The 45, 47, 50 minute hour
As part of a book I'm currently finishing ('24 Hours in Ancient Rome' for Michael o'Mara Books), I've had to get to grips with the Roman hour. To understand the Roman hour is to understand something of the Roman approach to life.
For the Romans, as for us, there were 24 hours in the day. Fair enough - twenty-four is a useful number. We can divide the day into two-hour watches for a sentry, three or four hours for a split shift, six hours for a quarter day, eight hours for a working day, and twelve hours for a half-day. It's a good number. However, the half-day is the problem.
In the Roman mind, half the day is in darkness, and half is daylight. Ergo, you need twelve hours for the day, and twelve for the night. Res ipsi loquitur. Therefore, since midsummer days are half again as long as midwinter days, 'hours' in midsummer are 75 minutes long, and the winter versions last a mere 45 minutes. (If the Romans had bothered with minutes - thanks to their diabolical concept of time, it was hard enough even to keep track of the hours.) At night the hours mirror the day, with long hours in winter and short hours in summer - and I'm not talking metaphorically here.
The only accurate method of timekeeping at night was the water clock, and all sorts of ingenious contrivances kept the hours of a water-clock synchronized with the lengthening and shortening hours of the day. Remember that the days don't get uniformly longer as we approach midsummer - thanks to the Earth's slightly oval orbit, winter days lengthen slowly and then rush forward in late spring. Given that devices to accurately measure the standard hour only developed in the modern era, you can imagine the challenges that Roman timepiece makers faced in the variable-rate Roman hour.
All this timekeeping chaos would have been sorted out in an eyeblink if the Romans had adopted an hour of standard length. But who are we to sneer, with our oddball calendar, seven day weeks that don't fit in anywhere, and daylight saving time added (or not) more or less randomly every spring by different nations?
On a different note, one of last year's projects has just seen the light of day - or more accurately - the lights of your local bookstore. 'Sparta, Rise of a Warrior Nation' is out now (in the UK - with North America, the Spartans only hit your shores in another month or so.) I'm already working on the sequel - 'Sparta, Fall of a Warrior Nation', and having a great time doing so.
Hooray for Hellenistics!
Lately I've been spending quite a bit of time hanging around the Hellenistic era. For those who don't know, the Hellenistic era is that period beginning with the birth of Alexander the Great (or his death, depending which historian you consult) and finishing with the death of Cleopatra VI of Egypt. (Who is the only Cleopatra that most people have heard of.)
It's interesting how even those who are reasonably well up on the Greeks of the Athenian era or the Rome of Scipio Africanus have little idea of who Antiochus III was, or what happened in the Syrian Wars. Among non-history buffs, the average citizen has little idea that the Greeks once ruled Bactria (an area on the south-west of Afghan border) or that Iran was once part of the Seleucid Greek-ruled empire.
Yet the more I get into this Cinderella of ancient eras, the more fascinating I find it. There's huge battles, complex multi-level politics and obscure kingdoms and city-states. And elephants, and pirates, mercenary armies and beautiful princesses. Really, if you like your history gung-ho and over-the-top, you can't go wrong with the Hellenistics.
The only problem is that there is something of a barrier to entry for the newcomer. Just jumping in produces more bewilderment than fascination. It takes a while before you sort out your Ecbatana from your Attalus, but once the various dynasties and diverse geography have been roughly sorted out, you can relax and enjoy a very fun ride.
'It would have been so great to live in ancient Rome', history enthusiasts sometimes tell me. To which I reassuringly reply 'No, it wouldn't.' The reason is that, as denizens of the 21st century we take for granted a level of existence that even the most decadent of Roman emperors would have considered pampered.
The late, great Sir Terry Pratchett had one of his characters remark that the three greatest things in life were 'hot water, good dentistry and soft toilet paper' - things you only notice when they aren't there. How long would you spend in ancient Rome before you missed taking a hot shower?
