Alexander Boris de Pericles Johnson

Alexander may be the given first name of the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, but he prefers himself to look to Athens rather than Macedon for political inspiration. During the Tory leadership campaign, at least, during the now famous TalkRadio interview in which he professed to a hitherto unsuspected bus-painting hobby, Johnson said (to use the transcription on the TalkRadio website):

I’ve always greatly admired Pericles of Athens because he was the guy who said, uh, that politics was about the many, not the few. He was the first to use exactly that… a great orator. And, uh, he, uh, it was said that he thundered and lightened when he spoke. But what he did is he used great infrastructure. He invested in fantastic infrastructure. Uh, he developed the, the, not just the Acropolis, but the Piraeus port which was integral to the success of a lot of Athens.

Nor was this the first campaign during which Johnson invoked the name of Pericles. According to a feature in the Spectator magazine in May 2016, Johnson ‘contends that Pericles, the great Athenian statesman he so often cites, would also have been an Outer. Boris argues that “to stick up for democracy is entirely Periclean” and that the referendum ultimately comes down to whether you believe in “rule by the many, not the few”’. Johnson is said, moreover, to have a bust of Pericles in his office.

Boris Johnson admiring bust of Pericles
Boris Johnson has been eager to play up his classical connections, as in this 2011 Mail on Sunday article

Johnson’s Periclean self-projection has unsurprisingly been picked up ‒ and tweaked ‒ in newspaper discussion on his leadership. Patrick Kidd in the Times wrote a piece the other day entitled ‘Boris Johnson could prove more of a chancer than his hero Pericles’. In this column he referred to the TalkRadio interview, writing: ‘Asked recently why he so admires Pericles, Johnson said that the Greek believed government should be conducted “by the many, not the few” (a phrase subtly different from “for the many”), that he was a magnificent orator who “thundered and lightened when he spoke” and that he “invested in fantastic infrastructure”.’ Kidd then develops the thesis that Johnson may be more of an Alcibiades ‒ arrogant, spoiled, charismatic to some, a disaster to Athens. The same suggestion is made by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. The more learned of the online comments go a bit further and invoke the name of Cleon.

Two names stand out in these discussions for their absence: Thucydides and Plutarch, the two key authors through whom we derive our varied pictures of Pericles and his successors. The public debate carries on as if we have unmediated access to the world of Athenian politics. Our main sources, however, make Pericles central to strong historical plots, and it is they who are responsible for the words which are sometimes attributed to Pericles himself.

Plutarch’s Life of Pericles adds a dimension not found in Johnson’s idealization of Pericles: time. Plutarch posits a change between the early and the late Pericles – a change from a more demagogic to a more aristocratic mode of government. This change solves the problem of the divergence between the Thucydidean and Platonic image of Pericles: the negative Platonic image of Pericles’ pandering to the people is restricted to the early portion of Pericles’ life; for the later stages, Plutarch explicitly supports the Thucydidean picture of a Pericles who resists the people’s whims.

Johnson recuperates as positive much that in Plutarch is highly ambivalent. The imagery of thunder and lightning applied to Pericles’ rhetoric is taken from Plutarch, via the comic playwright Aristophanes’ Acharnians. In Aristophanes, the presentation of Pericles’ powers of persuasion is highly negative. He is arraigned for using his linguistic skills to foist the disruption of the Peloponnesian War on the Greeks, and all for petty personal motives. Similarly ambivalent in Plutarch is the presentation of Pericles’ spending on infrastructure. Though Plutarch acknowledges the beauty of the temples that Pericles had built, he also reports strong criticisms of Pericles for spending the allies’ financial contributions on beautifying Athens like a ‘vain woman’.

As for the language of the many and the few, the source for that lies in the famous funeral speech that Thucydides places in the mouth of Pericles during the first year of the Peloponnesian War. In this speech (written up by Thucydides perhaps a quarter of a century or more after it was supposedly delivered), Pericles is made to say that Athens is called a democracy because it is governed ‘for the many rather than for the few’. Pericles’ language is in fact evoked most closely by the slogan of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the party’s 2017 election manifesto. But in Thucydides’ speech Pericles grants democracy this definition as a concession. He explains that Athens’ constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests of the many, but he immediately qualifies this claim by stressing that it allows individuals to achieve a status that matches their personal excellence. It is a definition that prepares for Thucydides’ own claim that Athens under Pericles was in name a democracy but in fact rule by the first man. Pericles, on Thucydides’ reading, had the strength to resist the changing moods of the people (he notably fails to call an assembly when he sees that they are angry at the immediate results of the Peloponnesians’ first invasion of Attica).


