Writing Plato’s Republic in the 21st century

Plato’s Republic might seem to be the ur-canonical literary and philosophical text. It is regularly reported to be one of the most frequently assigned literary works in US undergraduate education (as in this Washington Post report; there’s also a lively debate as to whether that place is merited). But assuming that the Republic is a timeless text with a timeless status turns out to be something of an anachronism, albeit one that has proved extremely productive for those responding to it.

Plato’s Republic hasn’t always been the top text. For many centuries, his other works, notably the cosmogony of the Timaeus, were more cited and central. When Raphael wanted to identify Plato in his School of Athens fresco, he showed him holding a copyof the Timaeus, while pointing upward to show his focus on the divine and the cosmic. Political and educational reforms in the nineteenth century led to the re-evaluation of Plato’s works and a new role for the Republic (including taking its place in a reformed syllabus for ‘Greats’, the final exams taken by students of Classics); increased citizen participation in politics, as democratic reforms were extended, and calls for women’s right to participate, made Kallipolis, with its equal roles for men and women, look all the more interesting. For Plato and reform advocate Benjamin Jowett, the Republic’s advocacy of a political role for women made it an important addition to the Oxford curriculum.

Any assertion of the timeless validity of the Republic and its argument for the role of knowledge in ordering society has to contend with its inherent strangeness, and the huge presence of aspects of Plato’s own society within it. Even in antiquity, the Republic needed explanation and reframing to address the political concerns of different societies, from the pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter applying Plato’s political thought to monarchical Sicily to Cicero applying it to the Roman republic in his own De Republica. In the present day, however, the role of philosophy has been challenged, often by scientists working in branches of science that have replaced Plato’s Timaeus as guides to the cosmos. Hasn’t empirical scientific knowledge replaced the abstract speculations of philosophers?

Book covers for Alain Badiou's Plato's Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton's The Just City.
Three recent books which use Plato to think about contemporary political and social issues: Alain Badiou’s Plato’s Republic, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, and Jo Walton’s The Just City.

A paradox emerges in which Plato’s text is revered for containing timeless truths and for heading a philosophical canon, but requires constantly changing exegesis to render it comprehensible or useful. Part of the reason for undertaking the work of updating it is to gain access to those truths, and to participate in the continuation of that canon. Seeing how authors address this, and which issues they feel need attention or change, can itself be a productive exercise.

Three writers working in very different genres have addressed the problem by writing works which draw heavily on Plato’s dialogues, in some cases to the extent of rewriting the Republic. Alain Badiou’s La République de Platon uses the dialogue form, adapts some of the characters, and tweaks Plato’s politics and philosophy. Badiou introduces a female interlocutor, Amantha, modernises Platonic metaphysics into mathematical theory, and updates political references so that recognisable twentieth-century events and leaders replace the wars and rulers of Plato’s Greek world. Badiou described his rewriting as a form of ‘hyper-translation’ and explained its necessity:

he is the one we need first and foremost today, for one reason in particular: he launched the idea that conducting our lives in the world assumes that some access to the absolute is available to us … because the materiality of which we are composed participates … in the construction of eternal truths. (Badiou, Plato’s Republic, Preface, xxxi)

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein departed further from Platonic structure in her Plato at the Googleplex, but tackled the question of philosophy’s continuing relevance (under assault from scientists who see their discipline as replacing it). If philosophy has anything to offer, Plato is a limit case; she argues that he could attend present-day graduate philosophy seminarsand understand what was happening:

[Plato’s] antiquity removes him to a time and a sensibility that some have argued are all but irrecoverable to us. And yet, despite the historical distance, Plato could stroll into almost any graduate seminar in philosophy, seat himself at the elliptical table around which abstractions and distinctions would be propagating with abandon, and catch the drift in no time at all. (Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, p.18)

In our seminar discussion, it was suggested that this table might be the ‘Harkness table’ associated with a Socratic method of teaching in US schools and colleges; Goldstein might be subtly suggesting that Plato belongs to an elite. However, she does not place Plato in a conventional academic setting in her book, but imagines him on a book tour, presenting his ideas as a public intellectual, in ten chapters which alternate between exposition and dialogue, and very loosely follow the argumentative structure of the Republic. We first meet him as a guest lecturer at Google’s headquarters, about to give a talk to the assembled staff. The dialogue we read is narrated by Rhonda, the friend to whom book publicist Cheryl unloads the details of her eventful day; the conversation is between Plato, Cheryl, Plato’s publicist, and Marcus, a Google programmer. The replication of Socratic dialogue in this structure, even down to an interruption by Rhonda reminiscent of Crito’s in the Euthydemus, is a delight:

