New perspectives on Rome’s multi-temporal cityscape

The city of Rome has been identified as an ‘eternal city’ since the poet Tibullus labelled it so back in the first century BCE, and also by subsequent visitors as a multi-temporal city in which past and present offer an intoxicating mixture. Visiting the city as it is now, two millennia later, is to encounter a multiplicity of past Romes, overlying each other and competing for attention as you traverse the city, from the classical past through the heritage of the church and the visions of early-modern visitors such as historian Edward Gibbon, who was quite overwhelmed by the experience of standing in the Forum where Cicero had once stood, writing in his memoirs that ‘at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City’ (Memoirs of my Life, p. 141).

Last month, while visiting the École Française de Rome for a workshop on the application of a modern political concept – Weber’s model of charismatic leadership – to the politics of the ancient world, I was able to do some sight-seeing of my own, and see how Rome’s museums and archaeological sites are using new approaches to connect visitors with the classical past and those who rediscovered and interpreted it, and how contemporary art contributes to this conversation.

Not all Rome’s monuments are as visible as the Forum. One remnant of ancient imperial Rome is invisible from street level, buried underground and forgotten until its rediscovery in the Renaissance. The Domus Aurea is the only remnant of the enormous palace built by the emperor Nero during his short time in power, and swiftly dismantled by his successors after his death in 68 CE. It survived the destruction of other parts of the palace complex when it became the foundations for the public baths commissioned by the emperor Trajan – the Colosseum itself, that most recognisable of classical ruins, had already been built over the palace’s ornamental lake by the Flavian emperors, starting soon after Vespasian cemented his power. To visit the underground ruins of the Domus Aurea is already to take a journey back in time, but the current hard-hat tours of the underground site use a range of audio-visual technology to give visitors a multi-temporal experience and to reveal its hidden past. As you enter, the bare brick walls of the vaulted cells supporting Trajan’s building become a screen for images of Nero’s Rome, and of the palace as it is imagined to have been in its brief heyday.

Domus Aurea video projection
Reconstruction of the Domus Aurea projected on to the Roman walls

But further inside the ruin it becomes difficult to imagine the dark galleries and passages as a light-filled golden palace, even though there are tantalising glimpses of the frescos that decorated those parts not adorned with marble, long since lost. But new technology is here to help – one chamber is now equipped with Oculus Rift headsets so that you can experience different layers of the building’s past through a virtual reality recreation.

Virtual reality room in the Domus Aurea
Virtual reality stations await visitors within the Domus Aurea

After seeing the frescoes lit by the flickering torches of the palace’s Renaissance explorers, who thought they’d found a cave, you are tumbled back in time to the full sun-lit glory of the original rooms. Then you can walk out and look across the city to the other parts of Nero’s palace on the Palatine, with no Colosseum in sight. Don’t forget to look back at the building you’ve just left… After returning to the present, and putting your hard hat back on, it perhaps becomes easier to visualise the remaining rooms, including the astonishing octagon with its dome, as they once were.

The competing layers of the classical past are further overlaid by the city’s Christian heritage, as Gibbon noted; he was inspired to write Decline and Fall by hearing Franciscan friars singing in the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter (Memoirs, p. 143). The classical and Christian past come together in the Vatican Museums, home to a remarkable collection of antiquities, assembled over centuries from finds within Rome and gifts to the Pope. At the moment, the feeling that you are viewing antiquity through a past sensibility, when walking through its galleries and courtyards, is heightened by the museum’s celebrations of the anniversaries of the birth and death of the German art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), who for the latter part of his career held a range of curatorial roles at what would become this museum. In a display spanning the whole museum, key objects across the collection, those that attracted Winckelmann’s scholarly and aesthetic attention, are marked by a large Gothic W, and his interpretations of objects and critiques of others’ views are posted on accompanying sign boards.

Belvedere Hermes and giant Winckelmann W
The Belvedere Hermes tagged as part of the Vatican’s Winckelmann display

We are encouraged to see what Winckelmann saw in the Vatican’s collections, although given the enduring influence of his aesthetic response to classical art, many visitors may already be primed to see greatness where he once saw it; of this statue, now known as the Belvedere Hermes, but then thought to represent Antinous, Winckelmann commented that ‘the head is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful youthful heads of antiquity’. Given that art historians and archaeologists of the present are often more concerned with escaping or revising Winckelmann’s views on ancient aesthetics rather than with embracing them (as is Sarah Bond in this critique of the ‘whitewashing’ of ancient sculpture), the effect of the Vatican’s intervention is to reassert a very traditional perspective on aesthetic value, as well as to highlight antiquarian debates about the identification of the subjects of statues. The placement of major works in the collection already accords with Winckelmann’s evaluation of their artistic importance – the octagonal courtyard where the Belvedere Hermes stands is crowded with letters and signs – but the reminder that we might ourselves be seeing the classical past through mediating filters such as Winckelmann’s aesthetic is an important one.

While the halls of the Vatican Museums resist change, the Roman cityscape surrounding the Vatican is not timeless, but subject to renewal and to new interventions. In Largo Goldoni, a small square on one of Rome’s prime luxury shopping streets, the installation of Giuseppe Penone’s sculpture Foglie di Pietra (‘Leaves of Stone’), raises questions about the relationship between the city and nature and about change over time.

Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017
Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017

The sculpture was placed there in 2017, with sponsorship from Roman fashion house Fendi, outside whose flagship boutique it stands, an intriguing location for a work by a sculptor who emerged from the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s. In this monumental work, two bronze trees support apparent sculptural fragments in their branches; one stone fragment recalls the reuse of Roman decorative elements in Renaissance buildings, while a huge marble block contains a Corinthian capital entwined in tree roots, suggesting both the grandeur of Rome and the temporal distance of its classical past.

Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots
Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots

The sculpture contains familiar elements from Penone’s artistic practice (there’s still time to catch a major retrospective exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which closes 28/4/19), especially his interest in natural materials and fragmentation. Its placement in the Roman cityscape underscores Penone’s interest in revealing change over time through natural processes; at the installation of the sculpture, he commented:

“In Foglie di Pietra, archaeology and ruins, history and biology are grafted one on the other, creating a permanent bond between nature and culture, and celebrating a deep synthesis between the flowing of natural and human time where a sense of longing and a romantic nostalgia for lost civilizations are brought to the surface.”

Penone’s complex construction materialises the experience of the encountering the multi-temporality of Rome and incorporates it into the fabric of the city. Even outside the formally curated spaces of its museums and monuments, artistic interventions like Foglie di Pietra negotiate Rome’s continuing relationship with its classical past and the long reception history of that past.

  • Gibbon, Edward (1990), Memoirs of my Life, ed. Betty Radice (London: Penguin).
  • Winckelmann, J. J. [1764] (2006). History of the Art of Antiquity, tr. Harry Francis Mallgrave (Los Angeles: Getty Publications).
  • Coulson, S and Lilley, C. (2018) Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood (Yorkshire Sculpture Park).

Performing ancient epic: Shikandi’s anachronistic revenge

Until the Lions

Roundhouse, London January 11-17

Akram Khan Company

screenshot 2019-01-17 11.58.46In my previous post, I considered how a recent performance of Memorial, Alice Oswald’s retelling of the Iliad, creatively negotiated dynamics of temporality and how it represented the suffering of those about whom the poem remains silent. This post takes a lateral step, considering these interleaving issues in light of a performance of Karthika Nair’s Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (2015) a retelling of the ancient Indian epic. The poem is attributed to the sage Vyasa and tells the story of the world-shaking struggle between two branches of a single family. A narrative that dwells on and in violence, intimate and epic, the Mahabharata is thought to have such perlocutionary force that it is customarily kept out of Hindu households to ward off the possibility of inviting in such familial strife. Comparative study of the poetics of the Mahabharata (and the Ramayana) with Homeric epics is by no means a new scholarly activity. If one of the main advantages of reception studies is the ability to approach traditions critically, then comparison of the contemporary performance reception of these poetic traditions might be a way of circumventing the worst orientalist impulses that were historically part and parcel of the comparative method.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.13.10

Akram Khan has toured his soaring, visceral dance adaptation of Until the Lions around the world and brought it back to London for a limited run. Khan is one of the foremost choreographers and performers of his generation: he innovatively marries his early training in the classical north Indian Kathak tradition with the forms of contemporary choreography. His style is arresting and thrillingly kinetic. A raised stage intentionally recalled a cross-section of a felled tree with its concentric circles, across which Khan himself as Bheeshma, Ching-Yien Chien as Shikandi and Joy Alpuerto Ritter as Amba work out this slice of the Mahabharata in the frequently non-mimetic idiom of contemporary dance. Unlike Brink productions’ of Memorial in which singers and performing chorus of hundreds were physically separate, here the three dancers and the five musicians interacted, telling the story together, whorling around the tree-trunk stage or using the stage as an enormous percussive instrument in its own right.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.32.05


A central observation for Nair and Oswald is that power operates at the core of ancient epic narrative. Moreover both writers share a concern with radically revising the structure of the epic poems in their creative responses. In this interview, Nair demurs from a direct comparison with Oswald, citing not only her lack of direct access to the Vedic Sanskrit (where Oswald could get inside the Homeric Greek) but also the difference in their creative methods. If Oswald seeks a kind of ‘poetic archaeology’, Nair insists that her retelling of the Mahabharata is a process of ‘refracting’ the ancient material. This difference of method emerges in the way that Oswald preserves the omniscience of the narrator, where Nair fractures the narrative into eighteen different voices. As Nair says in an interview with Tishani Doshi : “My real concerns when I began working on Until the Lions revolved around structure. I fretted about chronology. I was anxious about channelling the Mahabharata through eighteen sets of narrators without turning it into a kaleidoscope of voices.”

Khan deals with the anxiety about kaleidoscoping voice by choosing one narrative on which to focus: the story of Bheeshma and Amba. As Madhavi Menon reminds us (2018:117-9), this narrative tangles up desires multiple and celibate, temporalities elastic and ruptured. Bheeshma was a warrior who undertook a vow of celibacy (Bheeshma means ‘he of the terrible oath’) in return for which he was granted the boon of choosing the moment of his death. In the course of the war, he took Amba as a ‘spear won bride’ to give to a male relative, to use a euphemism straight out of the Homeric primer. On discovering that she was in love with someone else, Bheeshma attempted to release her back to her beloved but failed because Amba was now ‘soiled goods’ because of her contact with Bheeshma. Unwanted and unloved, Amba undertook severe penances and threatened to throw the whole cosmic order into disarray with her grief (not unlike the scale of Demeter’s grief for Persephone). Shiva therefore intervened and granted her the boon of killing Bheeshma in her next life. Amba became Shikandi, who though born a woman is eventually transformed Tiresias-like into a man on a mission to revenge himself on Bheeshma. They met on the battlefield where Bheeshma recognized his enemy as Amba/Shikandi – he laid down his weapons and allowed Shikandi to take vengeance, though invoking his boon, he delays the actual moment of his death till after the war.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.36.52

This is how Nair imagines Shikandi’s mother (an unnamed woman in the original epic) dreaming of her child’s sex-change and unnaturally over-long desire to kill:

In these dreams, Shikhandi crushes
both breasts and unwraps sinewed legs,
casts shoulder and pelvis in male
mould then carves muscles till they shine—
bronzed, blood-soaked, a warrior’s shield.

Is that past or future? He slips
into Bheeshma’s sleep, a land he
has owned for thirty-six thousand
nights and days. Honour lies in wait,
a quivering, tongueless, wild beast.

For they who’ve never tasted love
cannot know hate, and Shikhandi
has hated longer and better
than most on earth. He borrows rage
from the sun, endurance from stars.