Would Pericles have been an ‘outer’? Obviously not … but perhaps it is better to dismiss that question as an anachronistic absurdity. A more productive use of anachronism may be to explore the similarities and differences between Pericles’ imperial Athens, imposing standardized measures on the subject allies that she (in Thucydides’ view) tyrannically enslaved, and the fantasy image of Brussels cooked up by irresponsible journalists like the young Johnson. Anachronisms aside, it is worth dwelling on (Thucydides’) Pericles’ boast that his generation handed down a city more powerful than the one it inherited, and wondering on the prospects that future historians will say the same of the United Kingdom during its current rule by a Conservative and Unionist Party controlled by the products of 1980s Oxford.


• In a 2011 feature for the Mail on Sunday, as shown in the screenshot above, Johnson offered a section of the Funeral Speech given by Thucydides’ Pericles as one of his favourite Greek quotes, although readers should note that in this ghost-written piece placed to support an educational initiative, the task of finding the actual Greek quotes was outsourced to a member of the Anachronism team.

Galen, Polybius and the construction of authority

The desire to connect with important figures from the past leads authors from later antiquity into anachronism, as they seek to establish connections with earlier writers. These were the findings reported in the final two papers of our Anachronism and Antiquity seminar series, ‘Anachronism in Ancient History of Greek medicine: Galen’s claim to be Hippocrates’ and Plato’s direct disciple’ by Catherine Darbo-Peschanski, and ‘Polybian Temporalities’ by John Marincola. The continuing authority of intellectual traditions associated with Plato and Hippocrates in particular saw writers asserting a connection to them and the intellectual traditions associated with them. These two papers showed Galen and Polybius to use and manipulate traditions associated with specific areas of expertise, respectively medicine and political theory. The close readings their speakers offered enabled us to see the distinctive strategies used by each.

Galen group from the Vienna Dioscurides MS - seven doctors with Galen in the centre
Another anachronistic community: Galen, seated centre in a position of authority, among a group of doctors and pharmacologists, some of whom predate him. From a sixth-century illuminated manuscript which contains the De Materia Medica by Pedanius Dioscorides and texts by other doctors pictured. 3v Codex Vindobonensis med. gr. 1.

Catherine Darbo-Peschanski opened her paper by setting out Galen’s intellectual context and the many developments in both abstract areas of philosophical thought, such as metaphysics and epistemology, and more applied medical thought, such as the new understanding of the human body gained through dissection, which separate the second century CE writer from the fourth century BCE. Galen’s desire to associate his own arguments and ideas with distant predecessors becomes an engine for generating anachronisms, as he seeks out passages in their texts which can be associated with later ideas. Although Brooke Holmes’ paper at our Florida conference last year had a very different approach, she likewise found Galen’s readings of Hippocratic texts to be an important site for the manipulation of genealogical time in the pursuit of scholarly authority.

Polybius is an author whose work has received relatively little scholarly attention, perhaps in the shadow of Frank Walbank’s massive historical commentary, although there are signs of a Polybian Renaissance and his models if not his actual text have long been of interest to historians of political thought. John Marincola showed the sophistication of Polybius’ understanding of time in his great project to weave together the histories of the Mediterranean world and explain the rise of Rome. Polybius’ excursus into political theorising in book 6, in which he explains the growth and success of the Roman Republic through anacyclosis, a universal model of political development and change into which all political communities can be fitted, is an interesting example of the incorporation and modification of traditions, while asserting the authority of a key figure from the past. His account of the development of political societies clearly owes a great deal to Plato’s account in Laws III, although he is clear that he is extending it (6.5.1), with the incorporation of newer ideas from authors intermediate between him and Plato. Only Plato, and the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus, are named.

