Anchoring Innovation

It might seem fanciful to claim that the project ‘Anchoring Innovation’, now underway in Classics departments in the Netherlands following a major government grant, addresses some of the same themes as our Leverhulme-funded ‘Anachronism and Antiquity’. It appears odd, after all, to speak of ‘innovation’ and ‘anachronism’ in the same breath. But what makes this claim valid are the implications of the term ‘anchoring’.

The aims of the ‘Anchoring Innovation’ project are set out in a programmatic paper by Ineke Sluiter published in the European Review. The goal, Sluiter writes, is ‘to identify how people in Antiquity dealt with change in ways that allowed them to feel an unbroken sense of self, identity, group cohesion and cultural belonging within the different and certainly not monolithic entities that made up ancient society.’ Through the metaphor of ‘anchoring’, the project seeks to analyse how the past clings on even amidst innovation.

Sluiter offers a number of examples of continuity in change that reflect the sort of temporal multiplicity that is central to our anachronism project. She invokes the notion of anchoring to explain why the architectural writer Vitruvius suggested that some seemingly otiose features on stone buildings (for instance, the small projections known as guttae, ‘drops’) were based on functional features such as pegs found in old wooden buildings. A different method of ‘anchoring innovation’ is offered by the building programme on the Acropolis at Athens following the devastating Persian invasion of 480 BC. While the Athenians built a new Parthenon and Erechtheum, they used the remains of the old temple of Athena to reinforce the north wall of the Acropolis (where they can still be seen to this day) ‒ remains which, Sluiter notes, ‘would have reminded the Athenians of the historical events that led to the new building activities, which were therefore securely “anchored” in the past’.

While the Dutch project uses anchoring as a metaphor, physical anchors offer fruitful material for our anachronism project. In a geographical account of the Black Sea, the versatile second-century AD writer Arrian offers an account of an object to be found in a temple at Phasis, a city at the eastern end of the sea, famous as the location of the Golden Fleece:

There the anchor of the Argo, is shown. The iron one did not seem to me to be ancient ‒ and yet in size it is not like present-day anchors, and in shape it is somehow different ‒ but rather it appeared to me to be more recent. Ancient fragments of a stone anchor were also shown, so that one might reckon that these are more likely to be the remains of the anchor of Argo. (Periplus of the Black Sea 9.2)

Rather than making explicit the grounds for his suspicions about the authenticity of the iron anchor, Arrian mentions in passing two features that give that claim a superficial plausibility: its size and shape. It is the following statement that stone fragments are more likely to be authentic that makes clear the basis of his reasoning.

The grounds for Arrian’s suspicions are laid out more fully by the British polymath George Stanley Faber (1773‒1853) in one of his enquiries into the key to all mythologies:

the story was a mere fiction of the priests. … Those impostors do not seem to have considered, that such pretensions involved a direct anachronism. Anchors are never once mentioned by Homer, the remarkable exactness of whose descriptions is well known; hence we may reasonably conclude, that they were a subsequent invention. How then could the Argo have had an anchor, when its imaginary voyage is unanimously supposed to have been prior to the siege of Troy?

Faber is here picking up the historical approach to archaic poetry found in ancient scholarship. The claim that anchors are not mentioned by Homer was in fact disputed in ancient scholarship. Homer does mention in nautical contexts the casting of eunai, ‘beds’, and these ‘beds’ are sometimes glossed in the margins of manuscripts as ‘anchors’ and even described as iron: ‘he calls the iron anchors of the boats “beds” because the boats are bedded by these and at rest’ (scholion on Odyssey 9.137). But it is clear from a number of passages that eunai were stones rather than curved metal anchors (Greek agkura is cognate with words meaning ‘bent’); indeed, according to another ancient commentator (on Iliad 18.570),  the word ‘stone’ (lithos) was preserved as a term for ‘anchor’ (anchoring innovation in action!).

Clearer support for Faber’s position is found in ancient scholarship on Pindar. Pindar’s celebrated Argonautic narrative in his fourth Pythian ode includes the detail that the departing heroes ‘slung the anchors above the prow’ (4.191-2). Critics in antiquity objected that anchors ‘did not exist in the time of the heroes: therefore we say that Pindar has composed this in a peculiar way’. The word here translated ‘in a peculiar way’, idiōs, is evidently gesturing towards the anachronism of Pindar’s description. Both the Pindar scholia and Faber point to the contrasting practice of the epic Argonautica written by Apollonius of Rhodes, who, in Faber’s words, ‘with great propriety gives his heroes a large stone for an anchor’. Implicit in these accounts is a view of technological advance: the age of the heroes did not know the use of iron.