Nair’s methodological ‘fretting about chronology’ point us towards looking at how time is organized, particularly around the figure of Amba/Shikandi. In the passage cited above, we see that fretting has morphed into the existential terror of a mother struggling to understand her dream-child, a malevolent figure whose motivating rage extends beyond a single human life. No wonder she asks: ‘Is that past or future’? The figure of Shikandi is rage as embodied anachronism, unsettling the normative accounting of human life in time or in flesh. This puts me in mind of the conversation between Solon and Croesus (Hdt 1.29-33), an episode that we on the Anachronism and Antiquity project read as a crucible of anachronism. It is not at the end of a life that Shikandi and Bheeshma get their respective satisfactions. Rather happiness is forestalled, long after the allotted moments of their biological death, thus causing creating complexity for how we think humans experience time – memories are carried over into differently gendered bodies, hearts hum with ancient misery, arrows pierce a hero made invulnerable by his celibacy.

screenshot 2019-01-17 12.13.29

Watching this adaption of Until the Lions made specifically for the Roundhouse’s circular performance space, I was struck by how these conflicts in desire and temporality were distilled in the staging and the physical space of the performance. For the entire performance until Bheeshma’s death, a cast of a severed head is mounted on a pole as a memento mori governing the action, placed there by Shikandi at the start. At the moment of the climactic encounter between Bheeshma and Shikandi, the seemingly solid ground gives way. Amba has previously drawn attention to this deep crack in the earth in her desperate clawing at it, an attempt to hide her shame and rage under the ground perhaps. As Bheeshma realizes, Hector-like, that the gig is up and the scales have always been divinely tipped agains him, he turns and walks slowly to the mounted severed head. As he moves, the stages rises in uneven pieces, Shikandi standing triumphantly on the highest jagged outcrop. The lighting and smoke from below give the sense of Shikandi standing on top of a lavafield, or in the smouldering aftermath of an apocalyptic event. The normal sequence of time has been disrupted by Shikandi’s triumph, and so the orderly rings of the tree stage which fitted neatly together, have given way under the pressure of the cosmic proportions of one person’s despair and revenge.



  • Nair, K. (2015) Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata (Harper Collins India)
  • Menon, M. (2018) Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India (Speaking Tiger Books)
  • Udumudi, S. (2017) Indian Studies After Indology: An Interview with Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee

Images from  and




Herodotus’ conspiracy narrative: time episodic, relative, and absolute

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a blog about the current episode in British political life (relatively awful or absolutely the pits?). This is not it.

In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus reports a crisis in the Persian empire. King Cambyses has had his brother Smerdis secretly murdered and then gone on an expedition against Egypt. In his absence, two brothers, one of them called Smerdis, from the Median priestly caste of Magi, usurp the throne, with Smerdis pretending to be Cambyses’ brother of the same name. Cambyses dies in Syria, after a reign of seven years and five months. After the imposters have reigned for seven months, a group of conspirators forms to overthrow them. As the conspirators move towards the palace, Herodotus interrupts the narrative to describe events taking place at the same time in the court. The usurpers try to persuade Prexaspes, a courtier who had been given the task of killing Cambyses’ brother, to proclaim openly his support for the usurper Smerdis. But things do not go according to their plan. Prexaspes, addressing the Persians from a tower, exposes the Magi’s deception to the crowd and then kills himself by throwing himself from the tower. This dramatic event happens just as the conspirators are reaching the palace. Herodotus then switches back to them: forcefully led by Darius, they gain entry to the palace and complete the job (3.69‒79).

The Behistun inscription narrates the rise to power of Darius I
The Behistun inscription provides another source for the story of Darius’ rise to power (Mount Behistun, Iran).

Herodotus’ account of this incident receives detailed treatment in Donald J. Wilcox’s 1987 monograph The Measures of Time Past – a work that has influenced a number of scholars of anachronism ancient and modern. Wilcox’s book is based on a distinction between ‘relative time’, which prevailed until Newton, and ‘absolute time’, which was uncovered by Newtonian physics. In relative time, events themselves create their own time-frame. In absolute time, there is a time-line that contains the events. Absolute time is ‘objective, continuous, all-embracing’; in Newton’s own words, it flows ‘equably without regard to anything external’. Wilcox fleshes out this model further by tracing a path from relative to absolute time through figures such as Augustine, Bede and Scaliger, the final step before Newton being the invention of the BC/AD system ‒ a system founded on ‘a single, continuous, and linear time frame’ which proved ‘fit for the use of those who accepted the notion of absolute time’.

Wilcox sees Herodotus’ account of the conspiracy as an example of ‘episodic time’ ‒ a form of relative time which was ‘discontinuous, emphasizing process rather than the progressive building of events on one another’, and in which ‘the exact temporal order was not an important factor in the process that produced the final result’. He describes the account as episodic because he finds it impossible that Herodotus had a grasp of the temporal order of the events: how could the conspirators have entered the palace after the death of Prexaspes? Herodotus, he concludes, ‘was willing to sacrifice neither story to the demands of a linear sequence and had available a sense of time which allowed him to keep both’: ‘the determining factor … was the moral and social context of the events’ ‒ in this case ‘the remoteness of the eastern kings’, ‘the arrogance and intrigue of the court’, and ‘the boldness and decisiveness’ of Darius.

Wilcox’s argument helpfully stresses the cultural contingency of systems of time-measurement: he allows that our own dating system ‘would have been as inaccurate in the eyes of Herodotus and Thucydides as their relative dating is primitive in ours’. But there are historical and conceptual problems in his arguments, and problems, too, in the way that he reads the ancient historians.

Let us first return to Herodotus’ conspiracy narrative. One problem with Wilcox’s reading is that he ignores the clear explanation in Herodotus’ narrative of how the conspirators were able to gain entry to the palace: it was their high status that won over the guards. Herodotus also suggests that they enjoy some form of divine assistance, revealed by an omen. Wilcox ignores, too, the fact that the conspirators realize that Prexaspes’ action endangers their plan and that the eunuchs in the palace, once they realize what has happened, threaten the guards with dire punishment. Herodotus highlights the very problem that Wilcox claims he ignores because of his sense of ‘episodic time’.

