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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

Tempus fugit - Time Flees

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The people had to try to measure the time very soon, perhaps with the false illusion of catching it.

The cyclical succession of days and nights, the elapse of the light of a day itself, the perception of one's life and its end, the ephemeral existence of beings, prompted the man to measure, monitor, remember the passage of time.

Some prehistoric megalithic monuments are certainly related to the solar cycle. The Egyptian obelisks seem to be the index of a large sundial. Ancient myths refer to human desire for immortality, for the denial of the destructive time.

For measuring time, clocks were invented. Clock is a word derived from the Latin "horologium" and this, in turn, from the Greek "Horologion" (hora = hour and lego = I state). A clock is an instrument that uses a standard measurement unit.

Indeed, as it is indicated by the division of the day and night into twelve hours (something that still remains), it should be the Sumerians who began dividing the duration of the day in that way. Certainly, this duodecimal system must be related to the appearance of twelve moons along the years. In any case, at the beginning of the second millennium BC the Egyptians already had instruments to divide the day and night in 24 periods.

The Greeks called these periods "hora", then the word was taken by the Romans, and finally it  was passed on to those who speak a language derived from Latin, and to English as well (hour).
The most basic clocks are solar clocks, in which the changing shadow of an index projected by the sun light on a surface indicates the intervals of the sun itself. This index, shaft or rod is called gnomon (γνώμων: 'connoisseur, guide,' and by extension 'squad, needle, sundial'). The Greeks called the water clock clepsydra (of κλέπτειν kleptein, 'steal'; ύδωρ hydor, 'water').

Well, sundials were sometimes illustrated with a Latin phrase referring to the passage of time. This custom and those sentences were then fashioned from the Renaissance and have survived until today.
Although the number of phrases that may illustrate a clock are endless, the most common ones are very few ones and I will address them because the reader may have noticed them in the current existing sundials, and even in the spheres of pendulum clocks, and even in common wrist or pocket clocks.
The most common is definitely "Tempus fugit = time flees", with an explicit reference to the swift passage of time. It is a phrase taken from a verse of Virgil in his work Georgicae, III, 284 which says more accurately "Sed fugit interea fugit irreparabile tempus", “But flees meanwhile, the time flees irretrievably".

In some cases the phrase has been expanded  "Tempus fugit, sicut nubes, quasi naves, velut umbra" "Time flies, like clouds, like ships, like the shadows". This is a mixture of several references to the Book of Job in the Old Testament: as the clouds (Job, 7, 9), as the ships (Job, 9, 26), as the shadows (Job, 14, 2); so this is not a phrase by a classical author.

The ultimate meaning of the phrase tempus fugit is related to the phrase, also prevalent in some watches, "carpe diem" (seize the moment). This is one of the most famous phrases of Horace and of literature, drawn from his Odes (Odes, I, 11, 8). It is blindingly obvious that if “tempus fugit, carpe diem", if time escapes from us, take the opportunity.

A Latin word that appears in certain modern Swiss watches is Festina, since it is their trademark. The word is the imperative of a verb that means "hurry up."

Probably the reader knows the full phrase festina lente, oxymoron (combination of seemingly contradictory linguistic elements) that means "hurry up slowly". The Roman historian Suetonius attributes this phrase to Augustus (Suet.Aug.25.4). Incidentally, according to Suetonius, Augustus pronounced the phrase in Greek: "Speude bradeōs" (Σπευδε βραδεως). A newer version is our saying “Make haste slowly”, or as we say in Spain "Dress me slowly because  I have haste".

Not infrequently occurs mainly in clocks of church towers the haunting phrase "Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat" (all wound, the last kills) referring to hours. Another version of same meaning is "Omnes feriunt, ultima necat" and another more is "Laedunt omnes, ultima necat".

These are the most common phrases that illuminate clocks and watches, but the chances are very numerous, because it is not only used in Latin. But we must recognize that the expressive power and concision of the Romans tongue is unmatched, even by English, that also adorns the famous clock tower of Big Ben with a Latin phrase, but the phrase does not refer to the inexorable passage of time, but expresses best wishes for Queen Victoria.

The sentence says “DOMINE SALVAM FAC REGINAM NOSTRAM VICTORIAM PRIMAM” (Lord, keep safe our Queen Victoria I), i.e., this is the Latin version of the famous English phrase "God Save The Queen ".


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