Arrian’s discussion of the touristic sights of ancient Phasis invites comparison with other ancient evidence for Argonautic relics. Apollonius alludes to the Argonauts exchanging at Cyzicus, a city on the southern shores of the Propontis, a light for a heavy anchor, and it is known that Callimachus alluded to the same story. The original light anchor was subsequently dedicated in a temple of Athena, and scholars at the start of the nineteenth century (such as Arrian’s translator Thomas Falconer) could still wonder whether the stone fragments which Arrian mentions were the remains of this anchor.

Hellenistic stone anchors


The story that the Argonauts exchanged anchors may originally been have an attempt to explain the existence of two different relics. But why cast it as an exchange of light for heavy? The increasing weight of the new anchor perhaps chimes with the wild and inhospitable reputation of the Black Sea which the Argonauts were about to enter. It also follows a common evolutionary schema ‒ a move from small to large ‒ that would have particularly point in those accounts that portrayed the Argo as the first ever ship: by trial and error the Argonauts arrived at the optimum size. This evolutionary schema stands in tension, however, with Arrian’s comment that the size of the iron anchor he saw at Phasis was appropriate to the age of the heroes. Arrian was evidently following the Homeric image of the extraordinary strength of the ancient warriors, able to throw rocks that men in the poet’s day could not lift.

There was nothing especially innovative in Arrian’s reasoning about the anchor at Phasis. What it does show is how a sense of anachronism, though sharpened by the need to work through the implications of competing evolutionary and devolutionary narratives, was grounded in philological commentary on ancient poetry. Whatever new insights emerge from the projects on anachronism and innovation currently underway in Oxford and the Netherlands, it is not too far-fetched to claim that they will themselves be anchored in the spirit of historical criticism fostered by critics in antiquity.


  • I. Sluiter, ‘Anchoring Innovation: A Classical Research Agenda’, European Review 25: 1 (2017), 20–38.
  • S. Faber, A Dissertation on the Mysteries of the Cabiri: or, The Great Gods of Phoenicia, Samothrace, Egypt, Troas, Greece, Italy, and Crete). Being an Attempt to Deduce the Several Orgies Of Isis, Ceres, Mithras, Bacchus, Rhea, Adonis, and Hecate, from an Union of the Rites Commemorative of the Deluge with the Adoration of the Host of Heaven, 2 volumes (Oxford, 1803).
  • T. Falconer, Arrian’s Voyage round the Euxine Sea: Translated, and Accompanied with a Geographical Dissertation, and Maps (Oxford, 1805).

An anachronistic anniversary

What is the history of the English word ‘anachronism’? This is the sort of question that (barring the difference of language) might well have engaged the attention of the diners who contribute to Plutarch’s Table-Talk or Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. In 2017, it seems more appropriate to raise this question in a web post rather than at a dinner party. And this post will itself seek to commemorate (just in time) a hitherto unheralded anniversary.

Portrait of John Hales (1584–1656)
John Hales (1584–1656), Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, whose 1617 sermon contains the earliest documented use of the term ‘anachronism’ in English.

In a 2009 article ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, a scholar of comparative literature, Joseph Luzzi, suggested that the word ‘anachronism’ was ‘first used in English in 1669’, a century after it had first appeared in Italian. Deriving the word from ‘a fusion of the Greek compound meaning “late in time”’, and so from ‘the oldest of Western high-cultural idioms’, Luzzi went on to suggest that the word ‘was actually created millennia after that culture had disappeared’: ‘the term’s etymology stands both as an ironic gloss on its semantic connotations and an allegory for its thematic claims.’ In other words, Luzzi is commenting on the fact that a classically derived word for belatedness was itself surprisingly late to appear on the scene (though scarcely, pace Luzzi, ‘millennia’ after the disappearance of ancient Greek culture). Luzzi’s ironic and allegorical reading of the etymology can be seen as a literal instance of a theme central to our project: he invokes the supposed history of the term ‘anachronism’ as a way of separating off antiquity from its aftermath. A compelling counter-claim would be that that Greek culture whose disappearance Luzzi misdates has never disappeared at all.

