Tim Rood takes a new look at an old issue.

Is Thucydides’ Nicias an anachronism? That was one of the questions I addressed in my first published article, more than twenty years ago, in the new online historiography journal Histos. Some scholars had found Thucydides’ portrayal of the doomed Athenian general of the Peloponnesian War strongly critical. The historian reported that Nicias indulged in ‘old-fashioned talk’ just before the crisis of the final sea-battle between the Athenians and Syracusans at Syracuse, appealing to women, children and gods, and he made him address the commanders of the Athenian triremes by their patronymics, in apparent imitation of a passage in Homer. But rather than dismissing Nicias as a relic from an earlier period I preferred to argue that Thucydides was using him as a vehicle for pathos.

Since that article I have continued to explore ancient ideas of temporality and the various ways in which ideas about time interact with ideas about space. The anachronism seed planted in that first article finally germinated in the Leverhulme-funded research project Anachronism and Antiquity that I led at the University of Oxford between 2016 and 2019. Supported by a team of post-doctoral researchers – Carol Atack, Tom Phillips and Mathura Umachandran – as well as by John Marincola in Florida, the project has so far produced two books and a special issue of the Classical Receptions Journals, and more is on the way.

The main question that the project sought to answer was what ideas of anachronism can be found in the Greco-Roman world. Outside the discipline of Classics, many historians have suggested that a sense of anachronism was lacking in classical antiquity and first appeared in the Renaissance. They have supported this claim by pointing to the role of utility and exemplarity in ancient historical and biographical writing. Historians such as Thucydides, it is argued, had a notion of an unchanging human nature and wrote in the assumption that similar events would recur in the future, while Plutarch wrote Lives of heroes whose virtuous or vicious acts provided future readers with models to imitate or avoid. Their interests are thought to be very different from those of historians over the last two and a half centuries, who stress the distinctiveness of historical periods and the openness of the future.

Key to answering our central question, we realised from the outset, is defining what one means by ‘anachronism’. Historians have sometimes suggested that that word was invented in the sixteenth century – as if its earlier appearances in Greek were of no importance. Greek anachronismos is in fact attested from the turn of the second and third centuries AD. Chiefly found in scholarly commentaries on classical texts, it entered Latin only after the fall of Constantinople, and then emerged in the vernacular languages. At first the word was still applied to the use in literary texts of names or objects that were not yet in existence at the time of the events described in a text – as when Virgil in the Aeneid allows a character to mention the ‘Veline harbour’ even though the town Velia was not founded until some centuries after the supposed date of the Trojan War. ‘Anachronism’ developed further as it came to be applied to errors in chronological calculation and (at the start of the nineteenth century) to objects or people felt to be out of date – the sense I was using when I began by asking whether Thucydides’ Nicias is an anachronism. Subsequently the term has expanded further, to cover ideas of hindsight (the historian’s original sin) as well as the sense that human consciousness is irreducibly multi-temporal.

It turned out, then, that when we asked whether the Greeks or Romans had a sense of anachronism we were asking not one question, but many questions, all focused, however, on the core issue of historical change and difference. The word’s chronological development served in turn as a structuring principle for the general book Anachronism and Antiquity that I wrote with Carol Atack and Tom Phillips. In this book we explore the manifold ways in which Greek and Roman texts show awareness of anachronism in all the diverse meanings the word has acquired as well as the ways in which they have shaped later ways of understanding historical change. We are doubtless guilty of anachronism ourselves in covering in one book a range of meanings that had not yet been united in antiquity – but (as we hope one brief case-study may show) this anachronism can be productive rather than vicious.

Whether or not Nicias deserves to be seen as an anachronism, Thucydides is a vital source for theorizing anachronism. In his opening sketch of early Greece (known as the Archaeology), Thucydides uses the old poets as evidence for obsolete social attitudes. He is struck by the fact that pirates were apparently accepted in the worlds portrayed by those poets. Or that at least is what he infers from the nonchalance with which characters ask strangers if they are pirates. Thucydides goes on to argue that there were still parts of Greece – particular Aetolia and Acarnania – where that old style of life survived. People in those regions still carried weapons in their day-to-day life, a relic from an age when social interactions were unsafe – and a practice also found, Thucydides writes, among ‘barbarians’. The way of life in these parts of Greece, he concludes, provided evidence of habits that were once found everywhere.

