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Roman timekeeping

File:Museum side roman sun dial.JPG
A Roman era sundial on display at a museum in Side, Turkey

The Roman clock, or time of day, was divided into 12 hours (Latin horae) of light and 12 hours of darkness.[1]

Seasonal change in the length of hours in the day

Since the length of the sunlight varied with the seasons, this also meant that the length of the hour changed - with shorter hours in winter and longer hours in summer.[2] The Romans also understood that the length of daylight depended upon latitude. At the winter solstice, at mediterranean latitude, an hour was about 45 minutes, while at the summer solstice, an hour was about 75 minutes.[3][4]

Local timekeeping across the Roman Empire

Since local habits varied across the empire, local Roman habits also varied. In particular, whether the day started from sunrise, or later midnight (as Romans), or from sunset as Athenians and Jews. The Romans also divided the day into other periods, such as media noctis inclinatio "midnight," gallicinium "cock-crow",[5] conticinium (with variants such as conticuum) "hush of the night," and diluculum, "decline of the day."[6] The Jewish and early Christian subjects of the empire often had different methods of timekeeping.[7]

Beginning of the Roman day

The Roman civil and religious day began at midnight from a very early time.[8] Unger (1892) and Ramsay (1896) maintain that the hours of the day and the night were always counted from dusk, or dawn, hence that the "sixth hour" represented midnight or midday respectively. Against this Jack Finegan (1964) argues that the "sixth hour" can be counted from midnight.[9][10] He maintained this position despite not having any evidence at all. As an explanation, he referenced the time in which Jesus was at Pilate (sixth hour) and the time in which he was crucified (third hour). Consequently, he argued that because of such supposed roman time, in texts such as the New Testament it is not always clear whether local time or Roman time is meant. For example the Gospel of John makes reference to Pilate having said "behold your king" to the people of Jerusalem at "the sixth hour". If it was accounted as Hebrew time, it was noon or midnight, but if John used the supposed Roman time, it was six o'clock in the morning,[11] whereas Mark refers to Christ being crucified at the "third hour," darkness from "the sixth hour to the ninth hour," and Christ's last words shortly after the "ninth hour".[12] If John wrote from Ephesus after the year AD 70, then he would not be writing from a Palestinian context, nor to a Palestinian audience, and so the most sensible time reference would not be according to the Jewish rendering which neither he nor his audience would be utilizing, but according to the Roman counting.

Watches of the night

The Romans divided the night into four watches, (Latin vigiliae plural), following the Greek practice (Greek φυλακή), since, as Vegetius explains, a city-guard could not stand watch all night.[13] For example, "in the fourth watch of night" (quarta vigilia noctis) meant just before dawn.

Time keeping devices

The Romans used various timekeeping devices including the clepsydra, or water clock, and the Greek sundial. Censorinus describes the introduction of sundials to Rome by Manius Valerius after his victories in Sicily.[14] A humorous comment about the prevalence of sundials is illustrated by a character in The Boeotian Woman, a drama by Plautus, who complains "May the gods destroy that man who first discovered hours and who first set up a sundial here, who cut up my day."; though the comparison is with the speaker's young days when a child is free of timekeeping, not about the introduction of sundials.[15] Marcus Vitruvius Pollio lists various types of sundials in Book IX of his De Architectura, with attributions to their Greek inventors.[16]

Modern remnant

The Roman day starting at dawn survives today in the Spanish word siesta, literally the sixth hour of the day.