The urge to create connections with intellectual founding figures and their ideas through the construction of genealogies is widely prevalent in ancient thought. But intellectual filiations such as those between Galen, Plato and Hippocrates appear to operate much like other forms of genealogical explanation. While complete king lists were developed by chroniclers, only a few kings were the subjects of myths frequently told. Founder kings attract more stories, as do those who are involved in significant political change, such as Theseus as synoecist of Athens. Only these kings appear in the literary tradition, in Athenian rhetoric or allusions to the distant past in historical and philosophical texts.

We can find these practices replicated in contemporary academic practice. The use of Thucydides and Herodotus to represent all of ancient historiography generates many problems for those seeking to contrast ancient and modern approaches to the writing of history. Firstly, the historians of the later Greek and Roman worlds were able to work with and manipulate an established tradition. Secondly, this manipulation of tradition is apparent in the genealogical histories of other disciplines, particularly the histories of medicine and philosophy, as Galen’s works amply demonstrate. Both Darbo-Peschanski and Marincola have made important contributions to scholarship in this area, and their papers showed how careful reading of ancient texts can still reveal new insights into the intellectual culture of antiquity.


  • Darbo-Peschanski, C. (2007) L’historia: commencements grecs. Paris.
  • Gotteland, S. (1998), ‘Généalogies mythiques et politique chez les orateurs attiques’, in D. Auger and S. Saïd (eds.), Généalogies Mythiques. Paris, 379-93.
  • Marincola, J. (1997) Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography. Cambridge.
  • Walbank, F.W. (1957-79) A Historical Commentary on Polybius, 3 vols. Oxford.

From Issus to Lepanto: battle scenes and temporality in the history of art

Artistic depictions of historical events involve a certain amount of temporal flattening. In some cases, visual artists can select a critical moment in the unfolding of an event, in which a specific snapshot of that moment can stand in for the whole, just as a playwright or poet might select the most critical and decisive period to stage or describe. Important moments could also be selected for their exemplary value, with battle itself becoming a metaphor for broader patterns of change. A recent visit to Munich for a workshop on ancient and modern political thought, hosted by  gave me the opportunity to visit the city’s Alte Pinakothek, where the impressive collection of early modern art includes a painting that has become emblematic of anachronism, Altdorfer’s Alexanderschlacht. But this turned out not to be the only work of art on display in Munich’s museum quarter to tackle the display of battle at epic scale, or to have been given a significant role in the construction of the history of art.

Altdorfer's Alexanderschlacht
Schlacht bei Issus, or the Alexanderschlacht, by Albrecht Altdorfer (1529). Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538) painted the Alexanderschlacht in 1529, one of a series of paintings of battles commissioned by William IV of Bavaria. His depiction of the encounter between Darius and Alexander at the Battle of Issus, the decisive victory of the Macedonians over the Persians in 333 BC, has become the archetype of the anachronistic depiction of past events, partly for its compression of time in the depiction of battle. Several of its temporal devices have been identified as anachronisms in themselves, with the historiographer Reinhart Koselleck arguing that the depiction of the ancient forces in modern dress exemplifies a lack of understanding of the difference between past and present. The banners held by each side to note their casualty numbers suggest the complex temporality of the work; at the moment depicted there are already many warriors lying dead on the ground, but the battle continues and the dead have not yet been counted. The banners anticipate the end of the battle which is still taking place. The dramatic sky marks the battle as a cosmically significant encounter.

In our research into anachronism and antiquity, we’ve come to see Altdorfer’s work as a more complex and sophisticated engagement with the past than Koselleck’s interpretation suggests. Along with the other paintings of the Bavarian Historienzyklus, it shows a decisive moment in the history of an empire, with lessons for its viewers in the present facing the cultural and political challenges of their own times.

Aegina temple pediment
Panoramic view of the current display of the West pediment of the temple at Aegina, Munich Glyptothek. Picture credit: Vitold Muratov.

But Altdorfer is not the only example of complex temporality in the artistic depiction of battle. While his masterpiece represents one way in which single pictures could tell stories that contribute to a larger narrative, other depictions of historic or mythical battles, ancient and modern, can be seen nearby in Munich. The Munich Glyptothek contains sculptures from the pediments of the temple of Athena from Aegina, discovered in 1811 and acquired in 1812. The display of these sculptures was central to the design and construction of the Glypothek building, intended to showcase a developmental story of classical art. The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) wrote that the arrival of the Aeginetan sculptures expanded the knowledge of Greek art (as the even more controversially removed Parthenon sculptures had done in Britain); the expansion of knowledge, to him, justified the removal of these works from their context.