I could tell… how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.
So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?
Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.
That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. (pp.64-5)

Goldstein’s point, in both this dialogue and the closing, is to assert that philosophers still have something to offer. Marcus aims to program an ‘Ethical Answers Software Engine’ which will crowd-source answers to ethical questions; but Plato points out that his ranking of the information gathered and control over the algorithm that develops the answer puts him in the position of being a philosopher king.

Novelist Jo Walton has had a life-long fascination with Plato’s Republic. Explaining how she came to write her version, she wrote:

Writing about Plato’s Republic being tried seems to me an idea that is so obvious everyone should have had it, that it should be a subgenre, there should be versions written by Diderot and George Eliot and Orwell and H. Beam Piper and Octavia Butler. Of course, it simultaneously seems like a crazy idea that makes people roll their eyes when I describe it.

Walton’s Thessaly trilogy imagines Kallipolis as Kallisti, a real rather than thought experiment, set up by the goddess Athena. In the trilogy’s opening novel, The Just City, some of the problems of Kallisti are caused by the reception of Plato itself; the masters are those who’ve prayed to Athene for Kallipolis to be real, which means many old men from pre-modern times. We see the city largely through the eyes of two female characters, Maia (formerly Ethel), rescued from a life of superfluity and intellectual frustration in Victorian England, and now chafing at the gender politics of Kallisti, and Simmea (once Lucia), one of the children bought by the masters in time-travelling raids on ancient slave markets, in her case from the northern Africa of late antiquity. Women masters are handed responsibility for maternity matters, as a new generation of citizens is bred from the children; at times the city starts to seem a little like Margaret Atwood’s Gilead.

Like Goldstein, Walton uses encounters with technology to examine issues of identity and personhood – while Goldstein gives Plato an MRI brain scan, Walton’s Kallisti is serviced by futuristic robots, which her Socrates engages in conversation (Walton’s descriptions somewhat resemble this prototype robot from the University of Osaka in Japan).

Yellow robot with caterpillar tracks and two arms, developed by the University of Osaka
This prototype robot, developed at the University of Osaka in Japan, features the arms and tracks of the robots in Jo Walton’s The Just City.

Although all three works operate within different literary genres, they suggest that Plato’s Republicrequires the updating Badiou identified, at which point it might help us to understand the problems of our own societies. These works also suggest that any dialogic encounter with Plato’s text which applies it to a specific situation could generate a similar transformative rewriting. Acknowledging the need for such a transformation, and the productive forms it might take may offer a fruitful way to read current academic scholarship on Plato, inevitably engaged in similar if less explicit or imaginative reworkings of Plato’s ideas.

  • I will be considering the political implications of engaging with Plato’s Republicin my talk at the Anachronism and Antiquity panel at the FIEC/CA conference in July.
  • Observant readers will have noted scenes from Raphael’s ‘School of Athens’ on two of the book covers featured; it also makes an appearance in these blog posts on Scholarly Communities and Anachronistic Communities, as well as in our forthcoming book Anachronism and Antiquity.


  • Badiou, A. (2012) Plato’s Republic, trans. S. Spitzer (Cambridge: Polity).
  • Burnyeat, M.F. (1998), ‘The past in the present: Plato as educator of nineteenth-century Britain’, in A. Rorty (ed.), Philosophers on Education: historical perspectives (London: Routledge), 353-73.
  • Goldstein, R. (2014) Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away (London: Atlantic Books).
  • Walton, J. (2015) The Just City (London: Corsair).
  • Weinberg, S. (1993) Dreams of a Final Theory (London: Hutchinson Radius), ch. 7 ‘Against Philosophy’.


