It’s not the final countdown

A Roman calendar inscription containing the months of the year, the zodiac, festivals and agricultural activities, 1st century AD, Rome, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

There is an interesting paradox at the heart of the ancient Roman way of counting the days in the year.

The Romans were deeply impatient while at the same time resolutely fatalistic.

Each month, they would count the day backwards. At the start of each month, known as the kalends of the month (the first day of the month), the Romans would count quickly backwards to the 5th or 7th day of the month, five four three two one day before the ‘nones’, then slightly quicker to the middle point of the month, five four three two one before the ‘ides’. Once that point was reached, sometime around the 14th or 16th day of the month, another countdown would start to the end of the month, five four three two one day before the kalends of the following month.

The final countdown was never final.

It is not altogether clear why ancient Rome developed this frantic way of counting the days. Especially that each month would run to the end of the year, which would reset the clock, bringing everyone back to the beginning. The ancients didn’t have a sense of time moving forward, no open future, no open history. Eternal returns, circling around like the vultures on the battlefield, not going anywhere, years devouring themselves, time without purpose, no sense of renewal, change or progress. Closed time and time only for closure, reset, return.

The resigned vision of the ancient world which is as far removed from our culture as the temples are from our sense of worship.

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