Saturday, 20 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: post meridiem

Though it is still several weeks until Europe turns it clocks back to standard time, the days are already growing shorter and darkness comes earlier and earlier.
The time adjustment always just seems to exacerbate an already dwindling amount of daylight but it is far less complicated, I think, than the method the Ancient Romans. The day consisted of twenty-four hours (horรฆ), divided into two twelve hour periods each for night and day, but as the Romans were mostly unconcerned with the o'clock and really only observed the important transitions of dawn, noon and dusk (aurora, meridies—the sun being directly overhead and a bit different than the ninth hour of nona hora—and crepusculum), they managed the change of the seasons in a different fashion, adjusting the length of the hour, until achieving a maximum of a seventy-five minute long one on the Summer Solstice and the gradually drawing it down to the other tropic with a forty-five minute hour on the Winter Solstice, from the perspective of Rome.

This sort of timekeeping seems very complex and would not due for international timetables and coordination, but our modern ways, too focused on an artificial punctuality and being ruled by all these bells and chimes, would probably seem hopelessly vain to the Romans. As strange as the idea of longer and shorter hours might seem, this way of telling the time is preserved in many medieval clocktowers, including famously the Orloj, the Astronomical Clock of Prague, whose outer dial of Roman numerals shows the time in the conventional way but the golden lines radiating inward each represent one-twelfth of the day and these unequal hours wax or wane with the help of the cog of the second face to reflect the changes that come with the seasons.