While Luzzi does not cite a source for his claim that ‘anachronism’ began in 1669, he presumably based that claim on the Oxford English Dictionary, where an entry for 1669 is indeed cited ‒ ‘This error sprang from Anachronisme, and confusion of Histories’ ‒ from the puritan Theophilus Gale’s work The Court of Gentiles (sub-title: A discourse touching the original of human literature, both philologie and philosophie, from the Scriptures and Jewish church). The problem is that this is the second entry the OED cites under ‘anachronism’. Its claim to priority is outdone by a quote from a chronological work by John Gregory (1609-1646), a chaplain of Christ Church in Oxford. Dating the birth of Christ ‘Anno Mundi 3949, Anno Period. Jul. 4713, Olympiad 197, and 748 of Nabonassar’, Gregory explained that ‘this Connexion of things is called Synchronism’ while ‘an error committed herein is called Anachronism: and either saith too much, and that is a Prochronism; or too little, and that is a Metachronism’. This passage is cited from Gregory’s 1649 Posthuma, and so dated ‘a[i.e. ante]1646’, the year of his death.
If one follows the OED entry, the intellectual historian Peter Burke, author of more than one treatment of the Renaissance sense of anachronism, seems to be making a better stab of it when he writes that it was ‘around 1650 that the term ‘anachronism’ (anachronismus, anacronismo, anachronism) began to come into use in Latin, Italian, French and English’ ‒ at least as far as the English term is concerned (Luzzi is right that the word entered Italian in the second half of the sixteenth century; instances of Latin anachronismus are earlier still). The influence of the OED citation of John Gregory is clear in the definition Burke offers of the word at its first appearance: ‘a mistake made in the course of “synchronism”, in other words the attempt to translate from one chronological system into another.’ Burke is here concerned to differentiate this early technical sense from the ‘sense of anachronism’ which is his main concern, namely an idea of historical difference. He concludes that ‘to speak of the sense of anachronism of Mantegna or Erasmus is … literally speaking, anachronistic’.

Burke’s conclusion is correct as far as the meaning of ‘anachronism’ itself is concerned ‒ though it is important to note that the concept of historical change could be expressed before the word ‘anachronism’ came to be applied to it. Implicit in his claim about the history of the term, however, is an ideological construction of space. Behind the Latin anachronismus lurks the Greek noun anachronismos, formed from the verb anachronizō, first attested around AD 200. The stem of ‘anachronism’ had been in existence for more than a millennium when Mantegna and Erasmus were alive, then, but only in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. It was during Mantegna’s lifetime (c. 1431‒1506), however, that manuscripts containing the word were first transported to Italy, and during Erasmus’ (1466‒1536) that those manuscripts were first published. Burke’s claim about the anachronism of speaking of anachronism is as much a claim about where the word was used as it is about when or how.

The problem with Burke’s reliance on the OED entry for ‘anachronism’ is that that entry itself commits an anachronism. The search facilities provided by the online OED throw up an earlier appearance of the word under ‘hysterosis’ in William Lisle’s 1623 edition with translation of A Saxon treatise concerning the Old and New Testament, written by a monk called Aelfricus. Lisle took a phrase used by Aelfricus, ‘Lingua Britannica’, to be a reference to old English, ‘by Hysterosis or Anachronisme (a figure much used in Historie, yea even in the Bible)’. Here the word is not used in the chronological sense of a breach of synchronism but as a term of literary criticism ‒ the sense in which it is most commonly used in Byzantine Greek.

As the OED advances alphabetically, it reveals a still earlier usage of ‘anachronism’, again as a literary figure. In a sermon delivered at St Mary’s Church in Oxford in Easter week, 1617, John Hales, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, addressed the Biblical text ‘Which the vnlearned and vnstable wrest, as they doe the other Scriptures, vnto their owne destruction’ (2 Peter 3.16). His aim was to warn against unwarranted projections of Calvinist doctrines onto obscure Biblical passages:

The Iewish Rabbines in their Comments on Scripture so oft as they met with hard and intricate texts, out of which they could not wrest themselues, were wont to shut vp their discourse with this, Elias cum venerit, solvet dubia: Elias shall answer this doubt when he comes. Not the Iewes only, but the learned Christians of all ages haue found many things in Scripture which yet expect Elias. For besides those texts of Scriptures, which by reason of the hidden treasures of wisdome, and depth of sense & mysterie laid vp in them, are not yet conceau’d, there are in Scripture of things that are ὕστερα πρότερα [‘later earlier’], seemingly confus’d, ἐναντιοφανῆ [‘opposite-seeming’], carrying semblance of contrarietie, anachronismes, metachronismes, and the like, which bring infinite obscuritie to the text: there are I say in Scripture more of them, then in any writing that I knowe secular or divine.

Why the mistake in the OED entry for ‘anachronism’? The misleading date it gives for the first appearance of the word could, at a pinch, be taken as a subtle in-joke, the entry for ‘metachronism’ metachronically revealing an anachronism in the entry for ‘anachronism’. But it is easy enough to understand why the editors of the original OED (or rather: A new English dictionary on historical principles), despite their formidable filing systems, failed to pick up these earlier usages; and the dictionary itself appeared in fascicles over the course of 44 years, with the entries for ‘anachronism’, ‘hysterosis’, and ‘metachronism’ first appearing in 1884, 1899, and 1906. Those editors are rather to be admired for their coverage: using digital resources such as Early English Books Online I can find no earlier instance of the word in English.

