Approaching Landscapes: 11th-14th July 2018

At the time of writing, it is now less than a week until the 11th Celtic Conference in Classics opens in St Andrews. The ‘CCC’ – which has been running at a different institution each year since 1998 – will feature fourteen distinct panels on different topics within classical scholarship. We are extremely excited to be hosting one such panel, on ‘Approaching Landscapes in the Classical Tradition’.

Our call for papers, distributed at the start of the year, resulted in an enthusiastic wave of abstracts from a wide range of perspectives, and our panel will feature contributions from twenty scholars from across both the discipline of classical landscape studies and the world. The remit we have given our speakers is to come prepared to share their own methodological and theoretical toolkits for ‘approaching landscape’ in past contexts.

What do we mean by this? As suggested by one of the earliest posts on this blog, asking ‘What is a mountain?’, the study of landscape is by no means straightforward. A mountain is more than a geomorphological feature: it is also defined and constructed by human cultures, communities, and individuals. The complexity of ‘landscape’, and of human interactions with it, has long been recognised and tackled in disciplines such as geography, anthropology, and sociology.

What we hope is that our panel next week will help to bring together some of the methods and theories particularly appropriate for understanding landscape interactions and depictions in the classical past. How do different scholars within classics define ‘landscape’ (or mountains, or rivers, or forests) within their research? Are there particular theories utilised in other disciplines which might help us to understand landscape better?

Glancing at our schedule, it seems pretty evident that over the course of the CCC a multitude of theories will be brought to bear on a multitude of landscapes. We will be hearing about jungles, trees, rivers, mountains, volcanoes, gardens, caves, and how they relate to concepts such as Foucault’s heterotopia, ecocriticism, liminality, reception. After the conference, we will be distributing a report which we hope will serve as a working guide to the different methodologies proposed, and the potential they might offer to future research on landscape.

Edward Dodwell on Mt Hymettos

Jason considers the merging of modern categories of the sublime and the picturesque with an appreciation of the classical past in the works and writings of Edward Dodwell (1767-1832).

A lot of my work on the project recently has been on ancient texts and contexts. One of the goals of that work is to recapture something of the sophistication of Greek and Roman engagement with mountains, as a way of challenging deep-rooted assumptions about the lack of interest in mountains before the mid 18th century.

The project also has another strand, however, which involves looking at the influence and afterlife of classical engagement with mountains. One of our hypotheses is that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century responses are often much more rooted in classical precedents than the standard narrative acknowledges

Travellers’ accounts from Greece and Italy from that period are a particularly interesting place to look. Many of them draw heavily on the aesthetic vocabulary that was so popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Greece in particular was an important focus for the development of thinking about landscape: the Napoleonic wars had made the traditional Grand Tour destinations of western Europe inaccessible in the early 1800s, and attention turned more and more to Greece and western Turkey. At the same time many of these authors were steeped in ancient literature, especially authors like Strabo and Pausanias.

One of my favourite examples is Edward Dodwell. Dodwell’s journeys through Greece took place in the first decade of the nineteenth century, but he waited until 1819 to publish them, with the title Classical and Topographical Tour through Greece during the years 1801, 1805, and 1806. Dodwell was an artist (his work was heavily dependent on the use of a camera obscura). Many of his paintings from those trips involve views of mountains or views from mountain summits.



One of the striking things about his descriptions of landscape is that they often combine aesthetic judgements—including the language of the beautiful, the picturesque, the sublime—with a celebration of the classical heritage, as if the two are inextricably linked in his mind.

On a hill near Missolonghi in north-west Greece, for example, he says that ‘we were deeply impressed by the view which it displayed. The features are truly beautiful; and the objects are rich in classical interest’. At Thermopylae ‘the beauty of the scenery was illuminated by many reflections from the lustre of the classic page’. Of Mt Ithome he says that ‘few places in Greece combine a more beautiful, and at the same time a more classical view’.

