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).