Referenda ad Senatum: January 13, 2023: Roman Traditionalism, Ancient Dates and Imperial Spies

Welcome! As we’ve done before, this week I am going to take a chance to answer a few shorter questions posed by my patrons over at Patreon who are the Patres et Matres Conscripti of the ACOUP Senate. As with previous responses, the answers here may not be as exhaustive or careful as they would be as a full feature post but reflect roughly what you would get asking the same question in my office hours or after class.

And for those of you still waiting on the back half of my Rings of Power complaining, that is still coming! I just had a bit less time than anticipated to work on things this week due to one of those ‘surprise! Can you teach this course which starts in a week?’ sorts of things.

And of course if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon; as mentioned patrons who join the Patres et Matres Conscripti get to propose questions that I answer here. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

Via Wikipedia, an image of the restored interior of the Curia Julia, the Roman Senate house from 29 BC onward. It was converted into a church in 630 which is why the building was maintained and survives. It is a rather smaller and less ostentatious structure than you might expect.


Dirtside asks, “How historians define ancient dates, e.g. when you say something happened in Rome in ’46 BC,’ that obviously isn’t the number the Roman used for that year?”

So this is actually a really interesting question that we need to break into two parts: what do historians do with dates that are at least premised on the Roman calendar and then what do we do with dates that aren’t.

Now the Roman calendar is itself kind of a moving target, so we can start with a brief history of that. At some very early point the Romans seem to have had a calendar with ten months, with December as the last month, March as the first month and no January or February. That said while you will hear a lot of folk history crediting Julius Caesar with the creation of two extra months (July and August) that’s not right; those months (called Quintilis and Sextilis) were already on the calendar. By the time we can see the Roman calendar, it has twelve months of variable lengths (355 days total) with an ‘intercalary month’ inserted every other year to ‘reset’ the calendar to the seasons. That calendar, which still started in March (sitting where it does, seasonally, as it does for us), the Romans attributed to the legendary-probably-not-a-real-person King Numa, which means in any case even by the Middle Republic it was so old no one knew when it started (Plut. Numa 18; Liv 1.19.6-7). The shift from March to January as the first month in turn happens in 153 (Liv. Per. 47.13), probably for political reasons.

We still use this calendar (more or less) and that introduces some significant oddities in the reckoning of dates that are recorded by the Roman calendar. See, because the length of the year (355 days) did not match the length of a solar year (famously 365 days and change), the months ‘drifted’ over the calendar a little bit; during the first century BC when things were so chaotic that intercalary months were missed, the days might drift a lot. This problem is what Julius Caesar fixed, creating a 365 day calendar in 46; to ‘reset’ the year for his new calendar he then extended the year 46 to 445 days. And you might think, “my goodness, that means we’d have to convert every pre-45 BC date to figure out what it actually is, how do we do that?”

And the answer is: we don’t. Instead, all of the oddities of the Roman calendar remain baked into our calendar and the year 46 BC is still reckoned as being 445 days long and thus the longest ever year. Consequently earlier Roman dates are directly convertible into our calendar system, though if you care what season a day happened, you might need to do some calculating (but not usually because the drift isn’t usually extreme). But in expressing the date as a day, the fact that the Gregorian calendar does not retroactively change the days of the Julian calendar, which also did not retroactively change the days of the older Roman calendar means that no change is necessary.

Ok, but then what year is it? Well, the Romans counted years two ways. The more common way was to refer to consular years, “In the year of the consulship of X and Y.” Thus the Battle of Cannae happened, “in the year of the consulship of Varro and Paullus,” 216 BC. In the empire, you sometimes also see events referenced by the year of a given emperor. Conveniently for us, we can reconstruct a complete list of all of the consular years and we know all of the emperors, so back-converting a date rendered like this is fairly easy. More rarely, the Romans might date with an absolute chronology, ab urbe condita (AUC) – “from the founding of the city,” which they imagined to have happened in in 753 BC. Since we know that date, this also is a fairly easy conversion.

Non-Roman dates get harder. The Greeks tend to date things either by serving magistrates (especially the Athenian ‘eponymous archon,’ because we have so many Athenian authors) or by Olympiads. Olympiad dates are not too bad; it’s a four-year cycle starting in 780 BC, so we are now in the 700th Olympiad. Archon dates are tougher for two reasons. First, unlike Roman consuls, we have only a mostly complete list of Athenian archons, with some significant gaps. Both dates suffer from the complication that they do not line up neatly with the start of the Roman year. Olympiads begin and end in midsummer and archon years ran from July to June. If we have a day, or even a month attached to one of these dates, converting to a modern Gregorian calendar date isn’t too bad. But if, as is often the case, all you have is a year, it gets tricky; an event taking place ‘in the Archonship of Cleocritus’ (with no further elaboration) could have happened in 413 or 412. Consequently, you’ll see the date (if there is no month or season indicator that lets us narrow it down), written as 413/2 – that doesn’t mean “in the year two-hundred and six and a half” but rather “413 OR 412.”

That said, with a complete list of emperors, consuls and Olympiads, along with a nearly complete list of archons, keeping the system together is relatively easy. Things get sticky fast when moving to societies using regnal years for which we do not have complete or reliable king’s lists. So for instance there are a range of potential chronologies for the Middle Bronze Age in Mesopotamia. I have no great expertise into how these chronologies are calculated; I was taught with the ‘Middle’ chronology as the consensus position and so I use that and aim just to be consistent. Bronze Age Egyptian chronology has similar disputes, but with a lot less variation in potential dates. Unfortunately while obviously I have to be aware of these chronology disputes, I don’t really have the expertise to explain them – we’d have to get an Egyptologist or Assyriologist (for odd path-dependent reasons, scholars that study ancient Mesopotamia, including places and cultures that were not Assyria-proper are still called Assyriologists, although to be fair the whole region (including Egypt!) was all Assyria at one point) to write a guest post to untangle all of that.

That said in most cases all of this work has largely been done and so it is a relatively rare occurrence that I need to actually back convert a date myself. It does happen sometimes, mostly when I’m moving through Livy and have lost track of what year it is and need to get a date, in which case I generally page back to find the last set of consular elections and then check the list of consuls to determine the date.

Vitali asks, “Were there pre-modern equivalents of such government institutions as the CIA (for spying) or the FBI (for crime investigation)?

So I cannot answer for every society here, but for the Romans I can provide something of an answer, which I would frame as “No, but.” I think the key issue here is both the degree of centralization in what these organizations do and also their purpose.

Sending individuals into another country to get information on it – even in a clandestine manner – was not an unheard of thing to do in the ancient world, though given the limited control ancient states had over the movement of peoples such ‘spying’ often consisted simply of sending a few trusted members of court to go visit the other country’s court as ‘diplomats’ or as guests of local notables and report back everything they saw. But that’s not really what we mean when we think of the CIA – we imagine a centralized bureaucracy with an official head that reports to the government, gathers large amounts of data on foreign countries and writes reports. That the Romans did not seem to have had.

We do hear, once in Ammianus of ‘areani‘ (or arcani; the reading here is unclear) whose job was to travel and inform Roman generals of what was going on in neighboring countries, but these seem likely to be scouts and are only attested in Roman Britain,1 so this might just be a special unit of scouts that ranged north of Hadrian’s Wall to keep tabs on the people to the north. There’s no sense of a larger or more pervasive intel operation and keep in mind we have the writings of senior commanders and senators (e.g. Seneca, Pliny, Cassius Dio) who would surely have been aware if there had been such a state organ.

Meanwhile when we think about the FBI, we imagine an internally directed organization whose goal is to detect and investigate crime. Ancient societies (including the Romans) generally had no investigative police of any kind. In the imperial period, Rome did have a sort of police force (though their primary job was as firefighters), the vigiles, who in addition to putting out fires kept a night watch and might respond to cries of alarm for things like burglaries, or do riot control. But as far as we can tell they didn’t investigate crimes. The Roman legal system lacked a public prosecutor in any event: if someone did a crime against you, you didn’t wait for the police to investigate and the state to charge, instead you went to a magistrate (here this might be the tresviri capitales or a praetor (either the praetor urbanus or praetor peregrinus, depending on the issue) and laid the charge yourself (and then you or your representative or patron, would prosecute).

What we do see emerge in the imperial period are what we might call ‘state security forces,’ but these are less the FBI and more akin to the KGB: their role wasn’t to investigate crimes but to detect threats to the state and the rule of the emperor (which means yes, ‘secret police’ predate modern investigative police by centuries). Emperors used various formal and informal networks of spies and informants to try to root out conspiracies against their rule and almost any kind of official who moves around the empire but reported to the emperor (instead of a governor) might be suspected of being a way for the emperor to spy on the most dangerous (to him) people in the empire: his own legates who held military commands.

