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.


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.

Seeing Homer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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