Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Anachronistic Antiquities of Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Anachronism in Oxford: the case of the Marmor Parium

Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is home to one of the more intriguing objects to have survived from the ancient world, the central fragment of the Marmor Parium, a historical chronicle inscribed on stone. The Marmor Parium, regarded by the museum as one of its ‘greatest treasures’, has long been a focus for explorations of ancient historiography and questions of anachronism in ancient texts, from the time its text was first published in the 17th century. Set up on the island of Paros during the third century BCE, the inscription lists events from Greek myth and history, starting with the accession of King Cecrops, the half-man, half-serpent first king of Athens (in our 1581 BCE), and finishing with the conflict between Demetrius and Cassander, in a series of largely formulaic entries referred to as ‘epochs’; here is the entry for the end of the Trojan war, in Rotstein’s translation.

24. From the time Troy was conquered, 945 years (= 1209/8 BCE), when [Menesthe]us was king of Athens, in his ⟨twenty⟩ second year, in the month of Th[argeli]on, in the seventh day, (counting) from the end of the month.

The last readable entry is for our 299/8 BCE, but most of its text is damaged or missing, and it’s possible that the end of the inscription is likewise lost. The Oxford section includes the entries for the dates 895-355 BCE.

Jacoby’s drawing of the Oxford section of the Marmor Parium (IG XII.5 444).

The Marmor Parium offers some intriguing insights into ancient thinking about the past, as well as raising many questions (for example, quite why an Athenocentric history should have been inscribed and displayed in Paros). With its long chronological span stretching deep into the past, it has been an invaluable document for thinking about problems of ancient chronography, despite the brevity of its entries and its focus on literary rather than political history. It combines two dating systems, one with years expressed in numbers counted backwards from a fixed point, the time of composition, and one with years identified by king or archon. Genealogy and chronology run in parallel, although the former changes gear in line with political changes, and the latter has many peculiarities.

The inscription has long been studied in Oxford, where Marmora Oxoniensa, edited by Joseph Chandler (1737-1810), was published in 1763, containing an improved version of its text. This edition was used by an early commentator, Joseph Robertson (1726–1802), who had concerns about the authenticity of the inscription. Some of these arose from its chronological errors: these included ‘prochronisms’ where events were placed too early (such as the birth of Euripides, in epoch 51), and ‘parachronisms’ in the Sicilian events of epochs 53 and 55 where the temporal confusion is broader (Robertson 1788: 166-7). Robertson is more broadly concerned with authenticity beyond this particular text; he also discusses the poems of Thomas Chatterton (1752-70), which he feels display ‘some apparent anachronisms’ (Robertson 1788: 204), which had recently been revealed to be Chatterton’s work rather than those of a mediaeval bard. It is intriguing to think that our project echoes the interests of these early scholars.

robertson parachronism
Robertson on parachronism, from The Parian Chronicle, 1788, p. 167.

Despite the gaps and losses, the Marmor Parium’s text shows how an ancient chronicle can combine past times and spaces that we would regard as quite distinct in kind into a single narrative structure – the spatium mythicum, a world in which the king of Athens can have serpent form and the spatium historicum, a world in which the city is a trophy for the warring successors of Alexander the Great’s disintegrating empire. In this sense, the structures modern historiographers attempt to impose on Greek accounts of the past, and the distinction between historiography and mythography, look as if they might themselves be anachronistic retrojections alien to the ancient sources.

While the Marmor Parium’s apparently unbroken chronology suggests continuity, recent research has pointed to subtleties within its narrative and language that mark some changes in the style of its account. Veit Rosenberger finds evidence in the chronicle’s entries of the ‘floating gap’ between the mythical and historical past; following the details of various events we treat as mythical, the period between 1202/1 BCE and 604/3 BCE has very few entries, but then more is recorded for subsequent years. Rosenberger argues that the second of these shifts in the frequency of recorded events marks the starting point of Greek literary history, possibly in the work of the historian and mythographer Hecataeus. The stone therefore encodes a frozen ‘floating gap’ that marks the start of Greek written historical accounts. The second section of the stone, the Paros fragment, covers dates that fall within the 80 years before the chronicle’s composition, and thus within the scope of oral history at the time of composition. But a physical gap of text, covering a critical 19-year period, lost between the Oxford and Paros sections makes it impossible to identify the exact date at which this increased level of detail begins.

