Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

One of our previous postings, Of Sundials, suggested that scientific discovery was a great generator of anachronism within antiquity. Here we turn to a related area of ancient enquiry, geography – and to the challenges posed to Greco-Roman mappings of the world by new information about a strange group of islands set in the wide expanse of sea north of the European mainland.

reconstruction of Herodotus' map
The encircling sea characterises reconstructions of Herodotus’ description of the world: this version is from HG Wells’ Outline of History, 1921.

One of the most striking features of the image of the world presented in Homer is a great encircling river known as Okeanos – the Ocean. By the time of Herodotus, however, that Homeric picture no longer seemed adequate: ‘It is impossible to argue against the person who spoke about Ocean, transporting the story (muthos) into the realm of uncertainty. I do not know the existence of any River Ocean, and I think that Homer or one of the other poets from past time invented the name and introduced it into his poetry.’ The encircling river is not, however, an anachronism for Herodotus: he simply does not have the knowledge to disprove the story. What he finds objectionable about the old poets is that they did not have any proper geographical knowledge either, but simply invented an encircling Ocean.

Change in geographical knowledge, as well as change in geographical features, plays an important role in discussions of anachronism in ancient criticism. Among the numerous complaints that Polybius brought against the Sicilian historian Timaeus was his out-of-date information on the geography of Africa. Diodorus noted that new geographical knowledge refuted the view that the Argonauts sailed on their return journey along the River Ister (the Danube) from the Black Sea to the Adriatic (which received the waters of a different River Ister). And within the wide-ranging field of Homeric scholarship, geographers such as Strabo were interested in the question of whether Homer’s narrative reflected the geographical realities known to the poet or those known to his characters.

What about the Ocean itself? By the time of the Roman empire there was rather more knowledge about areas outside the Mediterranean than in Herodotus’ lifetime. An interesting discussion is contained in the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, in an entry on the Roman empire. I here modify slightly the translation offered in the invaluable online edition of the Suda:

This empire surpassed by far the empire of the Assyrians and Persians and Macedonians, the previous ones. In the East it is bounded by the Indians and the Red Sea and the Nile and Cataracts and lake Maeotis. As regards the west, it is bounded by Ocean itself, which was shown by the Romans’ accomplishments to be no myth; nor did the poets falsely sing its name for entertainment, since in fact the land of the Britons, which is an island surrounded by Ocean, has now been discovered and is considered part of the Roman empire.

The author of this piece is probably Dexippus, an Athenian statesman and historian of the third century AD, who wrote a world chronicle covering 1,000 years, an account of the events after the death of Alexander, and a contemporary history, the Scythica. I say ‘probably Dexippus’ because that name is preserved in the Suda after the citation, and so it is possible that what Dexippus actually wrote are the words that follow rather than precede the name.

Whoever the author, one of the implications of this Suda entry seems to be that Herodotus’ dismissal of the poets’ account of the Ocean is anachronistic. The advance of the Roman empire has replaced uncertainty with the clarity of knowledge and proved the poets right. But the fragment is not so straightforward as that. There is uncertainty over the text as well as over the authorship. Editors often assume that some words have dropped out after ‘as regards the west’, perhaps mentioning the great rivers normally seen as the bounds of the Roman empire, the Danube and Rhine. More to the point here is that the translation offered above translates an emendation in the crucial phrase about the Ocean’s status as myth: hon mê muthon for hon dê muthon.

Felix Jacoby in his great edition of fragments of the Greek historians offered a different interpretation of the passage (FGrH 100 F 12). He preserved the manuscript reading in that clause while including a different emendation (the addition of a single Greek letter, an eta meaning ‘than’) later in the same sentence. According to the text he prints, the Ocean ‘was shown by the Romans’ accomplishments to be a myth, its name nothing other than something sung by the poets for entertainment’. With this text, Herodotus’ geographical judgement is vindicated – though Herodotus himself is still an anachronism: the Ocean is a myth, but Dexippus (unlike Herodotus) can prove it.

The argument of the passage as a whole supports Jacoby’s interpretation. To show that the Ocean was no myth did not require the conquest and circumnavigation of Britain. A trip to the northern coast of Gaul or the western coast of the Iberian peninsula would have done just as well – or just as badly. After all, Herodotus could rightly object that the mere discovery that the Ocean flowed around Britain scarcely justifies the poet’s account of the Ocean as a whole. What the conquest of Britain does prove is that the poets were wrong – because they posited a River Oceanus that was undifferentiated and uninhabited.

Debate over this Suda entry is perhaps appropriate at a time when the British face the long-term consequences of an anachronistic commitment to a particular myth of British insularity. It is also a valuable reminder that our sense of the difference of classical antiquity is partly based on the fragility of our own knowledge of it. Much of what we say about the ancient world is nothing but wild surmise about fragments laden with interpretative problems. And yet ­– as we shall see in another blog – the historian Dexippus himself is a wonderful example of the unexpected leaps in our knowledge that can occur thanks to the eagle eyes of modern technology.


http://www.stoa.org/sol/ (Adler number: rho 246 = Jacoby, FGrH 100 F 12)

Herodotus 2.23; Polybius 12.3.1-3; Diodorus 4.56.7-8; Strabo 1.2.23, 1.2.31, 12.3.23.


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).