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  • Water Thief Watcher January 25, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    dripping water

    In distant days I opened a tag on WCIH, ‘the worst careers in history’ and, before things fizzled out, I made the case for precolumbian sacrificial victims and the Galeotti. Here today is a new one to reopen the series, the Water Thief Watcher. Now for those without a degree in timekeeping the water thief was a large flaggon or amphora containing water with holes in the bottom: these water thieves served as crude clocks in the ancient world, the seconds being measured by the water slowing dripping out. Some were sophisticated: machines with moving parts, involving drops and floating rods; and it is possible to get water thieves to do things like bang gongs and drop bells. But more typically they were kept in a corner of the room, they had no  widgets, and the only way to keep time was to come and look or to have someone watch them and shout out the hours.

    Welcome to the world of the Water Thief Watcher, a slave whose job it was to sit in front of the dripping vessel and call every fifteen minutes out so that his master and mistress could get the kids to school on time. Sounds ok to you with your busy 9-9 job? But just imagine the horrible lack of activity, the torture of listening to that constant splash, splash that echoes so long in your head that eventually it enters your dreams. A modern equivalent would be a rabid Keynesian putting a member of the unemployed in front of a ticking clock and saying: count off the minutes and I’ll give you two hundred dollars a week.

    If you want an even more diabolical version of the water thief watcher consider now the water thief officer (not a slave interestingly) in the Athenian judicial system. This man was repsonsible for ‘the drips’: a legal stopwatch. In Athenian legal cases, accused and accuser were given a certain amount of ‘water’ in a vase to speak: less important cases meant smaller containers, accused always got more water than accusers etc etc.  The system was simple yet sophisticated. The watcher could, for example, plug the water if a long document had to be read out that took from the accused’s time to speak. But he also had to be ready to cry halt the moment the last drop descended from the flask: and this wasn’t just a matter of getting a cuff from your master; this was, at times, a question of life or hemlock.

    Other appalling careers: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com