What Thucydides maps in the Archaeology is a process of uneven development. He implies that to move in space away from central Greece is to move backwards in time. The Greek polis – and in particular the dynamic city of Athens – is a force of progress by comparison with which peoples who live in villages or mountains are seen as antiquated. But the account of internecine warfare to which the Archaeology is a prelude depicts the collapse of the restraints that had shaped human progress.

Thucydides’ analysis of historical change points to the political importance of concepts of time. It does not matter that much whether we see Nicias as anachronistic. It matters much more when the label is applied to whole peoples and supported by a theoretical model of development. Thucydides’ model was picked up by theorists of human development in the Scottish Enlightenment, and since then the idea that different peoples live in different times has played a pernicious role in spreading racism.

The Roman experience of empire provided an important intermediary for the model developed by Thucydides. As Emma Dench has shown, peoples such as the Samnites were initially dismissed as barbarian or primitive. But over the course of the second and first centuries BC they were valued as sturdy farmers who retained severe ancient customs long after these had been abandoned in metropolitan Rome.

The classic expression of this idea of the Italians as anachronisms is Virgil’s Aeneid. In the catalogue of Aeneas’ Italian enemies in Book 7, Virgil repeatedly uses the ethnographic trope of hardness. One of the Italian leaders, Ufens, is from a tough mountainous area, and the men that he leads are described as rough and used to hunting in the forests. Much like the inhabitants of those parts of Greece in Thucydides’ day where the old lifestyle endured, these Italians ‘work the land armed and their pleasure is always to carry off new booty and to live off plunder’. But while Virgil devotes the second half of the poem to the war fought between the hardy Italian and Aeneas’ Trojans, he also offers a vision of Roman history embossed on the shield of Aeneas in which Augustus is seen leading Italians into battle against Cleopatra and the forces of the East. The Italians could be admired rather than feared once they were safely integrated in the central state.

Adam Parry suggested in a famous essay on ‘The two voices of Virgil’s Aeneid’ that ‘the explicit message of the Aeneid claims that Rome was a happy reconciliation of the natural virtues of the local Italian peoples and the civilized might of the Trojans’. But he saw, too, in ‘the tragic movement’ of the poem’s closing books hints that Rome’s rise involved ‘the loss of the pristine purity of Italy’. Tellingly, he compared Virgil’s feeling for the ‘proud and independent’ Italians who ‘succumbed inevitably to the expansion of Roman power’ with ‘what Americans have felt for the American Indian’.

The Monument to Walter Scott in Edinburgh

Parry’s comparison is shaped by the fictions of romantic historicism. The novels of James Fenimore Cooper looked back admiringly on American Indians firm in the belief that their eclipse was a sign of rational progress. And behind Cooper’s Indians lie the Scottish Highlanders as portrayed in the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott, surrounded with a romantic aura following the failure of the 1745 uprising. If Scott’s model seems the stronger analogy for the Aeneid (racism prevented the assimilation of Cooper’s Indians), it may be no accident that Scott himself was alive to the resonance of Virgil’s Italy. He contributed a long introduction to a volume on the antiquities of the Scottish borders for the epigraph of which he quoted Virgil’s address to Ufens. Turning to material remains, he compared weapons that had been found in the borders with those still used by ‘the Californian Indians’ as well as with those used by the Italians described by Virgil, ‘an antiquary and a scholar, as well as a poet’.

This brief case-study shows the mutual entanglement of anachronism and antiquity. Scott hails the progress embodied in the Union of Scotland and England even as his romanticizing of the past raises questions about what has been destroyed by the cause of progress. Similar questions are even more insistently posed by Virgil. With Thucydides, by contrast, we are presented with a picture of a progressive Greek civilization that destroys itself in a reversion to savage strife, unchecked by the emotional appeals of the likes of Nicias. For all three writers, the twin notions of anachronism and antiquity explore ideas that still shape our own engagements with the legacies of the past.

Tim Rood is Professor of Greek Literature and Tutorial Fellow at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Anachronism and Antiquity is published by Bloomsbury.