Eat the past: the ‘paleo diet’ in the golden age of antiquity

If only humans followed the simple life-styles and particularly the diet of their primitive ancestors, they would lead healthier lives. This is the claim of contemporary proponents of the ‘Paleo Diet’, whose adherents restrict themselves to the foods they believe were available to early human hunter-gatherers living in the distant past. They argue that humans who eat fruit and nuts gathered from plants as well as hunted meat are living more natural human lives than those who are over-nourished by modern foodstuffs produced using intensive agriculture. Yet their claims echo both ideas about eating in the distant primitive past held by the philosophers and poets of classical antiquity, and their practices echo the use by some groups of philosophers of exclusion and special diets as a means of fostering cohesion among their followers and establishing the identities of their sects.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Golden Age, 1530
The Golden Age (1530) by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

The ‘mythologies’ of the modern ‘paleo diet’ have been criticised by evolutionary scientists, such as biologist Marlene Zuk in her Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us. Zuk, borrowing the term ‘paleofantasy’ from anthropologist Leslie Aiello, points out that privileging one point in the evolution of both humans and the things they eat makes little sense, and rests her argument, as with much criticism of this diet, on the science of evolution. Both humans and food-stuffs have evolved so significantly since the Stone Age that recreating the paleo-diet, outside the context of the subsistence life-style of indigenous peoples, is impossible, and research on the diet of indigenous peoples in the present day shows both a variety of food choices based on the local ecosystem, and also elements of agriculture and trading that add further choices.

However, the idea that the life-style of a primitive past ‘golden age’ resulted in a quality of human flourishing rendered unavailable by the decadence of the present itself has a long history within ancient thought, appearing from the earliest epics onward. Ancient accounts of the origins and early history of humans, such as Hesiod’s stories of early ‘golden’ humans living in harmony with the gods (Works and Days 109-20), and of the advent of animal sacrifice (Theogony 535-557), explore the food eaten in the distant past, often contrasting it with the present and drawing stern conclusions about the decadent life of the present. Visions of a simple life in which humans subsisted on gathered food are presented in many texts: Hesiod’s account presents an intermediate version in which the golden people enjoy both the spontaneous produce of the earth and of their flocks:

They had all good things; the grain-giving field bore crops of its own accord, much and unstinting, and they themselves, willing, mild-mannered, shared out the fruits of their labours together with many good things, wealthy in sheep, dear to the blessed gods. (Hesiod Works and Days 116-120, translation Glenn Most)

Where the ancient and modern imaginings of the paleo diet differ is in the proportion of meat  that features; given that red meat was an infrequent element of the ancient Greek diet, there is no cultural pressure to imagine it being present in greater quantity in the imagined diet of the golden age. In some versions, the golden age diet is a vegetarian one, with the emphasis on gathering plentiful produce that has been produced without cultivation:

The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
(Ovid Metamorphoses 1.106-111, in John Dryden’s translation)

The idea of a diet that predates agriculture and is based on nuts and fruits gathered without effort is central to ancient primitivism. Accounts of the Golden Age (sometimes identified as the ‘Age of Cronus/Kronos’ often linger on the food that it provided in abundance, as well as the simplicity and gentleness of life then, a tradition that Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas described, in their Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity, as ‘soft primitivism’:

A god tended them, taking charge of them himself, just as now human beings, themselves a kind of living creature, but different and more divine, pasture other kinds of living creatures more lowly than themselves; and given that he was their shepherd, they had no political constitutions, nor acquired wives or children, for all of them came back to life from the earth, remembering nothing of the past; but while they lacked things of this sort, they had an abundance of fruits from trees and many other plants, not growing through cultivation but because the earth sent them up of its own accord. For the most part they would feed outdoors, naked and without bedding; for the blend of the seasons was without painful extremes, and they had soft beds from the abundant grass that sprung from the earth. What I describe then, Socrates, is the life of those who lived in the time of Kronos; as for this one, which they say is the time of Zeus, the present one, you are familiar with it from personal experience. (Plato Statesman 271e-272b, translation adapted from Rowe)

Indeed, for some philosophers the absence of meat from the diet was evidence of the harmonious life of the golden age. Such views were associated with the Pythagoreans, and  (reported by sources including Ovid in Metamorphoses 15.75-98) and also with the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles:

And the altar did not reek of the unmixed blood of bulls, but this was the greatest abomination among men, to snatch out the life and eat the goodly limbs (Empedocles Fragment 128)

Health-based claims about the golden-age diet were made by some ancient writers. In some of these texts we can see the transition that Lovejoy and Boas discerned between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ primitivism, in which the golden age is rationalised as a time of peacefulness but nonetheless one in which life was simple and austere. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates’ vision of an early diet offers a healthy life based on simple grains as well as gathered fruits and nuts, but no luxury, even after his interlocutor Glaucon queries its plainness:

I was forgetting that they’ll obviously need salt, olives, cheese, boiled roots and vegetables of the sort they cook in the country… they’ll roast myrtle and acorns before the fire, drinking moderately. And so they’ll live in peace and good health… (Plato Republic 2.372b-d, translated Grube)

Glaucon, identified by Lovejoy and Boas as an ‘anti-primitivist’, swiftly complains that this diet is that of a ‘city for pigs’, in which human life is reduced to the animalistic satisfaction of appetites, and insists that Socrates revises his model to reflect ‘the cooked food and delicacies that people have now’. Socrates concedes some luxury and complexity, but suggests that it will be at the cost of the city’s health, ultimately leading it to war. The idea that luxury and its pursuit caused war between cities and unrest within them would go on to be a staple of Roman thought.

Other philosophers in a range of subsequent Socratic traditions thought that simplicity or austerity was desirable in itself. We learn about one, through a report by Porphyry, a third-century CE neo-Platonist philosopher, written by Dicaearchus, a fourth-century BCE philosopher associated with Aristotle’s Peripatetics. Porphyry, originally from Tyre but working in Italy, used these ideas in his vegetarian tract On Abstinence from Eating Animals:

Dicaearchus tells us of what sort the life of the Age of Cronus was: if it is to be taken as having really existed and not as an idle tale, when the too mythical parts of the story are eliminated it may by the use of reason be reduced to a natural sense. For all things then presumably grew spontaneously, since the men of that time themselves produced nothing, having invented neither agriculture nor any art. If was for this reason that they lived a life of leisure, without care or toil, and also – if the doctrine of the most eminent medical men is to be accepted – without disease… For they did not eat food too strong for their constitutions, but such food as their constitutions could absorb, nor did they exceed the limits of moderation, in consequence of having so much available; on the contrary, by reason of scarcity they often ate less than they needed. (Porphyry De Abstinentia 4.1.2, translated Lovejoy/Boas)

Visions of the ancient diet that identified its persistence among peoples the Greeks labelled barbarian sometimes emphasised hunting and the eating of meat. The Scythians, in Virgil’s account, hunt and eat deer (Georgics  3.367-75), although other authors present them as shepherds dependent on dairy produce.

Just like some versions of the modern paleo diet, some ancient attempts to return to an ancient diet emphasised the eating of meat. One early paleo diet text, Walter Voegtlin’s 1975 The Stone-Age Diet, exhorts readers:

Think for a moment of the Old Stone Age people, who, when hungry, slew a cave bear or a woolly rhinoceros, gorged on a half-dozen pounds of meat and fat and, only when hungry, returned to the hunt. Then 10,000 years ago, the New Stone Age folk added to the menu – when meat and fat was in short supply – a handful of wild wheat or barley which had been well-pounded between stones and baked on a hot rock. (The Stone-Age Diet, Walter L. Voegtlin, 1975)

This meat-based feasting can be seen in another episode in Odysseus’ self-reported story, in which Odysseus tells how he demonstrated his hunting skills and killed a deer which his companions then cooked and ate, escaping the threat of starvation (Od. 10.156-184). The Roman writer on agriculture Columella identifies hunted meat as a key part of the early Roman diet, supplemented by abundant produce (Columella On Agriculture l0.pr. 1; see Purcell 2003). Throughout antiquity, hunting remained a key site for the performance of elite masculinity.

Little Hunt Mosaic, Villa Romana del Casale
Hunting and sacrifice, from the Little Hunt mosaic in the Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina, Sicily, c. 4th c. CE. Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki.

The advent of meat in the human diet is explained in various ways in ancient accounts of human development, but is often explained as a move away from cannibalism. From Homer and Hesiod onward, rituals of sacrifice and cooking give the eating of meat a special status but also establish a range of practices to manage it. Another way in which philosophers could offer a simpler model of life was to reject these usual social practices associated with eating, as Diogenes the Cynic, the somewhat mythicised founder of Cynicism, was said to have done; Diogenes Laertius (writing several hundred years after the dates his namesake Cynic philosopher is thought to have lived) reports that as well as abandoning the use of plates and cups, Diogenes the Cynic tried to subsist on raw meat as a minimal simple diet that suited dogs, only to find that it made him ill (Diogenes Laertius 6.34). ‘Returning’ to a simple diet became a form of social critique.

The Cynic rejection of prepared food was explored and satirised by adherents to other philosophical sects. Those attempting such alternative practices were liable to face criticism either for the practices themselves or for half-hearted adherence to them. The Roman emperor Julian (writing much later, in the fourth century CE) criticises the Cynics of his day for lack of commitment to Diogenes’ ascetism: unlike Diogenes who tried eating raw meat, they add salt and other flavouring to their meat:

It is not really the eating of raw food that disgusts you, either in the case of bloodless animals or those that have blood. But perhaps there is this difference between you and Diogenes, that he thought that he ought to eat such food raw and in its natural state, whereas you think you must first prepare it with salt and many other things for the sake of pleasure, whereby you do violence to nature… (Julian Oration 6.191-193, translated Lovejoy/Boas)

Just as modern adherents to the paleo diet eat foods that are far removed from their natural state, the Cynics criticised by Julian aimed to emulate a simple life but were unable to eliminate all the trappings of the modern complex life, and luxuries such as seasoning.

The ancient simple diet was a theme to which philosophers and poets often returned, but more as a critique of the luxury of present-day diets than as the presentation of an achievable lifestyle goal. Perhaps it is only the conditions of modernity that enable the nostalgic desire for the human past to become a lifestyle choice for a limited few.


  • Bitar, A.R. (2018) Diet and the Disease of Civilization (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press)
  • Lovejoy, A.O. and Boas, G. (1997) [1935], Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
  • Purcell, N. (2003) ‘The Way We Used to Eat: Diet, Community, and History at Rome’, American Journal of Philology, Vol. 124, No. 3, pp. 329-358.
  • Voegtlin, W. (1975) The Stone Age Diet (New York: Vantage)
  • Zuk, M. (2013) Paleofantasy: what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live (New York: Norton).






Detemporalising Athenian democracy: the case of Demopolis

Historical examples and analogies can be a problematic resource for political theorists. They illustrate and illuminate practices unfamiliar in the world of the present, making possible reforms easier to envisage – as the figure of the engaged citizen of classical Athens, sitting in the assembly and on jury courts, accountable to scrutiny by fellow citizens, and holding important offices by lot, does for proponents of increased participation in democratic life. But such historical analogies can bring a great deal of additional baggage, obscuring the picture being drawn with historical details that complicate and confuse. With Athenian democracy, we might worry that the participation of citizens rested on the labour of chattel slaves, as well as the exclusion of women from political debate and discussion, if not from all aspects of the civic labour of citizenship.

Athens' Pnyx and Acropolis in 1829
The Pnyx and the Acropolis, Athens, in HW Williams’ 1829 view

Josiah Ober, in his recent book Demopolis: Democracy Before Liberalism in Theory and Practice, observes the difficulties brought by the ‘variety of historically contingent features’ (p. 18) that historians find in any society they survey, with particular attention to these features of Athens. When these contingent features reveal aspects of that society which are deeply unacceptable to readers of the analogy, or severely at odds with their values, they undermine the benefit of the comparison. But do these limits of analogy render it a pointless exercise, or can we make use of analogies while acknowledging their deficiencies and limitations?

In Demopolis, Ober addresses this problem explicitly by setting an abstract model against his historical survey of Athens. He takes the interesting approach of running both historical example (Athens, as ‘practice’) and thought experiment (Demopolis, as ‘theory’) alongside each other, rather than as replacement for each other.

