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Ancient Calendars 7: Greece

The ancient Greek city-states were at the best of times a confederation of equal yet independent partners and were usually an amalgamation of statelets distrustful if not openly hostile to each other. It should not be surprising, therefore, that each Greek polis maintained its own calendrical system(s). We will take a look at these systems below the fold.

Ancient Greek calendars were lunisolar. The year could begin around any of the solstices or equinoxes, and there does not seem to have been a New Years festival. Little else can be said about the earliest calendars. Intercalation was at first probably decreed when necessary on an ad hoc basis, with some city-states adding a leap-month in some years and others in others.

A. Mycenaean Period

For the Mycenaean (Late Bronze Age) period, there is only fragmentary evidence of the ancient Greek calendar in Linear B records, and from only two city-states. A total of six or seven month names are known from Knossos, although little can be said about their sequence. These are:

  • ka-ra-e-ri-jo(-jo) me-no (Klaerios—cf. Klaereôn, an Ephesian month [Jul or Aug])
  • a-ma-ko-to me-no (Haimaktos?)
  • de-u-ki-jo-jo me-no (Deukios)
  • di-wi-jo-jo me-no (Diwios, “Zeus’s month”—cf. Dios, the first month in Macedonia and Aetolia)
  • ra-pa-to me-no (Lapatos—cf. Lapatō, a month in Arcadia)
  • wo-de-wi-jo(-jo) me-no (Wodēwios? Odeios was a title of Hermes as the patron of roads)
  • e-me-si-jo-jo (Emesios?) is sometimes proposed as a Knossian month-name.

There is only one unambiguous month name from Pylos: pa-ki-ja-ni-jo-jo me-no (Sphagianios, related to the Sphagianēs or Poseidon sanctuary). Many believe that po-ro-wi-to(-jo) (Plowistos, “sailing”) is the name of another month, either at the beginning of the sailing season (Mar–Apr) or the beginning of peak sailing—for 50 days after the summer solstice (Hesiod, Works and Days II 663–77). Most scholars who believe Plowistos is a month name believe that Sphagianos was the next month in sequence.

Four festivals are noted in Pylos that may indicate corresponding month-names, but this is disputed. The festivals are:

  • di-pi-si-jo (Dipsios, “[festival] of the thirsty ones” [i.e., the dead]), which is also the name of a Pharsalian month. This may relate to the celebration of the war dead in the Attic month of Boēdromiōn.
  • me-tu-wo ne-wo (Methywonewon, “[period of] new wine”)—in Athens the new wine was opened in the month of Anthestēriōn.
  • re-ke-(e-)to-ro-te-ri-jo (Lechestrōtērion, “[period of] the spreading of the couch”)—perhaps a reference to a hieros gamos ritual such as that in Athens in the month of Gamēliōn.
  • wa-na-se-wi-ja (Wanassēwia, “[period of] the festival of the queen”). If the “queen” (wanassa) is Artemis—the goddess most often called queen in later periods—then this festival may have been held in what would have been the Attic month of Elaphēboliōn.

I very tentatively propose that the Knossian year began in the fall, following the conjecture of Samuel (134–35). The New Year at Pylos may have begun at the spring equinox. Palaima, however, suggests it began with the peak sailing season in the month of Plowistos, corresponding to the summer solstice. This hypothesis is reflected in the table below

Knossos
(LM IIIA)
Pylos
(LH IIIC)
Jul Klaerios Plowistos
Aug ? Sphagianos
Sep ? ?
Oct Diwios Dipsios?
Nov ? ?
Dec ? ?
Jan Wodēwios? Lechestrōtērion?
Feb ? Methywonewon?
Mar ? Wanassēwia?
Apr ? ?
May ? ?
Jun ? ?

B. Classical Period

In most periods, intercalation was often handled haphazardly whenever city rulers judged a leap month was necessary. One early practice was to add a leap month every other year. This resulted in a calendar that ran on average approximately one week longer than the solar year. Nor is it clear where the thirteenth month would be inserted when called for. In Attica a second month of Poseideōn was added, but other city-states had their own customs.

Greek city-states of the classical period observed both a lunar calendar based strictly on the phases of the moon and a civil calendar that was frequently wildly out of sync with the lunar calendar. In fact, Athenian dates are often given with the notation of either “according to the god” or “according to the archons.” The days of the month were often divided into ten-day intervals.