Wounded warrior
Wounded warrior, from the Aeginetan west pediment, c. 500-490 BCE. Munich Glyptothek.

The west pediment shows a battle between Greek and Trojan heroes with the goddess Athena at the centre; fragmentary imagery on his shield suggests that the Greek hero is Ajax, associated with Aegina and an appropriate figure for this temple; on the east pediment, Heracles battles the Trojans. The original reconstruction of the west pediment had the opposing groups aiming at each other within the pediment, across the figure of Athena who appeared between them, as if the sculptural group represented a single episode in a battle. In a revised version, on display since the museum’s reopening after it was itself severely damaged in World War II, some of the figures aim outwards, confounding attempts to read the pediment as a single scene, and involving the onlooker in its action. The surviving parts of the sculpture appear in their fragmentary form, rather than as a complete work. (A painted cast of one of the more complete figures, Paris as an archer, suggests what the impact of the original polychrome presentation might have been, and some attachments such as Athena’s staff have been added.)

The sculptures themselves mark a significant moment in the development of classical Greek art, with the two pediments standing each side of a major stylistic shift. Those of the west pediment, dated to 500-490 BCE, mark the end of the severe archaic style, while those of the east pediment, from a few years later, have the distinctive features of the new classical style. Looking at these figures with their static expressions might evoke an anachronistic response in modern onlookers, unused to the conventions of representation in archaic art. The figure of the wounded soldier from the west pediment is particularly ‘strange’, as the museum’s catalogue notes, with his carefully posed body and apparent smile, typical of archaic sculpture. The warrior is pulling an arrow from his chest, an injury likely to be fatal, but his expression does not hint at the trauma of his immediate situation, while his hair remains unruffled. Hegel appears to have had a similar response to the Aiginetans. His lectures on aesthetics pronounced that ‘in the Aeginetan sculptures facial expressions and the posture are precisely what is relatively spiritless’ (Hegel 1975: 786), and that the faces are not a ‘true representation of nature’.

Nearby, the Museum Brandhorst houses another depiction of an epochal conflict, in the Lepanto cycle by Cy Twombly (1928-2011). Like the Aiginetan pediments, the desire to display this large work as a comprehensible whole influenced the design of a new museum building; the Lepanto canvases are displayed in a large oval gallery built for them. The cycle was commissioned for the 2001 Venice Biennale, which marked the chronological turning point between the millennia with a curated exhibition ‘The Plateau of Humankind’; the depiction of a Venetian naval encounter nods to the exhibition’s location. But the following year they made a first visit to Munich, where they were exhibited at the Alte Pinakothek.

Cy Twombly's Lepanto (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich
Cy Twombly’s Lepanto (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich

Like Altdorfer’s paintings and the Aegina pediment, Twombly’s Lepanto paintings depict a conflict that has gained in cultural significance over time, in this case the 7 October 1571 battle between the Holy League forces of the Venetian and Spanish empires, and the Ottoman empire, fought near Nafpaktos (Lepanto was its Venetian name) in the Gulf of Corinth. Twombly created a series of canvases that suggest the opposition of conflicting forces and the progression of their encounter, rather than a single image. But as the texts for the current display note, Twombly depicts a ‘supratemporal conflict’ in which he does not take sides.

Twombly’s twelve canvases feature two distinctive colour schemes and orientations. Paintings I, IV, VIII and XII show a bird’s eye view of the battle, while the others offer a more conventional view, with intensifying colour suggesting a narrative of intensifying action, the turquoises of the sea contrasting with the reds and oranges of the burning boats.

Twombly Lepanto II
Cy Twombly, Lepanto II (2001), Museum Brandhorst, Munich.