Wilcox’s reading of Herodotus’ account ignores the strong thematic links that bind the parallel narratives together. The most important theme relates to truth and lies. (As I said, this is not about Brexit.) Darius tells his fellow conspirators that he will offer a lie (fake news from the king) to ensure that they can pass into the palace; he suggests that people tell the truth or lie entirely in accordance with their self-interest. Prexaspes’ self-sacrifice in telling the truth at the cost of his own life offers at least a partial modification of Darius’ sophistic assertion. (Oxford has some towers, too…)

What of Wilcox’s general notion of relative and absolute time? The main historical problem lies in his account of BC/AD dating. He repeats the common contention that this ‘absolute’ system was invented by the French Jesuit Denis Pétau (Dionysius Petavius) in his 1627 Opus de doctrina temporum. In fact, datings before Christ’s birth are already attested (albeit rarely) in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in the eighth century (Caesar crossed to Britain ‘in the sixtieth year before the incarnation of the Lord’). They become more common in the thirteenth century, and by the fifteenth they appear in graphic timelines (e.g. as the Carthusian Werner Rolevinck’s Fasciculus temporum (1474)). Prior to Petavius, Scaliger discussed the shortcomings of ‘ante Christum’ dating by contrast with his own Julian Period ‒ a period of 7980 years based on a 28-year solar cycle, a 19-year lunar cycle and a 15-year indiction cycle ‒ which provides a continuous timeline well adapted for astronomical calculations (and is indeed still used for this purpose). The shortcomings of BC dating were recognized by Petavius too: he explained that he included BC dates only for those who might be scared of the unfamiliar Julian Period, but he makes the Julian Period his main chronological anchor. It is true that BC dates were used by Newton in his posthumous Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) ‒ but he also uses the Julian Period for an astronomical calculation. It was the nineteenth-century discovery of the age of the planet that rendered it (and rivals such as anno mundi dating) less useful (even though Scaliger conceived of the possibility of an infinity of earlier Julian Periods).

The conceptual problems in Wilcox’s model spring from his failure to distinguish between the measurement of time and time itself. With the ancient historians he looks at how time is presented in narratives; with Newton he explores ideas of time. And yet Newton’s time is in some ways not too far removed from some Greek conceptions of chronos ‒ which some classicists describe as an ‘absolute time’ by contrast with aiōn, ‘relative time’ (e.g. Collard on Euripides Suppliant Women 787‒8). Chronos is as universal as Newton’s ‘all-embracing’ time: ‘“all things” are regularly the target of time’s activity’ (Finglass on Sophocles Ajax 646‒7); it is ‘unwearying’, and ‘full in its ever-flowing stream it goes its round begetting itself’ (Critias TrGF 43 F 3.1‒3); it ‘has no father’ (Euripides fr. 303), but is itself the ‘ancient father of days’ (Euripides Suppliant Women 787‒8). In a comparative study of ancient Near Eastern cultures, Sacha Stern has indeed suggested that the ancient Greeks were unusually aware of the continuity of chronos as a separate entity.

Ideas about time, whether expressed through the imagery of a Greek poets or in Newton’s slightly more precise language, do not bear on the way time is measured. There is no such thing as an absolute chronology suitable for absolute time. All ways of measuring time are relative, and BC/AD dating is no more appropriate for Newtonian time than any other system of calculating years relative to a single point, including many of the systems used in Greco-Roman antiquity. If the term ‘absolute chronology’ is to be used at all, it should refer to a system which specifies the time in which events occur in relation to an external system (‘the first year of the twenty-third Olympiad’) rather than in relation to previous events (‘next year’).

Wilcox’s conception of absolute time seems as flawed, then, as his reading of Herodotus’ conspiracy narrative. And yet it is undeniable that Herodotus’ Histories do at times have an episodic quality ‒ and that occasionally his choices about where to reveal important information seem to us strange. Indeed, Wilcox’s analysis of ‘episodic time’ in Herodotus would have been better served by looking at the placement of other information that seems germane to the conspiracy and its aftermath. In his speech to the Persians before he jumps off the tower, Prexaspes retells the genealogy of the Achaemenids (the royal Persian line) as a way of asserting the correct order of rule in the empire. Much earlier in his work, Herodotus has told how Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire, had a dream in which Darius’ rise to power was foreshadowed; and in recounting this dream Herodotus reveals that Darius himself is an Achaemenid (1.209). And yet Darius’ supposed Achaemenid descent plays absolutely no role in the conspiracy narrative ‒ even though it would have been highly relevant to Darius’ arguments for monarchy in the ensuing ‘constitutional debate’ (3.82). Darius is presented instead (as Wilcox notes) as a chancer who is last to join the conspiracy and whose ruthlessness and cynicism prove decisive in its success.

Wilcox does, then, capture something of the effect of reading Herodotus. But it is still questionable whether it is appropriate to speak of ‘episodic time’ ‒ as opposed to ‘episodic narrative’. Herodotus’ failure to integrate the whole of Darius’ past in a single story-line is not a cognitive clue to his sense of time but a sign, rather, of the extraordinary complexity and variety of the material that he was attempting to integrate and of the narrative artistry with which he nonetheless succeeded in shaping it.


S. Stern, Time and process in ancient Judaism (Oxford, 2003).
D. J. Wilcox, The measures of time past (Chicago, 1987).

For BC dating, see A.-D. von den Brincken, ‘Beobachtungen zum Aufkommen der retrospektiven Inkarnationsära’, Archiv für Diplomatik 25 (1979) 1‒20.

“Memorial” and Anachronism

Brink Productions debuted Memorial at the Adelaide Festival for performances from 1-6 March 2018. The production came to the Barbican, London, 27-30 September 2018.


