Samantha Perry

Ancient Smartwatches: The Statement Piece of a Roman Sundial

Samantha Perry

In high school, we had three foreign languages to choose from: Spanish, French and Latin. I decided to take Latin, hoping it might take me on a school trip to Italy as a senior. Although I didn’t make it to Italy in high school, I did study Latin throughout and learned quite a bit about ancient Roman culture. 

One thing I learned was that the ancient Romans stayed on top of new technology just as fervently as we do today. The wealthiest Romans often owned the newest tech and the latest styles, which were used to show off just how much wealth someone had. A portable sundial was a combination of both, and therefore the perfect status symbol.

The Roman day was divided into 12 increments of daylight and 12 increments of nighttime, with an hour measuring about 45 minutes in the winter and 75 minutes in the summer. Wealthy Romans who sported portable sundials could boast about knowing the time wherever they traveled. But these flashy pieces did require a good bit of technical knowledge in order to be used correctly. Many of the sundials that have been recovered were found with “cheat sheets,” collections of coordinates for different locations, which were used to calibrate the sundial to find the correct time for the desired area.

One of the most famous portable sundials was discovered in 1706 in the ruins of Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. Think your Hello Kitty iPhone case is cool? This sundial is in the shape of an Italian ham, and has been dubbed the “pork clock” since its discovery. It was recently recreated in a 3D model, which includes a replication of a grid on one side of the ham that marked the months of the year as well as hours past sunrise or sunset. The actual dial piece (called the gnomon) is missing, but it had been described in the past as being in the curly shape of a pig’s tail, so the 3D model includes this unique feature. A sundial of this shape is an extravagant example of a Roman status symbol, possibly intended for an Epicurean philosopher. These thinkers used a pig for their symbol and were known for their carpe diem attitude. Seize the day—and the pork, apparently!

But, similar to today, there were always those who preferred simpler ways over new technology. Some ancient Romans insisted that their stomachs were the best judges of time, since they told them when it was time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They’d probably have something similar to say about roosters vs. alarm clocks—too bad they never got the chance to experience the snooze button!

Did You Know?
The month of January is named after the Greek God Janus, the god of beginnings and ends. He is depicted as having two faces, one looking forward and the other back, to represent the transition between the old year and the new.

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