The afterlife of the Marmor Parium is as intriguing as its origin. The first section was acquired by Lord Arundel’s agents in Smyrna (and so divorced from its archaeological context) and arrived in England in 1627, and drawings and transcriptions were made and published soon afterwards in Marmora Arundelliana, along with the rest of the Arundel collection of classical inscriptions, by John Selden. Selden’s publication is the only record for this section, which was lost between 1627 and the donation of the Arundel collection to Oxford in 1667, most likely during the turmoil of the Civil War; it was possibly used as building material to repair Arundel House. Editors ever since have been striving to improve Selden’s text, occasionally with enthusiastic supplements and emendations. More recent editors wish, anachronistically, that Selden, and indeed Felix Jacoby (1876-1959) in his two editions, had been able to use Leiden convention markings for doubtful characters and spaces (Rotstein 2016: 17-20).

A further section of the chronicle, covering the dates 336 BCE to 299/8 BCE, was discovered on Paros in 1897, sparking a further flurry of editions and commentaries. That section is now on display in Paros; as Rotstein observes, the history of the marble (variously identified as Arundellian, Oxonian, and Parian) is itself a microcosm of the history of the ‘early European appropriation of antiquities’ (Rotstein 2016: 5). Museum visitors, whether in Paros or Oxford, may wonder how much more legible or accessible the stone, with its tiny lettering, was to its original readers in Hellenistic Paros.


Anachronism Stories

A bit of anachronistic googling will eventually turn up a page devoted to ‘Anachronism’ on a history teaching website (historyonthenet.com). 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).

Scholarly communities ancient and modern

This term, while getting our own research project started, the Oxford-based members of the Anachronism and Antiquity team have participated in the Corpus Christi Classics Seminar on ‘Shared Knowledge and Scholarly Communities’. We have looked at communities past and present, local and global, real and imaginary, and the way in which they have been constructed and transmitted, from before the establishment of the philosophical schools of ancient Greece to the professionalisation of Classics as an academic discipline over the last 200 years.

A good seminar creates a scholarly community in itself, and in some respects the academic practice of antiquity remains the same for humanities scholars of today; reading and discussing texts with colleagues is a productive way to work. Xenophon has his Socrates describe his great pleasure in studying with friends:

Others have a fancy for a good horse or dog or bird: my fancy, stronger even than theirs, is for good friends. And I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I unroll with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we excerpt it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. (Memorabilia 1.6.14)

Christopher Stray’s introductory session explored the development of Classics as an academic discipline in the UK through the stories of different groups and communities, based in particular universities, working together on journals. In discussion, the continuing importance of reading together became clear. Scholarly communities may develop from formal reading groups, such as the Cambridge ancient philosophy seminar that has met on Thursdays for over 30 years, or from informal groups. The latter often play an important role in transmitting new scholarship from one community to another. For example, Oliver Taplin described an Oxford reading group that helped to introduce the work of the Paris School to Oxford classicists (and the faculty still has an annual Journée Vernant). But the publications, archives and oral testimony that provide evidence for recent scholarly communities are not the same as the literary evidence we have for ancient ones, and the anachronistic practice of treating ancient literary evidence as if it were documentary evidence has led to distorted views of ancient scholarship.

For example, as I showed in my paper, Plato’s concern to establish intellectual genealogies often outweighs the depiction of Socratic community. We rarely see Socrates in conversation with his own community, but observing and interacting with others. Memorable scenes, such as the opening of his Protagoras, show him as an outsider exploring the teaching and rhetoric of others. Nonetheless, the vivid scene at Callias’ house (Protagoras 314d-316a), in which Protagoras and Hippias hold forth to their spellbound customers, has long been treated as a depiction of scholarly community, albeit one whose credentials Plato is querying. Socrates observes them:

Of those who were following behind, listening to what was being said, the majority were evidently foreigners. Protagoras collects them from all the cities he passes through; he puts a spell on them with his voice, like Orpheus, and they follow the voice, spellbound. But there were some Athenians in the chorus as well. This chorus I found a delight to watch, such care did they take never to be in front of Protagoras and get in his way. When he and his group turned, then this retinue parted on either side, this way and that, in a nice orderly fashion, came round in a circle, and each time took up station again to the rear. Perfect. (Protagoras 315ab, translation Griffith)

This scene returned again and again throughout the seminar series; for example, Dawn LaValle showed how early Christian writer Methodius of Olympus, building his own scholarly community in 3rd-century CE Lycia invoked the authority of Plato by imitating this setting in his own dialogues.

