rounded off the fifteenth and last book of the first edition of his epic.

But the connection between Ennius’ Annales and his patron’s temple goes even deeper. Ennius was the first Roman poet to actually call his Muses “Muses”, Musae, rather than using the Latin equivalent Camenae, and he opened the Annales with a line, Musae quae pedibus magnam pulsatis Olympum, “You Muses, who stamp great Olympus with your feet”, which simultaneously flaunted the Greek name he was using for the goddesses of song, and also the Greek form he was adopting for his poem: the Annales were the first Roman epic to be composed in what henceforth became the standard metre for this kind of poetry, dactylic hexameters. As for the Muses, the strong suspicion is that Ennius was drawing a parallel between himself and his patron Nobilior, implying a symbiosis of the military and poetic such as Cicero had identified: both of them, after all, Nobilior and Ennius, had brought the Muses back to Rome.

So much for Nobilior’s temple and poetry, but what about time, which I did after all claim was my main topic here?

Well, one of the most celebrated things about Nobilior’s establishment was a calendar that it housed, presumably painted on the wall somewhere, to all appearances an influential attempt to bring order to Roman time–Ovid’s Fasti was a distant descendant. It’s a safe bet that Ennius helped his patron in this project, since the poet displayed a special affinity for matters temporal: the very name of his epic, Annals, indicated the importance to the poem of the passage of years, anni. (There is an appealing theory that the dedication of Nobilior’s temple, according to Ennius’ calculation, fell exactly 1,000 years after the fall of Troy in 1184 BC.) Ovid’s Fasti, which plays extensively on a rivalry between Ovid and his predecessor Ennius, reflects this association of Ennius with time, and elsewhere the poet’s name lent itself to chronological puns like perennis used (indirectly) of Ennius at Lucretius 1.118, perennis meaning “through the years”, “everlasting”.

There may also have been in Nobilior’s temple an example of another thing, beside the calendar, for which the Romans used the word fasti, the only other thing, in fact: a list of consuls stretching back to the beginning of the Roman Republic in 509 BC which, since the Romans identified years by the names of that year’s consuls, was also a timeline complementing the calendrical fasti, a chronological thread connecting with the calendrical loop. (For the year as a circle, see here.) These two kinds of fasti were commonly combined on later monuments, for example in the earliest Roman calendar that survives, the so-called Fasti Antiates from Anzio. If, as seems likely, the calendar and consular list were first found combined in Nobilior’s temple, it follows that it’s probably to Nobilior that the convention of calling both of them fasti (a word that attaches more naturally to a calendar) can also be traced.

All of this, needless to say, makes the topic with which the Fasti prematurely ends, with its associations of poetry, time and the intersection of the two, an exceptionally apt place for a poem about time to, well, call time.

But a subsequent development, one that strikes me as an intensely satisfying moment, involves another patron of Ennius called Nobilior. Because there was still a piece missing in the story of the fasti, calendrical and consular. The year 153 BC was to a Roman Q. Fuluio Nobiliore T. Annio Lusco consulibus, “[The year] when Q. Fulvius Nobilior and T. Annius Luscus were consuls.” Quintus Fulvius Nobilior, the first-elected consul, and thus the first named in the dating formula, was the son of the Marcus Fulvius Nobilior who had established the temple of Hercules of the Muses, but Quintus was also in his own right a patron of Ennius, since on the evidence of Cicero (Brutus 79) he bestowed Roman citizenship on the poet by enrolling him in a colony he was establishing at Pisaurum on the east coast of Italy. That colony was founded in 184BC, so Q. Ennius achieved Roman citizenship, by his own reckoning, 1,000 years after the fall of Troy.

Time, and orderly patterns in time, as you may be gathering, mattered quite a lot to the Romans.

But the date of Q. Fulvius Nobilior’s consulship, 153 BC, has its own special significance, since this was the year when consuls first began to enter office on the date that would thenceforth become standard, the 1st of January. Hitherto consuls, reflecting their essentially military character, had been inaugurated on March 15, the beginning of the campaign season, or before that at more or less any time of the year.