Ober’s purpose is to offer a model for a democracy that is distinct from liberalism, yet provides a cogent reason for choosing democracy as the basis of a secure and prosperous life, which does not required the surrender to authority required by the creation of the state in Hobbes’ Leviathan. He argues that ‘disambiguating democracy as such from the overfamiliar hybrid, liberal democracy clarifies what democracy is good for’ (p. 1); by separating the practices of organising a society from the ‘moral commitments’ of liberalism, Ober aims to show that democracy in its ‘basic’ form is desirable as a form of social organisation. His first move is to explore Athenian democracy as a form of democracy that did not rest on the values of modern liberalism. Although versions of values such as freedom and equality were key to Athenian democratic ideology and rhetoric, they were clearly distinct from the highly individualised forms of those values within modern democratic thought.

However, many of democratic Athens’ practices are unacceptable to modern-day proponents of democracy; Ober points to the usual complaints about Athenian democratic exclusivity. Even in acknowledging Athens’ deficiencies as a model for today, he offers a vision of Athenian political culture that imports some anachronistic ideas, notably the idea of pluralism. Ober argues that Athens’ size, and origins in the merger of separate communities, rendered it diverse, but this downplays the emphasis on cultural homogeneity and shared origin in Athenian political mythology, particularly the emphasis on the Athenians’ original connection to their land through the myth of autochthony. One might consider whether Athenian political mythology and values reduced the epistemic value of democratic debate within the city. So Ober’s vision of the democratic practice of historical Athens is somewhat idealised in its emphasis on diversity and pluralism, pressing issues for contemporary democracies but regarded as evidence of decay and civic disintegration by Athenians such as Isocrates.

Rather than simply base his argument for ‘basic democracy’ on an appeal to the historical example of Athens, with its well-acknowledged flaws, Ober sets up a second track in which he designs an imaginary political community that delivers the same results, the Demopolis (‘People’s City’) of the book’s title:

[Demopolis] is meant to capture real but hard-to-observe features of a basic democratic political regime by abstracting from readily observed features of real-world politics. (Demopolis, p. 4)

Demopolis offers the story of the foundation of a political community that avoids the deficiencies of Athens, but as its Greek name suggests, Athens remains its inspiration. The value its citizens place on their ‘dignity’ has ancient parallels as well as modern ones, for example, and can be paralleled in ancient responses to tyranny.

Using imagined societies as a vehicle for political theorising is a method as old as western European political theory itself, given the ancient Greek practice of writing constitutions (politeiai) for imaginary cities as a way of thinking about political problems, but as Demopolis shows such societies rarely escape the context of their originator. In the 5th century BCE Hippodamus of Miletus, for example, developed imaginary models of cities alongside plans for real ones that were actually built, such as the grid plan of Athens’ port, the Piraeus (Aristotle Politics 2.8.1267b22-30). Aristotle uses Hippodamus’ writings as the starting point for a discussion on the problem of changing the law, a body of work that can be read alongside other imaginary politeiai such as those written by Plato.

Plato’s Kallipolis, the imaginary city discussed in his Republic, is probably the best-known example of such an experiment from antiquity, although, as Ober notes, it is ‘neither realistic nor democratic’ (p. 144). Yet, despite its lack of realism, Kallipolis doesn’t entirely escape from the social experiences and knowledge of its creator. The shock value of Kallipolis derives from its mixture of similarities to and differences from the Greek societies that Plato’s readers recognised, such as Sparta and Athens. As Aristotle’s critique of the Republic shows, Plato’s thought experiment takes existing values of Greek political thought, such as community, to an extreme, but it can still be discussed within the same framework as Hippodamus’ imaginary society, or the historical Sparta.

Can Demopolis escape from historical contingency, and enable Ober to demonstrate the possibility of an inclusive but epistemically authoritative democracy not based on post-Kantian liberalism? Ober hopes that it will provide an example of a possible democracy that avoids both the limiting features of the ancient polis and the baggage of modern liberalism. He narrates a possible origin story, in which a group intends to establish a life in which they can flourish in conditions of security, prosperity and non-tyranny (pp. 39-40). The third of these is the most significant (given that prosperity and security are universal aims of human community), connecting Demopolis’ Founders with those of the United States of America, and contrasting them with the citizens of Hobbes’ thought experiments in his Leviathan.

Ober’s use of a parallel thought experiment offers an alternative to Nicole Loraux’s valorisation of the usefulness of exploring the differences between ancient and modern societies, even at the risk of anachronistically posing our own questions and treating them as models. In the end it is the modern contingencies that raise the larger questions; is the project of disentangling democracy and liberalism itself driven by contemporary ideological concerns? If Athens’ idealised replacement Demopolis is an inclusive and diverse society, has that replacement already at its foundation instantiated features of liberal society?