Dodwell’s account of climbing Mt Hymettos, just outside Athens, is a wonderful example (Volume I, pp. 483-94). He sets out, together with his collaborator Simone Pomardi, in the belief ‘that its summit would present one of the most extensive views in Greece’. They reach the monastery of Sirgiani, four and a half miles from the centre of Athens, in the evening, only to find it deserted with the doors shut. They climb the walls of the monastery ‘with a great deal of difficulty and some danger’. Inside they find that

a deep silence prevailed throughout the cells; the occupants of which seemed to have recently retired. The store-rooms were open, and well furnished with jars of Hymettian honey, ranged in neat order: next were large tubs of olives; and from the roof hung rows of grapes, pomegranates, and figs. The only inhabitants left in the convent were some cats, who seemed to welcome us in the absence of their masters. We took complete possession of the place, and feasted on the produce of the deserted mansion, which seemed to have been prepared for our reception.

In the morning, they ride to the summit, ‘over the bare and shining surface of the rocks’. The view surpasses even Dodwell’s elevated expectations:

I had already seen in Greece many surprising views of coasts and islands, and long chains of mountains rising one above another, and receding in uncertain lines, as far as the eye could reach: but no view can equal that from Hymettos, in rich magnificence, or in attractive charms. The spectator is sufficiently elevated to command the whole surrounding country, and at the same time not too much so for the full impression of picturesque variety; and I conceive, that few spots in the world combine so much interest of a classic kind, with so much harmony of outline.

As so often, aesthetic, painterly judgement (the ‘attractive charms’, the ‘picturesque variety’, the ‘harmony of outline’) is combined with antiquarianism. Even by Dodwell’s normal standards the catalogue of what can be seen from the summit is extraordinarily detailed, stretching for six whole pages. The pages preceding the arrival at the summit include extensive references to Ovid, Pliny the Elder, Pausanias and Plato. Up here they seem to be alone with the classical. The jars of Hymettian honey, which Hymettos had been famous for even in the ancient world, and which wait for them in such abundance in the monastery, seem to signal the fact that the the mountain is welcoming them into a place where antiquity is still alive in the present. They pass several more days drawing on the summit, and sleeping in the monastery, and then they go back down to Athens.

As usual, the painterly quality of this account is hard to parallel in any description of a mountain anywhere in classical literature. And yet in the case of Ovid at least Dodwell is keen to suggest that his ancient sources share his own sensitivity to landscape. He quotes from Ovid’s description of Mt Hymettos and its ‘purple hills’ (purpureos colles, Ars Amatoria 687), and then launches into a detailed justification of the accuracy of Ovid’s description:

Hymettos is remarkable for its purple tint, at a certain distance; particularly from Athens, about an hour before sun-set, when the purple is so strong, that an exact representation of it in a drawing, coloured from nature, has the appearance of exaggeration. The other Athenian mountains do not assume the same colour at any time of the day. Pentelikon, which is more distant, and covered with wood, is of a deep blue. Parnes, Korydallos, and the others, are variegated, but generally parched and yellow. It seems clear, that in speaking of the colles of Hymettos, Ovid had in view the number of round insulated hills at the foot of the mountain; which are particularly remarkable and numerous near Sirgiani.

That attention to colour and to shape ascribes to Ovid an artistic sensibility like Dodwell’s own. And the phrase ‘had in view’ asks us to imagine Ovid standing there for himself, as Dodwell himself clearly has, gazing down at the vista beneath him.

For Dodwell, in other words, his own very modern aesthetic sense is presented as something parallel with what he finds in classical sources, rather than as something separate and different and new.

Illustrations: Edward Dodwell, ‘Mount Olympos, as seen between Larissa and Baba’, from Views in Greece (London: 1821), p. 99, and Dodwell, ‘Parnassus’, Views in Greece, p. 19.

Visualising mountains: Atlas transformed

Dawn explores some early modern images of the classical story of Atlas’ mountainous metamorphosis.

