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The Horologium of Augustus: Debate and Context

July 2017 (121.3)

Book Review

The Horologium of Augustus: Debate and Context

Edited by Lothar Haselberger (JRA Suppl. 99). Pp. 206. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2014. $89.50. ISBN 978-0-9913730-3-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The bi-millennial celebration of the death of Augustus prompted the near republication (and enlargement) of articles published just three years earlier (JRA 24 [2011] 47–98), even though substantial new data were expected to arrive in the near future. The fascination with coincidences of dates is an old, but intensely modern, phenomenon, and its incentives for academic publications are troubling (see J. Rüpke, “Dies natalis, dies depositionis: Antike Elemente in der europäischen Gedächtniskultur,” in R. Helmstetter, H. Meyer, and D. Müller Nielaba, eds., Schiller: Gedenken ­– Vergessen – Lesen [Munich 2010] 201–13). Even more problematic, however, is, as the volume repeatedly stresses, the nonpublication of archaeological data from the mid 18th century onward. Here, classical archaeology needs not only better organization but also an ethos of publishing findings first instead of organizing the next campaign or project first, which is frequently coupled with regarding findings as one’s own intellectual property rather than something to be carefully and timely shared. The latter point is not addressed to Edmund Buchner personally, and the German Archaeological Institute did a lot to compensate for personal factors in the unduly prolonged process of publication of the Horologium.

These are important lessons to be learned from the volume, but in addition there is much substance to the book. A review of republished articles could hardly be, however, a re-review, thus competing with the authors’ addenda and in particular with the editor’s objective to present a review in a long, final chapter. After the 2011 articles of Haselberger, Heslin, and Schütz (which presented the original debate), this volume (which expands the debate) offers four short chapters by authors who have published extensively in the years since. Pollini (with Cipolla) elaborates on the shadow of the obelisk on 23 September; Albèri Auber restates his assumption of two Augustan phases of the project and a total height of 100 feet (forcefully negated by Schütz); Frischer and Fillwalk look for other dates of significant relationships between the obelisk, the Ara Pacis, and the sun.

The penultimate section, “Broadening the Context,” offers a short account by Leonhardt on the state of the publication of Buchner’s excavations. Hannah restates his arguments about the shadow reaching the Ara Pacis but acknowledges that only the meridian line was ever marked on the ground. A very short article by the late Alföldy points to the Alexandrian model of a complex topographic arrangement of monuments on the Campus Martius (as argued in G. Alföldy, Der Obelisk auf dem Petersplatz in Rom: Ein historisches Monument der Antike [Heidelberg 1990]). Only La Rocca attempts a “holistic view” of the “Augustan urban program” and its ideology, discussing the relationship of different monuments in the region, including the Pantheon and the ustrinum, to the older topography of the Campus Martius (121–65). I will come back to details but will focus on the editor’s work and his concluding chapter “The ‘Horologium’: Where Do We Stand, and Where Should We Go?” (167–201) for most of this review.

As framed by the editor, one might summarize the debate as follows: the obelisk is more precisely located than ever, reducing margins of error considerably. The monumentalized meridian line was probably Augustan. One side of the obelisk and two inscribed sides of one of its bases were facing the Ara Pacis—the exact sequence of the start and finishing of these two projects is not clear. There is no consensus concerning the height estimate of 100 feet. The shadow of the globe on top of the obelisk could have touched the facade of the Ara Pacis on many days—if not blocked. There is not a single trace of anything on the ground beyond the meridian line; a trace of a paved area on a possible Augustan level without any marks or inscriptions is not an argument for a monumental sundial, or is as much an argument against it as for it.

In addition, the conspectus of the research and the uncompelling suggestions to look even more diligently for coincidental dates in astrology or astronomy bring four methodological problems to the fore that have dominated or even haunted the whole debate. First, there is a strange fascination with the shadow. An obelisk was, above all, about the sun and its light. In Egypt (and again in modern-day Paris on the Place de la Concorde), the covering of the pyramidion with gold or a gold-silver alloy made the sun visible on the top of the obelisk regardless of the time of day, the position of the sun, or the position of the observer. We have no positive evidence about such a covering on top of Roman obelisks, but it would be strange if this very idea (realized by the polished surface of granite or toppings made from metal, both undeniably present at Rome) would have been lost. To capture the sight of the obelisk was what it was all about, and Pliny (HN 36.64 [discussed 70–3]) clearly presents the use of its shadow as secondary. The shadow’s extraordinary function on the ground beyond the obelisk was secured by the erection of two walls, one to each side of the meridian strip. And it was the failure to provide this highly specific service (also mentioned by Pliny, and unknown for any other obelisk at Rome) that led to the architectural annihilation of the meridian.

Second, to search for the solar significance by looking at the shadow is strange and ignores the obelisk’s twin erected in the Circus Maximus. As the inscriptions to the two obelisks were textually identical dedications by Augustus to the deity Sol, one could not interpret the text with reference to calendar reforms or the like that could be associated only with the secondary function of one of the two. After all, Augustus had found the pair, not commissioned them. As rightly pointed out, the solar dimension was important for Augustus and became ever more important for the emperors, but it was shared with all the other obelisks, meaning that the central issue for obelisks was visibility, not shadows, which could be produced by every other tall building in Rome or elsewhere.

Third, the fascination with the coincidence of dates is a modern idea that has led to unacceptable conclusions in different contexts (on supposed “cycles of festivals,” see, e.g., J. Rüpke, “Nundinae: Kalendarische Koordination im republikanischen Rom,” in G. Binder and K. Ehlich, eds., Kommunikation in politischen und kultischen Gemeinschaften. Stätten und Formen der Kommunikation im Altertum 5 [Trier 1996] 75–98). Precise astronomical dates are important for calibrating the reformed Julian calendar and for realigning the rhythm of intercalation. No one doubts this function and hence the context of this “addition” to the Augustan reform of the calendar, which started in 8 B.C.E. and took more than a decade to reach a stable rhythm of one intercalary day every fourth year. Apart from that, we do not know about any important ritual that was based on a precise position of the sun or even its shadow. Many temples were broadly oriented toward the east. Facing east was intended to permit entrance to the temple in the full illumination of early daylight for the most important ritual stage of a sanctuary during most days of the year. That rituals were performed and that monuments were given importance by performances is never discussed in the volume. Digital simulation as advocated in the volume does not bring people in but rather creates empty spaces and reconstructs life in a city as an urban automaton for neutral observers to decode.

Fourth, the undeniable fact that the Ara Pacis is on the virtual equinoctial line vertical on the monumental meridian suggests that it is imbued with intentional meaning. Built environment is saturated with meaning; places are carefully selected and disambiguated by geomantics, auspices, foundational sacrifices, rigid patterning, or feng shui. Most of these are part of an aesthetic of production rather than of reception. They are meant to work, maybe to be recognized by specialists, but not to be grasped by users.

Haselberger’s volume has missed the opportunity to broaden the context beyond the one helpfully laid out by La Rocca. Rather, it aimed at, or at least achieved, a further cementing of the original debate, far too narrowly defining the relevant context. No specialists for obelisks or Roman rituals and no cultural historians specializing in sun or light (or even shadows) were invited to join the debate. The result is as expected.

Jörg Rüpke
Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies
University of Erfurt

Book Review of The Horologium of Augustus: Debate and Context, edited by Lothar Haselberger

Reviewed by Jörg Rüpke

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 3 (July 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1213.Rupke

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