Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Sasha Stern, Calendars in Antiquity. Empires, States and Societies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. vi, 472; 17 text tables. ISBN 9780199589449. $185.00.

Reviewed by Jean MacIntosh Turfa, University of Pennsylvania Museum (

Version at BMCR home site


The 2000-millennium spawned a number of popular books on "the calendar" (like Mapping Time by E.G. Richards, Oxford, 1998); the last decade has seen several works on ancient, especially Classical, calendar categories, including Robert Hannah's Greek and Roman Calendars that began with analysis of the general astronomical background (Duckworth, 2005, emphasis on Greek: see BMCR 2005.10.04). Special categories, based on tangible versions of calendars, include the fascinating parapegmata, Greek stone almanac-artifacts (see Daryn Lehoux's Astronomy, Weather, and Calendars in the Ancient World, Cambridge, 2007, reviewed BMCR 2008.12.28).

Intensified scrutiny of Near Eastern, Greek and Roman calendars has led to a trend of inquiry into their significance for political or social control, as well as their efficacy (or not) in regulating the cycles of religious ritual. So, for instance, Jörg Rüpke's 2011 edition of The Roman Calendar from Numa to Constantine: Time, History, and the Fasti (see BMCR 2012.10.10) emphasized the importance of posted calendars (Fasti) for the judicial year and for the politicians aspiring to rule the City. The power to determine dates such as the start of a month, or, say, days declared nefas prohibiting judicial business, is a means of exerting control over commerce and law, as well as religious rituals. Certainly, the Julian reforms elicited a certain level of control or consensus among the Roman citizenry. There was also broader propaganda value: in the province of Asia in 8 BCE the adaptation of a local lunar calendar to the Julian calendar (pp. 278-284) was a demonstration of loyalty to the emperor Augustus, who had published calendars widely as propaganda for his own reign.

Stern states "The objective of a calendar is primarily to identify points in time, to measure durations of time, and to structure the flow of time into cyclical, repetitive patterns" (p. 5). Issues arise when the natural cycles of the moon (months) and the sun, which gives a year's circuit in Earth's orbit, are expected to align, because the lengths of different celestial cycles will never be equal... and someone in authority will need to intervene. Stern here analyses the structure, the divisions of time, but not the "contents" of calendars, meaning the holidays, designations or restrictions within specific calendars used within the eventual borders of the Achaemenid and Roman Empires. He sees the calendar as a consensus of a given ethnic or political group — much more than a simple organizational scheme for getting work done on time. Stern presents two basic concepts: 1) the evolution of formal calendars was not closely related to scientific progress (it was not necessary for astronomers to develop them based on celestial observations), but was rather a social phenomenon. 2) the promotion of a fixed calendar, eminently useful to large empires, was not a matter of progress from a primitive system to a more advanced mode. Rulers or would-be rulers were the driving forces behind fixed calendars, the means of regulating commerce, judicial and political systems, and even cultic ceremonies. "A calendar based on unpredictable, empirical sightings of the new moon and on irregular intercalations could not have been diffused and reckoned uniformly across such large territories" as empires (p. 428). It may be a bit simplistic to say that great empires develop and prosper by using a fixed calendar (p. 197), but its value for social and political control is evident.

Chapter 1 surveys the exceptionally diverse calendars of Greece, where, as with epichoric scripts, each city had its own system; Chapters 2 and 3 cover Babylon (Mesopotamia) and Egypt; and Chapter 4 analyzes the development of fixed calendars beginning with the Achaemenian empire and its heirs the Macedonian and Ptolemaic kingdoms, ending with the Julian reforms. Part II discusses changes in the Hellenistic period, Roman empire and Late Antiquity, from the Hellenistic Near East and Rome (Chap. 5) to "dissident" calendars under Roman rule (Chap. 6, those of the Greek cities, the Gaulish Coligny calendar, Jewish rabbinical calendars, the Christian Easter cycles—although all assimilated some features of the establishment). Chapter 7 presents the sectarian (and/or heretical) developments seen in Jewish and Christian calendars, especially their adherence to "lunar" traits (like the probably theoretical 364- day Qumran calendar), noting that (p. 358) "society tolerates, by necessity, a certain extent of diversity between its individuals..."

In fact, many groups tangential to Greek, Roman or Near Eastern "empires" are discussed to some extent, such as Persia and Gaul— but, except for speculation on an arcane, possible month-name (pp. 313-314), Etruria, credited even by Roman authors for spatial and chronological acuity (consider the texts of the agrimensores and the doctrine of saecula), is noticeably missing, although it was the main source of Rome's early science, and, through its religious scriptures, remained influential from foundation to fall. Little space (pp. 205-211) is devoted to the idiosyncratic Republican Roman calendar, but this topic is amply covered in other literature, all painstakingly cited throughout.