I’m currently working on a book proposal (on, you’ll be surprised to hear, mountains in early modernity…), which includes the optimistic selection of the images which, in a world free from printing expenses and copyright concerns, I would ideally see illustrating the finished book. This has meant revisiting a chunky PDF file which I put together several years ago, collecting every image I could find dating from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries and which responded to the keyword ‘mountain’.

This entirely non-exhaustive search produced some 300+ images, with mountains depicted in illuminated manuscripts, in oil paintings, on tapestries, and in printed woodcuts or engravings: the artists of the early modern period, regardless of media, certainly did not ignore mountains as an important visual element of the environment and as objects rich in symbolic potential. Mountains also appear in a range of different visual roles, for lack of a better word: in some images, they dominate, whilst in others they offer a background of greater or lesser prominence. Certain patterns are also apparent: strikingly, mountains frequently feature in the backdrop of paintings of the Virgin and Child. In one of my personal favourites, Marco d’Oggiono’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (c.1524), a more naturalistic backdrop of blue, distant hills is overwhelmed by a stylised, craggy peak in the middle distances, which frames and even seems to ‘throne’ the holy pair. The religious significance of mountains is an important theme in my research, and their ubiquity in devotional images is an issue I hope to explore further in the future.

Less frequent in my pool of images, but no less compelling, is the depiction of mountains in classical contexts. One particular motif which seems to have attracted printmakers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the story of Atlas being transformed into a mountain, as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses 4. Atlas, a being ‘vaster than the race of man’, enjoys a realm in the far west, covered by ‘a thousand flocks, a thousand herds’, and containing an orchard full of trees bearing apples of pure gold. He is jealously protective of these apples, having been warned by an oracle that one day ‘a son of Jupiter’ will come to visit him, and that same day his orchard will be stripped of its fruit. When Perseus appears, bragging of his divine parent and asking for a place to rest, Atlas immediately refuses and seeks to drive Perseus out of his lands. In response, Perseus turned his head away, and presented to Atlas the head of Medusa, which caused the famous transformation:

Atlas, huge and vast, becomes a mountain—His great beard and hair are forests, and his shoulders and his hands mountainous ridges, and his head the top of a high peak;—his bones are changed to rocks. Augmented on all sides, enormous height attains his growth; for so ordained it, ye, O mighty Gods! who now the heavens’ expanse unnumbered stars, on him command to rest. (Metamorphoses 4.651, Brookes More).

This moment marked the legendary origins of the rugged Atlas Mountains, a range stretching some 2,500km through the modern-day Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.

‘Picture books’ were as popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as they are today, and one of the most-frequently illustrated of all the classical texts was Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (Images from and discussions of various such editions can be explored, with a little patience for somewhat historic websites, at Ovid Illustrated and The Ovid Project: Metamorphising the Metamorphoses). As decades of illustrations progressed, Atlas became progressively more giant and his mountain transformation more mountainous: a 1557 edition published in Lyon and engraved by Bernard Salomon, sees Atlas transformed into merely a relatively large crag; a 1591 Antwerp edition from the Plantin workshop shows a hillock with the shadow of the shape of a man, and a head sprouting tree branches.

By 1606, the Atlas entry into a series of engravings by Antonio Tempesta offers a greater sense of scale: a crowned Atlas is caught in an expression of horror, his arms and head still flesh but his robes already transformed into a starkly-planed mountainside. This Atlas seems vast, set amidst a wider, mountainous landscape of which he represents the heights, but Perseus (astride Pegasus) seems enormous too. My favourite Atlas print, by Johann Wilhelm Baur (c.1639), shows a far more dwarfed Perseus, standing at the foot of a hill into which an exasperated-looking Atlas appears to be sinking, the lines of his flowing hair giving way to the etched lines of the upper slopes of the mountain, and his right foot already vanishing into the contours of the mountain’s base. This particular image of Atlas proved to be an enduring one: Baur’s design was re-engraved by Abraham Aubry (died c.1684), and the subsequent plates were re-used as late as 1703.

