History / Weird and Wonderful

New Year’s Special: Ancient Time Travel

Last night, all of us (yes, all 7 billion of us) did something amazing: we travelled from the primitive and backward year 2014 into the futuristic techno-topia that is the New Year, 2015!  Congratulations on a successful time-voyage!

Okay, okay I know you’re thinking: “shut up, Charlie, that’s not time travel” – fair enough, it’s not time travel in the H.G. Wells sense.

brb, off to chill with Ovid

brb, off to chill with Ovid

You’ll forgive me, though, a classicist, for getting a bit excited about the idea of time travel – it’s the only hope I have of ever meeting anyone I study. I know that I will probably never warp back to hang out with Cicero. However, if you think New Year’s doesn’t have anything to do with time travel, then you might be missing the point. Let me take you on a little New Year’s exploration of time, travel and time travel in the ancient world.

Humans haven’t always measured their lives with a little number ticking slowly up whenever Spaceship Earth™ manages to go around the Sun without crashing into anything. Time is a difficult concept, and understanding and representing our position within it has been an imprecise task throughout human existence. The currently dominant system measures the approximate number of trips the Earth has made around the Sun since the presumed birth of Jesus of Nazareth (we’ve now supposedly done 2,015). We see ourselves as going forward in time. Because of this conception, modern people can easily imagine travelling through linear time. Before Christianity, though, there was a multitude of systems in Europe. Under Roman rule, things weren’t too complicated: just count the years since the emperor came to power, or tell who the consul or other person in charge for the year is. Failing that, then just use ab urbe condita (the years since Rome was founded). Ab urbe condita is the most similar to our modern system, using a “Year Zero” – the foundation of Rome on the one hand, and the birth of Jesus on the other – from which to count. Going back before Rome’s domination of the Mediterranean, things become woollier. From 776 BCE onward (on our calendar), the Greek cities had the Olympics as a common point of reference (“What year of what number of games are we in again, dear?”). However, the games were only used when figuring out time differences between cities. Greeks, Romans and barbarians all had their own, local time systems: they tracked the years since the foundation of the city, the birth/death of a local hero or some other event of local significance. Because of this, it was hard for people to figure out their place in history relative to others. You might know when Achilles had lived on your own city’s calendar, but good luck explaining that to the guy two towns over. Before the international zero-years began to help people understand their temporal relationships to one another (a

Want to know more about synchrony?  This guy has all the details.

Want to know more about synchrony? This guy has all the details.

process called “synchrony” [1]), people actually did not seem to have a sense that each year was a forward movement of the type we understand today. Many ancient writers saw themselves as belonging to an age, but not a movement in time. Thus, Hesiod, when he describes the “Ages of Man” (Works and Days 109-201), can see himself as a part of a present “Iron Age”, but can also see his time as abutting the “Heroic Age”, when mythical heroes roamed the land. He doesn’t care to recognise the span that separates him from the heroes of old in terms of years. To him, the distance is not quantifiable; it simply exists.

Because of this ancient-modern disparity in thinking about the passage of time and relativity of it all, it leads me to wonder: if I did jump in a time machine and travel back to the classical world, would anyone there understand what I had done? Would ancient Mediterranean people get that I had come from “2015 CE”, or would people, who barely saw themselves as part of a universal phenomenon of moving “forward” in time, even conceive of my actions that way? The term “time machine” wasn’t even coined until 1895, when H.G. Wells published a book by that title. So, would the concept be beyond my ancient heroes? Certainly, there is no ancient story (to my knowledge) of anyone going back in time. Nevertheless, the poet Ovid does mention someone going forward in time (and everywhere else in terms of space). In Book 2 of his Metamorphoses, Phaëthon, the estranged son of the Sun, goes to confront his father about his lineage. At lines 21-30, the Sun’s palace is decked out in all the trappings of time: the doors depict the entire cosmos, from Heaven to Earth, working in perfect synchrony; the Sun is chilling out with the personified indicators of time – Day, Month, Year, Century and the Hours, as well as with Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter are all up in the house. The Sun sits on his throne as the veritable Lord of Time.

Eat your heart out, Doctor.

Eat your heart out, Doctor.

He holds his position because of his important function: he measures the long year (compare Met. 4.226: ‘ille ego sum’ dixit ‘qui longum metior annum’). You’ll notice that there is one thing in common among the time systems I described above: they all still use the sun to measure time. The Sun, whether we see him as a chariot driving god in the sky, or a burning ball of hydrogen around which our home planet hurtles, is central to understanding time. Thus, when Phaëthon demands to drive his father’s chariot for a day, he risks not only his own safety, but also time as we know it.

The Sun gets himself locked into loaning his wheels to Phaëthon and things go as inevitably wrong as you should expect when giving the keys of a time-controlling fireball to a teenager.

Pictured: why your Dad won't loan you his car.

Pictured: why your Dad won’t loan you his car.

Phaëthon loses control about halfway along his ride (so, at noon, I guess…) and careens off-course. The world burns and Ovid goes into a standard Hellenistic catalogue of constellations, mountains and rivers (Met. 2.171-271), all of which get burnt to a crisp. However, as Gildenhard and Zissos [1] have explained, the list is strange to say the least. Many of the landmarks, such as Mt. Tmolus and the Tiber, will feature much later in the poem. The most striking feature, however, is the constellation Ursa Major, precisely because it hasn’t been created yet. Ursa Major is the transformed nymph, Callisto, who is turned into a bear by the jealous Juno later in Book 2. That Ovid would have Phaëthon pass by her demonstrates one thing: Phaëthon, in addition to disrupting the path of the sun, has disrupted time itself. By running off-course, he has actually warped forward in the poem to a time after his own death (spoiler warning). Phaëthon thus becomes the ancient world’s first time traveller. Unfortunately, he seems to snap back to the present as he is felled by Jupiter’s bolt, which ends his reign of temporal terror.


Still the best choice for a time-travel buddy.

As Gildenhard and Zissos point out, Ovid is messing with the epic genre here, by distorting the linearity that defines it. Epic has to work towards something, to have a goal.[2] Thus, its narrative progresses, much like our own modern sense of time. However, the very subject matter of Ovid’s epic shows how thinking was beginning to shift in his own day. Ovid’s poem is not about a narrative arch spanning a few weeks. He plans to tell the history of time from creation to the present. His subject, therefore, reflects the burgeoning understanding of time as progressive, while keeping a foot in the world of mythical time. Ovid still doesn’t give any dates, but unlike Hesiod, he sees the voyage of time as mutable. If you can go forward, you can go forward faster and then snap back. Ovid was one of the early authors to see the potential for science fiction here. While his little narrative of Phaëthon is a far cry from H.G. Wells, it shows the traces of humanity’s evolving understanding of our place in time.

Time is at least partially subject to our understanding of it. When you see yourself moving forward, you can begin to imagine what other ways you can go. Ovid shows us what a little imagination can do with our changing awareness and representation of time. So, when you finally shake off last night’s hangover, be sure to give yourself a pat on the back. You are a time traveller, by your own system of time measurement at least.

[1] When cities “synchronise”, it means they can figure out their respective local histories in terms of each other’s time systems, or a common time system, like the Olympics. Hands down, the best book on synchrony and the transition from local time systems to the Julian calendar that is the basis for our own system is: Feeney, Denis. Caesar’s Calendar. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

[2] Gildenhard, Ingo, and Andrew Zissos. “Problems of Time in Metamorphoses 2.” In Ovidian Transformations, edited by Philip Hardie, Alessandro Barchiesi, and Stephen Hinds, 31-47. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 1999.

[3] ibid, 46


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