In 1940 Simone Weil declared that ‘The true hero, the true subject of the Iliad, is force’ (Weil, Besplaoff, McCarthy 2005), directing us to interpret the poem’s protagonist as mēnis (rage). The power of Weil’s reading is to strip away the focus on character and urge us to appreciate the poem’s structuring and destructive tendencies. Alice Oswald takes up the baton from Weil in Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (2011), her poetic to the Iliad. Oswald turns away from the thundering and galloping and raging and squabbling of the main Greek and Trojan heroes. In an extraordinary formal experiment, Memorial asks with Simone Weil, “what would it look like to read the Iliad without Achilles?”

Oswald’s answer is altogether less austere and relentlessly form-focused than Weil’s. Memorial seeks to commemorate the nameless and the barely mentioned, the 215 fallen men that Homer skims by and whose sole claim to posthumous fame might lie at the business end of Diomedes’ spear, or an inglorious spew of brains on that windy Trojan plain through which Achilles stomps, or the barely logical narrative hook from which hangs an abundant Homeric simile. Oswald describes her processing of the Iliad as ‘an attempt to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, to take away its narrative, as you might rip the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping’ (Oswald, 2011, ix). She is also highly aware that junking most of the plot and the focus on the main heroes constitutes ‘a reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem’ (Oswald, 2011, x). Oswald’s poetic sensibility is both tender and rock-and-roll, eyeing up eternity and the bright immediate now – in other words, anachronistic.

Oswald’s insistence on the humanity of each individual that she can recoup from the Homeric poem radically reshapes the kind of poem she offers as a response to the Iliad. It also reshapes the form of the Brink Productions recent performance of Memorial. Demurring from merely cataloguing the dead, in the manner that Homer gathers ships, or Hesiod women, Oswald toggles between creating biography and simile for each man and his death, a ‘bi-polar’ mode. Her invented biographical details are agonizingly specific: see for example, ‘Polydorus… who loved running/ now somebody has to tell his father/ That exhausted man leaning on the wall/ looking for his favourite son’ (Oswald, 2011, 64). And make no mistake, Oswald is an excellent reader of Homer – I snorted out loud at the epithet “neurotic” for Cassandra.

Particularity is precisely what is squeezed out of the Iliad for these men – there simply is no room for such mass of detail in a narrative in which the hot and heavy stirrings of the Hero (capital H)’s heart must be carefully tracked. Oswald’s procedure has a paradoxical effect – to individualize and restore humanity to hundreds of men, but in doing so, rendering the crowd of soldiers the protagonist of the poem. In this production, a non-professional group of volunteer men, women, and children form the chorus, drawn from local London community choirs and theatre groups. This chorus plays out the destruction of the city, the men who die, and even the Trojan plain itself – the play starts in darkness with a field of bodies peeling themselves up from the floor. Later, the chorus forms the din of battle (not unlike the stock footage of city streets that accompanies news reports on television, or murmurations of starlings, with clear internal logic and patterns that can only be appreciated by an onlooker). Homer’s similes do a lot of work to imagine worlds full of sympathetic and sensuous connections – it is quite another thing to see a river of bodies literalized as the Scamander, or a crowd of two hundred people gather round and form the walls of Troy.

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Oswald does not entirely eschew the Iliadic plot – there are obvious moments that re-create episodes such as Odysseus and Diomedes’ (textually and ethically dubious) night time raid on the camp of Rhesus in Iliad Book Ten. Not focusing on Achilles’ rage or the politicking of the Greek kings or the Trojan princes means that Oswald is able to lay bare their brutality, stripping back the presentation of Agamemnon to a commander who showed no mercy to a defenseless and naked young man who begged for his life.

This production chooses to linger on Hector’s death, as Memorial does, with significant change from the final books of the Iliad. Instead of the formality of ransoming of Hector’s body and the citywide mourning for the hero’s final journey home, the last we see of him in this production is (a character that we can assume is) Andromache, awkwardly dragging her husband’s much larger body off stage. It is a quietly powerful rebuttal to the endgame of Achilles’ rage, produced by the radical de-centering of character and plot.

 Helen Morse, grande dame of the Australian stage, performed the only speaking role, a modern rhapsode who was capable of communicating each soldier’s brief moment in the spotlight with gravitas and empathy. An older female Homeric narrator on stage, in the long tradition of contesting Homer’s gender (see Samuel Butler’s The Authoress of the Odyssey, 1897) as well as in the more recent controversy caused by Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey (2017), was a canny move in the context of Oswald’s investigation of the conceptual motor of the Iliad.

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Morse’s tremendous performance compelled Memorial on, keeping compassion fatigue at bay and interest high – she spoke continuously for nearly two hours, tracing lives that flashed for a moment, lamenting and making each grief anew. (Not rendering lament monotonous is a feat in itself – I remember feeling numb at Juliette Binoche’s relentless Antigone, performed at the same theatre a few years ago). It is astonishing to hear the powerful roll call of the dead, carefully named, each death mourned as an individual loss.

Oswald’s memorializing procedure is passionately humanizing – to that end, it feels as though it could be a memorial for all time, or for every moment that we need reminding that war is the worst manifestation of human power. The gloss of the eternal has the potential to reduce Oswald’s poem to a solemn exercise in commemoration. Brink Productions opted for two particularizing strategies that chip away at this sense of timelessness, to drag Memorial into historical and geographical specificity.

The first is Jocelyn Pook’s achingly beautiful score, using mainly two singers from Bulgaria and Macedonia, along with oboe, clarinets, brass and shawm, a medieval woodwind instrument. Director Chris Drummond at one point called this production of Memorial an “oratorio” – the evocative blend of word and song was distilled in the geographical and cultural specificity of using Balkan women’s lamenting voices.

