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.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus and the Anachronistic Antiquities of Rome

Recent historiographical thinking has often denied to the ancients an understanding of history as a domain of inquiry in its own right, separate from experience of the present. Antiquity’s under-developed sense of history is conceptualized as a stage in a developmental narrative that culminates in the critical temporal self-consciousness that emerged after the French Revolution. Proponents of this view argue that the ancients’ inability to conceive of anachronism is symptomatic of their comparatively inchoate sense of historical time, and their commitment to cyclical models of history. Zachary Schiffman, in his recent book The Birth of the Past, makes this case at length. For Schiffman, the ancients were never able to elevate ‘differences between past and present … to a principle of historical knowledge’. Possessed of ‘a static view of the world that focused on recurrent patterns in history rather than singular events, on the universal and immutable over the contingent and variable’, the poets and historians of the ancient world could only conceive anachronisms on a non-systematic, ad hoc basis, rather than as phenomena indicative of fundamental differences between past and present, and between different historical periods.

One weakness of such accounts is their selectiveness. Schiffman focuses on Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, and a similar range of authors is covered in Reinhart Koselleck’s masterful book Futures Past, to which Schiffman’s approach is indebted. However, a particularly rich set of meditations on the ‘differences between past and present’ is found in a work which neither author considers at length, the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian active in the late first century BC. Dionysius’ basic aim in this work is to illustrate the close links between Greek and Roman civilization. On Dionysius’ view, the settlements from which Rome eventually developed were founded by Greek colonists, and many Roman rituals and cultural practices were Greek in origin. In reflecting on these connections, Dionysius pairs historical and ethical analysis, arguing that manners and conduct have in many respects declined through the course of Roman history. As a result, both people and ritual practices can appear as anachronistic remainders of a previous age, and serve as the basis for a critique of contemporary behaviour.

A telling instance of the former occurs in his juxtaposition of the qualities that characterised early Rome and with the habits found in his own day. He claims that Rome’s early leaders ‘worked for themselves, were modest, and did not resent honourable poverty’ (αὐτουργοὶ καὶ σώφρονες καὶ πενίαν δικαίαν οὐ βαρυνόμενοι, 10.17.6), and they did not aim to achieve ‘royal power’ for themselves. ‘The men of today’, on the other hand, ‘do the opposite in all respects’. Yet Dionysius concedes that some contemporary Romans do not conform to this trend. In them, he says, ‘the dignity of the state and the preservation of a likeness to those men [sc. of the past] still abides’ (δι᾿ οὓς ἕστηκεν ἔτι τὸ τῆς πόλεως ἀξίωμα καὶ τὸ σώζειν τὴν πρὸς ἐκείνους τοὺς ἄνδρας ὁμοιότητα). Such men stand out, being few in number, different from the majority of their contemporaries, and as a medium in which outdated qualities remain legible. Dionysius here anticipates the conceptualization of individual people as anachronisms that only becomes fully explicit in English in the nineteenth century.

Rituals can also be sites of anachronistic survivals. When discussing Numa’s institution of boundary stones as markers of property and the accompanying festival of the Terminalia at which sacrifices were offered to the stones as sacred objects (2.74), Dionysius comments that ‘memory’ of these practices ‘is still preserved today’ (τούτου μέχρι τῶν καθ᾿ ἡμᾶς χρόνων φυλάττουσι Ῥωμαῖοι μνημεῖα), but is undertaken ‘for form’s sake’ (τῆς ὁσίας αὐτῆς ἕνεκα). And yet the capacity for awe at the numinousness of these objects has not entirely vanished. According to Dionysius, the Romans still regard the boundary stones ‘as gods’ and make yearly sacrifices to them (θεούς τε γὰρ ἡγοῦνται τοὺς τέρμονας καὶ θύουσιν αὐτοῖς ὁσέτη). Such a conception is not of itself sufficient to stimulate good conduct; the Romans should also ‘observe the motive’ that led Numa to ‘conceive the boundary stones as gods’ (ἐχρῆν δὲ καὶ τὸ ἔργον ἔτι φυλάττειν αὐτούς, οὗ χάριν θεοὺς ἐνόμισε τοὺς τέρμονας ὁ Νόμας), by being content with their own possessions and not seeking to appropriate those of others by ‘force and trickery’ (βίᾳ … δόλῳ). Instead, contemporary Romans’ ‘desire for all things’ (ἡ πάντων ἐπιθυμία) leads them to compromise the socially beneficial model that their ancestors bequeathed.