And so we get, for instance, the frumentarii, literally ‘grain guys’ (after frumentum, grain) whose job ostensibly was to ensure the food supply to the legions and deliver messages from Rome, but who rapidly got a reputation as the emperors spies (against his own subordinates), secret police and even assassins. Likewise, Roman generals in the imperial period had bodyguards called speculatores (‘look outs,’ – they’re not praetorians anymore because these are legati, not praetors or consuls), who served also as scouts and message-runners and thus naturally as spies the emperor might use to keep tabs on his generals or on the loyalty of a province. And later we hear of agentes in rebus in the Late Empire who were official couriers who – wait for it – emperors used as spies and informants against their subordinates in far-flung provinces, particularly after disbanding the frumentarii, whom the agentes in rebus replaced doing essentially the same job. And this was doubtless alongside of other informal domestic spies.

Tom Roeder asks, “I’d really like to hear more about the Annales school of history and how that informs the way you approach historical research.”

So I confess at the start here that I am not a particularly theoretically inclined historian (‘theory’ here in the sense of the intellectual framework that structures our research and thinking), trained by another not terribly theoretically inclined historian (ancient historians in general tend to be pretty light on theory, sometimes to our detriment). Of course all historians need to be aware of the assumptions that we import with our theory, but some historians focus on that more than others. So I tend to be in the ‘theory is like underwear: you must always have it on, but no one needs to see it’ school of thought.2 All of which is to say that talking about historical theory and the history of historical theory (fitting under the broad category of ‘history of history’ which we call historiography) always puts me a bit ill at ease. But this is a good question, so lets have at it.

The Annales school is a style of historical thinking that emerged in France in the early 1900s; at least for pre-modernists, the dominating figures here tend to be Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel. It got its name because of its close association with Annales d’Historie Economique et Sociale. Fundamentally, what sets the Annales approach apart is first its focus and then the methods that focus demands.

The big shift in focus for the Annales school was an interest in charting the experience of society below the level of elites (though the elites are not abandoned either), what is sometimes termed ‘history from below,’ as distinct from traditional elite-centered ‘great man’ history or the more deterministic Marxist models of history at the time. You can see the political implications, of course, in the very early 1900s, of declaring the common man worthy of study; this is generally a history from the left but not the extreme left. That focus in turn demanded new approaches because it turned the focus of social history towards people who by and large do not write to us.

In reaching for that experience, Annales scholars tended to frame their thinking in terms of la longue durée (‘the long run’); history was composed of three parts: événements (‘events’), conjonctures (‘circumstances’) and finally la longue durée itself. Often in English this gets rendered as a distinction between ‘events’ (kings, wars, politics, crises) and ‘structures’ (economics, social thought3 and at a deeper level climate, ecology, and geography). What Annales scholars tended to argue was that those structures were often more important than the events that traditional historians studied: the farmer’s life was far more shaped by very long-term factors like the local ecology, the organization of his farming village, the economic structure of the region and so on. And then the idea goes, that by charting those structures, you can figure things out about the lives of those farmers even if you don’t have many – or any – of those farmers writing to you.

Important to this was the idea of enduring patterns of thought within a society, what Bloch termed mentalités (‘mentalities,’ like longue durée, this is a technical term usually used in French to make that fact clear). Mentalités – Bloch’s original example was the idea that kings had a holy healing touch, but this could be almost any kind of social construct or pattern of ideas (indeed, one critique of it is that the notion of mentalités is broad and ill-defined) – can last a long time and can inform or constrain the actions of many actors within a society; think of how successive generations of kings can have their decisions shaped or constrained by their societies view – their own view – of kingship. That view of kingship might be more impactful than any one king and so pervasive that even a king would struggle to change it.

So how does this influence my work? I tend to be very much a ‘history from below’ kind of historian, interested in charting the experience of regular farmers, soldiers, weavers and so on. The distinction between the long-term structures that shape life and the short-term events that populate our history is very valuable to think with, especially for identifying when an event alters a structure,4 because those tend to be very important events indeed. And I think a keen attention to the way people thought about things in the past and how those mentalités can be different than ours is very important.5

That said, the Annales stress on mentalités has in some ways been overtaken by more data-driven historical methods on the one hand or a strong emphasis on local or individual experience (‘microhistory’) on the other. Mentalités tend to be very big picture, asking how, say, ‘the French’ thought about something over a period of decades or centuries and seeking to know how that shaped their experience. But archaeology, demographics or economic data can reveal patterns of behavior which might not correspond to the mentalités that show up in written texts; this is fundamentally the interaction that informs the ‘revenge of the archaeologists’ in the study of the ancient economy, for instance. On the other hand, not everyone in that big group thinks the same and a microhistory of an individual or a single village might reveal telling local variations not captured in massive-scale structures.

Fortunately, historians do not need to be doctrinaire in our use of theory, we don’t have to pick one and stick to it. Different projects also lend themselves to different approaches. I think the Annales school offers a lot of really useful tools to have my historian’s toolbox, but they sit alongside military theory, archaeological material culture studies methods, philological approaches, a smattering of economic and demographic tools, etc.

Kit Finn asks, “Is it correct to suggest that nearly all Roman changes were presented as going back to the way things were and what does that say about the power of tradition and nostalgia?”

And then just on cue we veer directly into a question about mentalités!

So I hesitate to say ‘nearly all’ here, because for a lot of Roman reforms or other changes we just don’t have a lot of evidence for how they were presented. What we often have are descriptions of programs, proposals or ideas written decades or centuries later, when their effects were known, by writers who may be some of the few people in the ancient world who might actually know how things ‘used to be.’

What I will say is that the Romans were very conservative in their outlook, believing that things ought to be done according to the mos maiorum – ‘the customs of [our] ancestors.’ The very fact that the way you say ‘ancestors’ in Latin is maiores, ‘the greater ones’ should tell you something about the Roman attitude towards the past. And so often real innovations in Roman governance were explained as efforts to get back to the ‘way things were,’ but of course ‘the way things were’ is such a broad concept that you can justify pretty radical changes in some things to restore other things to ‘the way they were.’

The most obvious example of this, of course, is Augustus with his PR-line of a res publica restituta, “a republic restored.” Augustus made substantial changes (even if one looked past his creation of an entire shadow-office of emperor!) to Roman governance on the justification that this was necessary to ‘restore’ the Republic; exactly what is preserved tells you a lot about what elements of the Roman (unwritten) constitution were thought to be essential to the Republic by the people that mattered (the elites). And Augustus was hardly the first; Sulla crippled the tribunate, doubled the size of the Senate and made substantial reforms to the laws claiming that he was restoring things to the way they had been – that is, restoring the Senate to its position of prominence.

And one thing that is very clear about the Greeks and Romans generally is that they had at best a fuzzy sense of their past, often ascribing considerable antiquity to things which were not old but which stretched out of living memory. Moreover there is a general sense, pervading Greek and Latin literature that people in the past were better than people now, more virtuous, more upright, possibly even physically better. You can see this notion in authors from Hesiod to Sallust. This shouldn’t be overstressed; you also had Aristotelian/Polybian ‘cyclical’ senses of history along with moments of present-triumphalism (Vergil, for instance, and his imperium sine fine). But still there seems to have been a broad sense of the folk system that things get worse over time and thus things must have been better in the past and thus returning to the way things were done is better. We’ve discussed this thought already where it intersects with Roman religion.

And the same time, here we run into the potential weakness of probing elite mentalités in trying to understand a society. Some Romans seem quite aware of positive change over time; Pliny the Elder and Columella are both aware of improving agricultural technology in their own day, particularly as compared to older economic writing by Cato the Elder. Polybius has no problem having the Romans twice adopt new and better ship designs during the First Punic War (though both are ‘just-so’ stories; the ancients love ‘just-so’ stories to explain new innovations or inventions). And sometimes Roman leaders did represent things as very much new; even Augustus combined his res publica restituta rhetoric with the idea that he was ushering in a saeculum novum, a ‘new age’ (based on the idea of 110 year cycles in history).