The main impact of this shift to January 1 in terms of chronology (and this was surely actually the fundamental point of the reform) was to reconcile the two kinds of fasti, the yearly calendar and the list of consuls: both the year and the consulate now started on January 1, and that meant that historical time and calendrical time intersected. It had the further effect, incidentally, of enhancing the status of Janus, god of the year and of time and frankly the best god of the lot (you can find him at the bottom), on whose day the consuls now carried out their inaugural sacrifices. Janus came to be understood as the god of the consulate, and presided not only over the calendar that started in his month of January, but also over that historical timeline constituted by the consuls’ names.

It has been suggested that this move to January 1 was actually motivated by the influential combination of fasti in Nobilior’s temple, and that seems obviously true to me. But what I haven’t seen noted, though I can’t believe it hasn’t been pointed out by someone somewhere, is that it’s no coincidence that the first consul to enter office on January 1 was none other than the son of the founder of the aedes Herculis Musarum. Nobilior junior looks very much like he is putting into practice an implication of his father’s monument, applying the coordination of the two kinds of fasti to the real-time workings of the Roman res publica.

This all makes the management of Roman time look something like the family business of the Fulvii Nobiliores. Nobilior senior, aided by Mr Eternity himself, Ennius, formalizes the Roman year, and puts it up for all to see on the wall of his spanking new temple. His son Quintus then pursues the project of setting Roman time on a stable basis, and in an important sense properly realizes it, by synchronizing the beginning of the year with the entry to power of the eponymous consuls, in the process associating the arrangement with his own name in 153 BC.

Caesar’s radical reform of the Roman calendar tends to eclipse anything that went before it, but what a powerful piece of political theatre this must have been! At Q. Fulvius Nobilior’s inauguration, Rome experienced nothing less than time clicking into sync. What we seem to be looking at in the Nobiliores is a family of the Roman elite asserting its status and significance in Roman public life in a range of interesting ways, by military conquest, promotion of poetry and art of a Greek complexion–and by this responsibility they assume for the management of the city’s time. A later Roman family, the Julii, would achieve a similar familial status as timekeepers, alongside a couple of other things. Julius Caesar’s reform (still the basis of our calendar today, after some fine-tuning of leap years by Pope Gregory), which came into use in 45BC, was picked up by his adopted son Augustus, who corrected a misapplication of Caesar’s original mechanism and also renamed the months of Quintilis and Sextilis July (after his father) and August (after himself). Was Augustus’ model Q. Fulvius Nobilior?

Returning at length to Ovid’s Fasti, though. Its premature conclusion, I’ve suggested (like many before me), is in its way highly appropriate. But most apt of all to Ovid’s poem, a playful take on the Roman year that always resists the inherent seriousness of the topic, is the Hercules of the aedes Herculis Musarum himself.

This Hercules is the image with which we leave the poem: sic cecinit Clio, doctae adsensere sorores;/ adnuit Alcides increpuitque lyram, “So sang Clio, and her learned sisters assented;/ Hercules nodded his agreement and struck the lyre.” We are lucky enough to have a series of coins minted by Q. Pomponius Musa, who, apparently by way of a pun on his own name, reproduced the statues of the nine Muses from Nobilior’s temple, and Hercules himself. He wears the skin of the Nemean Lion, and has his club by his side, but he strums the lyre and with his sinuous physique is as unheroic a realisation of the god as one could imagine.

As such, though, this Hercules is very true to the poetics of Ovid’s Fasti, as well as to the poem’s preoccupation with time.

Everything here apart from Q. Fulvius Nobilior’s role in things and Hercules Musarum’s elegiac sinuousness (?) is filched from one or other of the following scholars:

J. Elliott, Ennius and the architecture of the Annales (2013);

D.C. Feeney, Caesar’s calendar (2007);

I. Gildenhard, “The ‘Annalist’ before the Annalists: Ennius and his Annales“, in U. Eigler, U. Gotter, N. Luraghi and U. Walter (eds.), Formen römischer Geschichtsschreibung von den Anfängen bis Livius (2003), 93-114;

R.J. Littlewood, A commentary on Ovid’s Fasti, Book 6 (2006);

J. Rüpke, The Roman calendar from Numa to Constantine (2011);

O. Skutsch, Studia Enniana (1968).

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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