Abstract

This article traces a representational history of the judicial clepsydra (water-clock) in early imperial Rome. While the topic of time has recently flourished in Roman studies, there has been relatively little focus on short-term and diurnal temporality as opposed to the time schemes of the annual calendar and broader history. The article offers a Roman complement to the study of democratic Athens in the 1996 essay "A Schedule of Boundaries" by Danielle Allen, and builds on the essay, "For Whom the Clock Drips," by Andrew Riggsby, with which it is co-published in this volume. Riggsby argues that the clepsydra offered an impersonal manifestation of imperial time specific to the period of the early principate, and shows how this aspect of the clepsydra is reflected in the letters of Pliny the Younger. This article contextualizes Pliny within the history of changing time limits in the early imperial courts, and compares the attitudes of Pliny with allusions to the clepsydra in Martial's epigrams.

There are occasional mentions of time limits enforced by clepsydrae in Ciceronian oratory, but a self-conscious discourse on such limits, and on the role of the clepsydra in enforcing them, is not evident until the Dialogus de Oratoribus of Tacitus. There the opposing speakers Aper and Maternus are in agreement about the encroachment of time limits, and of limits on the number of clepsydrae (approximately 15-minute units) allowed to speakers, especially in the context of the centumviral courts. But while Aper celebrates this as in keeping with a new aesthetics of oratorical brevity, Maternus sees it as a symptom of the loss of republican "times"-in the sense both of historical time and of less restrictive time keeping conventions.

These points of view are each echoed in the various mentions of clepsydrae in Pliny and Martial. Pliny, in accounts of his activities as both orator and judge (Ep. 1.20, 1.23, 2.11, 6.2), variously celebrates his ability to shield himself from the impositions of the clepsydra, and advertises the liberality with which he has given time to speakers or has received capacious clepsydrae from the emperor Trajan. Martial, however, in two epigrams mocking speakers who exhibit excessive greed for clepsydrae and thus try the patience of audiences in the courtroom (6.35, 8.7), aligns the time restricting power of the clepsydra with the brevitas aesthetic of his epigrams-his poems in effect becoming clepsydrae through which he can appropriate time from his opponents. (Martial's clepsydra poems can also be interestingly juxtaposed with an epigram by the emperor Trajan [Anth. Graec. 11.418 Beckby] that mocks someone by comparing his nose and gaping mouth to the gnomon and face of a sundial.) These diametrically opposed attitudes toward the clepsydra are in keeping with the time economies of Pliny's letters and Martial's epigrams more generally, the one celebrating an overflow and free exchange of time and seeing in this the possibility of retrieving republican times, the other searching for ways to steal or preserve time from the incursions of others, especially through performances of epigrammatic brevity.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6504
Print ISSN
0004-0975
Pages
pp. 279-302
Launched on MUSE
2009-10-07
Open Access
No
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