If this production of Memorial pinned itself down in place to great effect, its temporal unpinning worked well too. About two thirds of the way through, soldiers dressed in World War One uniforms appear, dotted through the crowd, conspicuous in khaki among the chorus dressed in light, contemporary style, loose clothes. It was just a moment and more heavy-handed direction would have visually emphasized the connection between the mythological and historical wars. The point of not doing this, I take it, is not to bewail the pity of war in a facile way. Rather, Brink Productions’ handling of their commission to contribute to WWI commemorations layers over the universal significance of Memorial with the gentle insistence that that those who died in between 1914 and 1918 will fade from living memory too, their specific contours will blur, and they too will need commemorations that seek particularity. Faced with the anachronistic community of the war dead for just a moment, Brink Productions showed us a glimpse of the un/timeliness, as well as the deep compassion, that moves under memory.



  • Butler, S. (1897) The Authoress of the Odyssey (London &c.)
  • Oswald, A., (2011) Memorial (London: Faber)
  • Weil, S.,  Bespaloff, S. (2005) [1945, 1947] War and the Iliad translated by Mary McCarthy (New York: New York Review of Books).
  • Wilson, E. R. (trans.) (2018) The Odyssey (New York: W.W. Norton)





The ‘Presidents’ Club’ as an anachronistic community

Newly installed in the White House in Washington DC is a group portrait depicting several of the Republican presidents of the USA in conversation with each other. According to the Guardian, a copy of the painting ‘The Republican Club’ by Andy Thomas is now hanging outside the Oval Office. (The Washington Post has the story of how the painting came to President Trump’s attention).

Andy Thomas, The Presidents' Club
Andy Thomas, The Presidents’ Club

The use of portraiture to assert connections between individuals across time and space, and to say something about the relationships between them, has a long history in both fine art and more popular image-making. While the USA has its Mount Rushmore, a memorial on a huge scale to four past presidents, art history offers many further examples. Anachronism is often a feature of such pictures, given that their role is often to assert the continuity of the present with the past, and the flow of power from past to present.

Previously on our blog we’ve documented anachronistic group images, including the mediaeval favourites the Nine Heroes, and Raphael’s School of Athens. Of particular note is the fashion for anachronistic portrait groups in Tudor England; Lucas de Heere’s group of Tudor royals depicts Henry VIII with his children Edward VI, Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I as each was at the peak of their own power as a reigning monarch. It was probably painted in 1572 when of the three only Elizabeth survived: as reigning queen, she is accompanied in the portrait by mythological figures of Peace and Plenty, but in depicting the two siblings who preceded her to their father’s throne she reminds her subjects of her legitimate connection and claim to the throne. It was sent as a gift to her trusted minister Francis Walsingham.

The Family of Henry VIII, group portrait
Attributed to Lucas De Heere (1534-84), The Family of Henry VIII: An Allegory of the Tudor Succession, 1572, National Museum Cardiff.

A later monarch, William III of Orange, decorated a staircase at Hampton Court with images of himself defeating twelve Caesars, representing his Catholic opponents in mainland Europe; the anachronistic parallel adds to the grandeur of the scene, magnificently painted by Antonio Verrio (1636-1707), a specialist in such images.

Another form of group portrait is the conversation piece, popular in the eighteenth century as a way of depicting friends, especially those connected by shared political and intellectual interests and pursuits. William Hogarth’s Hervey Conversation Piece, painted 1738-40, shows a group of friends surrounding John Hervey, Lord Ickworth; the painting still hangs in his ancestral home in Suffolk. Such portraits united groups of friends who might in life rarely meet, connecting them in time and space.

The Hervey Conversation Piece, by William Hogarth (1697-1764), Ickworth House, Suffolk.
The Hervey Conversation Piece, by William Hogarth (1697-1764), Ickworth House, Suffolk.

Anachronistic assemblies also feature in more popular artistic contexts. Pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth produced the cover art for the Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967); their work presents a montage of historical and contemporary personalities, including images of the band members in earlier years.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, artwork by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, 1967
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, artwork by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, 1967

Anachronistic groups were also created in the ancient world. Group depictions of philosophers might assemble figures who were not contemporaries, or suggest that contemporary thinkers were linked to the Seven Sages of the past. Polybius reports that Roman families kept masks as portraits of family members, which were brought out for funeral processions, providing both a link to the past and a reminder of the power and influence wielded by leading families:

After the burial and all the usual ceremonies have been performed, they place the likeness of the deceased in the most conspicuous spot in his house, surmounted by a wooden canopy or shrine. This likeness consists of a mask made to represent the deceased with extraordinary fidelity both in shape and colour. These likenesses they display at public sacrifices adorned with much care. And when any illustrious member of the family dies, they carry these masks to the funeral, putting them on men whom they thought as like the originals as possible in height and other personal peculiarities. And these substitutes assume clothes according to the rank of the person represented: if he was a consul or praetor, a toga with purple stripes; if a censor, whole purple if he had also celebrated a triumph or performed any exploit of that kind, a toga embroidered with gold. These representatives also ride themselves in chariots, while the fasces and axes, and all the other customary insignia of the particular offices, lead the way, according to the dignity of the rank in the state enjoyed by the deceased in his lifetime; and on arriving at the Rostra they all take their seats on ivory chairs in their order. There could not easily be a more inspiring spectacle than this for a young man of noble ambitions and virtuous aspirations. (Polybius 6.53, translation Shuckburgh).

Other works by Andy Thomas show similar anachronistic groups of US presidents engaged in social activities such as playing poker and pool, perhaps paying tribute to the less serious side of the conversation piece tradition. In contrast, when the living former presidents of the USA are photographed together, it is often to send a serious message to their fellow citizens or to solicit their help for disaster relief or similar serious causes.


