Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Rome’


Photo: Wolfenbüttel Digital Library of the Herzog August Bibliothek
A 6th century CE manuscript called the Codex Arcerianus shows how Roman land surveyors marked off, measured, and mapped property lines.

The website Hyperallergic always has interesting articles about art and art-related fields. This one, which reviews a book about how the ancients handled the graphical representation of information, shows that useful information was conveyed in art long before anyone thought of a term like infographics.

Sarah E. Bond has the report on classicist and historian Andrew M. Riggsby’s book.

“In Mosaics of Knowledge: Representing Information in the Roman World, Riggsby looks at the historical use of visual information technologies and the Roman use of what many today might term ‘infographics’ in the period from the founding of Rome in 753 BCE until 300 CE — just a few years before the ascent of the emperor Constantine and the empire-wide growth of Christianity. …

“Going beyond simple lists, Riggsby examines the rarified use of tables of contents, alphabetized lists, and indices. … Prior to the rise of the codex format, which we would later simply call a ‘book’, organizing was not done by pagination within scrolls, but rather by rows and chapters within a particular scroll. Riggsby reiterates the rarity of Roman tables of contents within literary works, but there was an abundance of indices.

“In public, Romans also encountered public inscriptions with lists of consuls and also calendars, called fasti. These calendars used abbreviations and color coding: marking each set of nine days under the month alphabetically, A through H, in order to signal the nine-day market cycle, highlighting special festival days, and often noting the civic or religious import of the day with the letters F, N, or C. These fasti are also a stark reminder that when there are no formal weekends (and there weren’t in antiquity)

one needed to travel to the forum and read the calendar to know about all the festival days off from work or state business. …

“Clocks were an important type of informational device that allowed Romans to measure time, but they can also double as art pieces and statements of wealth. While the technology governing timekeeping may have changed, for Romans in antiquity it was important to visually represent time — even if the length of Roman hours were not completely standardized, as ours are, and could vary by time of year. …

“There are even more numerous examples of portable models of sundials one could carry that could err widely based on the latitude, season, and time of day. But, just like the Rolex or Apple Watch of today, portable watches might have been seen as more of a fashion trend for the elite rather than a technology that was always accurate. Perhaps the most inventive portable sundial is one found at the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, which is shaped like a ham. …

Mosaics of Knowledge underscores the fact that there were no modern data graphics such as the scatterplot, pie chart, bar graph, timeline, or musical staff notation in the Roman world. However, Romans did have occasion to use diagrams and maps, particularly when representing property lines as recorded by professional land surveyors.

“Romans did not make extensive use of textual illustrations in literary and historical works, but the handbooks for the Roman land surveyors collected and passed down through the Imperial Period were an exception to this rule. Additionally, the survival of building plans from antiquity gives yet another window into how Romans abstracted and then represented space for viewers.” More here.

No amount of fashion craving would induce me to carry around a heavy bronze ham to tell the time.

Photo: Carlo Raso via Flickr
A portable vertical sundial from Herculaneum, shaped like a ham, is exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.


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