So there is complexity here. The Romans most certainly did not have our strong positive associations with youth and progress. Their culture expected deference to elders and certainly didn’t expect ‘progress’ most of the time; things, they thought, generally ought to be done as they had ‘always been done.’ Consequently, framing things as a return to the mos maiorum or as a means to return to it was always a strong political framing and presumably many of the folks doing those things believed it. On the other hand the Romans seem well aware that some of the things they did were new and that not all of these ‘firsts’ were bad and that some things had seemed to have gotten better or more useful since the days of their maiores. And some Romans, particularly emperors, are relatively unabashed about making dramatic breaks with tradition and precedent; Diocletian comes to mind here in particular.

And that’s it for this week. Next week, time permitted, the long promised second part of the Rings of Power complaints!

  1. A ‘miles arcanus’ appears but once in single tablet from Vindolanda and Ammianus refers to them being disbanded by Flavius Theodosius, then the commander in Britain
  2. Though in practice I think I would probably be considered a ‘positivist‘ more than anything else, though I recognize some of the weaknesses of that approach.
  3. We’re going to give this a word in a second
  4. Example: the life of Alexander the Great; massive changes in culture, economy and society as a result of his life, most of which were changes he did not intend.
  5. In ancient history, so connected as it is with Classics, this effort to have an instinctive grasp of how the ancients thought about things is often associated with Latinitas, used in a positive sense to mean one’s grasp of not just the written rules of Latin but also the ways Romans might actually say something.

127 thoughts on “Referenda ad Senatum: January 13, 2023: Roman Traditionalism, Ancient Dates and Imperial Spies

  1. Only a tangential question to the main thrusts, but the mention of Polybius reminded me of something that has confused me for a long time. Hist 1.20 mentions how the Romans found a Carthaginian warship that had run aground and that this lucky find provided the basis for them to reverse engineer themselves a fleet of warships.

    The very same passage, a few sentences earlier, noted that the Romans, when first sending troops to Messene, borrowed warships from Tarentum and some other cities in what is now southern Italy. Couldn’t the Romans have modeled their later warships on those allied cities ones?

    Polybius seems blind to the question, but I’ll admit I’ve only ever read it in translation and I might be getting something wrong here. Is there a resolution to the question of why Rome just didn’t copy Neopolitan or Tarentene warships instead?

    1. Polybius is fairly clearly exaggerating Rome’s unfamiliarity with the warships of the day. It’s hard to get but this question is addressed fully in C. Steinby, The Roman Republican Navy (2007)

  2. Great stuff! It explained some things I have noticed in ancient literature in a more detailed way. The format reminds me a lot of r/AskHistorians

    1. The date convention of something like 413/2 was something I’d seen, and sort of vaguely understood from context meant something like either “in both years” or “we’re not sure which of two years”, but I’d had a clear explanation before.

  3. Is there any pre-modern society that celebrated novelty in its own right? It seems like framing reforms through a reactionary lens is pretty common, and not just for Greeks and Romans.

    1. As someone once said: “Everyone is a conservative on subjects he knows about”.

      To “know” anything about a subject, you must have reliable information about it: why would you throw that away based on some novel assertion? If I were to make novel assertions that the moon is made of yellow custard, or that Julius Caesar was actually Greek, you would almost certainly give in to conservatism and assume I was talking drivel. Even if you had never personally studied the composition of the moon, or the ethnic origins of Julius Caesar.

      What’s the difference?

      1. > As someone once said: “Everyone is a conservative on subjects he knows about”.

        I disagree. In science and technology, advances come from people who know the subject well. You can’t design a better car without knowing how existing cars work!

        Other kinds of progress don’t always come from people who know the subject well, but they often do. If you understand a problem, and the reason for the problem, you might come up with a solution. But if you don’t think about a problem beyond “that’s just how things are” you won’t have any solutions.

        None of this has much to do with an expert rejecting plainly false information about their field of expertise.

        1. How do you know information about a subject is “plainly false” unless you already know a lot about that subject?

          And if you can’t reject information that is plainly false, how much progress do you expect to make, and how likely are you to end up a crackpot?

          You can certainly have a lot of innovative ideas. They just won’t work.

          As someone once said: “If our decisions about what proposals to support are 95% correct, most people would call that a pretty good record. Well, 95% of proposals made to this committee are worthless. So if we rejected everything, we’d be doing pretty well.”

          In any field, most new proposal are wrong, because there are so many more ways of being wrong than being right. And the more you know about a field, the more likely you are to recognise it’s wrongness.

          1. If it doesn’t work, it’s not innovation. You need to be an expert to figure out what works, and to figure out how to make it work, so innovation requires expertise.

          2. “If it doesn’t work, it’s not innovation.”

            Bullseye, was Communism an innovation? Nazism? New Coke? Thalidomide? Betamax video recorders? DeLorean sports cars?

            In any event, someone deciding whether to accept a new proposal has to decide whether or not it will work. Saying that if it retrospectively turns out not to work you will not call it an innovation, doesn’t help to decide whether to accept it.

            But the people who know most about the subject are more likely to decide that a proposal that won’t work, won’t work before anybody else so decides. So according to the people who know less, they will be hidebound reactionary conservatives. Denouncing one proposed innovation after another.

          3. Way back in the day, during the Y2K issue, I literally read a newspaper columnist saying that since computers were so smart they could figure out the issue. . . .

      2. Rejecting novel falsehoods doesn’t make you a conservative.

        If you tend to assume the worst about novel claims in general, you might be a small-c conservative. But my impression is that experts are often more willing, not less, to hear out new ideas.

        Math is the one academic subject I actually know well, and in my experience laymen are much quicker than experts to reject weird ideas out of hand. The layman thinks that of course two plus two equals four; the mathematician is interested in messing around with the definitions of “two”, “plus”, “equals”, and “four”.

        1. Academic mathematics is less grounded in empiricism than most scientific or engineering disciplines, so I think it’s an outlier here. In my area, physics, wacky ideas often arise because people misunderstand the meaning of terms. It doesn’t do to mess around with the definitions of “force” or “acceleration”, not if you want bridges to stay up and planes to keep flying.

        2. “The layman thinks that of course two plus two equals four; the mathematician is interested in messing around with the definitions of “two”, “plus”, “equals”, and “four”.”

          The mathematician in this example is not considering the possibility that it is, given the usual meaning of the symbols, true to say: “2+2 != 4”

          He is trying to find some set of definitions, different to the usual ones, such that it becomes true to say that.

          Put another way: A layman is a lot more likely than a mathematician to believe that must be SOME way of squaring the circle. Without having to first redefine the term “squaring the circle”.

      3. That, in my experience, means that people don’t approve of having things they know about micromanaged by government bureaucrats.

        For instance, I have seen it used in the context of George Orwell saying that the Soviet Union’s approach to writers can’t work, you have to let them have the freedom to write and risk some expressing wrong-headed views — he was a writer — but when it came to shoes, he thought that you could just have the government decree that shoes would be made in a certain quantity and lo and behold, the problem of not having enough shoes would be fixed, without considering how that number would be determined, or even thinking of the size problem.

        1. I once read a blog post from a local actor/director explaining how applying a much higher minimum wage would be ruinous for small theaters, in a way that it wouldn’t for other businesses. His go-to example wasn’t some highly capitalized high margin business, but small ethnic restaurants in a competitive neighborhood.

          I couldn’t help but suspect that the kabob shop owner might think that it was the entertainment venue whose workers mostly had to have day jobs anyway who could better absorb the hit. (But mostly that it’s easy to wave away the economics of someone else’s business while seeing the hard edges of one’s own.)

        2. If the problem of mass-producing shoes were just a matter of knowing how many the population needs, and in what sizes, then it would be easy enough to solve by government decree. It’s not that difficult to find out the shoe size of a huge sample of the population, multiply by the life expectancy of the typical shoe, and use that to estimate what sizes will be in demand and at what rate. That’s how corporations handle the problem in real life, after all.

          Figuring out what kinds of shoes the population actually needs is the easy part; it’s a scaled up version of (for example) the problem every army in the world solves, more or less successfully, when it comes to figuring out how many boots to order for its soldiers. Soldiers don’t necessarily love their boots, but the boots are functional, and somehow the Army never winds up with millions of excess “left size 11” boots and not nearly enough size 8 boots.

          No, the problem with making a functional command economy is much more extensive than that.

          Because you have to make sure the shoe factory manufacturer doesn’t start fudging their production numbers to hide the fact that they’re falling behind quota. You have to make sure that the materials suppliers don’t start fudging and providing substandard materials. You have to make sure that the good materials aren’t being diverted to the black market. And that the uncle of the guys in the black market for shoes isn’t himself a senior member of the Politburo who uses his clout to quietly sabotage the quality of official state shoe production. And so on, and so on, and so on.

