Rabelais, Erasmus, and the crisis of exemplarity

‘Was Rabelais an atheist?’ That was the question that the Annales historian Lucien Febvre set out to interrogate in his 1942 monograph The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century. His response has become a classic expression of the dangers of applying later conceptions and terminology to earlier historical periods:

‘When dealing with sixteenth-century men and ideas, when dealing with modes of wishing, feeling, thinking, and believing that bear sixteenth-century arms, the problem is to determine what set of precautions to take and what rules to follow in order to avoid the worst of all sins, the sin that cannot be forgiven – anachronism.’

For Febvre, Rabelais exemplified the impossibility of atheism in his historical milieu.

Whatever the case with Rabelais’ (non-)atheism, many historians would be reluctant to rely on so firm a notion of what was historically possible within any given period. Periods, after all, are heuristic tools, and many different historical rhythms can be identified at any one time. We can helpfully pursue these thoughts here by looking at the shifting rhythms of exemplarity in the work of Rabelais himself.

Historians interested in conceptions of the past often present the Renaissance as a decisive turning-point. An increasing sensitivity to anachronism is thought to have led to the collapse of ancient modes of exemplarity based on the idea of an unchanging human nature. According to many accounts, the hold that exemplarity exercised on the early modern imagination proved to be self-defeating. When people actually attempted to put the theoretical model into practice by imitating the ancients (whether in literature, law, or military tactics), the outcome was a much stronger appreciation of their historical distance from antiquity.

A further weakening of the model of exemplarity arose from the profusion and complexity of ancient exempla. Collections of different exempla led to a more nuanced sense of their various historical contexts. They also revealed that some individuals were credited with conflicting character traits ‒ a particular problem given that metonymy was one of the dominant modes of exemplarity: if the very name of an ancient figure such as Alexander was shorthand for particular qualities, what to do when those qualities included drunkenness and lust as well as courage and daring?

The contrast between Christianity and paganism is seen as another important facet of the Renaissance crisis of exemplarity. Important reflections on this religious contrast are found in Rabelais’ comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel (published between 1532 and 1552) as well as in one of Rabelais’ inspirations, the writings of the Dutch humanist Erasmus. Rabelais presents a council scene in which the bad king Picrochole (‘Bitter bile’) is told by his rash advisers that if he pursues wars of aggression he will become ‘the most sprightly and knightly prince there ever has been since the death of Alexander of Macedonia’. Suggesting that he divide his army, the advisers then plot out step by step the conquests he should seek (they even start alluding to those conquests in the past tense, as if anticipating that they have already happened). At one point Picrochole suggests that he should rebuild the temple of Solomon once he has conquered Jerusalem, but his advisers tell him not to rush: ‘Do you know what Octavian Augustus used to say? Hasten slowly. It behoves you first to hold Asia Minor, Caria, Lycia, Cilicia, Lydia, Phrygia, Bithynia, Carrasia, Satalia …’

Charles' V Plus Ultra device, Seville
The Plus Ultra device of Emperor Charles V with the Pillars of Hercules, here displayed on the Town Hall (Ayuntamiento) of Seville, Spain

Thus far Rabelais’ scene seems to show the power of ancient models of military conquest. The allusion to Alexander is a hit at the imperial ambitions of the Hapsburg emperor Charles V. Charles promoted comparisons with Alexander and other ancient models: his device Plus ultra (‘More beyond’) showed two columns, standing for the Pillars of Hercules, which in antiquity were emblems of the limits of the world, but had now been superseded by Charles’ conquests in Mexico and Peru. Rabelais’ satire may also be expressed through imitation of a literary model, the speech in Herodotus (5.49) where Aristagoras of Miletus tries to persuade the Spartans to invade Asia Minor by listing the successive stages of the conquest (Rabelais had translated parts of Herodotus).
The Christian twist to the exemplary model comes after Picrochole’s predictable defeat. The Alexander allusion is recalled as the wise giant-king Grandgousier rebukes an envoy sent by Picrochole:

The time has passed for such conquering of kingdoms to the harm of our Christian brothers and neighbours. Such imitation of ancient heroes – Hercules, Alexander, Hannibal, Scipio, Caesar and so on – is contrary to the teaching of our Gospel, by which we are each commanded to guard, save, rule and manage his own realms and lands, and never aggressively to invade those of others. And what the Saracens and Barbarians once dubbed prowess we now call brigandage and evil-doing.

