How was the time told in the ancient world?

Aug 2019
6
India
#1
Hi folks! I was wondering how was the time told in the ancient world, and I don't mean what instrument they were using. I assume most of them were using some forms of sundials. Imagine this conversation.

A: Hey, can you tell me what is the time?
B: There is no shadow on the sundial(?) | I am looking for this answer.

Does anyone have any ideas?
 
Jan 2015
2,933
MD, USA
#2
The Romans (and possibly others) counted out 12 hours of the day, and 12 hours of the night. They started quite logically from sunrise, so the third hour of the day would be roughly equivalent to our 8 to 9 AM. I believe they noted noon, though I don't think they counted from it.

They also realized that days were longer in summer than in winter, but there were always 12 hours (24 total), so a summer day hour was longer than a winter day hour. Presumably if there was no way to see the sun (or stars), they estimated a lot!

Maybe someone else has more details, but that's as I understand it.

Matthew
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
34,607
T'Republic of Yorkshire
#4
How ancient is ancient?

Medieval times were often told using church bells as the clock, which would peal every hour - hence "three bells and all's well".
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
34,607
T'Republic of Yorkshire
#5
Hi Matthew, Thank you. Do you think that they have the concept of seasons and months and days of the week?
Of course they would have a concept of seasons. Seasons are based on observable phenomena.

Depending on the society, many of them had a planting season, a harvest season, winter and a campaigning season.
 
Aug 2019
6
India
#7
Of course they would have a concept of seasons. Seasons are based on observable phenomena.

Depending on the society, many of them had a planting season, a harvest season, winter and a campaigning season.
Thank you, I think I understand your point. So they had a rudimentary understanding of seasons, but may not have had a specific annual calendar? What is your idea about the time though?
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,084
Dispargum
#8
Ancient people were probably much less dependent on time than we are. No one had to be home at exactly two o'clock to catch their favorite TV show. Appointments with busy or important people were probably vague, like "Come by my office in the morning." A lot of people showed up early in the morning and sat around all day waiting for their turn, probably first come, first served.

People got up in the morning the same way we do, more or less at the same time every day, because that's how biology works. If a person needed help getting up in the morning, he couldn't use an alarm clock. He just got a late start. A really important person like a general on campaign could tell the night watch to wake him at a certain time such as first light or moon rise or moon set assuming the moon was at a convenient phase that night. It's also possible to tell time by the movement of stars. Another trick to ensure an early rise was to drink a lot of water the night before.

Once out of bed people ate breakfast and started on their daily routine. They worked all morning until they got hungry around mid-day. After lunch they resumed working until they got hungry again about evening. Major social events were regulated by tradition. For instance, at the Colosseum I think they held executions in the morning and the gladiators always fought in the afternoons. People probably didn't mind missing a few because they were pretty much the same day in and day out. Lesser known gladiators fought early in the afternoon so that late arrivals wouldn't care if they missed those contests. The more famous gladiators fought later so that everyone would be there to see them. Executions were probably the same - the more notorious criminals were executed last so that everyone had a chance to get there in time to see it.
 

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
34,607
T'Republic of Yorkshire
#9
Thank you, I think I understand your point. So they had a rudimentary understanding of seasons, but may not have had a specific annual calendar? What is your idea about the time though?
They would have had a specific annual calendar based on specific phenomena.

So, for example, spring might start when a specific flower blooms, which is a fairly exact measurement - for example, the cherry blossoms always bloom at the same time of the year, within a few days in Tokyo. But, the further north or south you go in the country, the bloom date gets later or earlier.

As for time, the reason we have 12 hours a day and 60 minutes an hour is as a result of the base-12 (sexagesimal) counting system used by the Sumerians.

The Ancient Babylonian Origins Of Modern Time
 
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Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,084
Dispargum
#10
Our Gregorian Calendar has been in place since the 16th century. That represents only a slight tweeking of the older Julian Calendar which was given to the Romans by Julius Caesar. So already at the time of Christ, people were using a pretty accurate calendar. Caesar imported his calendar from Egypt where it had been in use even earlier. At your date, 1500 BCE, there were calendars in use, but they were often not very accurate or required complex adjustments to make them accurate. Still, they worked good enough, for instance to tell farmers when to plant their crops.

Dividing the year into months and the months into weeks is very old. The original concept of the month is related to the cycle of the moon. The lunar cycle was understood in prehistoric times. Dividing the month into weeks was a little more complex and less natural. Often it was driven by religious needs. The gods had to be worshiped every so often and once a month was too infrequent but daily was too often. Not everyone went with a seven day week. The Celts had a nine day week, three weeks in a month. There might also be a biological imperative to the week. Not everyone wants to work everyday. One day off now and then is healthy.