          Some of these problems could probably be solved just by holding real elections, but obviously that wasn’t a solution the USSR ever made any meaningful effort to try.

          1. And when you estimate the rate at which they need shoes wrong, you don’t pay the price, and so you keep getting it wrong.

            Nah, the shoe problem is MUCH worse than you claim.

          2. And why on earth would having good elections fix that people will try to weasel out of doing their jobs? Or exploit them for their own good by illicit means?

          3. >And when you estimate the rate
            >at which they need shoes wrong,
            >you don’t pay the price, and so
            >you keep getting it wrong. Nah,
            >the shoe problem is MUCH
            >worse than you claim.

            You misunderstand me. I was saying the shoe problem is much worse than you made it sound. A naive person with a grasp of basic arithmetic might look at the way you described the shoe problem and think that surely, it’s a matter of basic math. They might mess it up now and then, but it’s like military logistics and armies don’t mess that up all the time. Generals don’t personally get wet feet if they order the wrong number of shoes for their troops, either, but that doesn’t mean they don’t try or always get it wrong.

            But in practice, the problem of running a command economy (in particular, in shoes) is far more serious than this, for reasons you did not discuss.

            The root cause of the really serious problems with command economies isn’t that people somehow inexplicably fail to do basic math and have no ability to even find out what the public needs. It isn’t even a matter of every single bureaucrat in the system being ultra-dense about the public interest, or about people who “get paid either way” making mistakes out of apathy- because if that were such a devastating problem in its own right, market economies would collapse too.

            The things that really makes command economies so prone to catch fire and explode are much more sinister. They are harder to solve precisely because they involve corruption and bad-faith behavior by powerful people, or simple falsification and fraud by medium-powerful people.

            Imagine the factory manager who wants a promotion. He has the same incentive to falsify information about his factory’s efficiency and productivity that, say, an Enron executive had to cook their company’s books. And if he can get away with it, and falsifying the records becomes normative throughout the Soviet shoe industry (or whatever), then that becomes a nationwide problem. One much more sinister and severe than the relatively simple problem of “the central shoe factory planning group doesn’t know how many shoes are needed.”

            Or imagine the Politburo member whose nephew runs the one factory in the USSR that produces comfortable, reliably waterproof shoes… which are then sold on the black market to a tiny minority of the population. Said Politburo member has an incentive to sabotage any attempt to improve the quality of everyone else’s shoes. He’s not just going to be indifferent if you tell him he’s miscalculated. He’s going to be actively undermining your efforts to improve shoe production.

            >And why on earth would having
            >good elections fix that people
            >will try to weasel out of doing
            >their jobs? Or exploit them for
            >their own good by illicit means?

            Well I don’t know, have we generally found that democracies place lower on indexes of corruption than autocracies? My impression is “yes.”

            Consider a society in which powerful politicians can face bad consequences from becoming personally unpopular, and thus have an incentive to try to do things that will please the public. All else being equal, I would expect such a society to be on average less likely to tolerate its state-run enterprises being massively unpopular, because if the voters have bad shoes, they may be able to figure out who to blame.

            Of course, that’s a problem we can have in dysfunctional democracies under a market economy, too. Much as we can have the problem of the managers of large enterprises having a strong incentive to falsify things or misrepresent the value of their own activities. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

          4. Name a single attempt at a command economy where the people who actually decide how many shoes to make are elected.

            One notes that after bureaucrats at the VA goosed their numbers in a manner that killed vets to get a bonus, elected officials were unable to get them fired, or even forced to pay back the bonus.

          5. One notes the problems I cite, unlike yours, are not even theoretically solvable by elections, so are the actually hard one.

            Generals are a false analogy. Generals can LOSE BATTLES when they get it wrong. They can even DIE.

            Bureaucrats can get bonuses when they get it wrong.

          6. Saying that a command economy would work if men were angels is fairly banal. I suspect it’s not even true, the socialist calculation problem being a little harder than Simon thinks, but the answer isn’t important, since it will never happen.

          7. The problem of command economies isn’t even really “corruption” or anyhting liek that: Those happens, but in a very real way they often makes the system *function* rather than grind to a halt completely. The problems are much harder to dislodge and has to do with information-transfer and structural change (which isn’t to say corruption or bad actors isn’t a problem in itself, but it’s not *the* problem)

            Prices-as-signals are very efficient, since they are, in some sense, self-regulating, and trying to replicate that signal mechanism via some other mechanism has tended to at best lead to massive innefficiency, and at worst disaster. (which isn’t to say that price mechanisms can’t themselves lead to disaster: See the Great Famine in ireland, and various other instances of the british empire fucking)

          8. The Great Famine stemmed from government meddling. The Irish were dependent on the potato because of laws with the intent and effect of keeping them poor.

      4. People who know something about the subject are likely to be *skeptical*, in the philosophical sense. They will be asking how do we know this will do what you think it will? What confidence do we have in our assumptions? They ask better questions, which very often lead to the realisation that no, the innovation won’t work.

        *Negativism* is just saying it won’t work, most innovations won’t work therefore this one won’t either. It is popular because it doesn’t require nearly as much thinking or prior knowledge as skepticism.

    2. The assumption that novelty is inherently bad does indeed seem to be the default across most societies until the 18th century at the earliest, when stadial theories started to reframe history as a linear journey from barbarism to civilisation, rather than a series of cyclical loops. One of my favourite examples of this is the word ‘innovation’, which today is a positive buzzword of anodyne ubiquity, but during Early Modernity was almost invariably used as an insult. Catholics were forever accusing Protestants of unfounded “innovations in religion”, and Protestants would always respond that they were actually returning to true ancient Christianity by sweeping away various newfangled papist additions. One of the early cracks in this worldview was Richard Overton’s Civil War era cry (which I still find rather moving) that “whatever our forefathers were, or whatever they did or suffered or were enforced to yield unto, we are the men of the present age and ought to be absolutely free.” And even he and the other progressive Leveller radicals spent half their time pining for an imagined pre-Norman past!

      1. On the face of it, no Catholic or Protestant innovation can have been preached by Christ. It would be, quite literally, un-Christian.

        The only self-declared innovators in revealed religion can be those who claim to have been granted a new revelation. Even they are just claiming to have had something revealed to them by someone else.

        Mohammed, Joseph Smith, and so on.

        Everyone else is just claiming to have come up with the One True Interpretation

        1. Mm, not necessarily. Catholics and Protestants both celebrate many innovations (while knowing they are innovative). For instance, you may have seen “churches:” these are buildings of various types, none of which Christ ever set foot in or penned a single blueprint for. AFAIK there’s no real Scriptural mention of structures for Christian worship, how they should be, what should be in them, etc. So, for instance, Gothic architecture was and could be framed as an innovation.

          Now, I’m not deeply familiar with the narratives those old monks were putting about concerning their new arches. But one that they could have used (but almost certainly didn’t: I’m making it up) is “look at this new church, look at the light and air: anyone who walks in here will think of Heaven.” This is a *new thing.* Sure, you’re pointing at Heaven, but Heaven never existed on earth, certainly not indoors. So as a thing for humans to build, this is new.

          (For that matter, monasticism itself was an innovation. Now, perhaps it’s a new way to try and live like the disciples… but it is a new way, not the same way. The disciples didn’t have a cloister or a rule. So the first time you formalize a rule and an order, you have to know that’s new. A new way of getting at something old? Maybe, sure, but a new way all the same. And apparently that wasn’t something to be celebrated for its own sake, but it wasn’t something shameful enough to hide either: it would have been perfectly feasible to have named the Benedictines after a disciple and simply claimed that Benedict’s role was just writing down that disciple’s shtick, but instead they were named after a guy who plenty of living monks had known.)

          1. Depends what you mean by “innovation”. Was it an innovation to elect Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope, for example? After all, he had never been Pope before. Was it an innovation to take your first breath this morning? You had never before taken a first breath this morning.

            But from a Christian point of view: If it is required by Christ’s teaching, it is doctrine. If it contradicts Christ’s teaching, it is heresy. And if it does neither, it is neither required nor banned.

            The ultimate source of authority is Christ, so you have to go back to him somehow if you want to get something denounced.

            For example: You can claim that Christ appointed Peter to head the Church after him, the Pope inherited his position, therefore anyone denying his authority is a heretic. Or that Christ did no such thing and that the Pope has no such authority.

            But you can’t claim that he did this, the Pope has this authority, it is an innovation to deny his authority, therefore you have the right to deny his authority. If you could do that, someone else could then call it an innovation to give his authority back, and we would just keep going round in circles.