Our anniversary-conscious age has made much of Luther and Lenin this year. The first recorded use of ‘anachronism’ in English is not quite in the same league as the Reformation or the Russian Revolution. But it is still worth remembering that sermon delivered in Oxford a century after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, three hundred years before Lenin travelled by train to the Finland station. Even if this anniversary may itself one day be shown to be an anachronism …


  • Peter Burke, ‘The sense of anachronism from Petrarch to Poussin’, in C. Humphrey and W. M. Ormrod, eds, Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge, 2001), 157-74.
  • Joseph Luzzi, ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, Comparative Literature 61 (2009), 69-84.

Thermopylae business: exemplarity and historicity

‘A new age is begun.  An age of great deeds.  An age of reason.  An age of justice.  An age of law.  And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.’

‘We’re with you, sir, to the death.’

‘I didn’t ask.  Leave democracy to the Athenians, boy.’

The heroic death of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae can be taken as exemplary of exemplarity itself. No one can know what the men said to themselves the night before they met their end (the knowing allusion to the fame of their sacrifice quoted above is from 300, Frank Miller’s graphic re-telling of the Thermopylae story). But the famous Thermopylae epitaph ‒ ‘Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie, obeying their laws’ ‒ imagines them speaking from beyond the grave, establishing themselves as an example to the Spartans at home and by implication to all who come across their message, starting with the ‘stranger’ who is to convey it to Sparta.

David's Leonidas at Thermopylae
Leonidas at Thermopylae, Jacques-Louis David, 1814, Louvre, Paris.

The Thermopylae paradigm was often picked up in antiquity. In an excerpt from his Annals that is quoted by Aulus Gellius, Cato the Elder set the self-sacrifice of a Roman tribune in the First Punic War alongside the death of the Spartan king Leonidas (F76 FRHist) ‒ in full consciousness that he would go on to recount his own (supposedly decisive) role in a later battle at Thermopylae, the Roman defeat of Antiochus III in 192 BC. While Thermopylae is naturally enough absent from the list of Persian War battles on which the Athenians’ own patriotic rhetoric was fixated, it had its place alongside Marathon and Salamis in the rhetorical schools of the early Roman empire: Lucian’s satire An Instructor in Rhetoric includes the advice that the would-be declaimer should ‘cap everything with references to Marathon and Cynegeirus, without which you cannot succeed at all … Let Xerxes flee and Leonidas receive admiration’ (41.18).

The spell of the example of the 300 Spartans has remained strong in the last two centuries. Thermopylae was invoked by Goering in a radio appeal in January 1943 to the German Sixth Army trapped in Stalingrad. It was also applied to many conflicts in the US expansion across North America, from the Alamo to the war against Mexico (‘they will consecrate their camp as an American Thermopylæ’) and Custer at Little Bighorn. More expansively, an American journalist at the time of the Mexican War used the ancient battle to cap an encomium of the United States as ‘a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to the followers of liberty throughout the civilized world’: ‘This is, indeed, the world’s Thermopylæ’ (New York Herald, 1845). Knowingly or not, this writer was using an image of British self-promotion during the war against Napoleon (the phrase ‘the world’s Thermopylæ’ is found in an 1803 sermon by Robert Hall and the 1814 poem Greece by William Haygarth).

The power of exemplarity is often thought to be based on the notion of a stable human nature ‒ a notion that tells against sensitivity to historical change and a sense of anachronism. Yet the exemplary power of the story of Thermopylae has often been unsettled by the interplay of past and present. Thucydides (4.36.3) alluded to Thermopylae precisely to show up the failure of the Spartans trapped on the island of Sphacteria to match the example set by their forebears two generations earlier. In similar vein Mary Boykin Chestnut, wife of a confederate general in the American Civil War, referred to the retreat of the confederate army before Sherman as a failure to do ‘Thermopylae business’. Alternatively the present can trump the past: the Texan boast ‘Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none’ glorifies the complete destruction of the defenders while the expression ‘the world’s Thermopylæ’ holds out the promise of ultimate victory in a more global conflict than the Greco-Persian wars.

