Roman Portable Sundials: The Empire in Your Hand

ISBN : 9780197503669

Richard J.A. Talbert
264 ページ
165 x 235 mm

In an unscientific era when maps were rarities, how did ancient Romans envisage their far flung empire? This was done by various means for certain, including with the aid of an ingenious type of portable sundial that has barely attracted notice. As the Romans understood before the first century BCE, to track the passage of the sun across the sky hour-by-hour one needed to know one's latitude and the time of year, and that, furthermore, sundials did not have to be fixed objects. These portable instruments, crafted in bronze, were adjustable for the changes of latitude to be expected on long journeys-say, for instance, from Britain to Spain, or from Alexandria to Rome, or even on a Mediterranean tour. For convenient reference, these sundials incorporated lists of twenty to thirty names of cities or regions, each with its specific latitude. One of the insights of Roman Portable Sundials is that the choice of locations offers unique clues to the mental world-map and self-identity of individuals able to visualize Rome's vast empire latitudinally.

The sixteen such sundials known to date share common features but designers also vied to create enhancements. Comparison with modern calculations shows that often the latitudes listed are incorrect, in which case the sundial may not perform at its best. But then the nature of Romans' time-consciousness (or lack of it) must be taken into consideration. Richard Talbert suspects that owners might prize these sundials not so much for practical use but rather as prestige objects attesting to scientific awareness as well as imperial mastery of time and space. In retrospect, they may be seen as Roman precursors to comparable Islamic and European instruments from the Middle Ages onwards, and even to today's luxury watches which display eye-catching proof of their purchasers' wealth, sophistication, and cosmopolitanism.
Richly enhanced with detailed photographs, line drawings, maps, a gazetteer, and a table of latitudes and locations, Roman Portable Sundials brings these overlooked gadgets out of the shadows at last to reveal their hitherto untapped layers of meaning.


List of Figures and Maps


Chapter 1 Sundials and their Place in the Roman Empire

Sundial Environment

Sundial Thinking

Portable Sundials: Types and Functioning

Chapter 2 The Geographical Portable Sundials Illustrated and Described

Presentation Format

Rome, no. 1

Kircher Museum, no. 2

Memphis, no. 3

Aquileia, no. 4

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Wien, no. 5

Cret-Chatelard, no. 6

Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, no. 7

Aphrodisias, no. 8

Samos, no. 9

Time Museum, no. 10

Philippi, no. 11

Science Museum, London, no. 12

Vignacourt/Berteaucourt-les-Dames, no. 13

Merida, no. 14

British Museum, London, no. 15

Balkans, no. 16

Chapter 3 Geographical Awareness and Worldviews


Figures: The Concept of Latitude

Figures: The Concept of Latitude Applied

Distinguishing Homonymous Cities

Comparative Frameworks and Orientation

Latitude and Worldview

Chapter 4 A Community of Diallers ?

Time-Telling: Margins of Error

Table: Time Museum, no. 10, and British Museum, London, no. 15

Criteria for the Choice of Names

The Appeal of the Object

The Spreading of Knowledge and Related Attractions

Time-Telling Needs

Conclusion: A Community of Diallers ?

Chapter 5 Post-Classical Comparisons

The Astrolabe

The Navicula and 'Regiomontanus' Types

Nuremberg Sundials

Scottish Stone Sundials

The Twentieth Century and Beyond

Appendix The Aquincum Fragment: A Sundial-Maker's Manual ?


Table of Latitudes and Locations


Ancient and Medieval Texts and Inscriptions

Modern Scholarship

Art Credits



Richard Talbert is a Cambridge Classics graduate who taught in the United Kingdom and Canada before becoming Kenan Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he has established the Ancient World Mapping Center. His many books include The Senate of Imperial Rome, the collaborative Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, and Rome's World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered.