Why visit mountains? A seventeenth-century answer

Dawn discusses a passage from one of her favourite early modern travel accounts, which identifies mountains as sites of classical and Biblical memory.

It does not happen often, but every now and then, in the midst of piecing together a coherent narrative from dozens of disparate texts, a historian can chance across a centuries-old text which tells the whole story clearly in its own words.

I enjoyed just such a rare experience when trawling through seventeenth-century travel accounts during my PhD in an attempt to explore what motivated early modern British travellers to visit and even climb mountains. Something which was apparent to me, from the jigsaw of different sources to hand, was that travellers were often compelled to visit mountains as sites of myth and memory: as places where great events occurred, and where they could tread the same ground as a blessed saint or a famed leader. It was a moment of research delight, then, to discover the following passage, which articulated this very idea, and more:

What I pray you is more pleasant, more delectable, and more acceptable unto a man then to behold the heigth of hilles, as it were the very Atlantes themselves of heaven? to admire Hercules his pillers? to see the mountaines Taurus and Caucasus? to view the hill Olumpus, the seat of Jupiter? to passe over the Alpes that were broken by Annibals Vinegar? to climbe up the Apennine promontory of Italy? from the hill Ida to behold the rising of the Sunne before the Sunne appeares? to visite Pernassus and Helicon, the most celebrated seates of the Muses? Neither indeed is there any hill or hillocke, which doth not containe in it the most sweete memory of worthy matters: there shalt thou see the place where Noahs Arke stood after the deluge: there where God himselfe dwelt, and promulged his eternall law amongst the thunders and lightnings […] there the servant of the Lord [Moses] to have fedde his father in lawes sheepe, and to have seene the great Jehova in a burning bush […] there our Saviour to have ascended from the earth after his resurrection… [1]

This passage formed part of the prefatory materials to a 1611 volume entitled Coryats Crudities, an eccentric account of a journey through Europe written by an equally eccentric individual: Thomas Coryat (c.1577-1617), self-appointed ‘jester’ to the court of Prince Henry. However, for all that his travel account sometimes erred on the comedic (one of my favourite passages, entirely unrelated to mountains, sees Coryat carefully climbing down from the top of giant wine barrel, which he insists is a greater wonder than the Colossus of Rhodes), it also laid claim to the more serious trappings of the early modern genre of travel literature. One example of this is in Coryate’s translation, from which the above passage is taken, of ‘an oration made by Hermanus Kirchnerus… professor of Eloquence and Antiquities in the famous Universitie of Marburg’ on the advantages of foreign travel to the education of young men.

Mountains, therefore, are one of Kirchner’s justifications for travel, and to some extent simply because they are remarkable to look at: their height, the sun rising on their slopes. But mountains are important to visit for more than just their external forms: the memories, stories, and ideas which they belong to and which belong to them give them a moral value. What better way for a young traveller to develop spiritually than to stand on the very spot where the Ten Commandments were given and to reflect on God and His Laws? What better way to appreciate leadership than to experience the landscape through which Hannibal commanded his army?

One of the key themes of our Leverhulme project is how mountains functioned as sites of memory – from the ancient world onwards –  and what is so compelling about this passage is the equation between a precise physical space, and a specific Biblical or classical memory. The sites alluded to possess no archaeological remnants of the remembered events, but to a classically-educated or Christian visitor, Hannibal was there, the Ark there, and to stand upon or look at the same supposed spot invokes a closer connection with such important past occurrences. The ‘sweete memory of worthy matters’, as Kirchner puts it, is literally contained within the landscape.

[1] For the translated passage, see Thomas Coryate, Coryat’s Crudities Hastily Gobbled Up in Five Moneths Trauells in France, Sauoy, Italy [etc.] (London, 1611), sig. C6. For the original, see Hermann Kirchner, De gravissimis aliquot cum juridicis tum politicis quaestionibus in utramque partem discussis, orationes (Frankfurt, 1599), pp.71-72.

Illustration. The image – with the memory of the Ark still visible on the summit of Mount Ararat, in an otherwise naturalistic sketch of the seventeenth-century landscape – is from John Chardin, The Travels of Sir John Chardin into Persia and the East-Indies (London: printed for Moses Pitt, 1686), plate 9, facing p. 248.

