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 Among the numerous complaints that Polybius brought against the Sicilian historian Timaeus was his out-of-date information on the geography of Africa.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.


http://www.stoa.org/sol/ (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.


Three Views of Thucydides

Why do we read Thucydides? Few authors have been read and re-read in quite the same way as Thucydides, from different disciplinary perspectives and with different questions asked of the text and its author. But does Thucydides’ own claim that his work was of permanent value – ‘a possession for all time’ – mean that it can be approached without consideration of the context in which it was written, or is being read? Has Thucydides’ claim about his work, and instruction on its use, created a history of anachronistic readings in which his methodology and analysis have been placed beyond criticism? Assertions of the timeless value of his text suit the purposes of some readers better than others, generating soundbites (or sententiae, as they were known in ancient times) that can add classical gravitas to political argument, without demanding any critical engagement. Likewise, the ‘belief in the veracity of his History’, as Neville Morley describes it, and the associated belief in his successful development and use of a scientific historical methodology, has led readers whose goal isn’t the critical exploration of classical Greek history to be curiously unquestioning about the relationship of his narrative and analysis to the world he describes.

Syracuse’s former stone quarries, less idyllic in classical times

Reading Thucydides with these beliefs in place would be methodologically disastrous for present-day ancient historians. They need to take a more critical approach in comparing Thucydides’ account with other material and documentary evidence from fifth-century Greece, exploring his omissions and understanding the shape that he gives to events. The possibility of such an approach to Thucydides was exemplified by speakers at last term’s Corpus Classical Seminar, who investigated the Peloponnesian War beyond Thucydides. While Thucydides presents his account of the war as all-encompassing, ancient historians have long found gaps in his coverage and questioned the way his account shapes the conflict; as is well-known, the war became a single conflict when Thucydides identified it as such in his preface, creating an entity comparable to the Trojan and Persian Wars, that in turn justified his focus on it. As Hans van Wees pointed out, Thucydides’ actual narrative contains accounts of multiple distinct conflicts, involving many different cities, but his direction encourages readers to link them together. But Thucydides is not necessarily right, either in his reporting or his analysis of events. As the seminar progressed, speakers demonstrated that the practice of treating Thucydides as a ‘scientific’ historian, whose text has a superior status to other ancient evidence and deserves different treatment, was thoroughly anachronistic.

Kostas Vlassopoulos identified some of the gaps that a modern historian might like to fill to gain a better picture of the political culture of fifth-century BCE Greece than Thucydides provides, and the difficulties in filling those gaps, given the absence of much other written evidence, and the paucity of documentary and material sources from this early period. Understanding both Thucydides’ own intellectual context and our own preconceived ideas about the Greek world are necessary for such a project. Alastair Blanshard took one of the accepted truisms about Thucydides’ text – his lack of interest in cultural and social history, and the omission of women as a subject of history – and found hints of these missing themes in his brief discussions of the capture of cities.

The developing history of Thucydides as an icon beyond criticism was explored in Kinch Hoekstra’s Carlyle lectures, which traced the reception of Thucydides in classical and early modern political thought within their own historical and political contexts, starting with historiographers Lucian, Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (with notably critical attitudes to the author), and ending with Hobbes. Hoekstra pointed to early modern readings of the text, which were not necessarily of the full text, but selections from the speeches, possibly even selected sententiae; such readings show that the contemporary focus on specific extracts, such as the Funeral Speech and the Melian Dialogue, is not a new phenomenon. Special luxury editions of selected speeches were prepared as gifts for princes; Thucydides’ account of the wars of independent Greek poleis was read anachronistically as a mirror for princes, by focusing on its treatment of leadership and diplomacy. For these ‘readers’, Thucydides’ wisdom became a material talisman, in the form of an illustrated manuscript edition, to take on campaign. Hoekstra distinguished these readings from those of Reformation scholars such as Melanchthon, which returned the focus to the larger scope of the narrative, and generated analytical accounts, precursors to nineteenth-century treatment of Thucydides as a ‘scientific’ historian.

Attempts to contextualise these historical readings of Thucydides have their own risks – Hoekstra showed how Hobbes’ reading of Thucydides had been used to interpret, and interpreted in light of, his views on English military and diplomatic policy, when the tortuous and prolonged pre-publication history of the work made strong claims about Hobbes’ intent difficult to establish in a fast-changing political climate. But understanding the long traditions of reading Thucydides is helpful in understanding why his text has accrued such a distinctive status in intellectual history.

