Greek Calendars

The earliest sources (clay tablets of the 13th century BC, the writings of Homer and Hesiod) imply the use of lunar months; Hesiod also uses reckoning determined by the observation of constellations and star groups; e.g., the harvest coincides with the visible rising of the star group known as the Pleiades before dawn.

This simultaneous use of civil and natural calendars is characteristic of Greek as well as Egyptian time reckoning. In the classical age and later, the months, named after festivals of the city, began in principle with the New Moon.

The lunar year of 12 months and about 354 days was to be matched with the solar year by inserting an extra month every other year.

The Macedonians used this system as late as the 3rd century BC, although 25 lunar months amount to about 737 days, while two solar years count about 730 days. In fact, as the evidence from the second half of the 5th century BC shows, at this early time the calendar was already no longer tied in with the phases of the Moon.

The cities, rather, intercalated months and added or omitted days at will to adjust the calendar to the course of the Sun and stars and also for the sake of convenience, as, for instance, to postpone or advance a festival without changing its traditional calendar date.

The calendric New Moon could disagree by many days with the true New Moon, and in the 2nd century BC Athenian documents listed side by side both the calendar date and that according to the Moon.

Thus, the lunar months that were in principle parallel might diverge widely in different cities.

Astronomers such as Meton, who in 432 BC calculated a 19-year lunisolar cycle, were not heeded by the politicians, who clung to their calendar-making power.

The civil year (etos) was similarly dissociated from the natural year (eniautos). It was the tenure term of an official or priest, roughly corresponding to the lunar year, or to six months; it gave his name to his time period. In Athens, for instance, the year began on Hecatombaion 1, roughly midsummer, when the new archon entered his office, and the year was designated by his name; e.g., "when Callimedes was archon"--that is, 360-359 BC. There was no New Year's festival.

As the archon's year was of indefinite and unpredictable length, the Athenian administration for accounting, for the dates of popular assemblies, etc., used turns of office of the sections (prytanies) of the Council (Boule), which each had fixed length within the year.

The common citizen used, along with the civil months, the seasonal time reckoning based on the direct observation of the Moon's phases and on the appearance and setting of fixed stars. A device (called a parapegma) with movable pegs indicated the approximate correspondence between, for example, the rising of the star Arcturus and the civil date.

After Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire, the Macedonian calendar came to be widely used by the Greeks in the East, though in Egypt it was supplanted by the Egyptian year at the end of the 3rd century BC. The Seleucids, from the beginning, adapted the Macedonian year to the Babylonian 19-year cycle (see above Babylonian calendars). Yet, Greek cities clung to their arbitrary system of time reckoning even after the introduction of the Julian calendar throughout the Roman Empire. As late as c. AD 200, they used the antiquated octa‘teris (see above Complex cycles).

Months, Days, Seasons

The Athenian months were called Hecatombaion (in midsummer), Metageitnion, Boedromion, Pyanopsion, Maimacterion, Poseideion, Gamelion, Anthesterion, Elaphebolion, Mounychion, Thargelion, and Scirophorion. The position of the intercalary month varied. Each month, in principle, consisted of 30 days, but in roughly six months the next to last day, the 29th, was omitted.

The days were numbered within each of the three decades of the month. Thus, for example, Hecatombaion 16th was called "6th after the 10th of Hecatombaion." The Macedonian months were Dios (in fall), Apellaios, Audynaios, Peritios, Dystros, Xanthicos, Artemisios, Daisios, Panemos, Loos, Gorpiaios, and Hyperberetaios. In the Seleucid calendar, Dios was identified with the Babylonian Tashritu, Apellaios with Arakhsamna, and so on.

Similar to the Babylonian civil pattern, the daylight time and the night were divided into four "watches" and 12 (unequal) hours each. Thus, the length of an hour oscillated between approximately 45 and 75 present-day minutes, according to the season. Water clocks, gnomons, and, after c. 300 BC, sundials roughly indicated time. The season division was originally bipartite as in Babylonia--summer and winter--but four seasons were already attested by about 650 BC.

The Hellenic Calendar - or more properly, the Hellenic calendars, for there was no uniform calendar imposed upon all of Classical Greece - began soon after the June solstice, at the time when the star Sirius rose just after the moment of dawn, its heliacal rising. The star was invisible at that moment, in the brilliance of the sun's light, so it took an astronomer's reckoning to establish the moment of the new year.

According to Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer of the 2nd century BCE, Sirius rose with the sun at the latitude of Rhodes on the 19th of July, about a month following the summer solstice.As Karl Kerenyi points out (Kerenyi 1976, pp 29ff), the onset of the fiercest killing heat of summer is a counter-intuitive beginning point for the Greek calendar.

In Egypt, however, the calendar year, marked with the summer rising of the Nile, begins with the rising of Sirius ("Sothis" in the Egyptian calendar).

Calendar systems are always part of the deepest embedded layers of culture, and Kerenyi remarks "The connecting link could only have been the Minoan culture", where the Greek archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos connected the orientation of Minoan palaces with the summer rising of Sirius.

Leading religious and political sites on the Hellenic mainland began their calendar with the rising of Sirius: Olympia, Delphi, Athens (see Attic calendar), Epidauros, and other Greek city-states with Mycenaean origins.