Abstract: How did a Roman Envisage the World ? Sundials and Other Clues


The Romans – who lived in a pre-modern, largely unscientific era, when there was no means to measure time or distance with precision – did not envisage the world as we do.  Even so, despite their lack of interest in tools such as maps which we so rely upon and take for granted, Romans gained, administered and defended a vast empire for several centuries.  'How, then, did they conceptualize this sprawling territory and the world beyond it?’ is an important basic puzzle, to which answers are elusive.  For certain, there was no single outlook such as we enjoy, thanks to our public education, printing, and modern cartography.  Instead, it’s a matter of identifying and analyzing clues that may offer glimpses of diverse outlooks.  The lecture shares insights into this ongoing quest of the imagination, exploiting two very different types of material that to date have been overlooked for the purpose.  The first type is portable sundials, instruments fitted with adjustable rings that allow for changes of latitude in the course of a long journey; for rapid reference, each such dial also records the names and latitudes of as many as three dozen cities or regions chosen by the owner, thereby revealing something of that individual’s ‘mental’ world-map.  The second type of potentially informative material is documents on bronze (‘diplomas’) awarded during the first two centuries of the imperial period to non-citizen soldiers and sailors on their discharge from the Roman military.  Here, too, it’s a jolt to realize that worldviews can be teased out from such an unlikely source – but they certainly can; and, with discoveries by metal detectors, the number of these diplomas now known has rocketed in recent years!  In short, this is a lecture full of engaging surprises, fascinating for its method of inquiry, and offering plenty to think about afresh on the global scale.  



“The Roman world-view: beyond recovery?,” pp. 252-72 in my (co-edited) Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies (Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2010)