In the episode History of Timekeeping from the excellent "You're Dead to Me" podcast, the host states that some Romans complained about the increasing use and public visibility of sundials making their life feel too hurried (around the ~12-minute mark).

They quote Plautus:

The Gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish the hours---confound him, too Who in this place set up a sundial
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small pieces
! . . . I can't (even sit down to eat) unless the sun gives leave

I found this complaint to be entertaining in its modern flavor of business, and was curious about other references for similar complaints, but was unable to find any. Are there other such references from reliable sources?

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    Plautus was a comic poet, so who knows how sincere he was being...
    – CDR
    Sep 4, 2023 at 14:49
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    @CDR True, but gimmicks in comic plays had to resonate with the audience, so if he made jokes about sundials making modern life too hectic, then this probably was an issue. The quote is from "The Woman From Boeotia" which I think is only known from fragments. The date is Second Punic War and the days of the terribly old-fashioned Cato the Elder. (But I wonder if the humor here might be that there weren't lots of sundials, but just a few and Plautus was mocking those conservative old men by exaggeration?)
    – Mark Olson
    Sep 4, 2023 at 15:25
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    Never been much of a student of history or archaeology, but it seems like every time I learn any new fact about the Roman empire, it's just another reason to marvel at how much the lives of their wealthy citizens resembled the lives of our middle and upper classes today. Sep 6, 2023 at 15:02

1 Answer 1


Pliny's Natural History relates some sundial history at the end of Book 7. He says that Rome's first public sundial was taken there from Catania during the First Punic War, in 491 AUC or 263 BC. Because it was calibrated for that city, it did not tell time accurately for Rome, but stood in the Forum for 99 years before the censor Quintus Marcius Philippus installed a corrected instrument. Pliny says this was "an act which was most gratefully acknowledged, as one of the very best of his censorship" (trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley; London: Henry G. Bohn, 1857), or in Latin "inter censoria opera gratissima acceptum est". He further describes the installation of a water clock only a few years later, which allowed people to note the hours of the day or night in all weather conditions. This is attributed to Scipio Nasica but apparently did not rate as one of the best deeds of his long and colourful career.

If Pliny is right about this - he's writing two and a half centuries later - and if human nature was about the same as it is today, then it is probable that Romans had been complaining about the original sundial for 99 years. If they were happy about the new one then they had probably been grumbling about the old one. This is not the same sort of complaint as in Plautus (who died before the new sundial was installed) but is a tiny hint about attitudes to timekeeping.

  • 8
    I was not aware of the Perseus website. I am blown away by the phenomenal amount of cross-referencing it provides. Thanks for introducing me to this very useful resource.
    – njuffa
    Sep 4, 2023 at 22:22
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    @Barmar The issue wasn't synchronisation between different cities, but the clock in Rome not telling Rome time.
    – thosphor
    Sep 5, 2023 at 14:45
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    I'm not sure that the complaint in the OP is about the accuracy of the sundial. It seems like it's about the existence of the sundial (and clocks in general) causing life to become more regimented. Kind of like the way a modern person would complain about the "grind" of a 9-to-5 job.
    – Barmar
    Sep 5, 2023 at 14:58
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    @alexg this is a great informative reply (thank you!), but I'd really love to know if there are instances of complaints similar to the "9-5 grind" mentioned by Barmar. If you listen to the podcast it is presented that way, and I'd like to know if that viewpoint can be backed up Sep 5, 2023 at 15:06
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    Yes, the complaint in the OP is absolutely to do with the regulation of time by the clock. My inference is that if people were happy to see a more accurate clock, then (1) they were probably at least somewhat disgruntled in the days before they had it, and (2) timekeeping must have been at least somewhat important to them, or else they wouldn't have cared at all.
    – alexg
    Sep 5, 2023 at 15:09

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