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).

Anachronism Stories

A bit of anachronistic googling will eventually turn up a page devoted to ‘Anachronism’ on a history teaching website ( The page provides some nice material for teachers who want to offer a lesson on Anachronism, promising that this one lesson will enable pupils to write their own ‘Anachronism Stories’. It even gives some nice examples of the genre: ‘It was the day of the big race and Emily Davison was tweeting on her i-Phone about her plans for the day …’ is how one girl (Eva Blake from Coombeshead Academy) starts hers. The other Anachronism Stories gathered online feature Facebook, Myspace, YouTube … They tell us much about the obsessions of our own day and hold out the prospect that the anachronisms found in ancient authors may tell us much about their obsessions.

Hic Jacet Eximus Trimalchio, Lovis Corinth, 1919.
Hic Jacet Eximus Trimalchio, Lovis Corinth, 1919.

What would an Anachronism Story from the ancient world have looked like? Perhaps a story from Petronius’ Satyrica will fill the gap. The speaker is not a schoolchild but the death-obsessed millionaire freedman Trimalchio – host of the dinner party that is the longest part of Petronius’ work to survive:

‘At the fall of Ilium, Hannibal, a trickster and a great knave, collected all the sculptures, bronze, gold, and silver, into a single pile, and set light to them. They all melted into one amalgam of bronze. The workmen took bits out of this lump and made plates and entrée dishes and statuettes. That is how Corinthian metal was born …’ (50.5).

What Petronius/Trimalchio may be offering here is a pastiche of schoolboy mythical knowledge: we know from Pliny the Elder that there was a tradition that Corinthian metal was created at the sack of a city (Natural History 34.6) – but it was Corinth rather than Troy that was the city in question, and while Troy was sacked a thousand years before Hannibal’s time (according to ancient calculations), Corinth was destroyed a few decades after his death. For Pliny, the Corinth tradition generates a different kind of anachronism: pretentious collectors, he claims, like to describe statues as Corinthian bronzes even though they were created long before the sack of the city (when the art of sculpture had long been on the wane). And for another Corinthian anachronism we may turn to Isidore, the seventh-century bishop of Seville, who wrote in his Etymologies that Corinthian bronze is the alloy created from the gold, silver, and bronze statues that were burnt when the city was captured by – Hannibal (16.20.4).

One question this sort of story poses is why we should label these versions anachronisms at all. This is a question asked by the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, in one of the most interesting discussions of anachronism that our project has come across so far. Rancière goes on to oppose two types of anachronism: on the one hand, giving Diogenes an umbrella (or an i-Phone for that matter); on the other hand, arguing that Rabelais could not have been an atheist because the category of atheism was not available to him in his time. Why, Rancière asks, call this second sort of slip an anachronism – and so imply that it is a mistake about the category of time? His argument is that to define anachronism as the ultimate sin of the historian is an attempt to redeem time by creating a succession of synchronic epochs that in some way substitute for eternity. Or as he puts it: ‘The truth of history is then the immanence of time as the principle of co-presence.’ But this is a view of time, he objects, that blocks out the possibility of multiple timelines co-existing in the same time.

Whose sin is anachronism anyway? In the case of our ancient Anachronism Story, Trimalchio’s howler is not a million miles from the most famous of all ancient anachronisms – Virgil’s story of Aeneas during his flight from Troy encountering Dido as she founds the city of Carthage (which was actually founded several centuries after the sack of Troy). This chronological problem posed by the Aeneid exercised critics such as Servius in antiquity. Thanks to those critics, it became the textbook case when Renaissance scholars began to be interested in anachronism – for Rancière, a sign that the truth of history as normally understood is founded in ideas of poetry.

Rancière is also, however, concerned with time in another sense: the time of the scholar who constructs or ‘others’ her object and the time of the labourer who exists in a regime of historicity that is defined by the historian’s scrutiny. Or in our example we have the time of Petronius and the time of Trimalchio – except that Trimalchio himself is the man with the power and money, the man who stages the show of a dinner-party. Perhaps then the time of Trimalchio is not a time of ignoramus freedmen. Rather, Trimalchio is rubbing the anachronism in his guests’ faces, aware that no one will speak the truth to power, and reminding us at the same time that Roman power is built on the myths of time propagated by the anachronistic Aeneid and implicated in the same multiple timelines as those other mortal cities – the Troy of Homeric epic and Corinth and Carthage, themselves synchronic victims of Rome.

Historyonthenet promises that by the end of a single lesson the pupils will know what an anachronism is and understand why anachronisms happen. Reading Rancière reminds us that these are complicated questions – and makes us grateful we have three years to think about them.

  • Jacques Rancière – The Concept of Anachronism and the Historian’s Truth, Inprint, 3, June 2015 (translation Tim Stott and Noel Fitzpatrick, original publication 1996).