It takes an advanced civilization to use as complex and precious a material as paper for the trivial task of wiping backsides. As a potential immigrant to ancient Rome, you would have to get used to using a sponge on a stick - and not your personal sponge either. It appears there was one per communal latrine, kept in a bucket of water, rather like the sponge on a stick found in petrol stations for cleaning car windscreens today.
True, dentistry in Rome was better than you would find anywhere but in the modern era. It might take a while before you get used to brushing your teeth with urine, but console yourself that the ammonia in the urine works like modern tooth-whitening strips. The Romans were also pretty good at removing decayed teeth, and had opium as a pain-killer. Furthermore, a society without sugar and tobacco has far fewer decayed teeth to start with. However, gum disease could kill you, and the only treatment for a bad tooth was removal.
On a personal note, I've spent the past few years living with a degenerative hip disease. This being 2017, I started the year by going to Vancouver and having the damaged hip replaced with a sturdy titanium prosthetic. Come spring I plan on leaping around the mountains like a young gazelle. No ancient Roman, millionaire or emperor had the same benefit.
As the winter approached I spent a lot of time loafing around the house. This is because the workmen doing the embankment outside were in a hurry to finish (temperatures of -20c and howling blizzards have that effect). In their rush they left no access to our house but a climb up the rockery to the road higher up the mountainside. This was accomplished by my considerably more able-bodied wife in expeditions to get milk and fresh vegetables.
Since bread is bulky and hard to stuff into a rucksack, I started baking it at home. Now, even with a new embankment out front, this has become a minor hobby. The joy of bread-making is that the yeast does nearly all the work. The job takes around three hours, but most of this is letting the yeast do its thing - preparing ingredients and kneading them together is all the human element has to do, and that takes a few minutes.
Of course, once I had mastered the basic loaf the next challenge was to make sourdough for the type of bread which survived 2000 years in an oven in Pompeii, baked more comprehensively than intended by Vesuvius. I even contrived a marking of my own, since Roman loaves had a manufacturer's stamp so that sub-standard products could easily be traced to source.
Another interesting fact I discovered along the way is that the Romans never made yeast separately. Instead this magic ingredient was preserved from loaf to loaf by setting aside a part of each batch of dough and then adding this to the next. This bit of dough is called in English 'leaven' (a past participle of 'leave' - 'drive/driven', 'leave/leaven'). So now I know why bread baked without yeast is called 'unleavened bread'.
The last blog of 2016 - already!
As we roll toward the end of the year the pace is picking up. All the previous year's projects are heading for their deadlines at a breakneck pace and there's 2017 to be planned out before it is upon us. And that's even before the Xmas frenzy. So at the moment it's all about getting ahead of the game. I've two books that will be coming out in the spring - 'Sparta - Rise of a Warrior Nation', and 'Greece' for the 'Lost Empires' series with Reaktion Books. (Yup, there was a Greek empire. Alexander made it, and it lasted until the Romans and Parthians flattened it between them. One can argue - and I do so argue - that it resurfaced again as the Byzantine empire, and ... but anyway, you can read all about it in the spring!)
So on the one hand there's pictures, and indices and bibliographies needed to finish some projects, and onthe other wrangling over contracts for next year's work. Both of the projects I'm committed to I'm really looking forward to doing - hopefully though, there will also be time to squeeze out the next Panderius novel before the end of 2017. I'm already fiddling with plot ideas and sketching out timelines.
Then, Xmas is not far away - as the snow piling up outside the window reminds me (1.5 meters has fallen so far this year, and it's just getting started.) So it's time to prepare and freeze blocks of shortbread pastry for mince pies and biscuits, order prezzies, and send off a flock of cards to various editors, fellow authors, collaborators and others I've had the pleasure of working with over the year. A card I can't send, but would love to, is one each to the many readers who have purchased my books over the past year. My most sincere thanks and the happiest of Saturnalias to you all!