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).

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:
  • 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).

The two towers: looking at time in Athens and Oxford

From the window of the Anachronism and Antiquity project office we can see the eighteenth-century Radcliffe Observatory, one of the more remarkable buildings of Oxford’s architectural heritage.

The Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford

From the window of the Anachronism and Antiquity project office we can see the eighteenth-century Radcliffe Observatory, one of the more remarkable buildings of Oxford’s architectural heritage. The eight-sided tower and its sculptures of the winds consciously evoke Athens’ octagonal Tower of the Winds, a Hellenistic structure that has survived largely intact, albeit stripped of its equipment. The original purpose of both buildings, and the instruments they housed, was to assist in measurement, whether through the mechanisms of water clocks and sundials (Athens) or through telescopes and other instruments enabling observations of astronomical phenomena (Oxford).

Looking from the window of our less distinguished post-war office building, we can see the eighteenth century tower as a link between present and past, suggesting both the desire for cultural continuity between antiquity and the modern world, and, through its adaptation of the original, differences and disruptions between the two, that one cannot recreate the past without change. The change in scale and disrupted proportions of the newer building exemplify the shifts in emphasis and understanding that mark historical inquiry, as the object of observation is distorted by changes in focus and interest, and what was small (as the original Athenian tower is) may become large (as the Observatory is) in its reception and recreation.

The Radcliffe Observatory’s obsolescence as a place of scientific activity is also a reminder that perspectives and paradigms are subject to shifts and changes; most of its equipment is now housed in a museum. One of our questions is whether such shifts took place within ancient historiography, and how the consciousness of different temporalities affected historical and political analysis.

While some have argued that the concept of anachronism is a modern one and unknown to ancient writers, we are finding examples of the sophisticated manipulation of time and temporality in ancient texts, and indeed in ancient commentary on objects and practices that seemed ancient to them. The Athenian Tower of the Winds in the Agora reminds us that time and its measurement were a concern of both ancient science and engineering and of everyday life. The presence of the figures of the eight winds on both buildings connects timeless myth with the conscious and scientific measurement of time and space.

Engagement with antiquity can assert novelty as well as an antiquarian respect for cultural authority. The Radcliffe Observatory’s architect James Wyatt, in modelling his observatory on an Athenian building, was responding to the latest contemporary fashion. The details of the older tower’s structure and its sculptures had recently been featured in Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens, first published in 1762. Wyatt produced a great many solid neo-classical buildings in Oxford and elsewhere (including a Pantheon in London’s Oxford St), but was no stranger to architectural fashion and experiment. The altered proportions and scale of the Radcliffe Observatory, compared with its ancient original, perhaps hint at the extremes he would demonstrate in later buildings such as the Gothic Revival Fonthill Abbey, with its magnificent but short-lived tower.

Uncovering the complexity of ancient engagement with time, temporality and history, will be at the heart of our research activities over the next three years. We can take inspiration from Wyatt’s re-use of the past, and the collaborative efforts of Atlas and Heracles, holding up the world on the top of the tower.