New perspectives on Rome’s multi-temporal cityscape

The city of Rome has been identified as an ‘eternal city’ since the poet Tibullus labelled it so back in the first century BCE, and also by subsequent visitors as a multi-temporal city in which past and present offer an intoxicating mixture. Visiting the city as it is now, two millennia later, is to encounter a multiplicity of past Romes, overlying each other and competing for attention as you traverse the city, from the classical past through the heritage of the church and the visions of early-modern visitors such as historian Edward Gibbon, who was quite overwhelmed by the experience of standing in the Forum where Cicero had once stood, writing in his memoirs that ‘at the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City’ (Memoirs of my Life, p. 141).

Last month, while visiting the École Française de Rome for a workshop on the application of a modern political concept – Weber’s model of charismatic leadership – to the politics of the ancient world, I was able to do some sight-seeing of my own, and see how Rome’s museums and archaeological sites are using new approaches to connect visitors with the classical past and those who rediscovered and interpreted it, and how contemporary art contributes to this conversation.

Not all Rome’s monuments are as visible as the Forum. One remnant of ancient imperial Rome is invisible from street level, buried underground and forgotten until its rediscovery in the Renaissance. The Domus Aurea is the only remnant of the enormous palace built by the emperor Nero during his short time in power, and swiftly dismantled by his successors after his death in 68 CE. It survived the destruction of other parts of the palace complex when it became the foundations for the public baths commissioned by the emperor Trajan – the Colosseum itself, that most recognisable of classical ruins, had already been built over the palace’s ornamental lake by the Flavian emperors, starting soon after Vespasian cemented his power. To visit the underground ruins of the Domus Aurea is already to take a journey back in time, but the current hard-hat tours of the underground site use a range of audio-visual technology to give visitors a multi-temporal experience and to reveal its hidden past. As you enter, the bare brick walls of the vaulted cells supporting Trajan’s building become a screen for images of Nero’s Rome, and of the palace as it is imagined to have been in its brief heyday.

Domus Aurea video projection
Reconstruction of the Domus Aurea projected on to the Roman walls

But further inside the ruin it becomes difficult to imagine the dark galleries and passages as a light-filled golden palace, even though there are tantalising glimpses of the frescos that decorated those parts not adorned with marble, long since lost. But new technology is here to help – one chamber is now equipped with Oculus Rift headsets so that you can experience different layers of the building’s past through a virtual reality recreation.

Virtual reality room in the Domus Aurea
Virtual reality stations await visitors within the Domus Aurea

After seeing the frescoes lit by the flickering torches of the palace’s Renaissance explorers, who thought they’d found a cave, you are tumbled back in time to the full sun-lit glory of the original rooms. Then you can walk out and look across the city to the other parts of Nero’s palace on the Palatine, with no Colosseum in sight. Don’t forget to look back at the building you’ve just left… After returning to the present, and putting your hard hat back on, it perhaps becomes easier to visualise the remaining rooms, including the astonishing octagon with its dome, as they once were.

The competing layers of the classical past are further overlaid by the city’s Christian heritage, as Gibbon noted; he was inspired to write Decline and Fall by hearing Franciscan friars singing in the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter (Memoirs, p. 143). The classical and Christian past come together in the Vatican Museums, home to a remarkable collection of antiquities, assembled over centuries from finds within Rome and gifts to the Pope. At the moment, the feeling that you are viewing antiquity through a past sensibility, when walking through its galleries and courtyards, is heightened by the museum’s celebrations of the anniversaries of the birth and death of the German art critic Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68), who for the latter part of his career held a range of curatorial roles at what would become this museum. In a display spanning the whole museum, key objects across the collection, those that attracted Winckelmann’s scholarly and aesthetic attention, are marked by a large Gothic W, and his interpretations of objects and critiques of others’ views are posted on accompanying sign boards.