I must admit I’m not yet sure what to ‘do with’ these images in terms of drawing any great conclusions regarding the visualisation of mountains in early modernity. I certainly don’t want to fall into any simplistic or stereotyped discussion of the increasing ‘realism’ of mountain depictions as the centuries passed (not least because ‘realism’ seems somewhat ironic when considering an image of a giant turned into a mountain by the head of a gorgon). What I find fascinating about all of the images, however, is the choices made by the artists, within the constraints of their media, about how to depict this compelling moment of transformation, of the disturbing overlap of man with mountain. Do you have branches growing from Atlas’ beard, or the ripples of fabric harshening to sharp cliff-edges? Does Atlas’ form become that of the mountain, or does the mountain absorb his form?

Although Atlas’ transformation into a mountain marked just one of many metamorphic illustrations, and should be read within the wider context of the early modern fascination with Ovid, I also think it is emblematic of an important element of early modern thinking around mountains: namely, the extent to which they could either be anthropomorphised, or interpreted as analogous in their form and function to parts of the human body. However, the surprisingly talkative mountains of Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion (1612-22), or the peculiar seventeenth-century obsession with comparing mountains to (multiple, intimate) elements of the human physiognomy, must remain stories for future blog posts.

Illustrations: Marco d’Oggiono, Virgin and Child Enthroned With Saint, c.1524, Museo Diocesano in Milan, Wikimedia Commons; Tola Akindipe, Atlas mountain range, CC BY-SA 4.0; Bernard Salomon, Atlas turned into a mountain, 1557, Ovid Illustrated; unknown, Atlas in the mountain of his name, 1591, Ovid Illustrated; Antonio Tempesta, Atlas Turned Into a Mountain, 1606, LACMA collections; and Johann Wilhelm Bauer, Atlas Is Turned into a Mountain by the Sight of Medusa’s Head, c. 1639, Harvard Art Collections.

Mountain Conquest

Jason highlights the connection between ancient traditions of military mountain activity and twentieth-century mountaineering. 

Greek and Roman history writing is packed with descriptions of military activity in the mountains: it’s probably the category of mountain description that survives in the biggest volume from the ancient Mediterranean world, especially from the Roman empire. In classical Greece the dominance of heavily armed hoplite warfare meant that fighting usually took place on the plains, but for later centuries, especially for Rome’s combat against foreign enemies on the edges of their expanding empire, there are countless accounts of mountain combat.

It is tempting at first sight to think that these accounts have very little to do with modern traditions of writing about mountains, which we tend to assume are dominated by aesthetic responses and by the association between mountains and leisure. But actually when you look more closely it becomes clear that a large proportion of modern mountain writing, especially in the 20th century, has a heavily military character which is very much in the ancient tradition of writing about mountain conquest.

That goes especially for the major Himalayan expeditions of the mid 20th century, many of which were dominated by former soldiers. For example, John Hunt, leader of the successful 1953 Everest expedition, had spent some of the war as chief instructor at the Mountain Warfare School in Braemar before commanding a battalion on active service in Italy; he spoke later about his ‘military pragmatism’ as one of his main contributions (The Guardian, 9 November 1998) and his account of the expedition is heavily marked by that military experience, with its emphasis on efficiency and organisation, and also by imperial and nationalist sentiment, but with almost no mention of the beauty or sublimity of the mountain scenery.


One of the things those accounts share with ancient writing about mountain warfare (perhaps not surprisingly) is their emphasis on painstaking, tactile engagement with mountain terrain, especially its impact on the feet. Perhaps most famous of all is Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, the precursor to his invasion of Italy. One of the historians who tells that story is Polybius, writing in the second century BCE. He is interested in particular in the soldiers’ physical contact with the ground of the Alps. On their descent, for example, they find the snow hard to walk through:

new snow had recently fallen on top of the already existing snow which had survived from the previous winter, and it so happened this this was easy to slip through, both because it was freshly fallen and so soft, and because it was not yet deep. But whenever they had trodden through it and set foot on the congealed snow underneath they no longer sunk into it, but slipped along with both feet, as happens to those who travel over ground coated with mud. But what followed on from this was even more difficult. For the men, being unable to pierce the layer of snow underneath, whenever they fell and tried to get a grip with their knees or hands in order to stand up, then they slipped all the more precisely because they were pressing down, the ground being exceptionally steep. (Polybius 3.55.1-4).

Modern writing about mountains too often has an obsession with the concrete challenges of the terrain. Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna, first published in 1951, is a good example. Herzog does sometimes mention the beauty and magnificence of the mountains (more often than Hunt), and feelings of happiness and exhilaration, especially at moments of relaxation, but for long sections what preoccupies him instead is the detail of the route and the terrain and the decisions he and his companions have to take to get through it, sometimes literally step by step. The passage where he describes the final struggle to reach the summit is a typical example:

The couloir up the rocks though steep was feasible. The sky was a deep sapphire blue. With a great effort we edged over to the right, avoiding the rocks. We preferred to keep to the snow on account of our crampons and it was not long before we set foot in the couloir…Fortunately the snow was hard, and by kicking steps we were able to manage, thanks to our crampons. A false move would have been fatal…A slight detour to the left, a few more steps—the summit ridge came gradually nearer—a few rocks to avoid. We dragged ourselves up.

Of course this is different from the descriptions of Hannibal. Herzog’s account is intensely personal, full of anxiety and exhilaration. And yet Herzog’s moments of personal reminiscence are often overshadowed by painstaking descriptions of his engagement with the mountain terrain as a real, concrete presence, to be grappled with and overcome—in other words precisely the kind of language we have seen in Polybius. The prevalence of that material, stretching out before us for pages and pages on end, articulates the ambition and scale of the expedition Herzog is a part of.

The quasi-military character of that expedition is also impossible to miss: the imagery of ‘assault’, ‘victory’, ‘conquest’ recurs over and over again. Take for example the first page of the preface, written by Lucien Devies, President of the ‘Comité de l’Himalaya’ and of the ‘Fédération Française de la Montagne’: ‘the conquest of Annapurna…With this victory…Victory in the Himalaya is a collective victory… the victory of the whole party was also, and above all, the victory of its leader’.


Looking back on it now—I had never really noticed it before—I can see that my own early experience of mountains was a military one too. Like many English private-school students in the 1980s I had to spend one afternoon a week in my school cadet force. I managed to endure the hideousness of drill and boot polishing for a year and then escaped into the ‘Adventure Training’ section to do rock climbing and canoeing, but even there it was impossible to get away from the faint military hangover. Several times a year we were bused off to Wales and sent off to go and walk in the hills. I am grateful for it now, but I don’t think it was ever very pleasant. I suppose we must have admired the views sometimes, but I don’t remember it if so. In my memory it is always raining. Most of all I remember the kit: badly fitting army boots and old military rations. I remember coming down off one hill at the end of 16 hours of walking (having slept on the summit of Snowdon to get an early start): a fourteen-year old boy, trying not to cry, limping along behind the others with blisters the size of jam-jar lids on my feet. I would have sympathised with Hannibal and his men then. Maybe those ancient accounts of Greek and Roman armies are not so far away from types of mountain experience which still have a hold over us today.

Illustrations: Front covers of John Hunt, The Ascent of Everest (2013 50th-anniversary edition; first published 1953) and Maurice Herzog, Annapurna (1997 edition; first published 1951) and Heinrich Leutemann, Die Karthager – Hannibals Übergang über die Alpen, 1866.

Mental Landscapes, Classical Mountains

Dawn reveals that physical height was not the only thing that gave a peak prominence in the early modern cultural landscape.

It is more or less taken as a given in most scholarly work on landscape that, insofar as human engagements with it are concerned, there is a distinction to be made between the ‘physical’ landscape out there in the world, and the mental landscape within people’s minds. Indeed, some historians – myself included – would say that the only thing we can really recover is the mental, or cultural landscape of a past individual or society, partly because it shaped the way people viewed the world around them.