This term the Anachronism and Antiquity team will be re-reading book six of Thucydides’ histories, the first part of his account of the Athenian invasion of Sicily in 415 BCE, in a seminar series organised and introduced by Chris Pelling and our own John Marincola. The Sicilian Expedition has inspired many different responses, from antiquity to the present, through its vivid characters, its dramatic debates, set-piece battles and tragic account of Athenian defeat. It has become a stock figure to invoke when warning of the difficulties of military expeditions and invasion, with its own reception history; on June 5, Tim Rood will look at the early stages of this reception history in antiquity.

The speeches of book six contain some of Thucydides’ most explicit political theorising and commentary on political processes, including Athenagoras’ account of the epistemic strengths of democracy (Thucydides 6.39.1). On May 15, I will be exploring how the arguments of the Syracusan debate prefigure and problematise arguments on the role of speech and knowledge in democracy set out by later thinkers from Aristotle to Foucault. In reading Thucydides now we need to be aware of not only Thucydides’ own historical and intellectual context, to the extent that we can discover it, but also the many layers of reception through which our own reading of the text and its context is likely to be mediated.


Morley, N. (2014) Thucydides and the Idea of History (London: I.B. Tauris).

  • See our Events page for news of talks and presentations by members of the Anachronism and Antiquity team

Counting backwards: genealogy and anachronism

The shifting boundary between the near and the distant past is blurred by ancient Greek writers when they establish temporal frameworks by counting backwards in years and, once a more distant and less well-known period is reached, generations. With multiple lists in operation – one for every city and Panhellenic temple, victors from the Olympics – and with the genealogies of royal dynasties stretching back to incorporate divine ancestors, there was plenty of opportunity for the manipulation of lists, for error and invention, and for debates about accuracy. Generating synchronisms, placing the same event on points in different lists, was a particular challenge for historians, and so became a site of historiographical criticism. Failed synchronisms and arguments about them result in a type of anachronism that is characteristic of Greek historiographic debate and spills over into other genres whenever the past is debated, as their use by both Thucydides and Isocrates shows.

For writers of contemporary history such as Thucydides, the use of officer lists based on the records of cities is transparent and supported by documentary evidence. While Thucydides organises his account of the Peloponnesian War by seasons, he uses the officer-list system to establish its start date (2.1-2.2.1), and his Athenian readers could have referred to an inscribed version of the list (IG I 3 1031) that had been set up in Athens during the later part of the fifth century, possibly as late as 410 BCE:

My account sets out the events in chronological order, by summers and winters. The Thirty Years Treaty agreed after the conquest of Euboea lasted for fourteen years. In the fifteenth year, when Chrysis was in her forty-eighth year as priestess at Argos, Aenesias was ephor in Sparta, and Pythodorus had two more months of his archonship in Athens, in the sixth month after the battle at Potidaea, and at the beginning of spring, in the first watch of the night an armed force of slightly over three hundred Thebans entered Plataea, a city in Boeotia allied to Athens. (Thucydides 2.1-2.2.1, translation Hammond)

inscription fragment
Athenian Archon List (527/6-522/1 BC?) IG I3 1031, fragment c. Agora Museum, Athens (I 4120); squeeze from Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford.

Thucydides found the practice of using office-holder lists to establish dates imprecise (5.20.2-3), and suggested his own improvements for greater precision in narrative and analysis. But not all historians were, like Thucydides, concerned with the very recent past. The further back in time the Greeks went, the less precise their dating systems became. In classical Athens, for example, before the list of annual archons began, there were lists of officials with longer terms in office, and kings stretching back to Kekrops, the half-snake figure who emerged from the ground to found and rule the city. The kind of information in the lists changes as they go back in time, a change perhaps marked by a shift from years to generations as the unit of counting, and the separation of these distinct lists in the Athenian tradition; although the origins and development of the lists are unclear, later writers transmitted complete versions of them.

Making temporal connections within the distant past posed a challenge. Genealogies, the typical form of lists from the distant past, could be used to establish the kind of synchronism that Thucydides uses at the start of his histories. This process permitted synchronism between the foundation myths of different poleis and the characters of different mythical cycles, but here there was less possibility of consulting records and more reliance on the conventional form of mythical narratives.

Arguing for and against the accuracy of synchronisms between myths became an important mode of criticism as such stories were used as examples in political contexts to establish relationships between cities. There were many possible causes of error; the corruption of ancestry lists, the need to establish synchronism with significant events such as the return of the Heraclids from the Trojan War to the Peloponnese, and the urge to assert priority for one’s patriotic account of civic origins. Myths involving culture heroes such as Heracles and Theseus generate problematic synchronisms as writers try to fit them into coherent narrative frameworks, or to establish a claim to temporal priority. Xenophon, for example, asserts that Lycurgus established the Spartan constitution at the same time as the return of the Heraclids (Xen. Lac. Pol. 10.6), a claim that is contrary to other developmental accounts of Spartan history that place Lycurgus after the early (mythical) history of the Dorian League founded by the returning Heraclids; Plato in his Laws suggests that the Lycurgan constitution resolved the problems of this earlier period, but again myth and history intertwine in a complex way (Pl. Leg. 3.683c-693c).