Claude - Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum
Claude Lorrain (1604/5-1682) – Capriccio with Ruins of the Roman Forum, 1634, Art Gallery of South Australia

Like the men in whom a likeness to the great Roman leaders of the past is preserved, the ritual acts as a window on to early Romans’ ethically exemplary thinking and conduct. In reading this account, readers are invited to sense something of the impulsion towards ‘frugality and modesty and the desire for justice’ (2.74.1) that Numa’s regulations originally created. Yet the possibility for such a renewal of readers’ ethical capacities is balanced by the pessimistic acknowledgement that most people do not behave in this way. Good conduct has been made anachronistic by the predominance of appetites over ethical principles. Closely related to this predominance is the tendency for economic developments and accompanying changes in material culture to make ancient practices seem outdated. Having praised Romulus for instituting simple rituals, Dionysius notes that many if not all of these sacrifices are still being carried out ‘in the ancient manner’ even in his own time. Dionysius declares his admiration for the way in which those who carry out such rituals ‘adhere to ancestral custom and in no respect diverge from the ancient rites into the bombast of extravagance’ (διαμένουσιν ἐν τοῖς πατρίοις ἔθεσιν οὐδὲν ἐξαλλάττοντες τῶν ἀρχαίων ἱερῶν εἰς τὴν ἀλαζόνα πολυτέλειαν).

With this last phrase, Dionysius acknowledges that Rome’s vast empire and revenues enable rituals to be adorned with trappings and finery unavailable to the city’s founders. But trinkets such as ‘gold and silver vessels’ do not, Dionysius implies, make encounters with the gods any more meaningful. By contrast with ancient rituals ‘free of all attempt at display’ (πάσης ἀπειροκαλίας ἀπηλλαγμένα), the superficial allure of precious metals risks distracting worshippers from the rituals’ deeper purposes. Those who ‘adhere to ancestral custom’ are all the more admirable because of the background against which they now take place, which differs considerably from that in which the rituals were created.

In each of these passages, readers are challenged to adopt an historical self-consciousness that mirrors that of Dionysius himself. When reading about rituals practiced ‘in the ancient manner’ and the description of the Terminalia, readers are prompted, by reflecting on the processes by which they have come to seem anachronistic, to a fuller awareness of the features that enable the rituals to afford participants an efficacious engagement with the gods. The men who preserve ‘the dignity of the state’ similarly become paradigms against which readers might measure their own behaviour. Far from being incidental to Dionysius’ history, passages such as these make anachronistic phenomena into ‘a principle of historical knowledge’ around which the work’s ethical designs are structured.

  • Schiffman, Z.S. (2011) The Birth of the Past (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).

An anachronistic anniversary

What is the history of the English word ‘anachronism’? This is the sort of question that (barring the difference of language) might well have engaged the attention of the diners who contribute to Plutarch’s Table-Talk or Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists. In 2017, it seems more appropriate to raise this question in a web post rather than at a dinner party. And this post will itself seek to commemorate (just in time) a hitherto unheralded anniversary.

Portrait of John Hales (1584–1656)
John Hales (1584–1656), Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, whose 1617 sermon contains the earliest documented use of the term ‘anachronism’ in English.