One area in which I think this is particularly evident, with regards to mountains, is in terms of the significance or prominence attached to particular peaks. Of course, ‘prominence’ has a physical connotation – how high a mountain is in relation to the landscape around it – but it also has a cultural one. This can best be summed up by asking the question – if someone asked you to name the first three mountains that came into your mind, what would they be? I’m going to take a bet that they might well include such summits as Everest, Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, K2 – though you may also add one or two from your own locality, depending on where that is: Snowdon, Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike (for non-British readers, these are the ‘Three Summits’, or the highest peaks of Wales, Scotland, and England respectively. I must not allow my own mental landscape to fool me into thinking that everyone has heard of Scafell Pike).

But of course, you say, the peaks named above are all naturally the first you’d think of, by dint of being the highest – whether the highest in the world, in the case of Everest, or the highest within a particular region. However, when asking the same question (‘what are the first mountains you think of?’ of pre-modern sources, it is important to bear two key factors in mind when thinking in terms of height. The first is that reckonings of ‘the highest mountain’ are different from era to era. For example, in the seventeenth century, Europe had many decades to go before it ‘discovered’ Everest, and the highest mountain in the world was deemed to be ‘the Peak of Tenerife’ (or Mount Teide, 3718m high). The second is that the correspondence between physical height and cultural significance was by no means as strong in premodern eras. Indeed, I would argue that the idea that the modern-day importance attached to physical height is its own form of cultural landscape.

So, if you could stop a pre-modern everyman (or everywoman) in the street and ask them to name the first three mountains they could think of, what would they say? The answer, of course, would depend entirely on the temporal and cultural context within which you found them. In the mid-seventeenth century, however, the answer was deeply and compellingly rooted not in the mental mountaineering landscape of ‘high’, ‘higher’, and ‘highest’, but in the literary landscape of the classical past.

This is particularly evident in a volume published in 1657 to aid aspiring poets. Composed by a schoolmaster, Johua Poole, The English Parnassus places both mountains and classicism front-and-centre from its very title. Parnassus is a real mountain (2457m), but it is also a symbol: legendary home of the Muses, Poole called upon it as a representation of poetic inspiration or excellent. In his prefatory poem, addressed to ‘the hopeful young Gentlemen’ whom he taught, he urged them to ‘Accept and use then this my book, aspire / Unto the Mountains top’. The summit of this most well-known mountain was to be climbed not with footfalls but with words.

The English Parnassus is a peculiar text, a compendium of ‘Rhyming Monosyllables, The choicest Epiphets, and Phrases’, organised alphabetically by different headings. His ‘choice epithets’ listed under ‘Mountain‘ are intriguing enough (‘stately’, ‘star-brushing’, ‘insolent’, ‘inhospitable’, ‘lovely’, and ‘proud’ are but a contradictory few), but of more interest for the purposes of this post are the specific peaks which are named in the course of the pages of the Parnassus. Its titular mountain, of course, receives an entry of its own (‘two-topt… Muse-haunted’), as does Etna, Caucasus (‘The Scythians snowie mountains on whose top / Prometheus growing liver feeds the Crop / Of Joves great bird’), and Ida. In the course of quotations drawn from various poets under such headings as ‘high’, classical peaks and their associated stories appear again and again. Athos, Haemus, Eryx (‘Erix’), Lamus, Kithairon (given as ‘Cytheron’), Hybla, Latmos. With the exception of a few glancing references to the Alpine and Appenine ranges, and one allusion to ‘the Canarian Tenariffe’, these are the mountains which almost exclusively fill the pages of The English Parnassus.

This is, of course, just one example, but there are many more which speak to the significance of classical peaks within the mental landscape of early modern European writers and travellers. The eccentric explorer, William Lithgow (c.1585 – c.1545) looked eagerly for sight of both Mount Parnassus and Mount Etna; the poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) imposed the classical landscape upon British Cumbria, imagining the double-summited Skiddaw as a local Parnassus. But those are stories for another post.

