Telling Time

Time in Greek Tragedy

by Jacqueline de Romilly
Cornell University Press, 180 pp., $7.50

From Stonehenge to Monte Alto, some of the most enduring monuments of prehistoric cultures are the solar observatories. Other timekeeping tools used by these megalithic builders, whose very existence depended on accurate predictions of changes of season, included the sundial, clepsydra, and gnomon, as well as two-symbol numerals, the concept of zero, and spherical trigonometry. Whether or not time was conceptualized in any culture that survives only through ruins and artifacts, the peoples themselves were highly skilled in chronometry. In fifth-century Athens on the other hand—that summit of civilization—the measurement of time was haphazard, calendars differing from city to city and even the years beginning on different days, a chaotic state of affairs satirized by Aristophanes in Clouds. Greek tragedy, which was to discover and exploit philosophical concepts of time, itself developed in a society that was far from time-conscious.1

Again today, as in the Mexico of the Mayans, but not as in Aristotle’s Greece, philosophies of time are regarded as less important than the instruments of its measurement. This can be attributed partly to the negative reason that ontological arguments, such as Kant’s idea of time as a mental form, have been around for some time, while the measuring techniques are largely new. Of positive reasons, the most important are the unrelenting challenge to discover the time structure of the universe, and the impact of space exploration. Both have been sensationally publicized, the former because signals from particles of electromagnetic force traveling faster than light in superdense stars have raised doubts even about time-reversal invariancy, subatomically speaking. And as for the walks on the moon, surely part of their fascination has been due to a vicarious global escapism involving the illusion of crossing the boundaries of terrestrial time.

The newer clocks include the hydrogen, the radio-carbon, and the atomic or caesium, this last, coordinated with pulsars, now having replaced sidereal timekeeping as the standard measurement. But in addition to these and other technological devices are the many natural clocks only lately understood, for time is recorded by both organic and inorganic matter. The best-known are tree rings, varve-counts, and the dating of coral from its remains at the bottom of the sea up to the living polyp. More recently, the discovery of a correspondence between ridges on the fossils of tidewater marine animals and the number of days in the lunar month enabled paleontologists to determine the rate of decrease in velocity of the earth’s rotation from the twenty-one-hour Upper Cambrian day to our ever-lengthening one. But glaciers, too, are now used as calendars, the date of freezing being ascertainable from the ratio of oxygen isotopes in water molecules.

Still another gauge is the tooth. In fact this has become increasingly important to anthropology, and in the Siwalik Hills excavations the dental distinction between hominid and anthropoid primates appears to be the crucial one—evenly worn molars being a sign of the rapid maturation of the ape, unevenly worn ones of the longer stages of growth in creatures…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.