Beautiful Mountains?

Jason explores a few ancient examples of seeing beauty in mountains.


One of the goals of this project is to look across the watershed of the late 18th and early 19th centuries to give fresh attention to early modern, medieval and especially classical responses to mountains.

When you do that you see lots of differences: some aspects of ancient engagement with mountains are entirely alien to anything we are familiar with. But you also see lots of continuities and similarities, surprisingly so for anyone who has grown up with the standard view that our own way of interacting with mountains is an invention of the romantic period, and a distinctive feature of our modernity.

There are some obvious questions to start with. We can look at mountain climbing: the ancient Greeks and Romans went up mountains surprisingly regularly, even if not for leisure purposes—more on that in a later post.

We can look at habits of viewing from mountain summits: again, that was surprisingly widespread in ancient culture, as Irene de Jong’s recent work has shown (she refers to the motif of viewing from the summit as oroskopia, from the Greek word for mountain, oros).

We can also look at aesthetic responses. There are responses very much like modern ideas of the sublime in ancient descriptions of mountains (more on that in later posts and publications).


But what I want to look at here is the habit of describing mountains as beautiful. Do we find anything like that in ancient Mediterranean culture? That question matters partly because one of the stereotypes of medieval and ancient culture is that they viewed mountains as places of gloom and ugliness.

It is undeniable that extended set-piece descriptions of mountains were much rarer in ancient Greek and Roman culture than they are for us (and the same goes for visual depictions). Most often rhetorical landscape descriptions were of meadows and groves: the locus amoenus (‘pleasant place’) tradition which was central to ancient pastoral. The rhetorical theorist Pseudo-Hermogenes tells us that ‘there have even been encomia of plants and mountains and rivers’, but that word ‘even’ suggests that we should not expect to see them too often.

But when we look more closely we see plenty of exceptions which suggest that a beautiful mountain was absolutely conceivable. When orators gave speeches in praise of the cities they were visiting, they would sometimes mention the city’s mountains. Menander Rhetor in one of his works giving instructions for speech-making includes mountains along with plains, rivers and harbours as standard subjects. There are several examples in the work of the orator Dio Chrysostom, who lived in Asia Minor in the late first and early second century CE: he praises the mountains around the city of Tarsus (33.2) and later in the same speech claims that the beauty of Mt Ida was an asset for the city of Troy (33.20). In another speech he praises the beauty of the mountains surrounding the city of Celaenae in Phrygia (35.13).


In a rather different context, Pliny the Younger writes in one of his letters (5.6) to his friend Domitius Apollinaris inviting him to stay in his Tuscan villa. The appearance of the region, he boasts, is

most beautiful. Imagine to yourself a huge amphitheatre, of the kind that only nature could create. A broad and extensive plain is surrounded by mountains; the mountains on their summits have tall and ancient forests. There is abundant and varied hunting there. From there, woods ready for felling stretch down together with the mountain slopes. Interspersed between these are rich and earthy hills…which are not inferior to the most level plains in fertility…You would take great pleasure, if you could view this layout of the region from the mountain. For you would think you were looking not at the earth, but at a view painted to the highest level of beauty; such is the variety, such is the arrangement that wherever the eyes fall they will be refreshed.

The villa is artfully constructed to give different views from different angles, and the mountain view is part of that design: ‘At the end of the cloister is a bedroom cut out from the cloister itself, which looks over the hippodrome, the vineyards, and the mountains’.

This passage anticipates to a remarkable degree many of the common motifs of modern landscape appreciation: beautiful mountains as part of a crafted backdrop combining human cultivation with the spontaneity of nature, assessed by the criteria of landscape painting, all in a way that seems to guarantee the good taste and social status of the letter writer.


Clearly then the idea of mountains as beautiful, as objects of aesthetic admiration, was perfectly conceivable and even commonplace in some contexts. And yet it is also striking that all of these examples have one thing in common and that is the way in which the mountains they depict are in urban contexts, or at any rate stand as backdrops to human habitation. There are modern parallels for that, of course, but mountain beauty for us can also be found outside civilization.