In a 2009 article ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, a scholar of comparative literature, Joseph Luzzi, suggested that the word ‘anachronism’ was ‘first used in English in 1669’, a century after it had first appeared in Italian. Deriving the word from ‘a fusion of the Greek compound meaning “late in time”’, and so from ‘the oldest of Western high-cultural idioms’, Luzzi went on to suggest that the word ‘was actually created millennia after that culture had disappeared’: ‘the term’s etymology stands both as an ironic gloss on its semantic connotations and an allegory for its thematic claims.’ In other words, Luzzi is commenting on the fact that a classically derived word for belatedness was itself surprisingly late to appear on the scene (though scarcely, pace Luzzi, ‘millennia’ after the disappearance of ancient Greek culture). Luzzi’s ironic and allegorical reading of the etymology can be seen as a literal instance of a theme central to our project: he invokes the supposed history of the term ‘anachronism’ as a way of separating off antiquity from its aftermath. A compelling counter-claim would be that that Greek culture whose disappearance Luzzi misdates has never disappeared at all.

While Luzzi does not cite a source for his claim that ‘anachronism’ began in 1669, he presumably based that claim on the Oxford English Dictionary, where an entry for 1669 is indeed cited ‒ ‘This error sprang from Anachronisme, and confusion of Histories’ ‒ from the puritan Theophilus Gale’s work The Court of Gentiles (sub-title: A discourse touching the original of human literature, both philologie and philosophie, from the Scriptures and Jewish church). The problem is that this is the second entry the OED cites under ‘anachronism’. Its claim to priority is outdone by a quote from a chronological work by John Gregory (1609-1646), a chaplain of Christ Church in Oxford. Dating the birth of Christ ‘Anno Mundi 3949, Anno Period. Jul. 4713, Olympiad 197, and 748 of Nabonassar’, Gregory explained that ‘this Connexion of things is called Synchronism’ while ‘an error committed herein is called Anachronism: and either saith too much, and that is a Prochronism; or too little, and that is a Metachronism’. This passage is cited from Gregory’s 1649 Posthuma, and so dated ‘a[i.e. ante]1646’, the year of his death.
If one follows the OED entry, the intellectual historian Peter Burke, author of more than one treatment of the Renaissance sense of anachronism, seems to be making a better stab of it when he writes that it was ‘around 1650 that the term ‘anachronism’ (anachronismus, anacronismo, anachronism) began to come into use in Latin, Italian, French and English’ ‒ at least as far as the English term is concerned (Luzzi is right that the word entered Italian in the second half of the sixteenth century; instances of Latin anachronismus are earlier still). The influence of the OED citation of John Gregory is clear in the definition Burke offers of the word at its first appearance: ‘a mistake made in the course of “synchronism”, in other words the attempt to translate from one chronological system into another.’ Burke is here concerned to differentiate this early technical sense from the ‘sense of anachronism’ which is his main concern, namely an idea of historical difference. He concludes that ‘to speak of the sense of anachronism of Mantegna or Erasmus is … literally speaking, anachronistic’.

Burke’s conclusion is correct as far as the meaning of ‘anachronism’ itself is concerned ‒ though it is important to note that the concept of historical change could be expressed before the word ‘anachronism’ came to be applied to it. Implicit in his claim about the history of the term, however, is an ideological construction of space. Behind the Latin anachronismus lurks the Greek noun anachronismos, formed from the verb anachronizō, first attested around AD 200. The stem of ‘anachronism’ had been in existence for more than a millennium when Mantegna and Erasmus were alive, then, but only in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. It was during Mantegna’s lifetime (c. 1431‒1506), however, that manuscripts containing the word were first transported to Italy, and during Erasmus’ (1466‒1536) that those manuscripts were first published. Burke’s claim about the anachronism of speaking of anachronism is as much a claim about where the word was used as it is about when or how.