To move to the twentieth century, Anthony Beevor’s classic Stalingrad evokes from first-hand evidence the disillusion felt by the Germans within the city as a heroic paradigm was thrust upon them by a distant leader with no grasp of their suffering. And in the aftermath of the war a sense of the fragmentation of ancient exemplarity was conveyed by Heinrich Boll in his 1950 short story Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa … Boll’s story tells of a severely wounded young German soldier who comes to realise that he is back in his old school as he sees the words (Schiller’s translation of the Thermopylae epitaph, now partly erased) that he himself had written on the blackboard just three months earlier. Like many modern receptions of ancient exemplarity, Boll offers a thoughtful interrogation of concepts of historical distance and proximity. That sort of interrogation can even be seen in rather blunter form in Frank Miller’s ‘leave democracy to the Athenians’: is that a distancing of Spartan militarism and masculinity ‒ or a hint that democracy is not all it is cracked up to be? However it is read, it is a message that is now subject to its own historicization, in the wake of the Iraq War, the subsequent film based on Miller’s comic, and the rise of Trumpism.

In antiquity, the paradigmatic use of Thermopylae and of the other Persian Wars battles underwent a major change after the Roman conquest of Greece. We have already noted that Leonidas’ example was cited by Cato, himself a participant in that conquest; on one reading, Cato’s point in juxtaposing Roman and Spartan heroism was to hint that the now conquered Greeks were excessively given to self-praise. From the Greek perspective, reflections on the changes made by the Roman conquest can be found in Plutarch’s essay Precepts of Statesmanship. Plutarch advises that the great themes of the Persian Wars ‒ ‘Marathon, the Eurymedon, Plataea, and all the other examples which make the common folk vainly to swell with pride’ ‒ should be left to ‘the schools of the sophists’. He does nonetheless recuperate for present use some seemingly less glamorous deeds by the Greeks of old: the statesman can still ‘mould and correct the characters of our contemporaries’ by recounting events such as the amnesty at Athens after the downfall of the Thirty Tyrants (814a-c).

The pax Romana did not hold, and with its passing came the possibility of new uses of the old exempla. A spectacular illustration of the new possibilities has recently re-surfaced with the discovery in palimpsest in a manuscript in Vienna of some excerpts from the third-century AD historian Dexippus (subject already of my previous post, Oft of one wide expanse had I been told). It was already known that Dexippus told of the contemporary Gothic incursions that marked the end of the Roman peace. The new discovery has revealed a previously unsuspected battle against the Goths at Thermopylae ‒ for Dexippus, inspiration for an oration in the classic historiographical style: ‘For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state, for they fought bravely in the Persian wars and in the conflict called the Lamian war, and when they put to flight Antiochus, the despot from Asia, at which time they were already working in partnership with the Romans who were then in command’ (translated Mallan and Davenport). For the Greeks, it seems, a new age had begun, and it was once more time for Thermopylae business.


C. Mallan and C. Davenport, ‘Dexippus and the Gothic Invasions: Interpreting the New Vienna Fragment (Codex Vindobonensis Hist. gr. 73, ff. 192v–193r)’, Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015), 203–26.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

One of our previous postings, Of Sundials, suggested that scientific discovery was a great generator of anachronism within antiquity. Here we turn to a related area of ancient enquiry, geography – and to the challenges posed to Greco-Roman mappings of the world by new information about a strange group of islands set in the wide expanse of sea north of the European mainland.

reconstruction of Herodotus' map
The encircling sea characterises reconstructions of Herodotus’ description of the world: this version is from HG Wells’ Outline of History, 1921.

One of the most striking features of the image of the world presented in Homer is a great encircling river known as Okeanos – the Ocean. By the time of Herodotus, however, that Homeric picture no longer seemed adequate: ‘It is impossible to argue against the person who spoke about Ocean, transporting the story (muthos) into the realm of uncertainty. I do not know the existence of any River Ocean, and I think that Homer or one of the other poets from past time invented the name and introduced it into his poetry.’ The encircling river is not, however, an anachronism for Herodotus: he simply does not have the knowledge to disprove the story. What he finds objectionable about the old poets is that they did not have any proper geographical knowledge either, but simply invented an encircling Ocean.

Change in geographical knowledge, as well as change in geographical features, plays an important role in discussions of anachronism in ancient criticism. Among the numerous complaints that Polybius brought against the Sicilian historian Timaeus was his out-of-date information on the geography of Africa. Diodorus noted that new geographical knowledge refuted the view that the Argonauts sailed on their return journey along the River Ister (the Danube) from the Black Sea to the Adriatic (which received the waters of a different River Ister). And within the wide-ranging field of Homeric scholarship, geographers such as Strabo were interested in the question of whether Homer’s narrative reflected the geographical realities known to the poet or those known to his characters.