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire - Page 543 Matthew Bunson - 2002 "The Roman day was divided into 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. By the middle of the second century BCE, the Romans understood that the length of daylight varied throughout the year and also depended upon latitude.
  2. ^ The Romans: an introduction - Page 208 Antony Kamm - 2008 "The Roman day was divided into twelve hours of equal length, from sunrise to sunset, and likewise during the night. Thus the length of an hour, and the hour itself, varied according to the season of the year."
  3. ^ The Gospel of John: Volume 1 - Page 98 William Barclay - 2001 "The Jewish day, like the Roman day, was divided into twelve equal hours, from sunrise to sunset. That of course means that the length of an hour varied according to the length of the day and the season of the year."
  4. ^ Francis Willey Kelsey intrduction to edition of Iulii Caesaris Commentarii rerum gestarum Julius Caesar, 1918 "reckoned about 5 o'clock by our time, we add 31/2 to 5, making 8.30 ; that is, 8.30 am, by our reckoning from midnight, will approximately represent the beginning of the fourth hour of the day by Roman reckoning under the conditions of "
  5. ^ A commentary on the Letters of M. Cornelius Fronto - Page 83 Michael Petrus Josephus van den Hout, Marcus Cornelius Fronto - 1999 - "the gallicinium in Censorinus, Macrobius and Servius auctus, but Varro apud Servium and Isidorus put it before midnight. Matutinum also in Isidorus between gallicinium and diluculum. Censorinus calls it ante lucem, Macrobius omits it ..."
  6. ^ The journal of the British Archaeological Association: Volume 38 1882 "The division of the Roman day was similar to that of the Greek ; but the space of forty-eight hours was reckoned differently by different nations (Macrobius). The Athenians reckoned from sunset to sunset ; the Babylonians from sunrise to sunrise ; but the Roman day extended from midnight to midnight, and the first part was called medice noctis inclinatio ; the next gallicinium, or cock-crow ; the third conticuum, or the silent, when not only cocks cease to crow, to crow, but men also take their rest ; the last is the diluculum, when day begins to decline.8,
  7. ^ Rome in late antiquity: everyday life and urban change, AD 312-609 - Page Bertrand Lançon - 2000 - 185 pages - Preview At the winter solstice, an hour was shorter, about 45 minutes, but, at the summer solstice, it was longer, about 75 minutes. In late antiquity, Christians' perception of a day differed from that of the Roman tradition.
  8. ^ William Maude, New York 1900 in footnote to text Censorinus XII and note 109. 109 Idem significat (a media nocte ad mediam noctem diem esse), quod, qui a media nocte ad proximam mediam noctum . . . nascuntur, eumdem diem habent natalem. Says Aulus Gellius, lib. iii, 2: “This question has often been argued. When an infant is born during the night, at the third, at the fourth, or at any other hour, what day should be regarded as the day of its birth? Should it be that which preceded the night on which it was born, or that which followed? Here is what Marcus Varro says in his treatise on Human Things in the book entitled Days: ‘All children born in the interval of 24 hours between the middle of one night and the middle of the following, are considered as having been born on the same day.’ ” In other words, Varro decided that a child born after the setting of the sun but before midnight, should have for its natal day that one which preceded this night; but if he was born during the last six hours of the night, his birthday should be placed in the following day. . . This division of the day (at midnight) is corroborated by other circumstances. Sacrifices offered after the sixth hour of the night belonged to the next day. When a public act had to be executed on the same day that the auspices were taken, the latter were taken after midnight. The Tribunes of the People could not lawfully absent themselves from Rome for a whole day, yet they sometimes left the city after midnight; taking care to return between candle-light and the next midnight. Quintius Musius decided a divorce case on the point that the new year began at midnight of December 31st. See also Macrobius, lib. I, 3. "
  9. ^ The Jewish world around the New Testament: collected essays I - Page 417 Richard Bauckham - 2008 "... which was the beginning of his twenty-four hours day, "the sixth hour of the night"' (458). If this is right, it is the decisive argument against the claim (adopted by Finegan) that John, unlike other New Testament writers, reckons the hours of the day from midnight"
  10. ^ "David A. Ball, "The Crucifixion and Death of a Man Called Jesus, "Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association 30 (1989): 80-82. "The Roman day began at midnight and ended 24 hours later at midnight."
  11. ^ Exploring the gospel of John: an expository commentary - Page 361 John Phillips - 2001 It was "the sixth hour." If this was Hebrew time, it was midnight. If John used Roman time it was six o'clock in the morning. It was "the preparation of the passover," Preparation Day (all four gospels attest that the Lord's burial
  12. ^ The Mystery of the Last Supper: Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus - Page 188 Colin J. Humphreys - 2011 "Mark writes: 'It was the third hour when they crucified him' (Mark 15:25); John says that when Pilate handed over ... However, Roman officials such as Pilate used the Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar, and counted the hours of their day from midnight ."
  13. ^ Jerusalem, Alexandria, Rome: studies in ancient cultural ... A. Hilhorst, Florentino García Martínez, Gerard P. Luttikhuizen - 2003 Page 39 "In the Roman army's encampments the four "watches" were in Ambrose's time measured with the "water-clock": in quattuor partes ... ut non amplius quam tribus horis noctumis necesse sit uigilare (Vegetius, Epitome rei militaris 3.8.17)"
  14. ^ Censorinus XII
  15. ^ Greek and Roman technology: a sourcebook : annotated translations ... - Page 517 John William Humphrey, John Peter Oleson, Andrew Neil Sherwood - 1998 "Clocks 11.6 THE AFFLICTION OF SUNDIALS Plautus, The Boeotian Woman (Fragment v.21 Goetz) - Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 3.3.5 May the gods destroy that man who first discovered hours and who first set up a sundial here; who cut up my day ..."
  16. ^ "Marcus Vitruvius Pollio:de Architectura, Book IX". The Latin text is that of the Teubner edition of 1899 by Valentin Rose, transcribed by Bill Thayer. 2007-07-07. Retrieved 2007-09-07. 

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