Stern's premise is that calendars are for secular control, or control by the ruling regime, and he eschews analysis of content (as opposed to form). I would suggest, among material to consider for relevant "content," an investigation of the divination calendars of the Hellenistic to Late Antique eras to add to Stern's discussion of the later Roman hemerologia (see pp. 260-262). The many and varied divination calendars, termed seismologia, brontoscopia, etc., attributed to David, Zoroaster or Heraclius among others, but ultimately derived from Mesopotamian tablet texts reworked in the Hellenistic Near East or Ptolemaic Egypt, represent a body of raw data mostly still untranslated, collected by F. Cumont, F. Boll et al., in the Catalogus codicum astrologorum graecorum (Brussels, 1889-1953). They contain a wealth of information, cloaked in religious, divinatory rhetoric, and the styles by which dates are cited might furnish more material for structural analysis.1

We all seek certainty, like a fixed calendar no longer dependent upon phases of the moon, but this rarely existed in pre-Roman antiquity. Babylonian culture in the 3rd-2nd millennia had multiple lunar calendars, all different. Greek calendars exhibited "extreme diversity" (p. 72) — each city had its own, as perplexing to outsiders as the French Revolutionary calendar (which Charles de Gaulle enjoyed using in his official correspondence, to the chagrin of his assistants — yet another means of controlling the behavior of those around him.)

By 1100 BCE a Standard Babylonian calendar with a set sequence of months had spread through Mesopotamia and morphed into the standard Assyrian calendar, to be taken up by the even larger Achaemenian empire. The great transfer to fixed calendars occurred within the span 500 BCE to 300 CE; Stern maintains this was entirely and deliberately based upon the unique, fixed calendar of Egypt, adopted by the (Zoroastrian) Achaemenid regime and passed on to the Hellenistic kingdoms and Rome's Julian calendar. (This is surely the way our 7-day week and zodiac-based horoscope entered the picture.) He reasons that the process from flexible to fixed schemes was not a straight line of progress to greater efficiency, but a deliberate choice for manipulating society (fixed) or expressing a dissident mode of life (flexible/lunar). Do we know enough yet about all other calendars to be certain of this great, single-line evolution? The Seleucids' calendar gave Macedonian translations of the Near Eastern month names, and was then picked up by Parthians, Hasmoneans, Nabateans et al. By the time of the Roman conquest, most if not all calendars in the Levant and Near East derived from the Babylonian Standard by way of the Achaemenian version. "The adoption of a fixed calendar invariably meant the abdication, by political rulers, of an important source of political prestige and social control" (p. 3). Stern argues that the "large-scale" empires that arose in the first millennium (Assyria, Babylon, Achaemenid Persia) had good reasons for adopting the fixed system, and the Hellenistic kingdoms and Rome followed deliberately in their steps. With the Achaemenian empire, for example, that if a king decreed changes like intercalation or the start of a month, territorial extent and cultural diversity would have delayed their implementation by as much as a whole month until the decision could be transmitted across the empire. Thus Elephantine and Babylon might have been a month apart (as actually seen in some calendars found at Elephantine, pp. 120-121). The ruler gave up some power, in no longer controlling intercalation, but gained in efficiency and stability across the empire.

The regulation and eventual fixation of the calendar, by the process of intercalation, began in the Achaemenian period with a politically motivated adoption of a single "Babylonian" official calendar, so that remote regions could calculate dates from a standard template and not wait for messages from some capitol. The turning point seems to have occurred in the reign of Darius I. Stern's here updates his earlier work, demonstrating that the Late Antique evolution of Jewish calendars into fixed systems also occurred essentially because the rabbinic movement was becoming so geographically dispersed.

If any state has an established system, then bucking the system is easily accomplished by allegiance to a different framework. So, for instance, citing lunar dates could be perceived as a means of protest against the establishment, as seen in Christian inscriptions under the Empire (p. 313). Thus, flexible calendars were retained by some technically advanced societies: Greek cities with fine traditions of astronomy and developments like the Metonic and Kallipic calculation cycles retained creaky lunar calendars for centuries—thus, for reasons other than scientific progress— while cultures not noted for progressive astronomy programs, like the Qumran community, produced sophisticated schematic calendars anyhow.

Stern is critical of many scholarly tenets (pp. 10-19) such as the "belief" that we can ascertain the date of inception of some ancient calendars on the basis of precise modern data for an event such as the heliacal rising of Sothis for the Egyptian calendar.2 Although he is perhaps too readily dismissive of such issues, his reasoning seems very sound for rejecting another belief, the notion that the move to a fixed calendar represents inevitable, evolutionary progress. Study in that area has sometimes been (in Stern's words) marginalized, too often because of the innumeracy, real or feigned, of many humanities scholars.

This is a very dry, yet impassioned, reference work, a bit demanding on the reader by virtue of presenting so much detailed technical material. A longer index, perhaps even a glossary, would make research easier. The arguments are very well reasoned, backed with careful logic and as much data as possible, but in the end (as the author notes), while we have a body of ancient texts that are or relate to calendars, our lack of ancient descriptive works about the calendar (until Censorinus' third-century CE De die natali) means that much cannot be proven to everyone's satisfaction... we have no text that credits outright a certain person or group with the creation of a particular template (as we do for the "astronomical" cycles developed by Meton and Kalippos). We may now rely on Stern to have explored for us all that remains.


1.   They merit a complete and expert translation; for a sample, translated instead by me, see Turfa, Divining the Etruscan World, Cambridge, 2012: 339-349). I have suggested that "publication" of divination calendars was a sort of "founder's strategy" for the rulers of the early Etruscan cities (pp. 305-312).
2.   For engaging Near Eastern background on observation and horoscopy, see F. Rochberg, The Heavenly Writing: Divination, Horoscopy and Astronomy in Mesopotamian Culture, Cambridge, 2004.

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