The problem with Burke’s reliance on the OED entry for ‘anachronism’ is that that entry itself commits an anachronism. The search facilities provided by the online OED throw up an earlier appearance of the word under ‘hysterosis’ in William Lisle’s 1623 edition with translation of A Saxon treatise concerning the Old and New Testament, written by a monk called Aelfricus. Lisle took a phrase used by Aelfricus, ‘Lingua Britannica’, to be a reference to old English, ‘by Hysterosis or Anachronisme (a figure much used in Historie, yea even in the Bible)’. Here the word is not used in the chronological sense of a breach of synchronism but as a term of literary criticism ‒ the sense in which it is most commonly used in Byzantine Greek.

As the OED advances alphabetically, it reveals a still earlier usage of ‘anachronism’, again as a literary figure. In a sermon delivered at St Mary’s Church in Oxford in Easter week, 1617, John Hales, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, addressed the Biblical text ‘Which the vnlearned and vnstable wrest, as they doe the other Scriptures, vnto their owne destruction’ (2 Peter 3.16). His aim was to warn against unwarranted projections of Calvinist doctrines onto obscure Biblical passages:

The Iewish Rabbines in their Comments on Scripture so oft as they met with hard and intricate texts, out of which they could not wrest themselues, were wont to shut vp their discourse with this, Elias cum venerit, solvet dubia: Elias shall answer this doubt when he comes. Not the Iewes only, but the learned Christians of all ages haue found many things in Scripture which yet expect Elias. For besides those texts of Scriptures, which by reason of the hidden treasures of wisdome, and depth of sense & mysterie laid vp in them, are not yet conceau’d, there are in Scripture of things that are ὕστερα πρότερα [‘later earlier’], seemingly confus’d, ἐναντιοφανῆ [‘opposite-seeming’], carrying semblance of contrarietie, anachronismes, metachronismes, and the like, which bring infinite obscuritie to the text: there are I say in Scripture more of them, then in any writing that I knowe secular or divine.

Why the mistake in the OED entry for ‘anachronism’? The misleading date it gives for the first appearance of the word could, at a pinch, be taken as a subtle in-joke, the entry for ‘metachronism’ metachronically revealing an anachronism in the entry for ‘anachronism’. But it is easy enough to understand why the editors of the original OED (or rather: A new English dictionary on historical principles), despite their formidable filing systems, failed to pick up these earlier usages; and the dictionary itself appeared in fascicles over the course of 44 years, with the entries for ‘anachronism’, ‘hysterosis’, and ‘metachronism’ first appearing in 1884, 1899, and 1906. Those editors are rather to be admired for their coverage: using digital resources such as Early English Books Online I can find no earlier instance of the word in English.

Our anniversary-conscious age has made much of Luther and Lenin this year. The first recorded use of ‘anachronism’ in English is not quite in the same league as the Reformation or the Russian Revolution. But it is still worth remembering that sermon delivered in Oxford a century after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, three hundred years before Lenin travelled by train to the Finland station. Even if this anniversary may itself one day be shown to be an anachronism …


  • Peter Burke, ‘The sense of anachronism from Petrarch to Poussin’, in C. Humphrey and W. M. Ormrod, eds, Time in the Medieval World (Woodbridge, 2001), 157-74.
  • Joseph Luzzi, ‘The Rhetoric of Anachronism’, Comparative Literature 61 (2009), 69-84.

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.

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).

Anachronism and analogy

Anachronism has often been defined as a ‘sin’ for historians, often the worst sin that a historian could commit, a ‘capital sin against method’, as Nicole Loraux described it. But what historians mean by anachronism, and whether they believe it is possible to avoid it, are much debated. One of the first tasks for our research project has been exploring these debates and thinking about their implications. But not all contributions to the debates reject anachronism. Nicole Loraux wrote ‘in praise of anachronism in history’, in an article first published in 1993; she treated it as a necessary consequence of engagement with the past that the good historian should acknowledge anachronism as part of their awareness of the relationship between their own present and the past that they are studying.