Thematically, the battle of Lepanto was a significant turning point in the history of naval warfare, one of the last major conflicts to be fought between galleys powered by oar rather than sailing ships. Twombly emphasises the role of oars in the minimalist outlines of his boats; boats and barges with oars are a recurrent symbol in his later work, sometimes recalling Greek myth in suggesting the transition between life and death. Just as the casualty figures for the Battle of Issus were not known while it was being fought, neither the historical significance of this battle as a technological turning point nor its significance in the conflict between the Holy League and the Ottoman Empire were apparent while it was being fought. Unlike the two earlier more explicitly figurative depictions of war, Twombly’s cycle need not be read historically, but purely aesthetically, as the contrast of colour and the variation of intensity.

Whatever the historical forces that led to these three depictions of battle all being displayed in the Museumsviertel of Munich, they offer the contemporary visitor the opportunity to survey the use of the past across different genres of art and from different societies, and to contemplate the stories that historians have used them to tell.


  • Hegel, G.W.F. (1975) [1835] Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
  • Koselleck, R. (1985) [1979], Futures Past: on the semantics of historical time, trans. K. Tribe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
  • Prettejohn, E. (2012) The Modernity of Ancient Sculpture: Greek sculpture and modern art from Winckelmann to Picasso (London: I. B. Tauris).
  • Wünsche, R. (2007) [2005], Glyptothek, Munich: masterpieces of Greek and Roman sculpture, trans. R. Batstone (Munich: C.H. Beck).




Anchoring Innovation

It might seem fanciful to claim that the project ‘Anchoring Innovation’, now underway in Classics departments in the Netherlands following a major government grant, addresses some of the same themes as our Leverhulme-funded ‘Anachronism and Antiquity’. It appears odd, after all, to speak of ‘innovation’ and ‘anachronism’ in the same breath. But what makes this claim valid are the implications of the term ‘anchoring’.

The aims of the ‘Anchoring Innovation’ project are set out in a programmatic paper by Ineke Sluiter published in the European Review. The goal, Sluiter writes, is ‘to identify how people in Antiquity dealt with change in ways that allowed them to feel an unbroken sense of self, identity, group cohesion and cultural belonging within the different and certainly not monolithic entities that made up ancient society.’ Through the metaphor of ‘anchoring’, the project seeks to analyse how the past clings on even amidst innovation.

Sluiter offers a number of examples of continuity in change that reflect the sort of temporal multiplicity that is central to our anachronism project. She invokes the notion of anchoring to explain why the architectural writer Vitruvius suggested that some seemingly otiose features on stone buildings (for instance, the small projections known as guttae, ‘drops’) were based on functional features such as pegs found in old wooden buildings. A different method of ‘anchoring innovation’ is offered by the building programme on the Acropolis at Athens following the devastating Persian invasion of 480 BC. While the Athenians built a new Parthenon and Erechtheum, they used the remains of the old temple of Athena to reinforce the north wall of the Acropolis (where they can still be seen to this day) ‒ remains which, Sluiter notes, ‘would have reminded the Athenians of the historical events that led to the new building activities, which were therefore securely “anchored” in the past’.

While the Dutch project uses anchoring as a metaphor, physical anchors offer fruitful material for our anachronism project. In a geographical account of the Black Sea, the versatile second-century AD writer Arrian offers an account of an object to be found in a temple at Phasis, a city at the eastern end of the sea, famous as the location of the Golden Fleece:

There the anchor of the Argo, is shown. The iron one did not seem to me to be ancient ‒ and yet in size it is not like present-day anchors, and in shape it is somehow different ‒ but rather it appeared to me to be more recent. Ancient fragments of a stone anchor were also shown, so that one might reckon that these are more likely to be the remains of the anchor of Argo. (Periplus of the Black Sea 9.2)

Rather than making explicit the grounds for his suspicions about the authenticity of the iron anchor, Arrian mentions in passing two features that give that claim a superficial plausibility: its size and shape. It is the following statement that stone fragments are more likely to be authentic that makes clear the basis of his reasoning.

The grounds for Arrian’s suspicions are laid out more fully by the British polymath George Stanley Faber (1773‒1853) in one of his enquiries into the key to all mythologies:

the story was a mere fiction of the priests. … Those impostors do not seem to have considered, that such pretensions involved a direct anachronism. Anchors are never once mentioned by Homer, the remarkable exactness of whose descriptions is well known; hence we may reasonably conclude, that they were a subsequent invention. How then could the Argo have had an anchor, when its imaginary voyage is unanimously supposed to have been prior to the siege of Troy?