      2. I’m sure there must be exceptions to this, but this summary is almost exactly what I teach first year history students every year.

    3. The Mongols seem to have been fond of adopting new and good ideas, but of course the Mongols are the exception to every rule.

      The Chinese do appear to have celebrated novelty in calendar design. While most cultures only reform their calendars when seasonal drift becomes too great to ignore, in China, calendar improvement was a constant and ongoing process of seeking ever-greater accuracy. Indeed, it was expected that each new emperor would introduce some sort of refinement or improvement as part of his role as the highest authority in the land. Mostly, these improvements were slightly more accurate values for the tropical year and synodic month, but in the Tang dynasty, imperial astronomers started working out ways to account for the variable speed of the sun and the moon over time. Another major innovation happened earlier, in the early Han dynasty, when imperial astronomers decided to ignore the zodiac and just base their calculations on the sun’s position in the ecliptic, which notably broke with the astronomical traditions inherited from India.

      Such was the Chinese appetite for better calendars that foreigners with strong astronomical knowledge were welcomed and given high authority and prestige; for the most part, these were Muslims, whose cultures placed a very high value on accurate astronomical predictions for religious reasons.

      In the 17th century AD, Christian missionaries impressed Emperor Chongzen by predicting the time of an eclipse more accurately than either the Buddhist or Muslim astronomers at the imperial court thanks to their secret weapon, the mighty logarithm. They improved on the calendar in use at their time, and their scheme is still in use today; the modern Chinese calendar uses more advanced methods developed since then, that require computers to run, but the rules about what days months and years start remain the same.

      This feat endeared the Christians to Emperor Chongzen, and they thought that if they managed to convert the emperor, the rest of China would follow in due course. He was receptive to Christianity at first until they got to marriage; upon hearing he would only be allowed one wife at a time and no concubines, the emperor decided that Christianity wasn’t really for him, and Buddhism was more his speed.

      1. Chongzhen wasn’t the guy’s name, it’s the name for the era in which he ruled. Instead of thinking of it like “Emperor Marcus Aurelius” or “Emperor Diocletian”, think of it like “the emperor who ruled during the era called Chongzhen (i.e., the honourable and auspicious era). So if you’re referring to this guy, for example, say “the Chongzhen emperor”.

  4. > And one thing that is very clear about the Greeks and Romans generally is that they had at best a fuzzy sense of their past, often ascribing considerable antiquity to things which were not old but which stretched out of living memory.

    Is this less common in other cultures? At least in the US, I am reminded of the xkcd joke that “An American tradition is anything that happened to a baby boomer twice”

    Do you know — when did the pull between “young people and their new ideas” vs “stodgy old folks” become big enough to become a real cultural meme? I can see it by enlightenment liberalism easily enough (or at least I feel like I can).

    1. I think I read somewhere about a Roman author complaining about young men’s fashion: baggy togas “like sails”.

      1. Yep, and there are definitely examples in medieval sumptuary laws, where there are fads moving fast enough that people couldn’t possibly have avoided tracking that they weren’t just a matter of deviation from some prelapsarian notion of Proper Dress.

        I suspect it’s pretty eternal, actually, that all it takes for an ironic awareness to take hold is some other old man to point out that Senator Tight-Toga got yelled at in his youth for affecting a shaggy Gallic hairstyle or whatever. In this case, however foggy you may be on things that are out of living memory, this stuff does happen *within* that horizon.

      2. The Romans were aware that the toga had gone from being originally “skimpy” to more voluminous (compare “The Orator” bronze to any togate statue of an emperor), but I think this change was so slow that it would (generally) not be from one generation to the next. You will often find two Roman writers, a century apart, complaining about the same supposedly new habit or style.
        But sometimes people did dress to stand out as “old-fashioned” or “modern stylish” Cato the Younger used to go without tunic and unshod to seem conservative, while Caesar preferred long-sleeved tunics with fringes

      3. There’s at least one egyptian scribe complaining about young people nowadays not being interested in learning the trade and just drinking and partying.

        So I suspect the theme is as old as humanity.

  5. My question got answered! 😀

    On the topic of mos maiores and progress, I wonder if the inconsistency between some Romans recognizing progress and newness while others were pining for the “good old days” could be resolved by separating concepts which didn’t (obviously) directly affect existing power structures (i.e. while improved farming tools/practices might have an indirect impact on society at large, the improved results were so obvious that no one would argue against them) and those that did, or at least were assumed to (political/military and other power systems). I would think that when Romans argued for mos maiores, it was almost always in terms of political/cultural structure, as opposed to technological.

    1. I have a background in agriculture, and I remember attending a lecture about the history of appels and cherries – they are not native to the Mediterrenean. Apparently, there was a whole lot of drama among Romans about the introduction of new fruit trees, whether they were a luxury, and whether that indicated degeneracy, even though apple and cherry trees could fill an ecological/agricultural niche (lining and shading paths) that was filled by less productive trees before.

  6. On dates – astronomy both needs and can (at times) provide accurate dating, and the core of it is based on the Canon of Kings, which started with Babylonian astronomers but which was preserved in the writing of Ptolemy, and so is also known as Ptolemy’s Canon. This is a dated list starting in 747 BC listing (in sequence) Babylonian kings, Persian kings, Macedonian kings, the Ptolemies, and the Roman and Byzantine Emperors. (It was continued by astronomers after the death of Ptolemy.)

    If we know a date in history absolutely, it is almost always because we can reference it to astronomical events referenced to the Canon of Kings.

    By the way, knowing a date absolutely means that we know its Julian day – this is a running count of days since 12:00 January 1, 4713 BC in the proleptic Julian calendar. (The Julian date right now is 2459958.23542.) Once a calendrical system is understood well enough to convert a date to a Julian day, then dealing with its dates (calculating the dates of eclipses, for example) is easy and you don’t have to worry about leap days, calendar changes, etc. in the mean time.

    1. That’s the proper Julian date, but I’ll note something people may encounter also called a julian date is dating by the number of the day in the year (001-366), often with 1-4 digits of the year at the start, so today would be 3013, 23013, or 2023013.

      (A significant part of my career as a database geek involved messing about with records using 4 or 5 digits julian dates.)

      1. You are of course totally correct, although how the terminology came to have two meanings is a mystery to me.

        Note that astronomers basically never use this secondary usage – we call it “day of year” instead (i.e., today is DOY 13).

        Note, also, that the Julian and Gregorian calendars are both well tied to astronomy, and so a date like July 4, 1776 has a very clear meaning (it was Julian day 2369916.0 at Noon at Greenwich). But, still, Julian days are still frequently easier to use – for example, since today at Noon was 2459958.0, it’s trivial to calculate that the US Constitution was announced exactly 90 042 days ago.

      2. Ohh, so that explains why there’s a Julian date converter program at my work (we deal with employee records). I asked why we even had one since we’re in Canada and have been using the Gregorian calendar for like 300 years. No one had any idea why.

        1. Are you doing anything related to copright? To properly calculate the end of a copyright term of death of last surviving author + 70 years, an office might have needed a converter fairly recently – Greece only converted to Gregorian in 1923. There are also weird artefacts for yearly fees of pre-Gregorian trademarks in some countries.

    2. Thanks, I was wondering about this for a while, and discovered that the (non-SI) unit standard defined to be 365.25 days of 86400 (SI) seconds is called the Julian year, or *annus* just before reading your comment !

      Today (and probably for another 27 years or so) we use the standard epoch (a precise moment in time compared to which we measure everything else) as the Julian epoch J2000.0 (January 1, 2000 in the Gregorian (not Julian) calendar).

      Which is different from the Julian day standard which you already explained.
      Julian days don’t seem to use Julian years, since the Julian day epoch in Julian years seems to be -6711.964408a and not the expected -6713a ?
      Or in simpler terms, the Julian days epoch seem to have further in time by 378.25 days ? (That’s 1a + 13d older than expected.)
      Note also that both have a zeroth day and year, while Julian and Gregorian calendars do not.

      So I guess this should cover the discrepancy (Julian and Gregorian calendars are 13 days apart, I don’t feel like digging the exact details as to why right now…) ?


      Also of note, though typically not for historic date ranges :

      – the duration of the relative second changes depending on the relative speed : both an observer on (current) sea level and an observer in (current) geosynchronous orbit see each other’s seconds to be slower, resulting in +1s every ~1.91^10s.