The sense of change is strengthened by the fact that even the non-Christians Saracens no longer approve of vainglorious dreams of conquest.

Rabelais’ account of Picrochole’s ambitions is a brilliant re-working of themes found in the moral and educational writings of Erasmus. The saying of Augustus to which Picrochole’s counsellors allude ‒ ‘hasten slowly’, festina lente ‒ is the subject of a long discussion in Erasmus’ Adages (a miscellany of discussions of ancient proverbs originally published in 1508); Rabelais seems to expose its dangerous malleability by putting it in the mouth of speakers themselves more intent on haste than caution. Besides the Adages, Rabelais was picking up Erasmus’ 1516 work Institutio Principis Christiani (The Education of a Christian Prince). Erasmus there warns that the ancient historians have to be read ‘forearmed and selectively’ rather than as storehouses of useful advice:

‘Both Herodotus and Xenophon were pagans and very often present the worst type of prince, even if they wrote history for the purpose of … portraying the image of an outstanding leader.’

Erasmus then turns his attention to the characters the historians depict: ‘when you hear of Xerxes, Cyrus, Darius, or Julius, do not let the prestige of a great name seize you: you are hearing of great and raging bandits.’ Rabelais’ re-working of Erasmus is the more pointed because Erasmus’ educational treatise had been dedicated to the young Charles V.

Reading Erasmus and Rabelais should caution us against constructing too strong an antithesis between classical antiquity and the Christian era. Erasmus openly acknowledges that his condemnation of ‘bandits’ is taken from the Stoic author Seneca (De Beneficiis 2.18.6). And Rabelais’ council scene includes an ‘old nobleman’ Echephron (‘Prudent’) who objects to the planned conquests with an argument that is lifted directly from the mouth of the counsellor Cineas in chapter 14 of Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus: when Pyrrhus/Picrochole, prompted to explain his final goal after all the toils of military conquest, replies that they will then rest at their ease, Cineas/Echephron asks why they do not take their rest straightaway without exposing themselves to danger first. There are also classical precedents for Grandgousier’s analysis of the change in the moral evaluation of aggressive warfare from ‘prowess’ to ‘brigandage’: Thucydides, for example, observes that brigandage was not disavowed by characters in the Homeric poems and was still in his own day honoured in remote parts of Greece that clung to the old ways (1.5).

Looking deeper into the rhetoric of exemplarity in the Renaissance unsettles, then, some of the over-simple polarities used in the construction of intellectual history. And as our project progresses, we will be using anachronism to unsettle scholarly complacency further as we explore the temporal schisms that lurk just below the surface of the ancient discourse of exemplarity.

‘Do this!’ Performing political analogy in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar

BRUTUS: Peace! count the clock.

CASSIUS: The clock hath stricken three.

Search the internet for a definition of ‘anachronism’ and it’s likely that this exchange in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will be cited as a prime example. Shakespeare uses the conspirators’ response to the sound of the clock striking to interrupt their meeting, reminding them of their limited opportunity for action. But does it also disrupt the audience, reminding them that they are watching an incomplete depiction of an ancient society in which there were no striking clocks? Does Shakespeare deliberately collapse the historical distance between Rome and the present, or is he unconcerned about separating the two or even unaware of the difference? And what are the implications for performances now, when both Rome and Shakespeare are in the past?

Julius Caesar performance
Staging the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as contemporary protest and performance, Bridge Theatre.

The relationship between Roman past and dramatic present in Shakespeare’s play is fluid, with plenty of other elements – especially material objects and props, costumes, weapons, books – that suggest slippage between the two. But the audible interruption of the clock, itself indicative of his characters’ anxiety about time, is particularly telling. As with his series of English history plays, part of Shakespeare’s purpose appears to be to connect past events with present political concerns, to explore the present through the past, and so one might expect past and present to merge. The Tudor era scarcely lacked political conspiracy and violence, although in a significantly different political landscape from that of the Roman republic; scholars debate the extent to which Shakespeare elided the different societies, although the emergence of strong leadership in a state of growing power offers clear parallels.

For each new production of the play, directors have choices to make in drawing analogies and connections between the Roman past, the Tudor past and the political present. Their choices in emphasising or collapsing historical distance between Rome, Shakespeare and themselves perhaps reveal the political anxieties of the present. They also remind us of the role of drama in providing exemplars and analogies through which we can think about our present concerns.

