Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Anachronistic Antiquities of Rome

Recent historiographical thinking has often denied to the ancients an understanding of history as a domain of inquiry in its own right, separate from experience of the present. Antiquity’s under-developed sense of history is conceptualized as a stage in a developmental narrative that culminates in the critical temporal self-consciousness that emerged after the French Revolution. Proponents of this view argue that the ancients’ inability to conceive of anachronism is symptomatic of their comparatively inchoate sense of historical time, and their commitment to cyclical models of history. Zachary Schiffman, in his recent book The Birth of the Past, makes this case at length. For Schiffman, the ancients were never able to elevate ‘differences between past and present … to a principle of historical knowledge’. Possessed of ‘a static view of the world that focused on recurrent patterns in history rather than singular events, on the universal and immutable over the contingent and variable’, the poets and historians of the ancient world could only conceive anachronisms on a non-systematic, ad hoc basis, rather than as phenomena indicative of fundamental differences between past and present, and between different historical periods.

One weakness of such accounts is their selectiveness. Schiffman focuses on Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, and a similar range of authors is covered in Reinhart Koselleck’s masterful book Futures Past, to which Schiffman’s approach is indebted. However, a particularly rich set of meditations on the ‘differences between past and present’ is found in a work which neither author considers at length, the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian active in the late first century BC. Dionysius’ basic aim in this work is to illustrate the close links between Greek and Roman civilization. On Dionysius’ view, the settlements from which Rome eventually developed were founded by Greek colonists, and many Roman rituals and cultural practices were Greek in origin. In reflecting on these connections, Dionysius pairs historical and ethical analysis, arguing that manners and conduct have in many respects declined through the course of Roman history. As a result, both people and ritual practices can appear as anachronistic remainders of a previous age, and serve as the basis for a critique of contemporary behaviour.

A telling instance of the former occurs in his juxtaposition of the qualities that characterised early Rome and with the habits found in his own day. He claims that Rome’s early leaders ‘worked for themselves, were modest, and did not resent honourable poverty’ (αὐτουργοὶ καὶ σώφρονες καὶ πενίαν δικαίαν οὐ βαρυνόμενοι, 10.17.6), and they did not aim to achieve ‘royal power’ for themselves. ‘The men of today’, on the other hand, ‘do the opposite in all respects’. Yet Dionysius concedes that some contemporary Romans do not conform to this trend. In them, he says, ‘the dignity of the state and the preservation of a likeness to those men [sc. of the past] still abides’ (δι᾿ οὓς ἕστηκεν ἔτι τὸ τῆς πόλεως ἀξίωμα καὶ τὸ σώζειν τὴν πρὸς ἐκείνους τοὺς ἄνδρας ὁμοιότητα). Such men stand out, being few in number, different from the majority of their contemporaries, and as a medium in which outdated qualities remain legible. Dionysius here anticipates the conceptualization of individual people as anachronisms that only becomes fully explicit in English in the nineteenth century.

Rituals can also be sites of anachronistic survivals. When discussing Numa’s institution of boundary stones as markers of property and the accompanying festival of the Terminalia at which sacrifices were offered to the stones as sacred objects (2.74), Dionysius comments that ‘memory’ of these practices ‘is still preserved today’ (τούτου μέχρι τῶν καθ᾿ ἡμᾶς χρόνων φυλάττουσι Ῥωμαῖοι μνημεῖα), but is undertaken ‘for form’s sake’ (τῆς ὁσίας αὐτῆς ἕνεκα). And yet the capacity for awe at the numinousness of these objects has not entirely vanished. According to Dionysius, the Romans still regard the boundary stones ‘as gods’ and make yearly sacrifices to them (θεούς τε γὰρ ἡγοῦνται τοὺς τέρμονας καὶ θύουσιν αὐτοῖς ὁσέτη). Such a conception is not of itself sufficient to stimulate good conduct; the Romans should also ‘observe the motive’ that led Numa to ‘conceive the boundary stones as gods’ (ἐχρῆν δὲ καὶ τὸ ἔργον ἔτι φυλάττειν αὐτούς, οὗ χάριν θεοὺς ἐνόμισε τοὺς τέρμονας ὁ Νόμας), by being content with their own possessions and not seeking to appropriate those of others by ‘force and trickery’ (βίᾳ … δόλῳ). Instead, contemporary Romans’ ‘desire for all things’ (ἡ πάντων ἐπιθυμία) leads them to compromise the socially beneficial model that their ancestors bequeathed.

Claude - Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum
Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682) – Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum, 1634, Art Gallery of South Australia

Like the men in whom a likeness to the great Roman leaders of the past is preserved, the ritual acts as a window on to early Romans’ ethically exemplary thinking and conduct. In reading this account, readers are invited to sense something of the impulsion towards ‘frugality and modesty and the desire for justice’ (2.74.1) that Numa’s regulations originally created. Yet the possibility for such a renewal of readers’ ethical capacities is balanced by the pessimistic acknowledgement that most people do not behave in this way. Good conduct has been made anachronistic by the predominance of appetites over ethical principles. Closely related to this predominance is the tendency for economic developments and accompanying changes in material culture to make ancient practices seem outdated. Having praised Romulus for instituting simple rituals, Dionysius notes that many if not all of these sacrifices are still being carried out ‘in the ancient manner’ even in his own time. Dionysius declares his admiration for the way in which those who carry out such rituals ‘adhere to ancestral custom and in no respect diverge from the ancient rites into the bombast of extravagance’ (διαμένουσιν ἐν τοῖς πατρίοις ἔθεσιν οὐδὲν ἐξαλλάττοντες τῶν ἀρχαίων ἱερῶν εἰς τὴν ἀλαζόνα πολυτέλειαν).

With this last phrase, Dionysius acknowledges that Rome’s vast empire and revenues enable rituals to be adorned with trappings and finery unavailable to the city’s founders. But trinkets such as ‘gold and silver vessels’ do not, Dionysius implies, make encounters with the gods any more meaningful. By contrast with ancient rituals ‘free of all attempt at display’ (πάσης ἀπειροκαλίας ἀπηλλαγμένα), the superficial allure of precious metals risks distracting worshippers from the rituals’ deeper purposes. Those who ‘adhere to ancestral custom’ are all the more admirable because of the background against which they now take place, which differs considerably from that in which the rituals were created.

In each of these passages, readers are challenged to adopt an historical self-consciousness that mirrors that of Dionysius himself. When reading about rituals practiced ‘in the ancient manner’ and the description of the Terminalia, readers are prompted, by reflecting on the processes by which they have come to seem anachronistic, to a fuller awareness of the features that enable the rituals to afford participants an efficacious engagement with the gods. The men who preserve ‘the dignity of the state’ similarly become paradigms against which readers might measure their own behaviour. Far from being incidental to Dionysius’ history, passages such as these make anachronistic phenomena into ‘a principle of historical knowledge’ around which the work’s ethical designs are structured.

  • Schiffman, Z.S. (2011) The Birth of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).

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