The tension between sophists and philosophers constructed by Plato has dominated intellectual histories. Joshua Billings, posing the question ‘What is a sophist?’, explored the way in which ‘the sophists’ as a group were a product of Plato’s critical presentation, and of later responses to it, rather than a genuine scholarly community. Colin King looked at how shared knowledge is implied by Aristotelian endoxa and the doxai he attributes to named and unnamed philosophers. In both cases classical scholars have built on, rather than deconstructing, these presentations of rival scholars or predecessors, maintaining artificial orders and typologies.

Raphael’s fresco ‘The School of Athens’ collapses time in its depiction of the community of Greek philosophers

The retrospective construction of scholarly communities has a long history. The temporal manipulation of Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ extends the practice of ancient philosophical dialogue, manipulating time and space to get ideas and their proponents into a position where face-to-face debate can take place. Plato’s own complex dialogues create networks and genealogies in this way, an aspect of his writing that I’ll be exploring as part of this project. For example, the Parmenides presents Socrates in dialogue with the older philosophers Parmenides and Zeno, when they visit Athens for the Panathenaea. Plato frames the dialogue so that we see both the community of scholars gathered to hear the reading of Zeno’s book, that provides the occasion for Socrates’ encounter, and also the community of visiting scholars who have come to Athens to hear an account of the earlier conversation. Through the structure of the dialogue, two different schools of philosophy come into contact, Socrates is positioned within their genealogies, and knowledge is shared between them. As Tom Phillips showed, philosophical dialogue is not the only genre to employ such devices to represent and to create community. One way that Hellenistic poets invoked the idea of community was through the representation of and allusion to collective performance, with Theocritus 18, an epithalamion for the marriage of Helen and Menelaus performed by a chorus of girls, providing a complex example in which the reader is immersed in the mimetic experience of an imaginary community. Such representations might collapse the temporal and generic distinctions between Hellenistic epic and archaic lyric, between written text and oral performance, and between mythical and historical time.

While Plato’s depiction of the sophists might suggest an Athenian disdain for visiting intellectuals, the connections forged within his dialogues, especially the links between Socrates and Italian philosophers, suggest that international cooperation was integral to the idea of scholarly community from the outset. While Christopher Stray pointed to 19th century ideas of national identity as a factor in the professionalisation of the discipline, building international networks of scholars has been vital, and particularly evident in specialist sub-disciplines. Amin Benaissa charted the development of the international community of papyrologists, and changing attitudes to the collection, distribution and authentication of fragments. Ilse Hilbold explored the fascinating history of that essential bibliographic tool for classicists, the Année Philologique, and showed the difficulties Juliette Ernst, its chief bibliographer and driving force, had in building an international network to support this very large-scale endeavour. International cooperation in the creation of scholarly community has been central to the success of these continuing projects, just as they were to Plato’s Academy and other ancient schools that brought together researchers from across the world to build on their shared knowledge.

  • With many thanks to Constanze Guthenke for organising the seminar programme, and to Corpus Christi for its hospitality to this scholarly community.

Anachronism and analogy

Anachronism has often been defined as a ‘sin’ for historians, often the worst sin that a historian could commit, a ‘capital sin against method’, as Nicole Loraux described it. But what historians mean by anachronism, and whether they believe it is possible to avoid it, are much debated. One of the first tasks for our research project has been exploring these debates and thinking about their implications. But not all contributions to the debates reject anachronism. Nicole Loraux wrote ‘in praise of anachronism in history’, in an article first published in 1993; she treated it as a necessary consequence of engagement with the past that the good historian should acknowledge anachronism as part of their awareness of the relationship between their own present and the past that they are studying.