Belvedere Hermes and giant Winckelmann W
The Belvedere Hermes tagged as part of the Vatican’s Winckelmann display

We are encouraged to see what Winckelmann saw in the Vatican’s collections, although given the enduring influence of his aesthetic response to classical art, many visitors may already be primed to see greatness where he once saw it; of this statue, now known as the Belvedere Hermes, but then thought to represent Antinous, Winckelmann commented that ‘the head is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful youthful heads of antiquity’. Given that art historians and archaeologists of the present are often more concerned with escaping or revising Winckelmann’s views on ancient aesthetics rather than with embracing them (as is Sarah Bond in this critique of the ‘whitewashing’ of ancient sculpture), the effect of the Vatican’s intervention is to reassert a very traditional perspective on aesthetic value, as well as to highlight antiquarian debates about the identification of the subjects of statues. The placement of major works in the collection already accords with Winckelmann’s evaluation of their artistic importance – the octagonal courtyard where the Belvedere Hermes stands is crowded with letters and signs – but the reminder that we might ourselves be seeing the classical past through mediating filters such as Winckelmann’s aesthetic is an important one.

While the halls of the Vatican Museums resist change, the Roman cityscape surrounding the Vatican is not timeless, but subject to renewal and to new interventions. In Largo Goldoni, a small square on one of Rome’s prime luxury shopping streets, the installation of Giuseppe Penone’s sculpture Foglie di Pietra (‘Leaves of Stone’), raises questions about the relationship between the city and nature and about change over time.

Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017
Giuseppe Penone, Foglie di Pietra, Rome, 2017

The sculpture was placed there in 2017, with sponsorship from Roman fashion house Fendi, outside whose flagship boutique it stands, an intriguing location for a work by a sculptor who emerged from the Arte Povera movement of the 1960s. In this monumental work, two bronze trees support apparent sculptural fragments in their branches; one stone fragment recalls the reuse of Roman decorative elements in Renaissance buildings, while a huge marble block contains a Corinthian capital entwined in tree roots, suggesting both the grandeur of Rome and the temporal distance of its classical past.

Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots
Penone, Foglie di Pietra, detail of marble block with Corinthian capital and tree roots

The sculpture contains familiar elements from Penone’s artistic practice (there’s still time to catch a major retrospective exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which closes 28/4/19), especially his interest in natural materials and fragmentation. Its placement in the Roman cityscape underscores Penone’s interest in revealing change over time through natural processes; at the installation of the sculpture, he commented:

“In Foglie di Pietra, archaeology and ruins, history and biology are grafted one on the other, creating a permanent bond between nature and culture, and celebrating a deep synthesis between the flowing of natural and human time where a sense of longing and a romantic nostalgia for lost civilizations are brought to the surface.”

Penone’s complex construction materialises the experience of the encountering the multi-temporality of Rome and incorporates it into the fabric of the city. Even outside the formally curated spaces of its museums and monuments, artistic interventions like Foglie di Pietra negotiate Rome’s continuing relationship with its classical past and the long reception history of that past.

  • Gibbon, Edward (1990), Memoirs of my Life, ed. Betty Radice (London: Penguin).
  • Winckelmann, J. J. [1764] (2006). History of the Art of Antiquity, tr. Harry Francis Mallgrave (Los Angeles: Getty Publications).
  • Coulson, S and Lilley, C. (2018) Giuseppe Penone: A Tree in the Wood (Yorkshire Sculpture Park).

Herodotus’ conspiracy narrative: time episodic, relative, and absolute

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a blog about the current episode in British political life (relatively awful or absolutely the pits?). This is not it.

In Book 3 of his Histories, Herodotus reports a crisis in the Persian empire. King Cambyses has had his brother Smerdis secretly murdered and then gone on an expedition against Egypt. In his absence, two brothers, one of them called Smerdis, from the Median priestly caste of Magi, usurp the throne, with Smerdis pretending to be Cambyses’ brother of the same name. Cambyses dies in Syria, after a reign of seven years and five months. After the imposters have reigned for seven months, a group of conspirators forms to overthrow them. As the conspirators move towards the palace, Herodotus interrupts the narrative to describe events taking place at the same time in the court. The usurpers try to persuade Prexaspes, a courtier who had been given the task of killing Cambyses’ brother, to proclaim openly his support for the usurper Smerdis. But things do not go according to their plan. Prexaspes, addressing the Persians from a tower, exposes the Magi’s deception to the crowd and then kills himself by throwing himself from the tower. This dramatic event happens just as the conspirators are reaching the palace. Herodotus then switches back to them: forcefully led by Darius, they gain entry to the palace and complete the job (3.69‒79).

