The Latium parapegma and the nundinal days

In the Chronography of 354 A.D., which may be found online here, part 6 consists of a calendar.  The days of the month are listed. I give an extract from January here:

I don’t know what the first column is.  The second column, in Roman numerals, are the days of the week, 1-7.  Each week of 7 days corresponds to one of the 4 phases of the moon, which results in the “lunar month” of 28 days.

But what about the third column?  This shows a “week” of 8 days, numbered 1-8 in Roman numerals?

These are the nundinae, the “nundinal days”.

How do we know this?  Well, we might look at the “Latium parapegma”.  This is a slab of rock with inscriptions on it, with holes against the words.  Here’s a photograph, followed by a proposed restoration.[1]

Note the “nundinae” column on the right hand side.  Note the peg hole, and the list of 8 names.  Most are the names of towns in Latium, except for “in vico”, i.e. in the village, i.e. “here”. 

This is, I am told, all about market days.  Once every eight days, there would be a market and the farmers could buy and sell there.  So there was a cycle of eight days.  It is hypothesised that each town held a market on a different day, and therefore the names above indicate which town was holding a market on that day. 

The word “nundina” is supposed by modern scholars to be derived from novem and dies, i.e. nine and day.  We count 8 days from market day until the next market day; but the Romans counted both market days in that span, making a total of 9, or so I am told.  It would be most interesting to see the data on which all this is based.

A word about peg-calendars (parapegma) is perhaps in order.  I learn from Lehoux that the peg calendar is a farmers’ tool.  It was necessary because the secular calendars did not keep in sync with the seasons. 

We all know how the Julian calendar came into being; because the Roman calendar had drifted so far away from the real months that winter was in summer and so on.  Likewise politicians would muck around with the calendar for political advantage, adding days and so on.

But this caused a real problem for the farmers, who needed to put their crops in the ground and gather the harvest at set times in the year, when the weather was right.

Their solution was to follow the fixed stars, which rise and set regardless of politics.  And they could then keep track of days using a bunch of lists, and move a peg along the list, each day.  If they had a slab with several lists on it, as in the Latium parapegma, this would synchronise all the various markers; days of winter, nundinal days, ordinary week days, and so on.  In this way the farmer could know what time of year it was and when to go to market.

It makes you grateful for modern calendars!

It also raises a question.  If illiteracy was so widespread in antiquity as some assert, why do parapegmas exist?  The answer is perhaps that middle-class illiteracy was by no means as rare as some might think, and that farm managers would need to be both literate and numerate.

  1. [1]Both of these in much reduced form from Daryn Lehoux, Astronomy, Weather and Calendars in the ancient world.  Google books preview here.

11 thoughts on “The Latium parapegma and the nundinal days

  1. When considering literacy in particular it is important not to fall into the trap of generalising from modern expectations. For us, literacy is a key enabling skill, and it makes sense to strive for universal literacy. We are surrounded by important written information and need immediate access to it.

    However, in predominately oral contexts without the pervasive use of written language, literacy is just another specialist communication skill. I recall reading, for example, that the boatmen who lived and worked on the British canals in the 18th and 19th centuries were generally illiterate, but within each person’s network of contacts would usually be at least one person with the skill who could help on the rare occasions when it might be required.

    In the case of the Latium parapegma there seems little reason for this to be a personal item when it would arguably be more effective as a community resource. If everyone manages their own peg calendars, some are likely to get out of step. A central calendar, however, would accrue some dignity to the role of keeping and interpreting it, and probably be more likely to stay correct.

    To me this is also borne out by the choice of stone for this one. Carving stone, particularly as finely as this, is a lengthy, skilled and expensive operation. Such a calendar if made for personal use by a farmer would seem much easier, cheaper and more usable in wood.

  2. I think that it would be quite interesting to know what the situation was in 1700, the era of Addison and Steele, and of so much English literature. The conditions then might well provide quite a good guide to the level of literacy that one might expect in antiquity.

  3. I have been doing a study on the parapegma and the use of these with the generic roman calendar.

    I am coming to the conclusion that these were indeed either a communal device, but may also have been used on an individual basis by those who were more wealthy.

    These parapegma tracked the days of the nundinal cycle, the days of the planetary week, the days of the cycle of the moon, the days of the cycle of the month.

    It has taken me a while to get used to the roman counting method, but now I am familiar with it, it has become much simpler to use the peg board in conjunction with the generic calendar.

  4. The first column of letters, on the Chronography of 354 A.D. actually is the lunar month.

  5. Interesting – thank you! Have you seen the book by Daryn Lehoux? It’s really worth a look.

    I didn’t quite understand your second comment. The first column changes every 4 days — A, B, C. Does the month change every 4 days? (Confused)

  6. The first column follows the cycle of the moon. If you plot out the letters in the first column … you will find that the letters are spread out in a consistant pattern… which reflect the lunar cycle of 30 days, 29 days, 30 days, 29 days.

  7. Great work Norman for deciphering the first alphabetic column. I would not have recognized this as most of us don’t think of dividing the lunar phases into ten groups of three. But it is interesting how they dropped a lunar phase from 30 to 29 every other cycle. Again thank you for pointing this out.

  8. The published roman calendar was definately a generic calendar, that did not change from year to year

    and also did not take into account the extra day of the leap year

    I have obtained copies of the roman calendar fragments that were found at Caeretari, Foronovani, Nolani, Praenestini, and Sabini

    and i have been able to reconstruct the roman calendar from each of these fragments, and when compared one with another, they are exact copies of each other

    this calendar 354 uses the exact same layout

    and as for the lunar cycle laid out in column 1,
    i just thought you might be interested in knowing that this is a match for the lunar cycle in 355ad, not in 354ad

Leave a Reply