Eat the past: the ‘paleo diet’ in the golden age of antiquity

If only humans followed the simple life-styles and particularly the diet of their primitive ancestors, they would lead healthier lives. This is the claim of contemporary proponents of the ‘Paleo Diet’, whose adherents restrict themselves to the foods they believe were available to early human hunter-gatherers living in the distant past. They argue that humans who eat fruit and nuts gathered from plants as well as hunted meat are living more natural human lives than those who are over-nourished by modern foodstuffs produced using intensive agriculture. Yet their claims echo both ideas about eating in the distant primitive past held by the philosophers and poets of classical antiquity, and their practices echo the use by some groups of philosophers of exclusion and special diets as a means of fostering cohesion among their followers and establishing the identities of their sects.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Golden Age, 1530
The Golden Age (1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

The ‘mythologies’ of the modern ‘paleo diet’ have been criticised by evolutionary scientists, such as biologist Marlene Zuk in her Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us. Zuk, borrowing the term ‘paleofantasy’ from anthropologist Leslie Aiello, points out that privileging one point in the evolution of both humans and the things they eat makes little sense, and rests her argument, as with much criticism of this diet, on the science of evolution. Both humans and food-stuffs have evolved so significantly since the Stone Age that recreating the paleo-diet, outside the context of the subsistence life-style of indigenous peoples, is impossible, and research on the diet of indigenous peoples in the present day shows both a variety of food choices based on the local ecosystem, and also elements of agriculture and trading that add further choices.

However, the idea that the life-style of a primitive past ‘golden age’ resulted in a quality of human flourishing rendered unavailable by the decadence of the present itself has a long history within ancient thought, appearing from the earliest epics onward. Ancient accounts of the origins and early history of humans, such as Hesiod’s stories of early ‘golden’ humans living in harmony with the gods (Works and Days 109-20), and of the advent of animal sacrifice (Theogony 535-557), explore the food eaten in the distant past, often contrasting it with the present and drawing stern conclusions about the decadent life of the present. Visions of a simple life in which humans subsisted on gathered food are presented in many texts: Hesiod’s account presents an intermediate version in which the golden people enjoy both the spontaneous produce of the earth and of their flocks:

They had all good things; the grain-giving field bore crops of its own accord, much and unstinting, and they themselves, willing, mild-mannered, shared out the fruits of their labours together with many good things, wealthy in sheep, dear to the blessed gods. (Hesiod Works and Days 116-120, translation Glenn Most)

Where the ancient and modern imaginings of the paleo diet differ is in the proportion of meat  that features; given that red meat was an infrequent element of the ancient Greek diet, there is no cultural pressure to imagine it being present in greater quantity in the imagined diet of the golden age. In some versions, the golden age diet is a vegetarian one, with the emphasis on gathering plentiful produce that has been produced without cultivation:

The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
(Ovid Metamorphoses 1.106-111, in John Dryden’s translation)

The idea of a diet that predates agriculture and is based on nuts and fruits gathered without effort is central to ancient primitivism. Accounts of the Golden Age (sometimes identified as the ‘Age of Cronus/Kronos’ often linger on the food that it provided in abundance, as well as the simplicity and gentleness of life then, a tradition that Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas described, in their Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, as ‘soft primitivism’:

A god tended them, taking charge of them himself, just as now human beings, themselves a kind of living creature, but different and more divine, pasture other kinds of living creatures more lowly than themselves; and given that he was their shepherd, they had no political constitutions, nor acquired wives or children, for all of them came back to life from the earth, remembering nothing of the past; but while they lacked things of this sort, they had an abundance of fruits from trees and many other plants, not growing through cultivation but because the earth sent them up of its own accord. For the most part they would feed outdoors, naked and without bedding; for the blend of the seasons was without painful extremes, and they had soft beds from the abundant grass that sprung from the earth. What I describe then, Socrates, is the life of those who lived in the time of Kronos; as for this one, which they say is the time of Zeus, the present one, you are familiar with it from personal experience. (Plato Statesman 271e-272b, translation adapted from Rowe)

Indeed, for some philosophers the absence of meat from the diet was evidence of the harmonious life of the golden age. Such views were associated with the Pythagoreans, and  (reported by sources including Ovid in Metamorphoses 15.75-98) and also with the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles:

And the altar did not reek of the unmixed blood of bulls, but this was the greatest abomination among men, to snatch out the life and eat the goodly limbs (Empedocles Fragment 128)

Health-based claims about the golden-age diet were made by some ancient writers. In some of these texts we can see the transition that Lovejoy and Boas discerned between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ primitivism, in which the golden age is rationalised as a time of peacefulness but nonetheless one in which life was simple and austere. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ vision of an early diet offers a healthy life based on simple grains as well as gathered fruits and nuts, but no luxury, even after his interlocutor Glaucon queries its plainness:

I was forgetting that they’ll obviously need salt, olives, cheese, boiled roots and vegetables of the sort they cook in the country… they’ll roast myrtle and acorns before the fire, drinking moderately. And so they’ll live in peace and good health… (Plato Republic 2.372b-d, translated Grube)

Glaucon, identified by Lovejoy and Boas as an ‘anti-primitivist’, swiftly complains that this diet is that of a ‘city for pigs’, in which human life is reduced to the animalistic satisfaction of appetites, and insists that Socrates revises his model to reflect ‘the cooked food and delicacies that people have now’. Socrates concedes some luxury and complexity, but suggests that it will be at the cost of the city’s health, ultimately leading it to war. The idea that luxury and its pursuit caused war between cities and unrest within them would go on to be a staple of Roman thought.

Other philosophers in a range of subsequent Socratic traditions thought that simplicity or austerity was desirable in itself. We learn about one, through a report by Porphyry, a third-century CE neo-Platonist philosopher, written by Dicaearchus, a fourth-century BCE philosopher associated with Aristotle’s Peripatetics. Porphyry, originally from Tyre but working in Italy, used these ideas in his vegetarian tract On Abstinence from Eating Animals:

Dicaearchus tells us of what sort the life of the Age of Cronus was: if it is to be taken as having really existed and not as an idle tale, when the too mythical parts of the story are eliminated it may by the use of reason be reduced to a natural sense. For all things then presumably grew spontaneously, since the men of that time themselves produced nothing, having invented neither agriculture nor any art. If was for this reason that they lived a life of leisure, without care or toil, and also – if the doctrine of the most eminent medical men is to be accepted – without disease… For they did not eat food too strong for their constitutions, but such food as their constitutions could absorb, nor did they exceed the limits of moderation, in consequence of having so much available; on the contrary, by reason of scarcity they often ate less than they needed. (Porphyry De Abstinentia 4.1.2, translated Lovejoy/Boas)

Visions of the ancient diet that identified its persistence among peoples the Greeks labelled barbarian sometimes emphasised hunting and the eating of meat. The Scythians, in Virgil’s account, hunt and eat deer (Georgics  3.367-75), although other authors present them as shepherds dependent on dairy produce.