The Behistun inscription narrates the rise to power of Darius I
The Behistun inscription provides another source for the story of Darius’ rise to power (Mount Behistun, Iran).

Herodotus’ account of this incident receives detailed treatment in Donald J. Wilcox’s 1987 monograph The Measures of Time Past – a work that has influenced a number of scholars of anachronism ancient and modern. Wilcox’s book is based on a distinction between ‘relative time’, which prevailed until Newton, and ‘absolute time’, which was uncovered by Newtonian physics. In relative time, events themselves create their own time-frame. In absolute time, there is a time-line that contains the events. Absolute time is ‘objective, continuous, all-embracing’; in Newton’s own words, it flows ‘equably without regard to anything external’. Wilcox fleshes out this model further by tracing a path from relative to absolute time through figures such as Augustine, Bede and Scaliger, the final step before Newton being the invention of the BC/AD system ‒ a system founded on ‘a single, continuous, and linear time frame’ which proved ‘fit for the use of those who accepted the notion of absolute time’.

Wilcox sees Herodotus’ account of the conspiracy as an example of ‘episodic time’ ‒ a form of relative time which was ‘discontinuous, emphasizing process rather than the progressive building of events on one another’, and in which ‘the exact temporal order was not an important factor in the process that produced the final result’. He describes the account as episodic because he finds it impossible that Herodotus had a grasp of the temporal order of the events: how could the conspirators have entered the palace after the death of Prexaspes? Herodotus, he concludes, ‘was willing to sacrifice neither story to the demands of a linear sequence and had available a sense of time which allowed him to keep both’: ‘the determining factor … was the moral and social context of the events’ ‒ in this case ‘the remoteness of the eastern kings’, ‘the arrogance and intrigue of the court’, and ‘the boldness and decisiveness’ of Darius.

Wilcox’s argument helpfully stresses the cultural contingency of systems of time-measurement: he allows that our own dating system ‘would have been as inaccurate in the eyes of Herodotus and Thucydides as their relative dating is primitive in ours’. But there are historical and conceptual problems in his arguments, and problems, too, in the way that he reads the ancient historians.

Let us first return to Herodotus’ conspiracy narrative. One problem with Wilcox’s reading is that he ignores the clear explanation in Herodotus’ narrative of how the conspirators were able to gain entry to the palace: it was their high status that won over the guards. Herodotus also suggests that they enjoy some form of divine assistance, revealed by an omen. Wilcox ignores, too, the fact that the conspirators realize that Prexaspes’ action endangers their plan and that the eunuchs in the palace, once they realize what has happened, threaten the guards with dire punishment. Herodotus highlights the very problem that Wilcox claims he ignores because of his sense of ‘episodic time’.

Wilcox’s reading of Herodotus’ account ignores the strong thematic links that bind the parallel narratives together. The most important theme relates to truth and lies. (As I said, this is not about Brexit.) Darius tells his fellow conspirators that he will offer a lie (fake news from the king) to ensure that they can pass into the palace; he suggests that people tell the truth or lie entirely in accordance with their self-interest. Prexaspes’ self-sacrifice in telling the truth at the cost of his own life offers at least a partial modification of Darius’ sophistic assertion. (Oxford has some towers, too…)

What of Wilcox’s general notion of relative and absolute time? The main historical problem lies in his account of BC/AD dating. He repeats the common contention that this ‘absolute’ system was invented by the French Jesuit Denis Pétau (Dionysius Petavius) in his 1627 Opus de doctrina temporum. In fact, datings before Christ’s birth are already attested (albeit rarely) in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, written in the eighth century (Caesar crossed to Britain ‘in the sixtieth year before the incarnation of the Lord’). They become more common in the thirteenth century, and by the fifteenth they appear in graphic timelines (e.g. as the Carthusian Werner Rolevinck’s Fasciculus temporum (1474)). Prior to Petavius, Scaliger discussed the shortcomings of ‘ante Christum’ dating by contrast with his own Julian Period ‒ a period of 7980 years based on a 28-year solar cycle, a 19-year lunar cycle and a 15-year indiction cycle ‒ which provides a continuous timeline well adapted for astronomical calculations (and is indeed still used for this purpose). The shortcomings of BC dating were recognized by Petavius too: he explained that he included BC dates only for those who might be scared of the unfamiliar Julian Period, but he makes the Julian Period his main chronological anchor. It is true that BC dates were used by Newton in his posthumous Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) ‒ but he also uses the Julian Period for an astronomical calculation. It was the nineteenth-century discovery of the age of the planet that rendered it (and rivals such as anno mundi dating) less useful (even though Scaliger conceived of the possibility of an infinity of earlier Julian Periods).