We see the same pattern in many of the best mountain images we have from ancient art, as in the wall painting from Pompeii below, from the house of Lucretius Fronto:

The mountains in the image are unidentified. But of course the inhabitants of Pompeii were themselves entirely familiar with the idea of mountains as backgrounds to the fabric of the city. Looking north from the forum they would see Mt Vesuvius (seen at the top of this post), and to the south Monte Faito.

Mountains could be beautiful to ancient viewers, then. But it looks as though there were cultural differences too, especially in the way in which the relationship between landscape beauty and wilderness was understood…

Illustrations: Vesuvius from Pompeii, CC BY-SA 2.0; Casa di Marco Lucrezio Frontone, CC BY-SA 3.0.

What is a mountain?

Dawn attempts to answer a deceptively simple question.

The question which forms the title of this blog post seems almost absurd. Everyone knows what a mountain is, don’t they? The difference between a ‘hill’ and a ‘mountain’ is one that can be discerned by the simple act of measurement. This is certainly what cinema-goers of the mid-nineties would have learned from The Englishman who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain. Starring a fresh-faced Hugh Grant, the film tells the story of a rural community in Wales spurred into action by the realisation that their local mountain, measured by English cartographers at just under 1000ft in height, was about to be downgraded to a hill. The villagers hasten to build a mound of earth at the summit of the mountain, ultimately bringing it to a height above the magic number of 1000ft.

It would seem, then, what the question ‘what is a mountain?’ can be answered fairly clearly in the 21st century – except for when it can’t. Dig a little deeper, however, and it becomes apparent that all is not quite so simple: different geologists, different environmental agencies, all have their own definitions of the level of elevation, prominence, ruggedness, or steepness required to make a hill a mountain. [1] The geographers Bernard Debarbieux and Gilles Rudaz have suggested that Saint Augustine’s description of time might usefully apply to the category of ‘mountain’: “If no one asks me about it, I know: but when I try to explain it on demand, I do not know!” [2] We might not be able to produce an objective, unassailable definition of ‘a mountain’ when pushed to do so, but we know a mountain when we see one. Or, to put it another way: mountains are what we make of them, and not just in the literal sense of building one up to height.

This answer to our opening question offers both a challenge and an exciting opportunity to historians or literary scholars seeking to consider the ways people in the past experienced mountains. The challenge is that it means we must be careful to avoid bringing our own modern assumptions of ‘what makes a mountain’ to our research, for example in overlooking sources relating to areas of the world that, to us, don’t seem ‘very mountainous’. The opportunity is, of course, in stepping beyond these assumptions and seeing well-known landscapes according to new scales: the hills of the Peak District may seem fairly dinky compared to the Alps and Himalayas that loom large in current-day mountain perceptions, but to a seventeenth-century traveller who had never seen the Alps, nor heard of the Himalayas, Mam Tor (517m) could be experienced as a geological giant.

Far from having so obvious an answer as to be ridiculous to even ask, the question in the title of this blog post is at the heart of understanding the experience of mountains in past contexts. The first question to ask, then, of any historical source relating to the landscape, is not ‘what did the writer think about mountains?’ but rather ‘what did the writer think a mountain was?’

[1] For a summary of various attempts at defining a mountain, see John Gerrard, Mountain environments: An examination of the physical geography of mountains (London: Belhaven Press, 1990), pp. 3-7.

[2] Bernard Debarbieux and Gilles Rudaz, trans. Jane Marie Todd, The Mountain: A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 2-3.

Illustration: ‘Comparative view of the heights of mountains of Scotland’ from John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland. CC BY 2.0, Paul K.

Watch this space…

Mount Parnassus, as depicted in Edward Dodwell’s Views in Greece (1821).

Welcome to our blog! Over the coming months, we will be filling these pages with posts looking at all aspects of mountains in the classical tradition. In the meantime, please take a look at the pages about our work in general, and about our Leverhulme Project on ‘mountains in ancient literature and culture and their postclassical reception’… and watch this space!