Professor Richard Talbert explores conceptions of time in Edward F. Arnold Visiting Professor Lecture

Leo Polk, A&E Reporter

Professor Richard Talbert opened the Arnold Visiting Professor Lecture by asking students “what time is it?” While a knowledge of time is generally taken for granted, Talbert’s lecture showed how it was not always an inherent part of social practices. 

Last Tuesday, April 6, the current Edward F. Arnold Visiting Professor, Professor Talbert, gave a lecture on the presence of an awareness of time in Ancient Rome. 

The Edward F. Arnold Visiting Professor is an endowed position given to a professor from another university recognizing their expertise in a particular field. Professor Talbert is from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and is a leading expert on ancient maps.  

The lecture was called “Help from Japan for Telling the Time in Ancient Rome?” It explored the potential for a connection to be drawn between the awareness of time in ancient Rome and a similar awareness present in ancient Japan. 

Talbert recognizes that this connection is incomplete. He is merely aware that keeping time in pre-modern Japan was of particular importance. He cites the use of temple bells for events in the day, like mealtimes or community events. This is similar to the Ancient Romans who kept time via personal sundials. 

Talbert’s comparison focused primarily on how ancient Romans used time to regulate their dispersal of meals. But also, how Romans would use fines to charge someone should they arrive late at a court proceeding. Time was, effectively, a part of the Romans’ identity. It was a symbol of efficiency and oneness with the Roman national identity. 

“One potentially rewarding approach, I’m convinced, would be to compare how [Romans] regulated their day with the practice of Tokugawa Japan, another developed pre-modern society known for a similar concern. To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet attempted this comparison,” Talbert said.   

Co-president of the Classics Club, senior Sarah Murphy, found the lecture especially uplifting given the context of the Financial Sustainability Review. Murphy finds that as a small major, the classics department benefits from events such as this lecture. 

“The lecture definitely brought attention to the classics department and showed that not only is it a cool subject — if you attended the lecture you get to see that it is interesting — but it also shows that the school is putting effort into keeping it alive,” Murphy said. 

Murphy also credits the Classics Club for the inclusion of Professor Talbert in the classics faculty as the Arnold Visiting Professor. Because Whitman was looking to not hire a replacement for the Classics professor, Dana Burgess, after he retires this year, the club mobilized an effort to convince the administration to hire a new professor. 

Talbert is the author of a book about the presence of time-consciousness in Ancient Rome entitled “Roman Portable Sundials: The Empire in your Hand.

Sophomore Katie Duncan also reflected positively on Talbert’s lecture. It was clear to her that the subject was something that he was passionate about.

Events such as these really help to strengthen the connections between us by being able to see everyone at once and know there’s more of us than we think,” Duncan said. 

Both Duncan and Murphy credit events such as the Arnold Visiting Professor Lecture as crucial to the building of community within Whitman’s small classics department. They found it uplifting to see so many professors and students attending the event. They also felt the event was especially positive given the discussion on campus about the future of the classics department.