      – the duration of the relative second changes depending on the relative accelerations (equivalently : difference between local gravity fields) : an observer on (current) sea level sees the seconds of an observer in (current) geosynchronous orbit to be faster (and, less confusingly this time, the geosynchronous observer sees the sea level clock to be slower), resulting in -1s every ~1.65^9s (hopefully I didn’t mess up, and this also takes into account the accelerations coming from Earth’s rotation (on equator ?) and also having a circular orbit, which less or more counteract gravity).

      (- I need to go deeper into this at some point and figure out the equivalents for the Sun, Earth’s orbit, and an orbit around the Sun “sufficiently” (?) far enough from it, respective to our galactic center.)

      – because the Earth rotates on itself while rotating around the Sun, the sidereal “year” (relative to the rest of the universe) has one more “day” than the solar “year”.
      (Here “day” & “year” defined in a non-SI way by apparent positions of, respectively, the rest of the universe and the Sun as observed from Earth.)

      – the length of the “day” increases over time as Earth’s self-rotation slows down : it was ~21 hours (defined as 3600 seconds) around -0.5 Ga, was stable for a while, and was even shorter before -1.7 Ga or so :'s_day_length_over_time.png

      1. P.S.: Hmm, so I guess that the zeroth day for Julian day and Julian year systems would *still* be January **1rst** 4713 BC and 2000 AD, because expressed here in the Gregorian calendar ?

        Wait, why does the Julian day epoch starts at noon rather than midnight ? Because easier to measure for the Ancients and Classicals ?

        Also of note, the reason for picking 4713 BC : supposedly corresponds to the resets of 3 cycles :
        – Solar cycle : “a 28-year [=7×4] cycle of the Julian calendar, and 400-year cycle of the Gregorian calendar with respect to the week”… though 4713 is 9 years more than 28×168 years and 6713=28×239 + still 21 ??
        – Lunar cycle (19-year Metonic cycle used by the Classical Greeks ??)
        – “Indiction” 15-year cycle used for reassessing taxation in the Roman Empire… instituted by Julius Caesar ??

      2. Julian days are simply a day count, and are not really in any calendrical system. The Julian day system is by now so well established by astronomical observations (and also comparisons with different calendrical systems) that I think it is better to think of this count as being the real historical date, and the calendar versions just being conventions.

        Note that these things are complicated (and historical) in detail. For example, the J2000 epoch is the Julian date 2451545.0 in _terrestrial time_, which is offset by 32.184 seconds from TAI. So, in TAI it is JD 2 451544.99963. Either way, a Julian day is 86400 SI seconds.

        Also note that Julian years (365.25 days) and Julian centuries (36525 days) are just definitions, so people can calculate motions per year or per century in a uniform time scale.

        1. Hmm, I guess that either you would be using the Julian day epoch for historical events (aside for modern and post-modern ones ?), or even 7ka would just be a rounding error ?
          Maybe not for prehistory though, what epoch do they use ?

          Oh yeah, I decided not to get too much into the questions of hours and seconds because it’s an even bigger can of worms…

  7. I thinkma good example of a rudimentary type of a covert intelligence organisation can be seen in the Reitende Feldjägerkorps of pre-WWI Prussia: an all-officer military unit where all members were recruited from those with a master’s degree in forestry science, with a separate entrance exam on modern languages. The members travelled as couriers around Europe or served in embassies, wearing civilian clothing on duty. After diligent service of a few years, they would get a senior civil servant position in the state forest service, as they became available.

    It seems obvious that persons of this type would have also intelligence duties, but the fact that being a Feldjäger was a temporary occupation for non-noble academically educated young men shows that the work was not considered an actual profession.

    1. I think you often see a kind of rudmientary intelligence organization eg. the swedish crown during the 30-years war seems to have had people “on the payroll” in various cities to look out for news and occasionally disseminate pamphlets, but it doesen’t seem to have been a centralized *thing* that was kept on a systematic basis.

    2. The British First Lord of the Admiralty (political head of the navy) in the French and Napoleonic Wars had a Secret Fund, detailed accounts not required, for payment of informers and spies. So presumably a spy service of some kind. Of course Fouchet and, earlier, Walsingham were famously well-informed on their domestic enemies. In between, the playwright Aphra Behn obtained advance notice of the Dutch raid on the Medway but had, alas, not been given funds sufficient to pay express postage.

  8. Re the shift in the focus on mentalités toward microhistory, the Americanist Jake Anbinder said,

    European history books are either “Civilization and Money: 1050-1990” or “The Cordwainers of Sainte-Marie-les-Mouches and Their Beliefs, 1780-86”.

    (This was a quote-RT of someone saying US history books are either hero worship or castigating society’s racism.)

    1. Those are both pretty good (and accurate) lines.

      It’s odd that American schoolboy history tends to valorize Good Men, whereas British schoolboy history tends to valorize Good Things. I’m not sure why.

      The book “1066 and All That” will give you a good picture of the British approach. For the American approach, I remember one of my law school classmates, who reacted with puzzlement to the Dred Scott opinion, saying, “But Taney [the chief justice who authored the opinion] was appointed by Jackson, and Jackson was a champion of the common man.” It was obvious that he had learned American history as the story of a series of good men, democrats and usually Democrats, fighting the bad men, be they King George, the Confederacy, or the capitalists of the Roaring Twenties.

      Castigating American racism is usually the province of academic historiography, since there isn’t enough of a popular market for that stuff to support a writer.

      1. Oh dear, oh dear. “1066 and all that” is an ironic/satirical approach to British history. Descriptions of changes or people as Good Things or Bad Things were never intended to be taken entirely seriously.

        But many argue that Americans don’t understand irony or satire. Sometimes, they’re wrong. In this case, apparently not.

        1. Not quite. “1066 and All That” is intended as a satirical description of what most students do in fact come away with from British schoolboy history, which in turn reflects the basic emphasis of the curriculum as taught by the teacher of middling skill. No doubt there are knowledgeable and sophisticated teachers of high school history, in Britain and here, who instill in their students a profound understanding of the subtleties of historical analysis, but they are in the minority.

          And to be fair, my interest when I was a high school student in the subtleties of anything other than beer and girls was pretty much zero.

  9. I get the sense from this that the Romans were by-and-large an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” sort of people. But if it IS broke, they weren’t averse to (potentially radical) fixes…

  10. Hm. Seems like the Ancient Romans who had spy agencies were more concerned with threats to themselves than threats to the state! Suppose that tracks.

  11. This is a tangential question, based on your Twitter thread on when the year begins.

    I see from Wikipedia that the Pontifex Maximus had a bunch of other duties–tasks like consecrating temples, appointing vestal virgins, and administering the laws related to burials. Who would have done these jobs while Julius Caesar was in Gaul?

  12. How would a ten month calendar have worked? It seems like ten months would have been obviously too short.

    Having twelve months equal 355 days sounds like the months were tied to the phases of the moon. Ten months under that system would be around 295 days.

    1. I suspect the 10 month calendar didn’t exist. I don’t think there is any contemporary evidence for it.

    2. Originally, there were 10 months from Martius to Decembris. Martius started on the day of the first new moon after the northward equinox, and then after Decembris there was a variable stretch of time that wasn’t part of any month, it was just “like, winter, I guess”.

      This 10-month calendar is traditionally attributed to Romulus himself. Numa is credited with the idea that those extra days should also be put into months, and adding Ianuarius and Februarius (and Mercedonius in leap years) to account for that time.

      1. Love to have a calendar that includes a variable stretch of time that wasn’t part of any month 😂

  13. The calendar year starting in the middle of winter has always bugged me.
    Can we change it back to March now, which is obviously when it should be?

    1. The day begins and ends at midnight, so it stands to reason that the year should begin and end at midwinter.

      1. Midwinter would be sometime in February, if you go by the sun-centered “seasons are determined by solstices and equinoxes” system.

        By this system, which most people use, at least in the US, Dec 21-22 is the *start* of winter and the end of fall.

        1. Bah, humbug. That’s the “official” start, but no one can ever tell you which office says so, and what authority they have.

          1. It’s not even the only official option. Meteorological winter is all of December through all of February, which at least seems closer. (Though hereabouts it’s often a bit longer on both ends.)

          2. This is something that long confused me – I regularly see American websites proclaiming the start of a season about six weeks late, and people on social media saying the same thing.

            The idea of the seasons starting on the solstices and equinoxes is the astronomical definition, which is mostly used by astronomers, and is also the standard definition in America, France, Iran, Afghanistan, and I guess some other countries. Due to the prevalence of Americans on the Internet, this becomes the most common narrative, even though it’s not the most common definition. That said, it is ancient; the Romans, Semites, Sumerians, and Iranians all seem to have used some variant of this.