What about the Ocean itself? By the time of the Roman empire there was rather more knowledge about areas outside the Mediterranean than in Herodotus’ lifetime. An interesting discussion is contained in the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, in an entry on the Roman empire. I here modify slightly the translation offered in the invaluable online edition of the Suda:

This empire surpassed by far the empire of the Assyrians and Persians and Macedonians, the previous ones. In the East it is bounded by the Indians and the Red Sea and the Nile and Cataracts and lake Maeotis. As regards the west, it is bounded by Ocean itself, which was shown by the Romans’ accomplishments to be no myth; nor did the poets falsely sing its name for entertainment, since in fact the land of the Britons, which is an island surrounded by Ocean, has now been discovered and is considered part of the Roman empire.

The author of this piece is probably Dexippus, an Athenian statesman and historian of the third century AD, who wrote a world chronicle covering 1,000 years, an account of the events after the death of Alexander, and a contemporary history, the Scythica. I say ‘probably Dexippus’ because that name is preserved in the Suda after the citation, and so it is possible that what Dexippus actually wrote are the words that follow rather than precede the name.

Whoever the author, one of the implications of this Suda entry seems to be that Herodotus’ dismissal of the poets’ account of the Ocean is anachronistic. The advance of the Roman empire has replaced uncertainty with the clarity of knowledge and proved the poets right. But the fragment is not so straightforward as that. There is uncertainty over the text as well as over the authorship. Editors often assume that some words have dropped out after ‘as regards the west’, perhaps mentioning the great rivers normally seen as the bounds of the Roman empire, the Danube and Rhine. More to the point here is that the translation offered above translates an emendation in the crucial phrase about the Ocean’s status as myth: hon mê muthon for hon dê muthon.

Felix Jacoby in his great edition of fragments of the Greek historians offered a different interpretation of the passage (FGrH 100 F 12). He preserved the manuscript reading in that clause while including a different emendation (the addition of a single Greek letter, an eta meaning ‘than’) later in the same sentence. According to the text he prints, the Ocean ‘was shown by the Romans’ accomplishments to be a myth, its name nothing other than something sung by the poets for entertainment’. With this text, Herodotus’ geographical judgement is vindicated – though Herodotus himself is still an anachronism: the Ocean is a myth, but Dexippus (unlike Herodotus) can prove it.

The argument of the passage as a whole supports Jacoby’s interpretation. To show that the Ocean was no myth did not require the conquest and circumnavigation of Britain. A trip to the northern coast of Gaul or the western coast of the Iberian peninsula would have done just as well – or just as badly. After all, Herodotus could rightly object that the mere discovery that the Ocean flowed around Britain scarcely justifies the poet’s account of the Ocean as a whole. What the conquest of Britain does prove is that the poets were wrong – because they posited a River Oceanus that was undifferentiated and uninhabited.

Debate over this Suda entry is perhaps appropriate at a time when the British face the long-term consequences of an anachronistic commitment to a particular myth of British insularity. It is also a valuable reminder that our sense of the difference of classical antiquity is partly based on the fragility of our own knowledge of it. Much of what we say about the ancient world is nothing but wild surmise about fragments laden with interpretative problems. And yet ­– as we shall see in another blog – the historian Dexippus himself is a wonderful example of the unexpected leaps in our knowledge that can occur thanks to the eagle eyes of modern technology.

References: (Adler number: rho 246 = Jacoby, FGrH 100 F 12)

Herodotus 2.23; Polybius 12.3.1-3; Diodorus 4.56.7-8; Strabo 1.2.23, 1.2.31, 12.3.23.


Of Sundials

The two rooms of the exhibition Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity which is now on show at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, include much of interest for our project. Conceptions of time are often studied exclusively on the basis of written texts, but material remains such as sacred calendars and moulds for parapegmata (tables predicting the weather on the basis of constellations) illustrate some of the competing ways of measuring time in the ancient world. Among the objects on display are a number of portable sundials of the sort that are discussed in a new monograph by Richard Talbert. Some of these sundials include markings for cities spread across the Roman empire, thereby enabling the owner to track different hour-schemes at different points in the empire. They were perhaps not so much practical guides as display pieces, demonstrations of Roman control over the Mediterranean and of the owner’s attempt to control time.

