The University Record, February 20, 1995

Seven-day weeks a legacy of Roman emperors, speaker says

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Six Faculty Fellows and five Graduate Student Fellows are currently in residence at the Institute for the Humanities exploring this year's theme, "Work and Play."

Keeping with that theme, the Institute recently sponsored a conference, "Serious Play, Playful Work," at which a half-dozen scholars from around the country delivered papers ranging from "At Work on the Play of Appearance: Modern Women's Accounts of Making Up" to "The Fun in the Funeral: Play and the Work of Mourning."

Richard Lim of Smith College, about to finish his term as a visiting fellow, presented a paper on the origins of Sunday as a public holiday.

Concentrating on the Roman Empire, Lim referred to the Julian calendar, a calendar organized around a 360-day year that began in January. The 12 months of that calendar contained "holidays," days considered appropriate for the conduct of public business, and days that were not--days of religious or political importance known as festival days, so designated, Lim said, for political, economic or cultic reasons. Public business was prohibited during major public festivals.

There were holidays for individuals, families or communities not usually shared by the general population. And there were days when non-essential work was considered offensive to the gods. Some were fixed holidays, such as the emperor's birthday. Others decreed state holidays. By the year 354, Lim said, the calendar listed at least 175 holidays.

Holiday observance was not mandatory. Those at the height of social status could do as they wished on holidays, but those at the lowest end of the social ladder, slaves and workers of dependent status, required consent of "superiors" in order to take time off to attend a festival.

"Hired workers," Lim said, "especially artisans, generally did not enjoy guaranteed days-off for festivals, but could take a holiday by compensating their bosses for lost production."

The week as we know it through patterns of organizing work, leisure and most forms of common social experiences did not exist in ancient times. Inspired by the Babylonians, Lim said, Jews had embraced a seven-day week long before the Romans began to do so and observed the Sabbath as a day of rest.

Romans, Jews, pagans and Christians all had different concepts of what day of the week was to be considered as "special."

Early Christians could not decide on which day to rest. One source, Lim said, "attributed to Peter and Paul the commandment that Christian masters should let slaves work five days a week and to grant them leave for religious instruction in church on the Sabbath and the Lord's day."

This, Lim said, could have been the beginning of the "week-end" as we know it.

Lim quoted various laws, one designating every seventh day as a day of rest for urban dwellers only, another against public spectacles on Sundays and some forbidding public judicial business on certain days.

"Imperial edicts banning spectacles on Christian holidays, including Sundays," Lim said, "were most likely the result of lobbying by such Christian ecclesiastical figures as John Chrysostom, who bemoaned the evil influences of the games while preaching to much diminished audiences."

Yet, the most significant impact to come from any or all of these laws, Lim said, is the "acceptance of the seven-day weekly cycle. In looking at these Sunday laws, it may be this particular legacy, perhaps more than any other, for which we have to thank these late Roman emperors."

Other presenters at the conference were Carlin A. Barton and Kathy Peiss, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Jean L. Briggs, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Gail Holst-Warhaft, Cornell University; and Michael Fishbane, University of Chicago.