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Ober’s starting point, or the details of his analysis of Athenian democracy, with Demopolis he has delivered an important contribution to methodological debate in political theory. But both his Athens and Demopolis demonstrate the difficulty of detemporalising political exempla; his Athens cannot escape anachronism, while Demopolis looks backward to its inspiration.


  • Hobbes, T. (1996) [1651], Leviathan, ed. R. Tuck (Cambridge).
  • Loraux, N. (1976), ‘Problèmes Grecs de la Démocratie Moderne’, Critique, 32, 1276-87.
  • Loraux, N. (1993), ‘Éloge d’anachronisme en histoire’, Le Genre Humain, 27, 23-39.
  • Ober, J. (2017) Demopolis: democracy before liberalism in theory and practice (Cambridge).
  • Shipley, G. (2005), ‘Little Boxes on the Hillside: Greek town planning, Hippodamos and polis ideology’, in M.H. Hansen (ed.), The Imaginary Polis: Symposium, January 7-10, 2004 (Copenhagen), 335-403.

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.

Counting backwards: genealogy and anachronism

The shifting boundary between the near and the distant past is blurred by ancient Greek writers when they establish temporal frameworks by counting backwards in years and, once a more distant and less well-known period is reached, generations. With multiple lists in operation – one for every city and Panhellenic temple, victors from the Olympics – and with the genealogies of royal dynasties stretching back to incorporate divine ancestors, there was plenty of opportunity for the manipulation of lists, for error and invention, and for debates about accuracy. Generating synchronisms, placing the same event on points in different lists, was a particular challenge for historians, and so became a site of historiographical criticism. Failed synchronisms and arguments about them result in a type of anachronism that is characteristic of Greek historiographic debate and spills over into other genres whenever the past is debated, as their use by both Thucydides and Isocrates shows.

For writers of contemporary history such as Thucydides, the use of officer lists based on the records of cities is transparent and supported by documentary evidence. While Thucydides organises his account of the Peloponnesian War by seasons, he uses the officer-list system to establish its start date (2.1-2.2.1), and his Athenian readers could have referred to an inscribed version of the list (IG I 3 1031) that had been set up in Athens during the later part of the fifth century, possibly as late as 410 BCE:

My account sets out the events in chronological order, by summers and winters. The Thirty Years Treaty agreed after the conquest of Euboea lasted for fourteen years. In the fifteenth year, when Chrysis was in her forty-eighth year as priestess at Argos, Aenesias was ephor in Sparta, and Pythodorus had two more months of his archonship in Athens, in the sixth month after the battle at Potidaea, and at the beginning of spring, in the first watch of the night an armed force of slightly over three hundred Thebans entered Plataea, a city in Boeotia allied to Athens. (Thucydides 2.1-2.2.1, translation Hammond)

inscription fragment
Athenian Archon List (527/6-522/1 BC?) IG I3 1031, fragment c. Agora Museum, Athens (I 4120); squeeze from Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, Oxford.

Thucydides found the practice of using office-holder lists to establish dates imprecise (5.20.2-3), and suggested his own improvements for greater precision in narrative and analysis. But not all historians were, like Thucydides, concerned with the very recent past. The further back in time the Greeks went, the less precise their dating systems became. In classical Athens, for example, before the list of annual archons began, there were lists of officials with longer terms in office, and kings stretching back to Kekrops, the half-snake figure who emerged from the ground to found and rule the city. The kind of information in the lists changes as they go back in time, a change perhaps marked by a shift from years to generations as the unit of counting, and the separation of these distinct lists in the Athenian tradition; although the origins and development of the lists are unclear, later writers transmitted complete versions of them.

Making temporal connections within the distant past posed a challenge. Genealogies, the typical form of lists from the distant past, could be used to establish the kind of synchronism that Thucydides uses at the start of his histories. This process permitted synchronism between the foundation myths of different poleis and the characters of different mythical cycles, but here there was less possibility of consulting records and more reliance on the conventional form of mythical narratives.