The current production at London’s new Bridge Theatre, directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by Bunny Christie, is the first production of a Shakespeare play at this new venue, just as the play’s debut in 1599 was one of, if not the first, productions at the Globe Theatre. For both Shakespeare and Hytner Julius Caesar can perhaps be read as a statement of theatrical intent. The new production’s immersive approach simultaneously acknowledges the active audience of Shakespeare’s theatre, and uses it to foreground present political concerns. Long before the clock strikes, the audience through its participation has bridged past and present. The standing audience in the pit is co-opted to represent the mass of Romans – but kitted out in red baseball caps labelled ‘Caesar’, and exhorted to ‘Do this!’, emphasising their performative role. Like crowds at a contemporary demonstration or festival the spectators wave flags and sing along to the rock band performing for the rude revels of the Lupercalia, its cover versions of rock standards standing in for the low culture of the mob scene that opens Shakespeare’s play.

The audience surges around performers as they rise into view to speak, enacting the changing allegiances of the Roman crowd, as Brutus and Mark Antony take the stage in turn at Caesar’s funeral, to defend their actions and to claim the loyalty of the crowd, many still wearing their Caesar-branded hats. But the constantly moving staging also generates uncertainty and division. As the Roman factions enter battle, the audience is scattered to the margins, performing the collapse of civic order along with the actors.

One aspect of the production’s own manipulation of past and present is to dress the proto-tyrant in the costume of a presidential contender, as other recent US productions have done, to some controversy. In doing so they insist that both Roman politics and Shakespeare’s drama can inform our analysis of present-day events, and that a play insistent in its concern about time can become a timeless commentary.

Indeed, as Mary Beard notes in her note on Roman history for the programme, the whole play is an exercise in exemplarity, setting up Caesar’s death on the Ides of March as the prime example of assassination. And as an exemplar, it benefits from connection to the present through analogy marked by anachronistic references. But as Matthew D’Ancona notes in turn in another programme note, it is not Caesar himself who provides the exemplar for us in our present political circumstances, but Brutus, played in this production by David Calder and Ben Whishaw respectively. D’Ancona sees Shakespeare’s Brutus, the idealist and philosophical conspirator happiest at home with his books, as a paradigm for the failure of Britain’s liberal elite to explain itself and its political projects to the wider public. He connects this to the ‘post-truth’ political rhetoric on which he has written in his book of that title. But Brutus’ inability to match the rhetoric of Mark Antony also taps into a long classical tradition that begins with the disdain for the philosopher depicted by Plato, or even in the Sicilian Expedition debates of Thucydides, and shows no sign of ending.

  • Matthew d’Ancona (2017) Post-Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight Back (London: Ebury).
  • Dennis Kezar  (2005) ‘Julius Caesar ’s Analogue Clock and the Accents of History’, in Zander, H. (ed.), Julius Caesar: new critical essays (New York: Routledge), pp. 241-255.

Thermopylae business: exemplarity and historicity

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

‘We’re with you, sir, to the death.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Alma-Tadema: antiquity at home in the nineteenth century

A group of women look down to the sea from a stone parapet. The vivid blue of the sea and the clear bright light suggest a warm location – perhaps the Amalfi Coast, rather than the promenade in an English or Dutch sea-side resort. Their costume, and perhaps the ship glimpsed arriving below, suggest the world of ancient Rome, as does the marble parapet on which they lean; but beyond the antiquity suggested by the statuary and their costumes, this elegant group could be anywhere in time or space. This scene, Coign of Vantage (1895) is one version of a recurring image in the work of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912), seen in several other pictures also displayed in the current exhibition at London’s Leighton House Museum, ‘Alma-Tadema: at home in antiquity’; elegantly dressed figures arranged on stone seating, with the sea in the distance. This recurrent image might be linked to a significant turning point in Alma-Tadema’s life, his 1863 honeymoon, which took him and his first wife Pauline through Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, and appears to have changed the course of his career.

Alma-Tadema, Coign of Vantage
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Coign of Vantage (1895), private collection.

