25 September 2011

Tempus Fugit

I'm knee deep into Stacy Schiff's riveting Cleopatra.  I'll save the review for another post; today I want to talk about one of the many things about the first century that fascinates me.  As I sat down to write this post, I actually suffered from the tyranny of choice (much like my kids do when presented with too many options for free time).  When the members of the From Left to Write Book Club discuss a book, we don't do straightforward reviews; we instead write a post inspired by the book.  Schiff's enthralling biography has drawn me so completely into the world of first century BCE I could not decide which part I wanted to write about. There is the wildly enthralling Library of Alexandria, the cult of Isis, the treatment of women in Egyptian society, the Nile and all of its reverence - and that's not even scratching the surface of the Roman side of things.

In the end I've chosen a topic near and dear to my heart - the calendar.  If you know me, you know I'm obsessed (literally) with my calendar.  It's been quite some time since I've brushed up on my history with Julius Caesar, and I had truly forgotten all about the advent of the Julian calendar.  If you aren't familiar with it, here is a quick synopsis: after an extended stay in Egypt with Cleopatra, Caesar returned to Rome in 46 BCE and instituted many of the practices to which he had become accustomed in Alexandria. Prior to this point, priests of the day jealously guarded the official date, and added months to the year arbitrarily when it suited their purposes. Traditionally, the Roman year consisted of 355 days. Confusion reigned supreme - often citizens were unsure what year they were living in. Caesar shifted the calendar to the (now) more familiar twelve months. His months each had thirty days with an additional five-day period at year's end.

As someone who is absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt, certifiably neurotic about my calendar, I cannot imagine how a society functioned without one.  I am best friends with my Google Calendar, and refer to it no fewer than a squillion times a day. It's always open on both my desktop and my laptop.  I'm such a planner - and how do you plan if you can't count on tomorrow actually being tomorrow? How do you make travel plans?  Or figure out the due date of your baby?  Or know when your birthday is?  My palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it!  Of course, I recognize that these weren't necessarily the concerns of the average Roman citizen in 46 BCE.

The flip side, though, is an equally intriguing concept. What if I could just throw a few more weeks in there when I needed them? That would take care of the holiday rush, or give me some more time to meet creative deadlines, or I could just do away with months I didn't like (see you later June - got no use for you!).

The Julian Calendar remained in use until Pope Gregory XII created the Gregorian Calendar to correct issues with the solstices and equinoxes.  Most Catholic countries switched to the Gregorian calendar shortly after its invention; the British Empire and other Protestant countries were slower to come around.  On Wednesday, September 2, 1752, those living in the American colonies and elsewhere in the British Empire went to bed and awoke the next morning to Thursday, September 14, 1752.  Eeek!! I can't imagine "losing" thirteen days!  Russia remained on the Julian calendar until 1918; Greece until 1924.

In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff digs into the history books to share with us who the true Cleopatra was. As a member of From Left to Write book club, I received a copy of this book for review. You can read other members posts inspired by Cleopatra: A Life on book club day, September 27 at From Left to Write.

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