Arguing with myth in this way provided opportunity for parody and the comic repurposing of mythical material for rhetorical argument. Reading Isocrates’ Busiris, a complicated and paradoxical text that still puzzles commentators, shows how the critique of a claimed synchronism can be used as the starting point for broader criticisms. Isocrates is ostensibly writing to Polycrates the sophist, to point out errors in his defence speech in praise of Busiris, the infamous Egyptian king of heroic times. Busiris was said to sacrifice his guests, and was eventually killed by Heracles, as the Greek culture hero avoided this grisly fate, a scene frequently depicted on Greek vases.

vase painting - Heracles and Busiris
Heracles killing Busiris. Attic red-figure kalpis (hydria), ca 480 BCE. From Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen 2428.

Isocrates aims to show that earlier writers on Busiris have got their genealogical calculations wrong, and that the encounter between Heracles and Busiris could not have happened. Polycrates could have used this simple method in his defence of Busiris:

Furthermore, it could be easily proved on chronological grounds (tois chronois) also that the statements of the detractors of Busiris are false. For the same writers who accuse Busiris of slaying strangers also assert that he died at the hands of Heracles; but all chroniclers agree that Heracles was later by four generations than Perseus, son of Zeus and Danaë, and that Busiris lived more than two hundred years earlier than Perseus. (Busiris 36-37, translation Van Hook)

The evidence that the criticism of Busiris is misplaced in time is a piece of evidence (pistis) that is clear (enargê). Of course, the idea of establishing an accurate genealogy of characters from the far-distant past that operates in a similar way to the chronology of a contemporary historian like Thucydides is itself rather paradoxical and a long way from being ‘clear’; Although there were standard exchange rates between years and generations, Isocrates’ use of both emphasises the paradoxes involved in chronological calculations of mythical narratives. Isocrates’ subsequent comments expand the related problem of the difficulty of knowing the different past, given the lurid slanders (blasphêmiais) written by poets that attribute all kinds of bad behaviour to the gods (38-40).

Isocrates’ real target in the Busiris is probably not the obscure sophist Polycrates but his rival educator Plato. The criticism of poets for slandering the gods is reminiscent of Socrates’ arguments against poetry in the Republic. Using Heracles and Egypt to think about the possibility of knowledge of the past further links both writers, via Herodotus’ challenges to the genealogical reckonings Greeks used to date Heracles (2.142-6); Plato echoes this passage in his Timaeus-Critias, with Solon replacing Hecataeus as the Greek visitor to Egypt.

With the traditional criticism of Busiris destroyed by chronology, Isocrates aims to show instead that Busiris should be praised for establishing the Egyptian constitution. However, the constitution that Isocrates describes bears a detailed resemblance to that of Plato’s Kallipolis in the Republic. Plato, Isocrates seems to be hinting, has not revealed a timeless ideal of how we should live, but has borrowed from a historical model itself established by a notorious barbarian and in existence at a time that has been identified with precision.

Isocrates’ manipulation of history and myth in the pursuit of political argument is a feature of his work that deserves more exploration, along with the construction and argumentative use of genealogies and temporal frameworks by other Greek writers. I will continue to investigate the political activation of anachronism in imaginary time by Greek historians and political theorists as our project continues.

Seeing Homer

Rubens’ The Death of Hector is a scene from the Iliad replete with un-Homeric details. The armour and red cloaks recall Roman soldiers. Putti are common in Renaissance paintings but not in ancient Greek representations of the Trojan war. For viewers familiar with the Iliad, the putti’s role as spectators is jarringly different from the poem’s presentation of the gods, and Hector’s family, watching the battle (recalled in the painting by the onlookers on the walls). And yet these ‘anachronisms’ are not mistakes, as it would be to say that Rubens lived and worked in fifth century BC Greece. Showing Achilles and Hector in the dress of a later age creates a tradition of heroism in which they act as exemplars, while the putti remind viewers that they necessarily see the painting through modern eyes.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The Death of Hector, Musée Des Beaux Arts, Pau, c. 1630-35