In 1863 Alma-Tadema was emerging as a talented history painter with a taste in scenes from the early mediaeval period, often depicting the encounters of powerful royal women with writers or churchmen (for example in Queen Fredegonda at the Death-Bed of Bishop Praetextatus, 1864). But his experience of Pompeii and the ruins and landscapes of the Italian coast redirected him towards classical antiquity, and it was his incorporation of classical scenes and domestic life into the genre of history painting that became the hallmark of his work. Monuments from Pompeii can clearly be seen in his work: An Exedra (1871) incorporates seating and a tholos from Pompeii’s Via dei Sepolcri, repositioned to permit a distant glimpse of the sea. This exedra, or a version of it, recurs in many paintings in the show, often with an inscription carved into it. Other scenes use adaptations of it, such as the seats marked with names as if they were cathedral choir stalls in 1881’s Sappho and Alcaeus, sadly not in this show, or 1903’s Silver Favourites, in which the exedra is part of a sea-side parapet, and surrounds a pond containing the fish of the title, being fed by one of the exquisitely dressed women as her companions look on languidly (baths and fountains are another Alma-Tadema visual trope).

Alma-Tadema, An Exedra, 1869
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, An Exedra (1869), private collection.

History painting had become a significant genre in nineteenth-century art. Perhaps in step with developments in historiography and the rise of ‘scientific history’, artists sought to represent scenes from history and literature through accurate depiction of the appropriate material culture. This involved both reproduction and recreation. Alma-Tadema’s constructed cityscapes and interiors evoke the earlier genre of the capriccio, in which disparate buildings and works of art are included in the same scene, enabling the knowing viewer to recognise the artists’ distortion. Some of his work comments on the process of gathering evidence – he paints collectors and art lovers amid their treasures, as in his A Roman Lover of Art (1868). The technical proficiency in handling materials, detail and perspective which Alma-Tadema deploys on architectural detail, sculpture, and mosaic is reminiscent of the earlier Dutch tradition of depicting house and church interiors. Indeed, many of his classical scenes are domestic interiors evoking mood rather than a historical event, showing women making offerings, playing with pets, or admiring flowers, rather than illustrative history paintings such as Hadrian Visiting a Romano-British Pottery (1884). A Hearty Welcome (1878), for example, shows a woman greeting a girl in a garden; the models are Alma-Tadema’s second wife Laura Theresa, and his daughter Anna. Alma-Tadema’s focus on domesticity means that his commitment to historical accuracy may be better realised in the individual material objects, than it is in the family groups he so often depicts. In moving the emphasis of the genre painting from the historical recreation of famous scenes and episodes to the more timeless world of the everyday interior, he anticipates the interests of social historians.

Alma-Tadema, A Hearty Welcome
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Hearty Welcome (1878), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

There may be a tension between Alma-Tadema’s depictions of domesticity and what the exhibition labels describe as the ‘contemporary fascination with decadence in the ancient world’ seen in some of his work, and that of his contemporaries. Some of Alma-Tadema’s works in the exhibition, especially his larger-scale later works, suggest the complication of the gaze, and the complicity of the paintings’ subjects in staging the scenes depicted and their awareness of events within them – the emperor watching from the dais as his guests are covered in falling petals, and the woman staring out to the viewer in The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888). The domestic Alma-Tadema on display here avoids the explicit eroticism of near contemporaries such as Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Gérôme’s eroticised views of antiquity share the tenor of his orientalist paintings in depicting women as the object of the male gaze, most clearly in Phryne before the Areopagus (1861), in which the famous courtesan displays her exquisite body to the ancient court and to the modern viewer. Decorative panels from Alma-Tadema’s Roman-themed London home and studio, contributed by many artists, are more suggestive of Gérôme’s approach. Both Andromeda (Frank Dicksee, 1891) and A Christian Martyr (Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1888) depict women naked and constrained, while Lord Leighton’s Bath of Psyche (1887) offers a more typical opportunity for artistic voyeurism. Alma-Tadema himself painted several bath-house scenes, such as In the Tepidarium (1881) and the late A Favourite Custom (1909), but while the languid women of Alma-Tadema’s later works offer further evidence that he participated in the eroticisation of antiquity, his domesticised version of the ancient material world offers a contrasting vision.

Alma-Tadema, A Favourite Custom
Lawrence Alma-Tadema, A Favourite Custom, 1909, Tate.