The conceptual problems in Wilcox’s model spring from his failure to distinguish between the measurement of time and time itself. With the ancient historians he looks at how time is presented in narratives; with Newton he explores ideas of time. And yet Newton’s time is in some ways not too far removed from some Greek conceptions of chronos ‒ which some classicists describe as an ‘absolute time’ by contrast with aiōn, ‘relative time’ (e.g. Collard on Euripides Suppliant Women 787‒8). Chronos is as universal as Newton’s ‘all-embracing’ time: ‘“all things” are regularly the target of time’s activity’ (Finglass on Sophocles Ajax 646‒7); it is ‘unwearying’, and ‘full in its ever-flowing stream it goes its round begetting itself’ (Critias TrGF 43 F 3.1‒3); it ‘has no father’ (Euripides fr. 303), but is itself the ‘ancient father of days’ (Euripides Suppliant Women 787‒8). In a comparative study of ancient Near Eastern cultures, Sacha Stern has indeed suggested that the ancient Greeks were unusually aware of the continuity of chronos as a separate entity.

Ideas about time, whether expressed through the imagery of a Greek poets or in Newton’s slightly more precise language, do not bear on the way time is measured. There is no such thing as an absolute chronology suitable for absolute time. All ways of measuring time are relative, and BC/AD dating is no more appropriate for Newtonian time than any other system of calculating years relative to a single point, including many of the systems used in Greco-Roman antiquity. If the term ‘absolute chronology’ is to be used at all, it should refer to a system which specifies the time in which events occur in relation to an external system (‘the first year of the twenty-third Olympiad’) rather than in relation to previous events (‘next year’).

Wilcox’s conception of absolute time seems as flawed, then, as his reading of Herodotus’ conspiracy narrative. And yet it is undeniable that Herodotus’ Histories do at times have an episodic quality ‒ and that occasionally his choices about where to reveal important information seem to us strange. Indeed, Wilcox’s analysis of ‘episodic time’ in Herodotus would have been better served by looking at the placement of other information that seems germane to the conspiracy and its aftermath. In his speech to the Persians before he jumps off the tower, Prexaspes retells the genealogy of the Achaemenids (the royal Persian line) as a way of asserting the correct order of rule in the empire. Much earlier in his work, Herodotus has told how Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire, had a dream in which Darius’ rise to power was foreshadowed; and in recounting this dream Herodotus reveals that Darius himself is an Achaemenid (1.209). And yet Darius’ supposed Achaemenid descent plays absolutely no role in the conspiracy narrative ‒ even though it would have been highly relevant to Darius’ arguments for monarchy in the ensuing ‘constitutional debate’ (3.82). Darius is presented instead (as Wilcox notes) as a chancer who is last to join the conspiracy and whose ruthlessness and cynicism prove decisive in its success.

Wilcox does, then, capture something of the effect of reading Herodotus. But it is still questionable whether it is appropriate to speak of ‘episodic time’ ‒ as opposed to ‘episodic narrative’. Herodotus’ failure to integrate the whole of Darius’ past in a single story-line is not a cognitive clue to his sense of time but a sign, rather, of the extraordinary complexity and variety of the material that he was attempting to integrate and of the narrative artistry with which he nonetheless succeeded in shaping it.


S. Stern, Time and process in ancient Judaism (Oxford, 2003).
D. J. Wilcox, The measures of time past (Chicago, 1987).

For BC dating, see A.-D. von den Brincken, ‘Beobachtungen zum Aufkommen der retrospektiven Inkarnationsära’, Archiv für Diplomatik 25 (1979) 1‒20.