Just like some versions of the modern paleo diet, some ancient attempts to return to an ancient diet emphasised the eating of meat. One early paleo diet text, Walter Voegtlin’s 1975 The Stone-Age Diet, exhorts readers:

Think for a moment of the Old Stone Age people, who, when hungry, slew a cave bear or a woolly rhinoceros, gorged on a half-dozen pounds of meat and fat and, only when hungry, returned to the hunt. Then 10,000 years ago, the New Stone Age folk added to the menu – when meat and fat was in short supply – a handful of wild wheat or barley which had been well-pounded between stones and baked on a hot rock. (The Stone-Age Diet, Walter L. Voegtlin, 1975)

This meat-based feasting can be seen in another episode in Odysseus’ self-reported story, in which Odysseus tells how he demonstrated his hunting skills and killed a deer which his companions then cooked and ate, escaping the threat of starvation (Od. 10.156-184). The Roman writer on agriculture Columella identifies hunted meat as a key part of the early Roman diet, supplemented by abundant produce (Columella On Agriculture 1; see Purcell 2003). Throughout antiquity, hunting remained a key site for the performance of elite masculinity.

Little Hunt Mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale
Hunting and sacrifice, from the Little Hunt mosaic in the Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, c. 4th c. CE. Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki.

The advent of meat in the human diet is explained in various ways in ancient accounts of human development, but is often explained as a move away from cannibalism. From Homer and Hesiod onward, rituals of sacrifice and cooking give the eating of meat a special status but also establish a range of practices to manage it. Another way in which philosophers could offer a simpler model of life was to reject these usual social practices associated with eating, as Diogenes the Cynic, the somewhat mythicised founder of Cynicism, was said to have done; Diogenes Laertius (writing several hundred years after the dates his namesake Cynic philosopher is thought to have lived) reports that as well as abandoning the use of plates and cups, Diogenes the Cynic tried to subsist on raw meat as a minimal simple diet that suited dogs, only to find that it made him ill (Diogenes Laertius 6.34). ‘Returning’ to a simple diet became a form of social critique.

The Cynic rejection of prepared food was explored and satirised by adherents to other philosophical sects. Those attempting such alternative practices were liable to face criticism either for the practices themselves or for half-hearted adherence to them. The Roman emperor Julian (writing much later, in the fourth century CE) criticises the Cynics of his day for lack of commitment to Diogenes’ ascetism: unlike Diogenes who tried eating raw meat, they add salt and other flavouring to their meat:

It is not really the eating of raw food that disgusts you, either in the case of bloodless animals or those that have blood. But perhaps there is this difference between you and Diogenes, that he thought that he ought to eat such food raw and in its natural state, whereas you think you must first prepare it with salt and many other things for the sake of pleasure, whereby you do violence to nature… (Julian Oration 6.191-193, translated Lovejoy/Boas)

Just as modern adherents to the paleo diet eat foods that are far removed from their natural state, the Cynics criticised by Julian aimed to emulate a simple life but were unable to eliminate all the trappings of the modern complex life, and luxuries such as seasoning.

The ancient simple diet was a theme to which philosophers and poets often returned, but more as a critique of the luxury of present-day diets than as the presentation of an achievable lifestyle goal. Perhaps it is only the conditions of modernity that enable the nostalgic desire for the human past to become a lifestyle choice for a limited few.


  • Bitar, A.R. (2018) Diet and the Disease of Civilization (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press)
  • Lovejoy, A.O. and Boas, G. (1997) [1935], Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
  • Purcell, N. (2003) ‘The Way We Used to Eat: Diet, Community, and History at Rome’, American Journal of Philology, Vol. 124, No. 3, pp. 329-358.
  • Voegtlin, W. (1975) The Stone Age Diet (New York: Vantage)
  • Zuk, M. (2013) Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live (New York: Norton).






Project news – Dr Mathura Umachandran

We start the new academic year with an addition to the Anachronism and Antiquity team. We’re very pleased to welcome Dr Mathura Umachandran as a postdoctoral research associate. We also send congratulations to our colleague Dr Tom Phillips, who has joined the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester as a lecturer in Classics.

Mathura Umachandran received her PhD from the Department of Classics at Princeton University in March 2018. Her dissertation, ‘Antiquity in Dark Times: Classical Reception in the Thought of Theodor Adorno and Erich Auerbach’, explored how both men developed positions and methods in articulating their alienation from the particular forms of philhellenism that had anchored German philology and philosophy. As a postdoctoral researcher for ‘Anachronism and Antiquity’, Mathura will continue to develop her interests in this particularly urgent moment of classical reception in the history of German thought. She will also contribute to the project’s activities for 2018-19, its final year, including a seminar series to be held in Oxford during Trinity Term 2019.

Dr Mathura Umachandran

Mathura will investigate how Auerbach’s re-tooling of the concept Weltliteratur (World literature), as it was derived in the German Romantic tradition, is a complex attempt to develop a hermeneutic model for literature that was committed to historical difference without rendering Greek antiquity an aesthetic example. She will also continue her research on Adorno this year, laying the foundations for a monograph on the reception of antiquity in the thought of the first generation of the Frankfurt School. She will investigate whether Adorno’s most radical conceptual intervention into the philosophy of history, ‘negative dialectics’, can properly describe the place of antiquity in his thought, from which it would be possible to generate a new theoretical model of classical reception.

Mathura’s other academic interests include thinking about race at the interstices of the antiquity and the academy, classical reception in contemporary art, poetry and political discourse, and issues around social justice in education at all levels and venues.