Roman epitaphs recording times of death served as horoscopesfor the deceased. Though long regarded as a curiosity, there is indeed substanceto the c.900 surviving inscriptions of this type. Prior scholarship (Armini1916, Sandys 1919, Calabi Limentani-Degrassi 1968, Almar 1990, Kajanto 1963, Rutgers1995, McLean 2002) has acknowledged such inscriptions but has made littleeffort to interpret them. Bilfinger 1888 marks the most substantial inquiryinto references to hours in Roman antiquity, yet his concern is more for howtime was measured than why it was recorded.
Through analysis of the recording of precise times by theRomans in reference to major lifecycle events, I am able to highlight thecontexts in which Romans recorded hours. The significance ascribed to recordingsuch information is discerned from astrological (Solinus, PolyhistorI.18; Cassius Dio 37.18.1-37.19.3; Manilius, Astronomica 2.453-465; CILVI 2305-2306) and patristic texts (Corpus Scriptorum EcclesiasticorumLatinorum 18.153.19-18.154.3; Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex Theodoto25.2; Asterius, Homilies on the Psalms, XI.2.14; St. Ambrose, Exp.Luc. VII.222; Augustine, Ex. Ps. 55.5; Zeno of Verona, Tract.II.45=I.33.4; Methodius of Olympus, De Sanguisuga XI.3; Hippolytus, DenMoyses – Patrologia Orientalis 27.171). This primary material isconsidered in light of Beck 2007 on astrological practice, Hegedus 2007 onChristian attitudes to astrology, Galvao-Sobrinho 1995 on Christian epigraphicand sepulchral practice in late antiquity, and Danéliou 1963 on Christianization.These primary and secondary materials show that the hours represent, variously,the signs of the Zodiac, the gods of the Pantheon, and the Apostles.
Dating from the first through sixth centuries CE and comingfrom Rome, Italy, North Africa, and parts of Europe, these inscriptions includeeither references to the time of death or, more commonly, measures of hours asa quantity in the lifespan of the deceased. As the figure of hours in aduration merely records the last fraction of a day lived (as measured fromsunrise), this number also functions as the time of death.
First, I establish that there was no official context inwhich times were recorded in reference to lifecycle events, despite their usein other official contexts (e.g. Suet. Aug. 50.1; Caes. B.G.1.26.2). Rather, hours were recorded by the masses almost exclusively for the castingof horoscopes. The most common form of astrological practice in the Rome wasthe genethlialogical horoscope, based upon the genethlios, the hour ofbirth.
Next, I situate the practice of recording hours in theintellectual climate of Rome as it expands into the Greek east. I contend that newideas of time measurement and astrological thought imported from HellenisticGreece, Egypt, and Babylon, in conjunction with the rise of the epigraphichabit around the turn of the millennium spurred the development of these epitaphs.Astrological models present systems of assignations whereby the twelve sings ofthe Zodiac are mapped onto other systems of twelve, such as the limbs of thebody or the components of one’s life. More common, however, were modelscorrelating units of time to the heavens, whether to the stars or the gods. Aswell, there were systems in which units of time and, hence, the eventsoccurring within them, were governed by tutelary deities. In all cases, theintention is to reconcile the divine and mortal realms.
Subsequently, I argue that even as Christianity came toprominence these pagan astrological ideas retained their currency, albeit in anadapted, Christianized form. Whereas in the pagan astrological texts there areno direct connections drawn between time and death and tutelary divinities, in earlyChristian writings such links are explicit.
Ultimately, I propose that in these epitaphs, as the hour ofdeath represents the moment of birth into the afterlife, the hour recordedfunctions as the sign under which the deceased is reborn. Thus, the hour ofdeath is both the moment from which a new horoscope is to be reckoned and ameans of denoting the tutelar who guides the deceased.