The ‘mourning Athena’ stele, c. 460 BCE, used in commemoration of Nicole Loraux, Espaces Temps, 2005

Her thoughts were inspired both by a seminar series on the topic as it related to the modern use of antiquity, and her own responses to the methodologies prevailing in French historical studies at the time. She argued that the act of making a connection between the present time of the historian and the past of the period under study will inevitably involve the use of analogy, which will in turn lead to some form of anachronism. Careful, reflective use of such analogies might be necessary to understand the past; anachronism will arise whenever the present becomes the most effective means of gaining an understanding of the past.

Loraux had earlier followed the methodology of the ‘Paris School’, whose methodology emphasised the great distance between the Greeks and us, the difference between their conceptual world and ours, and the benefit of anthropological approaches to this strange and distant society. This approach was intended as a criticism of humanist approaches to history, in which the idea of a universal and constant human nature was taken to underlie human choice and action in different societies, and as an anthropological approach. The difference that belied universality was emphasised through historical practices, such as exploring Greek concepts (Loraux cites meson, metis and peitho) but leaving them untranslated to emphasise their distinction from modern concepts.

Loraux at first adopted this methodology, but began to find it unsatisfying; if we had so little in common with the Greeks, how could we understand them? And in using their language, could we be sure that we were leaving behind the interpretative traditions that mediated our access to them – was it possible to forget the way in which our view of antiquity had already been shaped by the thought of Nietzsche and Freud? Loraux found her thoughts expressed in the methodological reflections of an earlier French historian, Marc Bloch, who argued that, while the idea of an unchanging ‘man’ should be rejected, and the effects of changing material and social circumstances recognised, there must be some commonality and continuity if there is to be a meaningful engagement with the past.

If one cannot make contact between one’s present concerns and the past, studying it becomes an exercise in depoliticised antiquarianism. But if one is studying the past to explore one’s views about some issue of concern in the present, there are many pitfalls to beware. What is needed, Loraux argued, is a practice of ‘controlled anachronism’ in which the researcher acknowledges their intentions and the analogies they construct, the questions they ask which the Greeks would not have asked themselves.

Loraux thought that the study of Greek democracy might benefit from this practice. She showed how anachronisms of various kinds crept into writing on it – the unreflective use of modern terminology for class conflict to describe a pre-capitalist society, the problematic question of what ‘public opinion’ might mean in the context of the ancient city, the changing value of the word ‘democracy’ itself from ancient to modern times. One’s aim in exploring the ancient city might be to make a point about the modern one, as she suggests Vernant was doing in emphasising the importance of open debate in Athens and its democracy.

Loraux herself, in this self-reflective study of her methodology, was able to show how the political circumstances that affected her own life informed the research questions she chose to pursue. She began to think about the topic of political amnesty after reflecting on Président Pompidou’s controversial 1972 pardon of Paul Touvier, a police officer in the Vichy régime of World War II; she found new interest in the amnesty put in place by the restored democracy of Athens, and the effort to rebuild the city by forgetting acts performed under the oligarchy of 404-3 BCE. While her exploration of the Athenian civil war and subsequent amnesty can be read without reference to contemporary politics, readers might well make connections to their own political experiences.

As evocations of ancient democracy and its practices have multiplied in the analysis of the political events of 2016, Loraux’s analysis might provide guidelines for making effective connections between past and present, and assessing the intentions with which such analogies and connections are made.


  • Bloch, M. (1954) [1949], The Historian’s Craft, ed. J.R. Strayer, trans. P. Putnam (Manchester).
  • Loraux, N. (1993), ‘Éloge d’anachronisme en histoire’, Le Genre Humain, (27), 23-39. Republished (2005) in Espaces Temps 87 (1), 127-139. Online at: http://www.persee.fr/doc/espat_0339-3267_2005_num_87_1_4369.
  • Loraux, N. (2001) [1997], The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens, trans. C. Pache and J. Fort (New York).
  • Rancière, J. (1996), ‘Le concept d’anachronisme et la vérité de l’historien’, L’Inactuel, 6, 53-68.
  • Vernant, J.-P. (1982) [1962], The Origins of Greek Thought (Ithaca).