The objects on which I want to focus here are not sundials themselves but their representation in two mosaics. The first of these (on loan from the Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier) dates from the third century AD. It shows a balding man with a white beard holding what looks like a large leaf folded at a right angle with six veins on either side. In fact it is a sundial, and it is on this basis that the exhibition identifies the old man as the sixth-century BC philosopher Anaximander. Anaximander is said by a number of sources (Diogenes of Laertius, Eusebius, the Suda) to have invented the gnômôn, a vertical rod whose shadow could indicate by its length and angle both the time of day and the time of year. A different tradition, recorded by Herodotus, held that ‘the Greeks learned about the sundial, its pointer, and the twelve divisions of the day from the Babylonians’, and some modern scholars reconcile the sources by supposing that Anaximander introduced the sundial from Babylon into Greece. It may be better simply to accept that we see a clash between two different ways of conceiving technological innovation: diffusion (typically from Babylon or Egypt) on the one hand, and the wise Greek inventor (prôtos heuretês or ‘first finder’) on the other.

Philosopher and sundial
Mosaic depicting philosopher with sundial, Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier, 1907,724, 3rd century CE.

Whatever the origins of the sundial in Greece, the distinctive type of sundial shown in the mosaic poses a problem. The ISAW exhibition notes that it is a type first attested in the Hellenistic era and so an anachronism in a depiction of Anaximander. The problem posed by the mosaic is one that returns again and again in the study of ancient anachronisms: can one tell whether or not a particular temporal slip is deliberate? If an anachronism is unconscious, it seems simply to show a lack of interest in temporal change and so to offer support to the view that the Greeks lacked a developed historical consciousness. If an anachronism such as the mosaic’s sundial is conscious, on the other hand, it can be read as a pointed teleology, mapping out the later improvements set in motion by the inventor. But perhaps with the mosaic a third possibility should be mentioned. The anachronism may lie in our desire to find a specific name for a figure who is not after all identified in the mosaic itself. On the other hand, if the figure is the inventor of the sundial, the mosaic-maker has planted a small detail that debunks the tradition of the prôtos heuretês: given that the shadow cast by the leg of the chair on which the philosopher sits is so open to view, was the gnômôn – which protrudes at the same angle – really such a hard discovery?

The second mosaic in the exhibition comes (via the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) from the Villa of Titus Siminius Stephanus at Pompeii (and so can be securely dated before 79 AD). It shows a group of seven men gathered around a sphere; one of the men is pointing at the sphere with a stick; and behind the whole group a sundial is perched on top of a column. The figures have often been identified either as members of Plato’s Academy (the stick-wielder would then be Plato himself) or as the Seven Sages, a group of wise men attested (with variations in their membership) from the time of Plato who were portrayed together in conversation (however implausibly) in works such as Plutarch’s Symposium of the Seven Sages. On either reading, the mosaic includes an anachronism: it shows an armillary globe, a sphere of rings representing the heavenly bodies – another Hellenistic invention. Rather than thinking of the identification as an alternative, we might prefer to see a deliberate blurring of Plato’s community with the archaic sages (perhaps with the seven figures corresponding to the seven Platonic planets). But there is also a way out of the anachronism. Study of other illustrations of globes led to the suggestion that the figure could be Aratus, the author of an astronomical poem in the third century BC, and this suggestion may in turn receive support from the recently published paintings from the ‘Tomb of the Philosophers’ at Pella, palace of Aratus’ patron Antigonus, in which a man pointing at a globe has been identified as Aratus. If the figure in the Pompeii mosaic is indeed Aratus, it is not the globe that is anachronistic but the grouping of seven men around it – a remnant of the archaic sage tradition.

Seven philosophers or sages
Roman Mosaic depicting seven philosophers or sages, with armillary sphere and sundial, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli 124545, 1st c. BCE-1st c. CE.

Is it a coincidence that these two anachronistic mosaics include instruments associated with the regular measurement of time? The development of new systems for technology can easily lead to nostalgia for simpler eras. Such nostalgia is uttered by characters in ancient comedy who complain that they have to eat at a time controlled by the movement of the sun, not by their own appetites. In the case of our mosaics, the anachronisms produce a more complex form of time that offers resistance to the increasingly precise temporal demarcation of Roman technology. The archaic Greek past serves as an idealised space, an object of wonder, not unlike that strange totality, Greco-Roman antiquity, to which the ISAW exhibition directs our delighted eyes.


Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, October 19, 2016 – April 23, 2017.

  • R. Lane Fox, ‘“Glorious Servitude …”: The Reigns of Antigonos Gonatas and Demetrios II’, in id. ed., Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedon (Leiden, 2011), 495-519.
  • R.J.A. Talbert, Roman Portable Sundials: The Empire in your Hand (New York, 2017).
  • R.J.A. Wilson, ‘Aspects of Iconography in Romano-British Mosaics: The Rudston “Aquatic” Scene and the Brading Astronomer Revisited’, Britannia 37 (2006), 295-336.