            In the majority of countries, the seasons start on the first day of the Gregorian month that contains the corresponding equinox or solstice – thus, the seasons begin on the first days of March, June, September, and December. This is the climatic definition of the seasons, where summer is the hottest three months of the year, winter is the coldest three months, and spring and autumn are the sections in between. It’s the most modern of the common definitions, and is a sort of average between the astronomical and insolation definitions.

            Under the insolation definition, seasons are defined by sunlight – summer is the time of year with the most sunlight, winter the time with the least, and spring and autumn are the times in between. Seasons begin on (approximately) the cross quarter days, with the solstices and equinoxes falling halfway between. This is why I grew up learning that spring began on St. Brigid’s Day, because Irish tradition is to use the insolation definition; it’s also why Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place on the summer solstice, because when Shakespeare was writing, England also used the insolation definition of the seasons. This is even reflected in language – the Irish words for September and October are Mean Fómhair and Deireadh Fómhair, which literally translated as Mid-Autumn and Late Autumn. But since Met Éireann uses the climatic definition, Mean Fómhair is the first month of Autumn, which Derieadh Fómhair comes in the middle.

            A more astronomically rigorous version of the insolation definition is in use to this day in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. Under the Chinese definition, Winter begins on the day that the sun crosses 315° of the ecliptic, Spring on the day it crosses 45°, Summer on the day it crosses 135°, and Autumn on the day it crosses 225°. In this case, the seasons are completely independent of both the Gregorian and synodic months.

            But, of course, not all cultures have four seasons. Ancient Egypt famously had just three, and they were based on the Nile’s flooding cycles rather than directly on climate or sunlight.

            Two-season systems divide the year into a warm and a cold half, or a dry and a rainy half. The modern Igbo and Yoruba peoples just recognise a dry season and a rainy season, and this was also the system used by the Maya and Aztecs before white people arrived. At the same time, the Quechua, Cherokee, Haida, and likely others divided the year into a warm and a dry half, though the Quechua New Year seems to have been Inti Raimi, the winter solstice (I’ve also seen Capac Raimi, the summer solstice, described as the start of the year; this seems to have been the result of Spanish colonists not realising they were in the southern hemisphere and seasons being reversed). This system was also used in Iran prior to the rise of Zoroastrianism, which is likely why they start the year on the Spring equinox.

            India, meanwhile, has six seasons, which are technically sidereal but the start of Vasant Ritu (“Spring”) more or less corresponds with the cross-quarter day bwetween the southern solstice and the northward equinox.

        2. In practice (in a four season climate at least) seasons tends to go on a rough “Winter is when the snow falls/frost comes”, spring is when it starts to thaw, summer at some point after that, and then fall is when the leaves start to turn red/fall.

          That doesen’t help you much astronomically of course.

        3. Some U.S. meteorologists refer to the 21/22 date as the astronomical first day and the 1st of the same months as the meteorological first day. In at least three out of the four cases, namely June 1, September 1, and December 1, the meteorological date actually corresponds more with the average person’s instinct. (March 1 is often still cold and nasty – “March goes in like a lion and out like a lamb.”) Yet for some reason the astronomical dates are considered official.

          Another holiday-based system is that Memorial Day (formerly always May 30, now last Monday in May) is considered the start of summer and Labor Day (first Monday in September) is considered the end. But again, this is considered subordinate to the “official” equinox/solstice dates,

          1. Yeah, we almost never get any snow around here, but a few years ago we got a surprise 3-days snowfall around March 1rst, which paralyzed the whole city (some people were unable to get back home and had to spend a couple of nights where they were), made everyone engage with joy in snowball fights with complete strangers, and caused a lot of accidents and structural damage due to people and structures not used to deal with it…

          2. I knew a woman in the DC area during a snowy winter. Not only did no one know how to cope, they didn’t learn over the course of the winter. (She’s from Connecticut. She had roommates from Georgia and India. She was the person who knew how to drive in the household.)

      2. Most times, it’s started at sundown, or sunrise. Midnight is entirely modern. Like — after we got clocks that were good enough to tell when it was midnight with any precision.

        1. Huh yeah, midnight is super-perverse otherwise, isn’t it? Sunrise and sunset are easy, even if it’s cloudy. Noon is trickier but can be handled with a sundial if it’s sunny. Midnight totally needs an active clock, even if it’s just someone turning hourglasses.

          1. Not necessarily.

            Step 1: Make a chart showing where the stars are at sunset and sunrise at different times of the year. (Astronomers are going to do this anyway.)
            Step 2: Figure out where the stars are going to be halfway between sunset and sunrise at different times of the year.

            I’m not saying they actually did it this way (because I don’t know), but I know enough astronomy to know it would have worked.

          2. You can’t because you need sightings on the stars. Which is tricky because it is, of course, after nautical twilight so the horizon is not visible.

          3. They’re the same place as they were this time last year, and the year before that.

          4. I suspect this is where the astrological “houses” started. If you know what house the Sun is in (i.e., where along the ecliptic it is) you can determine midnight to within an hour or so based on when the opposite house culminates (i.e., when it is highest in the night sky).

          5. > That place moves.

            Yes, in a very predictable fashion. It follows the same pattern year after year. The stars at midnight tonight will look as they did at midnight on the same date last year. Planets are trickier, because their cycle isn’t annual, but still well within the capabilities of ancient astronomers. This is very much the sort of predictions that ancient astronomers were able to make.

            > you need to determine when they are in that place.

            That was Step 1.

          6. Astronomers do observations all the time! They may or may not have data from centuries ago, depending on when and where they live, but they certainly have data from their own lifetimes.

          7. You seem to have forgotten that the point of this all was your claim that it was easy to ascertain midnight.

          8. I have not forgotten. Nearly all the work that I’m describing is stuff that astronomers do anyway, whether or not they care about figuring out when midnight is. The final step is the easiest; just check to see which star is halfway between two others.

          9. The fixed stars? You do realize that they were so called because they did not move relative to each other?

          10. I have no idea why you think this is impossible. If you know that the stars are fixed, why do you think that they’re so hard to predict?

          11. You’re not trying to claim they are hard to predict. You are claiming that it’s easy to determine when midnight is.

          12. I know what I’m claiming. I’m asking why *you* claim that all this is impossible.

          13. @Mary, @Bullseye both of you are paying little or no attention to each other, instead arguing against what you think the other person is saying. Principle of Charity please.

            From my view you are both right and both wrong.

            You can calculate midnight from the stars, sailors in both Europe and Polynesia could do so. So not impossible.

            It’s fricking hard because you need decades to centuries of astronomical observations to build upon. Most people, in most cultures, most times, have never needed to know when exactly midnight is and haven’t been able to ask someone who did have the training if they were curious.

        2. It’s not entirely modern. The Roman civil day seems to have begun at midnight, and the Chinese came up with the same idea independently. This far, far predates mechanical clocks; indeed, purely mechanical clocks were invented by people who considered midnight to be the start of the civil day.

          For most of history, an hour was defined as 1/12 of the time between sunrise and sunset, or between sunset and sunrise. This means that the length of an hour constantly varies over the course of the year, and the daylight and nighttime hours are usually of different lengths. Mechanical clocks were not easily able to account for this, and so clockmakers said “screw it” and just had the hands rotate at a fixed speed so that they traced out the lengths of the mean hours, and over time hours came to be of fixed length.

          China is the notable exception here – since ancient times, they divided the time from midnight to midnight into 12 equal shi and, separately, into 100 equal kè. This kind of regularity depended on a highly-centralised empire, an extensive bureaucracy, and accurate water clocks, all of which were present in China.

          Japan adopted the Chinese convention of starting the civil day at midnight, but retained the variable-length shi. Francis Xavier and his missionary companions introduced mechanical clocks to Japan in the early 1550s, and Japanese craftsmen innovated on the ideas therein. They came up with the wadokei, an ingenious clock which, through clever markings and an hour hand that extended and contracted over time, actually did manage to account for variable shi length. And this was done in the 18th century!

        3. In the New Testament, it seems pretty clear the day started at dawn.

          Astronomically, for a long time the day started at Noon – this is known as the “astronomical day.” In the US, astronomers switched over officially on January 1, 1925; Julian Days still start at Noon UTC, following the old convention. (This was done as astronomers observed at night, and they didn’t want to have to worry about which day they were observing in.)

