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).