As one of the final displays of this exhibition demonstrates, Alma-Tadema’s vision of the Roman world has influenced many cinematic depictions of the past, and what we may recognise as a Roman setting is actually an Alma-Tadema creation. Setting his pictures alongside clips from films from The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) – itself a version of a Victorian historical novel, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton – to Gladiator (2000), the show demonstrates that Alma-Tadema’s interiors have influenced set-designers’ three-dimensional attempts to recreate Roman interiors, notably in the emphasis on domestic bathing. In his focus on the family and the household, Alma-Tadema created a distinctive vision of the ancient world, perhaps anticipating later interest from both story-tellers and historians in personal lives, and in social and cultural rather than political history.

 

An anachronic conversation: Cy Twombly and classical art

Cy Twombly’s allusive use of the classical past in his art is a familiar theme of his work, seen in projects such as his Fifty Days at Iliam sequence, recently exhibited at the Pompidou Centre in Paris as part of a major retrospective. But how might placing his work alongside objects and images from classical antiquity illuminate this practice? One might expect such an exhibition to demonstrate the gulf between ancient and contemporary art, but as the show’s title suggests, a dialogue may be possible.

Divine Dialogues: Cy Twombly and Greek Antiquity, currently on display at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens, aims to explore Twombly’s work, and to introduce it to a wider Greek audience. The small exhibition takes a careful selection of paintings and sculptures and sets them alongside ancient representations of the divine figures named in the works: Pan, Aphrodite, Apollo, Dionysus, Orpheus and Aristaeus, and Nike. The curator’s aim is to introduce Twombly’s art with its ‘minimalist multi-level symbolism’ (as the curator, Prof. Nicholaos Stampolidis, describes it) by setting it in conversation with ancient representations of the same figures and their mythology.

Cy Twombly's Venus (1975) in Athens
Cy Twombly’s Venus (1975) on display with Anadyomene (1981) and a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite. Photo Paris Tavitian, © Museum of Cycladic Art.

Some of the pairings are quite obvious matchings of subject between ancient and modern; a Hellenistic torso of Aphrodite, and a vase painting of her birth, face Twombly’s 1979 series Aphrodite Anadyomene. Twombly’s resin cast of pan pipes, scarcely distinguishable from an ancient dedication, clearly belongs to the god whose statue is displayed nearby. One can see the force of ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s description of Twombly’s sculpture as ‘more archaic than archaizing’.

Other ancient statues of gods stand near Twombly’s paintings that catalogue the divine epithets and cult names applied to them, giving the contemporary painting a religious force. In some of his works, Twombly includes representative symbols from which ancient divinities can be recognised; Nike is represented by a delta-shaped wing, in works from 1980 and 1984, while a Dionysiac phallus in Dionysus, from 1975, echoes the form of an ancient grotesque statuette displayed alongside it.

In some cases, the allusion is indirect. The 1975 work, from a show itself titled Allusions, drew on contemporary sources such as Venetian graffiti, as well as classical antecedents. Aristaeus mourning the loss of his bees references a neo-classical sculpture of the name rather than Virgil’s text, and Twombly appears to delight in the phrase as much as he illustrates its sadness. It’s hard to connect these sombre works to the black-figure vase painting of a winged figure holding tools in each hand.

The centre of the exhibition is not, however, a work by Twombly, but one by Kleitias, a Greek vase painter from the sixth century BCE. The François Vase, visiting Greece from the Museo Archeologico in Florence, is set slightly apart from Twombly’s work, and without an explicit counterpart from him.

The Francois Vase
The François Vase, in its usual setting in Florence. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze, 4209.

But looking closely at the vase, with its rows of tiny, detailed mythological scenes, one sees that each figure is carefully named. From this perspective, Twombly’s practice of writing names and epithets on his canvases, to identify the figures whose myths he evokes, may become an echo of the ancient painter’s practice, a ‘semiotics’ shared across the centuries that separate them. The ancient vase, it seems, is responding to the contemporary display as a whole, and perhaps raising some questions about it. Can one appreciate or understand Twombly’s paintings, or the François vase’s mythological scenes, without reading their textual components? Or does Twombly’s ‘strange language of scribbles’, as the curators describe it, circumscribe the interpretation of his art?

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.

DSCN1961
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.

References

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

Of Sundials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York, October 19, 2016 – April 23, 2017. http://isaw.nyu.edu/exhibitions/time-cosmos/intro

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