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.

Scholarly communities ancient and modern

This term, while getting our own research project started, the Oxford-based members of the Anachronism and Antiquity team have participated in the Corpus Christi Classics Seminar on ‘Shared Knowledge and Scholarly Communities’. We have looked at communities past and present, local and global, real and imaginary, and the way in which they have been constructed and transmitted, from before the establishment of the philosophical schools of ancient Greece to the professionalisation of Classics as an academic discipline over the last 200 years.

A good seminar creates a scholarly community in itself, and in some respects the academic practice of antiquity remains the same for humanities scholars of today; reading and discussing texts with colleagues is a productive way to work. Xenophon has his Socrates describe his great pleasure in studying with friends:

Others have a fancy for a good horse or dog or bird: my fancy, stronger even than theirs, is for good friends. And I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I unroll with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we excerpt it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. (Memorabilia 1.6.14)

Christopher Stray’s introductory session explored the development of Classics as an academic discipline in the UK through the stories of different groups and communities, based in particular universities, working together on journals. In discussion, the continuing importance of reading together became clear. Scholarly communities may develop from formal reading groups, such as the Cambridge ancient philosophy seminar that has met on Thursdays for over 30 years, or from informal groups. The latter often play an important role in transmitting new scholarship from one community to another. For example, Oliver Taplin described an Oxford reading group that helped to introduce the work of the Paris School to Oxford classicists (and the faculty still has an annual Journée Vernant). But the publications, archives and oral testimony that provide evidence for recent scholarly communities are not the same as the literary evidence we have for ancient ones, and the anachronistic practice of treating ancient literary evidence as if it were documentary evidence has led to distorted views of ancient scholarship.

For example, as I showed in my paper, Plato’s concern to establish intellectual genealogies often outweighs the depiction of Socratic community. We rarely see Socrates in conversation with his own community, but observing and interacting with others. Memorable scenes, such as the opening of his Protagoras, show him as an outsider exploring the teaching and rhetoric of others. Nonetheless, the vivid scene at Callias’ house (Protagoras 314d-316a), in which Protagoras and Hippias hold forth to their spellbound customers, has long been treated as a depiction of scholarly community, albeit one whose credentials Plato is querying. Socrates observes them:

Of those who were following behind, listening to what was being said, the majority were evidently foreigners. Protagoras collects them from all the cities he passes through; he puts a spell on them with his voice, like Orpheus, and they follow the voice, spellbound. But there were some Athenians in the chorus as well. This chorus I found a delight to watch, such care did they take never to be in front of Protagoras and get in his way. When he and his group turned, then this retinue parted on either side, this way and that, in a nice orderly fashion, came round in a circle, and each time took up station again to the rear. Perfect. (Protagoras 315ab, translation Griffith)

This scene returned again and again throughout the seminar series; for example, Dawn LaValle showed how early Christian writer Methodius of Olympus, building his own scholarly community in 3rd-century CE Lycia invoked the authority of Plato by imitating this setting in his own dialogues.

The tension between sophists and philosophers constructed by Plato has dominated intellectual histories. Joshua Billings, posing the question ‘What is a sophist?’, explored the way in which ‘the sophists’ as a group were a product of Plato’s critical presentation, and of later responses to it, rather than a genuine scholarly community. Colin King looked at how shared knowledge is implied by Aristotelian endoxa and the doxai he attributes to named and unnamed philosophers. In both cases classical scholars have built on, rather than deconstructing, these presentations of rival scholars or predecessors, maintaining artificial orders and typologies.

Raphael’s fresco ‘The School of Athens’ collapses time in its depiction of the community of Greek philosophers

The retrospective construction of scholarly communities has a long history. The temporal manipulation of Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ extends the practice of ancient philosophical dialogue, manipulating time and space to get ideas and their proponents into a position where face-to-face debate can take place. Plato’s own complex dialogues create networks and genealogies in this way, an aspect of his writing that I’ll be exploring as part of this project. For example, the Parmenides presents Socrates in dialogue with the older philosophers Parmenides and Zeno, when they visit Athens for the Panathenaea. Plato frames the dialogue so that we see both the community of scholars gathered to hear the reading of Zeno’s book, that provides the occasion for Socrates’ encounter, and also the community of visiting scholars who have come to Athens to hear an account of the earlier conversation. Through the structure of the dialogue, two different schools of philosophy come into contact, Socrates is positioned within their genealogies, and knowledge is shared between them. As Tom Phillips showed, philosophical dialogue is not the only genre to employ such devices to represent and to create community. One way that Hellenistic poets invoked the idea of community was through the representation of and allusion to collective performance, with Theocritus 18, an epithalamion for the marriage of Helen and Menelaus performed by a chorus of girls, providing a complex example in which the reader is immersed in the mimetic experience of an imaginary community. Such representations might collapse the temporal and generic distinctions between Hellenistic epic and archaic lyric, between written text and oral performance, and between mythical and historical time.

While Plato’s depiction of the sophists might suggest an Athenian disdain for visiting intellectuals, the connections forged within his dialogues, especially the links between Socrates and Italian philosophers, suggest that international cooperation was integral to the idea of scholarly community from the outset. While Christopher Stray pointed to 19th century ideas of national identity as a factor in the professionalisation of the discipline, building international networks of scholars has been vital, and particularly evident in specialist sub-disciplines. Amin Benaissa charted the development of the international community of papyrologists, and changing attitudes to the collection, distribution and authentication of fragments. Ilse Hilbold explored the fascinating history of that essential bibliographic tool for classicists, the Année Philologique, and showed the difficulties Juliette Ernst, its chief bibliographer and driving force, had in building an international network to support this very large-scale endeavour. International cooperation in the creation of scholarly community has been central to the success of these continuing projects, just as they were to Plato’s Academy and other ancient schools that brought together researchers from across the world to build on their shared knowledge.

  • With many thanks to Constanze Guthenke for organising the seminar programme, and to Corpus Christi for its hospitality to this scholarly community.