This capacity of ‘anachronistic’ phenomena to be more than simply redundant or out of place prompts Jacques Rancière to push aside the pejorative ‘anachronism’ in favour of ‘anachrony’. He uses this term to refer to ‘a word, an event, or a signifying sequence that has left “its” time’. He locates the power of anachronies in their ‘capacity to define completely original points of orientation’, from which we might see the world, and our temporal experience of it, in unexpected and revealing ways. Such reorientations emerge in many creative engagements with Homer and other ancient writers, and they play a particularly important role in Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a poem that fragments the Iliad into similes and casualty lists. Hers is a poetics that acknowledges its difference from Homer – she aims to convey the poem’s ‘atmosphere, not its story’. Yet by reaching towards the Iliad’s ‘bright, unbearable reality’, she also transplants readers into a frightening, alien world, using the words of the Greek text ‘as openings to see what Homer was looking at’.

This balancing of dependence and departure is especially pronounced in her renderings of the Iliad’s narratives, which she terms ‘paraphrases’ and which often fold complex scenes out of a few sparse hints. Homer’s characterization of Abarbarea as ‘a nymph of the springs’ (νύμφη / νηῒς Ἀβαρβαρέη, Il. 6.21–2) becomes

There was a blue pool who loved her loneliness
Lay on her stones clear-eyed staring at trees
Her name was Abarbarea …

Oswald cleaves closely to ‘what Homer was looking at’ by accentuating the nymph’s strange dual identity as woman and water. We first meet Abarbarea as ‘a blue pool’, while a few lines later her lover ‘jumped … into her arms’. We can see in her ‘clear-eyed staring’ both a fully anthropomorphic gaze and the pool’s water reflecting the trees. Yet ‘loved her loneliness’ is an un-Homeric notion; isolation tends to be associated with despondency or suffering in the Iliad, as when Achilles stares out to sea after his quarrel with Agamemnon, and there is no word in Homer that corresponds precisely to ‘loneliness’. Similarly, no Homeric character manifests the contemplative absorption evoked by ‘staring at trees’. Like Rancière’s ‘anachronies’, these phrases open up a new ‘orientation’ by making us imagine Abarbarea’s experience of her world.

In other passages, Oswald uses vocabulary and ideas that are even more obviously ‘anachronic’, in the sense of not belonging to Homer’s world. Isos and Antiphos ‘came home as proud as astronauts’ before riding out to their deaths, while Hector

… used to nip home defended by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running.

In a rendering of a simile, ‘tribes of summer bees’ are ‘A billion factory women flying to their flower work’. The astronauts, the running motorbike, and the factory show the poet’s workings, tracing imaginative equivalences through which the Iliad becomes freshly meaningful. Hovering between the modern and the ancient, lines like these lay bare the untimeliness of our engagement with Homer. They create a ‘time’ untethered either to that of the Iliad or the experiences of the modern reader, while also intimating that we as readers can never quite be at home in it.

Cy Twombly (1928 – 2011), Fifty Days at Iliam: Shield of Achilles, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1978

Distance from Homer is also at issue in Cy Twombly’s series Fifty Days at Iliam. Representative of its attempt to reprogramme our sense of what it might be to ‘see’ the Iliad is ‘Achilles’ Shield’, in which the refusal of canonical representational conventions is the more provocative for being directed at the foundational ecphrasis of ancient literature. Whereas Homer represents the shield as an ordered series of pictures encompassing a range of social, political, and military activities, Twombly sets a title alongside swirling, apparently amorphous brushstrokes. Homer’s highly structured opposition between scenes of war and peace is replaced by contrasting colours. The painting invites us towards a ‘point of orientation’ in which something is represented to us, while also encouraging us to find between the marks on the canvas and the ‘shield’ of the title correspondences formally different from those that paintings such as Rubens’ establish with their subjects. The position of the ‘shield’ to one side of canvas creates an impression of movement, and we might see the blur of lines as enacting the impression the shield makes on its viewers within the story: at the beginning of Iliad 19, for instance, Achilles’ soldiers are seized by fear at the sight of the shield, and cannot bear to look at it.

Rubens, Oswald, and Twombly create new means of encountering the stories the Iliad tells, but they also evoke a ‘bright, unbearable reality’ that emerges from (their readings of) the poem, and yet is separate from it. Their ‘anachronic’ realizations of this domain remind us that the Iliad itself is not entirely ‘of its time’. The very clarity with which the Iliad projects its world ensures not only that that world can be encountered as an endlessly compelling imaginative resource, but that it can be apprehended as a ‘reality’ in relation to which the poem itself is epigonal.

  • Oswald, A. (2012) Memorial: an excavation of the Iliad (London: Faber).