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"Roman Portable Sundials: The Empire in Your Hand" Lecture by Richard Talbert

It is clear that the Romans gained, administered and defended a vast empire for several centuries. Much less clear, however, is the issue of how – in their pre-modern, largely unscientific era – they envisaged this world of theirs. 

For certain, no single outlook ever developed, such as we enjoy today thanks to our public education, printing, and modern cartography. Instead, to grasp the ‘mental world-map’ in the heads of Romans calls for identifying and analyzing clues that may at best furnish glimpses of diverse outlooks. 

Richard Talbert shares one such quest that he is pursuing. It taps an intriguing category of scattered source material that is little known to begin with, and that no-one anticipates will provide insight into geography and worldview. But in fact one variety of portable sundial can do just that. These are tiny bronze instruments fitted with adjustable rings to allow for the changes of latitude likely to occur in the course of a long journey. 

For rapid reference, such sundials also record the names and latitudes of as many as three dozen cities or regions chosen by the maker or owner, thereby revealing something of that individual’s mental world-map. This said, along with all their variety, these sundials can be seen to share a notable uniformity as well as a distinctly Roman character. So here is a lecture full of surprises, engaging with Romans’ sense of space, time and identity. 

Richard Talbert is the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor with the History Department of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He studied Classics at Cambridge University before becoming lecturer in ancient history at Queen’s University, Belfast, and then teaching at McMaster University. As visiting professor, he has taught at the universities of Alabama and Princeton.

He has gained Guggenheim and other fellowships and awards, as well as securing extensive funding support for his work. He is past President of the Association of Ancient Historians. His historical interests within antiquity are broad and varied, ranging from Spartans and western Greeks to government and society in the Roman empire, and above all in recent years mapping, travel and worldview. The establishment of Chapel Hill’s unique Ancient World Mapping Center followed his publication of the groundbreaking Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (2000).


Knobloch Campus Center Alvarez- Smith 900 Room

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MacIntyre, Amber P