The New Year could begin in practically any season:

  • Attica: the new moon following the summer solstice (~22 Jun). (Also the custom at Delphi, Delos, and Epidaurus)
  • Laconia, Macedonia, and Knossos: the new moon following the autumnal equinox (~22 Sep) (Also the custom at Rhodes and Cos.)
  • Boeotia: the new moon following the winter solstice (~22 Dec).
Boeotia/Thebes Attica/Athens Laconia/Sparta
Jul Hippodromios Hekatombaiōn
(orig., Kroniōn)
Hekatombaiōn
Aug Panamos Metageitniōn Karneios
Sep Pamboiōtios Boēdromiōn Panamos
Oct Damatrios Pyanopsiōn Herasios
Nov Alalkomenios Maimaktēriōn Apellaios
Dec Boukatios Poseideōn Diosthios
Jan Hermaios Gamēliōn ?
Feb Prostatērios Anthestēriōn Eleusinios
Mar Agriōnios Elaphēboliōn Gerastios
Apr Thiouios Mounychiōn Artemisios
May Homolōios Thargēliōn Delphinios
Jun Theilouthios Skirophoriōn Phliasios
Macedonia Thessaly Knossos
Jul Lōios Phyllikos ?
Aug Gorpaios Itōnios Karnēios
Sep Hyperberetaios Panēmos Spermios
Oct Dios Themistios Korōnios
Nov Apellaios Agagylios Nekysios
Dec Audnaios Hermaios ?
Jan Peritos Apollōnios ?
Feb Dystros Leschanorios ?
Mar Xandikos Aphrios ?
Apr Artemisios Thyios Elchanios?
May Daisios Homolios Wakinthios?
Jun Panemos Hippodromios Agyēios?

Knossos also had months Elchanios, Agyēios, and Wakinthios. Their positions are uncertain.

In classical times, the Greeks began counting years from the first Olympic games, dated to 776 BC. The four-year interval between these games was an Olympiad, thus the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) could be described as taking place in the third year of the 72nd Olympiad.

C. Attic Agricultural Calendar

The following agricultural calendar is based on information provided by Younger. Although Attic month-names are provided, the agricultural cycle would have surely been comparable over much of Greece.

Hekatombaiōn Jul harvest grain; harvest figs and nuts
Metageitniōn Aug peak sailing
Boēdromiōn Sep harvest grapes, pears, green olives; fermenting and sealing new wine; sowing flax; peak sailing; end of campaigning season
Pyanopsiōn Oct autumn harvest; boar-hunting; ewes and lambs; sows and piglets; boars; plow and sow winter grain; end of sailing season
Maimaktēriōn Nov newly sown grain
Poseideōn Dec black olive harvest; harvest and process flax
Gamēliōn Jan
Anthestēriōn Feb first growth of winter crops; opening of the new wine
Elaphēboliōn Mar stag hunting; flax ready to be spun
Mounychiōn Apr olives and lilies flower; sailing season opens; campaigning season opens?
Thargēliōn May harvest begins
Skirophoriōn Jun harvest grain

D. Syro-Macedonian Calendar

Special mention should be made of the Syro-Macedonian calendar of the Seleucids. After the Macedonian conquest of Syria and Mesopotamia, the Macedonian calendar was assimilated to that of Babylonia. It embraced the same intercalation rule as the Babylonians, with a second Xandikos six years out of nineteen and a second Hyperberetaios one year out of nineteen. In the first half of the first century ad, the months shifted so that Dios = Babylonian Araḫsamna (not Tašrītu as previously).

The Syro-Macedonian system counted years on an epochal system in which year 1 was equated to Seleucus’ capture of Babylon in August, 312 bc. This Seleucid era begins either in the fall of 312 according to the Macedonian Dios (autumn) reckoning or the spring of 311 on the Babylonian Nisannu (spring) reckoning.

The Ptolemies imported the Macedonian lunisolar calendar to Egypt in the late fourth century bc. Beginning around 250 bc, the Macedonian calendar used in Egypt gradually assimilated to the Egyptian civil calendar until only the Macedonian month-names remained.

Resources

  • E. J. Bickerman, Chronology of the Ancient World, 2nd ed. (Cornell University Press, 1968).
  • ________, “calendar.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  • Leo Depuydt, Civil Calendar and Lunar Calendar in Ancient Egypt (Peeters, 1997).
  • Robert Hannah, “Calendars and Chronology,” Ancient Greece, vol. 1, ed. Thomas J. Sienkewicz (Salem Pres, 2007) 196–99.
  • Michael Lahanas, “Ancient Greece: Measurements, part 2.”
  • Holger Oertel, “Several Calendars.”
  • Thomas G. Palaima, “The Last Days of the Pylos Polity” Aegaeum 12/2 (1995) 623–634.
  • Alan E. Samuel, Greek and Roman Chronology (Taylor and Francis, 1972).
  • John G. Younger, “Time and Event in Aegean Art: Illustrating a Bronze Age Calendar,” Stephanos Aristeios: Archäologische Forschungen zwischen Nil und Istros (Phoibos, 2007) 287–295.
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