Arguing for and against the accuracy of synchronisms between myths became an important mode of criticism as such stories were used as examples in political contexts to establish relationships between cities. There were many possible causes of error; the corruption of ancestry lists, the need to establish synchronism with significant events such as the return of the Heraclids from the Trojan War to the Peloponnese, and the urge to assert priority for one’s patriotic account of civic origins. Myths involving culture heroes such as Heracles and Theseus generate problematic synchronisms as writers try to fit them into coherent narrative frameworks, or to establish a claim to temporal priority. Xenophon, for example, asserts that Lycurgus established the Spartan constitution at the same time as the return of the Heraclids (Xen. Lac. Pol. 10.6), a claim that is contrary to other developmental accounts of Spartan history that place Lycurgus after the early (mythical) history of the Dorian League founded by the returning Heraclids; Plato in his Laws suggests that the Lycurgan constitution resolved the problems of this earlier period, but again myth and history intertwine in a complex way (Pl. Leg. 3.683c-693c).

Arguing with myth in this way provided opportunity for parody and the comic repurposing of mythical material for rhetorical argument. Reading Isocrates’ Busiris, a complicated and paradoxical text that still puzzles commentators, shows how the critique of a claimed synchronism can be used as the starting point for broader criticisms. Isocrates is ostensibly writing to Polycrates the sophist, to point out errors in his defence speech in praise of Busiris, the infamous Egyptian king of heroic times. Busiris was said to sacrifice his guests, and was eventually killed by Heracles, as the Greek culture hero avoided this grisly fate, a scene frequently depicted on Greek vases.

vase painting - Heracles and Busiris
Heracles killing Busiris. Attic red-figure kalpis (hydria), ca 480 BCE. From Vulci. Staatliche Antikensammlungen 2428.

Isocrates aims to show that earlier writers on Busiris have got their genealogical calculations wrong, and that the encounter between Heracles and Busiris could not have happened. Polycrates could have used this simple method in his defence of Busiris:

Furthermore, it could be easily proved on chronological grounds (tois chronois) also that the statements of the detractors of Busiris are false. For the same writers who accuse Busiris of slaying strangers also assert that he died at the hands of Heracles; but all chroniclers agree that Heracles was later by four generations than Perseus, son of Zeus and Danaë, and that Busiris lived more than two hundred years earlier than Perseus. (Busiris 36-37, translation Van Hook)

The evidence that the criticism of Busiris is misplaced in time is a piece of evidence (pistis) that is clear (enargê). Of course, the idea of establishing an accurate genealogy of characters from the far-distant past that operates in a similar way to the chronology of a contemporary historian like Thucydides is itself rather paradoxical and a long way from being ‘clear’; Although there were standard exchange rates between years and generations, Isocrates’ use of both emphasises the paradoxes involved in chronological calculations of mythical narratives. Isocrates’ subsequent comments expand the related problem of the difficulty of knowing the different past, given the lurid slanders (blasphêmiais) written by poets that attribute all kinds of bad behaviour to the gods (38-40).

Isocrates’ real target in the Busiris is probably not the obscure sophist Polycrates but his rival educator Plato. The criticism of poets for slandering the gods is reminiscent of Socrates’ arguments against poetry in the Republic. Using Heracles and Egypt to think about the possibility of knowledge of the past further links both writers, via Herodotus’ challenges to the genealogical reckonings Greeks used to date Heracles (2.142-6); Plato echoes this passage in his Timaeus-Critias, with Solon replacing Hecataeus as the Greek visitor to Egypt.

With the traditional criticism of Busiris destroyed by chronology, Isocrates aims to show instead that Busiris should be praised for establishing the Egyptian constitution. However, the constitution that Isocrates describes bears a detailed resemblance to that of Plato’s Kallipolis in the Republic. Plato, Isocrates seems to be hinting, has not revealed a timeless ideal of how we should live, but has borrowed from a historical model itself established by a notorious barbarian and in existence at a time that has been identified with precision.

Isocrates’ manipulation of history and myth in the pursuit of political argument is a feature of his work that deserves more exploration, along with the construction and argumentative use of genealogies and temporal frameworks by other Greek writers. I will continue to investigate the political activation of anachronism in imaginary time by Greek historians and political theorists as our project continues.