Faber is here picking up the historical approach to archaic poetry found in ancient scholarship. The claim that anchors are not mentioned by Homer was in fact disputed in ancient scholarship. Homer does mention in nautical contexts the casting of eunai, ‘beds’, and these ‘beds’ are sometimes glossed in the margins of manuscripts as ‘anchors’ and even described as iron: ‘he calls the iron anchors of the boats “beds” because the boats are bedded by these and at rest’ (scholion on Odyssey 9.137). But it is clear from a number of passages that eunai were stones rather than curved metal anchors (Greek agkura is cognate with words meaning ‘bent’); indeed, according to another ancient commentator (on Iliad 18.570),  the word ‘stone’ (lithos) was preserved as a term for ‘anchor’ (anchoring innovation in action!).

Clearer support for Faber’s position is found in ancient scholarship on Pindar. Pindar’s celebrated Argonautic narrative in his fourth Pythian ode includes the detail that the departing heroes ‘slung the anchors above the prow’ (4.191-2). Critics in antiquity objected that anchors ‘did not exist in the time of the heroes: therefore we say that Pindar has composed this in a peculiar way’. The word here translated ‘in a peculiar way’, idiōs, is evidently gesturing towards the anachronism of Pindar’s description. Both the Pindar scholia and Faber point to the contrasting practice of the epic Argonautica written by Apollonius of Rhodes, who, in Faber’s words, ‘with great propriety gives his heroes a large stone for an anchor’. Implicit in these accounts is a view of technological advance: the age of the heroes did not know the use of iron.

Arrian’s discussion of the touristic sights of ancient Phasis invites comparison with other ancient evidence for Argonautic relics. Apollonius alludes to the Argonauts exchanging at Cyzicus, a city on the southern shores of the Propontis, a light for a heavy anchor, and it is known that Callimachus alluded to the same story. The original light anchor was subsequently dedicated in a temple of Athena, and scholars at the start of the nineteenth century (such as Arrian’s translator Thomas Falconer) could still wonder whether the stone fragments which Arrian mentions were the remains of this anchor.

Hellenistic stone anchors


The story that the Argonauts exchanged anchors may originally been have an attempt to explain the existence of two different relics. But why cast it as an exchange of light for heavy? The increasing weight of the new anchor perhaps chimes with the wild and inhospitable reputation of the Black Sea which the Argonauts were about to enter. It also follows a common evolutionary schema ‒ a move from small to large ‒ that would have particularly point in those accounts that portrayed the Argo as the first ever ship: by trial and error the Argonauts arrived at the optimum size. This evolutionary schema stands in tension, however, with Arrian’s comment that the size of the iron anchor he saw at Phasis was appropriate to the age of the heroes. Arrian was evidently following the Homeric image of the extraordinary strength of the ancient warriors, able to throw rocks that men in the poet’s day could not lift.

There was nothing especially innovative in Arrian’s reasoning about the anchor at Phasis. What it does show is how a sense of anachronism, though sharpened by the need to work through the implications of competing evolutionary and devolutionary narratives, was grounded in philological commentary on ancient poetry. Whatever new insights emerge from the projects on anachronism and innovation currently underway in Oxford and the Netherlands, it is not too far-fetched to claim that they will themselves be anchored in the spirit of historical criticism fostered by critics in antiquity.


  • I. Sluiter, ‘Anchoring Innovation: A Classical Research Agenda’, European Review 25: 1 (2017), 20–38.
  • S. Faber, A Dissertation on the Mysteries of the Cabiri: or, The Great Gods of Phoenicia, Samothrace, Egypt, Troas, Greece, Italy, and Crete). Being an Attempt to Deduce the Several Orgies Of Isis, Ceres, Mithras, Bacchus, Rhea, Adonis, and Hecate, from an Union of the Rites Commemorative of the Deluge with the Adoration of the Host of Heaven, 2 volumes (Oxford, 1803).
  • T. Falconer, Arrian’s Voyage round the Euxine Sea: Translated, and Accompanied with a Geographical Dissertation, and Maps (Oxford, 1805).

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.

Thermopylae business: exemplarity and historicity

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

‘We’re with you, sir, to the death.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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