Anachronism Stories

A bit of anachronistic googling will eventually turn up a page devoted to ‘Anachronism’ on a history teaching website ( The page provides some nice material for teachers who want to offer a lesson on Anachronism, promising that this one lesson will enable pupils to write their own ‘Anachronism Stories’. It even gives some nice examples of the genre: ‘It was the day of the big race and Emily Davison was tweeting on her i-Phone about her plans for the day …’ is how one girl (Eva Blake from Coombeshead Academy) starts hers. The other Anachronism Stories gathered online feature Facebook, Myspace, YouTube … They tell us much about the obsessions of our own day and hold out the prospect that the anachronisms found in ancient authors may tell us much about their obsessions.

Hic Jacet Eximus Trimalchio, Lovis Corinth, 1919.
Hic Jacet Eximus Trimalchio, Lovis Corinth, 1919.

What would an Anachronism Story from the ancient world have looked like? Perhaps a story from Petronius’ Satyrica will fill the gap. The speaker is not a schoolchild but the death-obsessed millionaire freedman Trimalchio – host of the dinner party that is the longest part of Petronius’ work to survive:

‘At the fall of Ilium, Hannibal, a trickster and a great knave, collected all the sculptures, bronze, gold, and silver, into a single pile, and set light to them. They all melted into one amalgam of bronze. The workmen took bits out of this lump and made plates and entrée dishes and statuettes. That is how Corinthian metal was born …’ (50.5).

What Petronius/Trimalchio may be offering here is a pastiche of schoolboy mythical knowledge: we know from Pliny the Elder that there was a tradition that Corinthian metal was created at the sack of a city (Natural History 34.6) – but it was Corinth rather than Troy that was the city in question, and while Troy was sacked a thousand years before Hannibal’s time (according to ancient calculations), Corinth was destroyed a few decades after his death. For Pliny, the Corinth tradition generates a different kind of anachronism: pretentious collectors, he claims, like to describe statues as Corinthian bronzes even though they were created long before the sack of the city (when the art of sculpture had long been on the wane). And for another Corinthian anachronism we may turn to Isidore, the seventh-century bishop of Seville, who wrote in his Etymologies that Corinthian bronze is the alloy created from the gold, silver, and bronze statues that were burnt when the city was captured by – Hannibal (16.20.4).

One question this sort of story poses is why we should label these versions anachronisms at all. This is a question asked by the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, in one of the most interesting discussions of anachronism that our project has come across so far. Rancière goes on to oppose two types of anachronism: on the one hand, giving Diogenes an umbrella (or an i-Phone for that matter); on the other hand, arguing that Rabelais could not have been an atheist because the category of atheism was not available to him in his time. Why, Rancière asks, call this second sort of slip an anachronism – and so imply that it is a mistake about the category of time? His argument is that to define anachronism as the ultimate sin of the historian is an attempt to redeem time by creating a succession of synchronic epochs that in some way substitute for eternity. Or as he puts it: ‘The truth of history is then the immanence of time as the principle of co-presence.’ But this is a view of time, he objects, that blocks out the possibility of multiple timelines co-existing in the same time.

Whose sin is anachronism anyway? In the case of our ancient Anachronism Story, Trimalchio’s howler is not a million miles from the most famous of all ancient anachronisms – Virgil’s story of Aeneas during his flight from Troy encountering Dido as she founds the city of Carthage (which was actually founded several centuries after the sack of Troy). This chronological problem posed by the Aeneid exercised critics such as Servius in antiquity. Thanks to those critics, it became the textbook case when Renaissance scholars began to be interested in anachronism – for Rancière, a sign that the truth of history as normally understood is founded in ideas of poetry.

Rancière is also, however, concerned with time in another sense: the time of the scholar who constructs or ‘others’ her object and the time of the labourer who exists in a regime of historicity that is defined by the historian’s scrutiny. Or in our example we have the time of Petronius and the time of Trimalchio – except that Trimalchio himself is the man with the power and money, the man who stages the show of a dinner-party. Perhaps then the time of Trimalchio is not a time of ignoramus freedmen. Rather, Trimalchio is rubbing the anachronism in his guests’ faces, aware that no one will speak the truth to power, and reminding us at the same time that Roman power is built on the myths of time propagated by the anachronistic Aeneid and implicated in the same multiple timelines as those other mortal cities – the Troy of Homeric epic and Corinth and Carthage, themselves synchronic victims of Rome.

Historyonthenet promises that by the end of a single lesson the pupils will know what an anachronism is and understand why anachronisms happen. Reading Rancière reminds us that these are complicated questions – and makes us grateful we have three years to think about them.

  • Jacques Rancière – The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth, Inprint, 3, June 2015 (translation Tim Stott and Noel Fitzpatrick, original publication 1996).