The ‘mourning Athena’ stele, c. 460 BCE, used in commemoration of Nicole Loraux, Espaces Temps, 2005

Her thoughts were inspired both by a seminar series on the topic as it related to the modern use of antiquity, and her own responses to the methodologies prevailing in French historical studies at the time. She argued that the act of making a connection between the present time of the historian and the past of the period under study will inevitably involve the use of analogy, which will in turn lead to some form of anachronism. Careful, reflective use of such analogies might be necessary to understand the past; anachronism will arise whenever the present becomes the most effective means of gaining an understanding of the past.

Loraux had earlier followed the methodology of the ‘Paris School’, whose methodology emphasised the great distance between the Greeks and us, the difference between their conceptual world and ours, and the benefit of anthropological approaches to this strange and distant society. This approach was intended as a criticism of humanist approaches to history, in which the idea of a universal and constant human nature was taken to underlie human choice and action in different societies, and as an anthropological approach. The difference that belied universality was emphasised through historical practices, such as exploring Greek concepts (Loraux cites meson, metis and peitho) but leaving them untranslated to emphasise their distinction from modern concepts.

Loraux at first adopted this methodology, but began to find it unsatisfying; if we had so little in common with the Greeks, how could we understand them? And in using their language, could we be sure that we were leaving behind the interpretative traditions that mediated our access to them – was it possible to forget the way in which our view of antiquity had already been shaped by the thought of Nietzsche and Freud? Loraux found her thoughts expressed in the methodological reflections of an earlier French historian, Marc Bloch, who argued that, while the idea of an unchanging ‘man’ should be rejected, and the effects of changing material and social circumstances recognised, there must be some commonality and continuity if there is to be a meaningful engagement with the past.

If one cannot make contact between one’s present concerns and the past, studying it becomes an exercise in depoliticised antiquarianism. But if one is studying the past to explore one’s views about some issue of concern in the present, there are many pitfalls to beware. What is needed, Loraux argued, is a practice of ‘controlled anachronism’ in which the researcher acknowledges their intentions and the analogies they construct, the questions they ask which the Greeks would not have asked themselves.

Loraux thought that the study of Greek democracy might benefit from this practice. She showed how anachronisms of various kinds crept into writing on it – the unreflective use of modern terminology for class conflict to describe a pre-capitalist society, the problematic question of what ‘public opinion’ might mean in the context of the ancient city, the changing value of the word ‘democracy’ itself from ancient to modern times. One’s aim in exploring the ancient city might be to make a point about the modern one, as she suggests Vernant was doing in emphasising the importance of open debate in Athens and its democracy.

Loraux herself, in this self-reflective study of her methodology, was able to show how the political circumstances that affected her own life informed the research questions she chose to pursue. She began to think about the topic of political amnesty after reflecting on Président Pompidou’s controversial 1972 pardon of Paul Touvier, a police officer in the Vichy régime of World War II; she found new interest in the amnesty put in place by the restored democracy of Athens, and the effort to rebuild the city by forgetting acts performed under the oligarchy of 404-3 BCE. While her exploration of the Athenian civil war and subsequent amnesty can be read without reference to contemporary politics, readers might well make connections to their own political experiences.

As evocations of ancient democracy and its practices have multiplied in the analysis of the political events of 2016, Loraux’s analysis might provide guidelines for making effective connections between past and present, and assessing the intentions with which such analogies and connections are made.


  • Bloch, M. (1954) [1949], The Historian’s Craft, ed. J.R. Strayer, trans. P. Putnam (Manchester).
  • Loraux, N. (1993), ‘Éloge d’anachronisme en histoire’, Le Genre Humain, (27), 23-39. Republished (2005) in Espaces Temps 87 (1), 127-139. Online at:
  • Loraux, N. (2001) [1997], The Divided City: On Memory and Forgetting in Ancient Athens, trans. C. Pache and J. Fort (New York).
  • Rancière, J. (1996), ‘Le concept d’anachronisme et la vérité de l’historien’, L’Inactuel, 6, 53-68.
  • Vernant, J.-P. (1982) [1962], The Origins of Greek Thought (Ithaca).