          The Babylonian astronomers (the oldest astronomical data we still use is from Babylon) started timing events (such as eclipses) at sunset. I don’t know if that meant their days started then.

          1. No, sunset. Witness the request to end the Crucifixion by sundown, so it’s not on the Sabbath.

          2. Of course, and thanks for the correction. Hasn’t the Jewish Sabbath always started at sunset? Does that go all the way back to the Torah?

          3. Exactly. To this day the Catholics must end Good Friday Mass of the Presanctified before sundown and start the Easter Vigil after.

          4. This is to Marshall Eubanks: It’s not just the Sabbath. The Jewish religious calendar is lunar based and the day starts at sunset. Even at the beginning of Genesis you see the construction of “It was evening and it was morning of the Xth day”

            I also think there’s something buried in the long forgotten details of Abraham’s geneology. To be perfectly honest, I think all of the lot of Abraham, Lot, Laban, Nahor, etc. are all culture heroes and probably not real people. But Abraham’s “clan” for lack of a better word have almost all the men with names that reference the moon in some fashion. I suspect deep in the very musty past there was some sort of lunar-worship component to what eventually became the prototype of Judaism.

          5. Each day in the N.T. starts at sunset, in keeping with Jewish law, but the daytime is divided into 12 hours, the first of which commences at dawn. So Jesus died at the ninth hour of the day(time), i.e., 3:00 pm.

          6. The Gospels give times of day according to the Roman system, which divided the day and the night into 12 hours each; the length of the hours varied according the time of year. Day began at sunrise and Night began at sunset, so three hours after sunrise would be “the third hour [of the day]”, while three hours after sunset would be “the third hour [of the night]”.

            In practice it was usually clear from context whether you were talking about day or night, so you’d just write “the third hour” and not bother specifying which one.

        4. As Marshall Eubanks pointed out elsewhere in the thread, you can determine midnight by the stars if you know what time of year it is.

          E.g. if it’s March, then the Sun is in Aries; opposite Aries in the zodiac is Libra, so when the constellation Libra reaches its highest point in the sky and starts to set again, that’s midnight– just as noon is when the Sun reaches its highest point in the sky. (If the constellation the Sun is in were visible during the day, it would reach its highest point at Noon as well.)

  14. I have one question about the year 46 BC being 445 days long. Our host has shown us a few times his chart of where Julius Caesar was from 49 BC to his assassination (I’m not sure my post will be approved if I post a link, but it is found for example in the post about the Roman dictatorship). However, on that chart, the year 46 BC does not seem to be longer than the other years; it has 12 months from January to December like every other year. How should we interpret this? Did the year 46 BC have 12 months, but their lengths were unusual? How long were each of the months?

    1. The greate Youtube channel Historia Civils explained this in their Video “The longest year in human history”. They just slotted this extra time in the middle of the year, and were done with it.
      Just like the usual 10 extra days of the old calendar weren’t in some month, those 90 extra day weren’t either.
      I think our host does not add this detail to the chart, because it does not add to the point he wants to bring across to his students.

  15. Interesting set of answers, as always
    On the tradition thing, I’m surprised you didn’t interlink this a bit more with your excellent posts on Roman religion and religious practice. If your mental model for determining whether something is approved of by the gods is “we’ve done it this way for a long time and it hasn’t led to disaster/horrible omens” then that’s going to interlock very heavily with an extreme resistance to innovation. And in a crisis (aka many bad things happening) you’re much more likely to first pull the cord “shit, we must have changed something to piss off the gods, put everything back the way it was!”, before tentatively trying the option “the gods want us to change what we are doing”.

    1. I think you should think about some of this blogs essays on How Did They Make It.

      Because the people doing the making had no idea what made bread rise, why hammering iron should have any effect, why some dies hold fast to some fibres etc. A structural engineer today could give you an overview of the forces that hold the Pantheon up: the person who designed could not have done so.

      So how do you invent a process or construction, when you have no idea how it works?
      You use trial and error. That is how evolution designed you, after all.

      But the thing about this process is that as soon as you have a system that works at all, you have a system that works a lot worse if you just change it randomly – and random changes are the only ones you can make, in the absence of any understanding of how the system works.
      Evolution produced you, but not by suddenly modifying DNA in some bold and adventurous and creative way. From generation to generation, DNA is generally modified only very slightly. A change that has a big impact on your body would generally be very harmful.

      People making bread and iron and dies and bridges similarly needed to be conservative, and act on the assumption that any big change from precedent would likely be harmful.

      Trial and error can get you a long way, given enough trials, but the closer you get to a good design, the more conservative the trials ought to be.

      Note that trial and error requires feedback on which trials were most erroneous: otherwise you tend to end up inventing superstitions or, depending on who I feel like being generous to, inventing religions.

  16. If March was the first month well into the Republican era, why does January bear a name connected with the god of beginnings and endings? Is that simply coincidence?

  17. “if someone did a crime against you, you didn’t wait for the police to investigate and the state to charge, instead you went to a magistrate… and laid the charge yourself”

    Absent a formal police apparatus, how was this enforced? Who ensured that the defendant showed up to court, and paid whatever penalty was levied against them by the magistrate?

    Did the vigiles have the ability to arrest and detain criminals caught in the act, and if so, who dealt with them afterwards?

    How could the emperor ensure that the speculatores remained loyal to him and not to the general they were assigned to, whom they presumably spent more time with?

    1. On the first point, the vigiles do seem to have had some job in detaining thieves, brigands and bandits in the act (especially at night). As for magistrate enforcement, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re mostly talking about fairly small communities and very direct punishments. The magistrates usually have access to a few burly men with weapons (their lictors) and in a small community, finding out where someone is isn’t that hard; if the offender skips town, that’s just exile by another name – you strip their citizenship and call it a day. Unlike in an industrial economy, someone who skips town and leaves their farm behind isn’t going to find work and set up a new life very easily somewhere else: they have no property and no status in a world where unskilled labor is extremely undervalued and unprotected people are very unprotected indeed.

      As for the speculatores – yes, that does seem to have been a problem! I never said the system worked!

      1. Do we have any idea of the escalation process?

        The praetor and six lictors come around to apprehend Marius. Marius’s cousins and clients rally to his defense, forming a bigger gang. What happens next, to ensure that the res publica has the biggest gang when it counts? I don’t think they could call in the army, given the pomerium and all.

      2. How much of an issue was vigilantism? I suppose in small communities the low state capacity wouldn’t be a big problem, but surely in Rome and other large cities there were a lot of crimes that were never officially addressed, which is the exact situation in which one would expect vigilantes and lynch mobs to arise.

  18. Re. January 1st as the first day of the year, as I understand it March 25th was the first day of the year in a lot of Catholic societies right up until Pope Gregory XIII’s reforms. In some places it was still March 25th pretty much right up until the French Revolution. I’m not sure about Greek or Russian Orthodox. Anyway using March 25 as New Year’s Day is not just because it’s almost the first day of spring but because it’s the Feast of the Annunciation, which was also the date of the creation of the universe in the ancient Jewish calendar (also nine months before Christmas). March 25th was the first day of the year in the States right up until 1752. You can see this in letters and other dated documents like wills and contracts

    1. The Eastern Orthodox church calendar begins on September 1, after the Byzantine calendar which began on that date.

      Observant Jews also celebrate the near year in September (exact date varies year to year because it’s based on the lunar calendar), but that’s just a coincidence–Rosh Hashanah most likely began as a fall harvest/planting festival.

      Re: Annunciation being nine months before Christmas– In the early centuries of Christianity, Annunciation was a major holy day, but Christmas did not yet exist. When Christmas later became a yearly feast day as well, it was placed nine months after Annunciation in the liturgical calendar.

      1. “Observant Jews also celebrate the near year in September (exact date varies year to year because it’s based on the lunar calendar), but that’s just a coincidence–Rosh Hashanah most likely began as a fall harvest/planting festival.”

        That’s not exactly correct. Rosh Hashanah, in the fall is, *a* new year, but the Jewish religious calendar actually contains 4 separate new years for different religious purposes. The first of Nisan, in the spring, is also listed as the start of the year, and for instance in the Old Testament Nisan is the first month, with Rosh Hashanah being described as the first day of the tenth month. The 15th of Shevat (usually in late winter) is the start of the year for anything related to trees or fruit products that come from trees. Finally, we have the first of elul, which is the start of the religious ‘fiscal year’; all tithes and other monetary obligations are calculated with the year starting from that month, in late summer.

        Because why do something simple when you could make it insanely complicated instead?

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