Illustrations: Mount Teide by Mark Gregory, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Apollo sitting on Parnassus surrounded by the Muses and famous poets, by Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael, ca. 1517-20, Metropolitan Museum of Art.



Ecotourism and Environment

Jason explores the nature of environmental attitudes in antiquity.

How do ancient Greek and Roman attitudes to the environment relate to our own?

There has been a tendency to answer that question in very sweeping terms. In some cases, Greek and Roman culture are viewed as the starting-points for modern willingness to exploit the environment for human purposes. In other cases they are taken in exactly opposite terms as examples of environmental respect which was lost, according to one influential narrative, with the advent of early Christianity’s more anthropocentric approach to the natural world. One of the most influential statements of that view is a very short (five-page) article by Lynn White Jr published in the journal Science in 1967. Whatever you think of White’s wider argument it is clear that his characterization of Greek and Roman thought is cursory and simplistic.

In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated.

Certainly my first reaction to the article, as a classicist, was to be surprised that it could have quite so much influence despite being so sketchy.


Mountains had a distinctive, but also complex place in ancient environmental thinking: often we find different views about how they should be treated side by side with each other even within a single text. They were viewed in some cases as wilderness places, as well as being associated with divine presence (as White makes clear); in some cases they had their own sacred spaces associated with worship of the gods. Many classical texts famously attack the Persian commander Xerxes for cutting a canal through the base of Mt Athos, presenting that as an act of hybris and offence against divine order.

But that association between mountain and inviolable wilderness was far less clear-cut than many modern characterisations have suggested. Mountains were also places of economic productivity, associated with and fought over by neighbouring cities, exploited by charcoal burners and wood cutters and by local communities in need of pasture land. How far their practice was sustainable in the modern sense is very hard to judge, but some have wanted to see the Roman Empire especially as a time of deforestation and environmental degradation.


One of the most fascinating explorations of that range of possibilities comes in a work known as the Euboian Oration or Euboicus of Dio Chrysostom, a Greek orator and philosopher from Prusa in Asia Minor who was active in the late first and early second century CE. The work starts with a shipwreck scene on the island of Euboia (modern Evia: you can see the mountains off to the east as you drive south from along the coastline to Athens from northern Greece.)

Dio is rescued by a huntsman who offers him hospitality in his small community up in the mountains. Dio goes out of his way to characterise the hunters in positive terms. He admires their self-sufficiency, and their closeness to the mountain landscape they inhabit. The hunter explains that he lives with a friend, that each is married to the sister of the other, and that they have sons and daughters. Their fathers used to work for a rich man, grazing his flocks of horses, cows and sheep in the plains in the winter. Astonishingly this is one of only two surviving ancient descriptions of transhumance: the practice of moving livestock between summer and winter grazing. When the rich man died, his cattle were confiscated, but the hunters’ fathers stayed in the huts they had built as their summer base and turned to hunting. Dio gives an idealised account of their self-sufficiency and their satisfaction with a life close to nature (which clearly influenced Longus’ second-century pastoral novel, Daphnis and Chloe). The hunters feast with Dio on rich but simple food, including chestnuts and medlars and other fruits which have presumably been gathered from the wild, rather than cultivated. Dio is the original ecotourist.


And yet the text also makes clear that this fantasy of a mountain space removed from the economic frameworks of the Roman empire will not stand up to scrutiny. Later the hunter tells Dio about his recent visit to the city. It turns out he has been only twice in his life, the first time as a child with his father, and then the second time when a man came to their dwelling demanding money. The hunter tells Dio that he followed the man willingly into the city, presumably the city of Karystos, which stands at the very southern end of Euboia, beneath the slopes of Mt Ochi.

On arrival he is brought in front of the city’s assembly and accused—much to his bewilderment—of appropriating public land:

They have built many houses and they have planted vines, and they have many other advantages despite the fact that they have paid nothing to anyone for the land, nor have they received it as a gift from the people.

The underlying assumption here is that the mountains are the property of the city, to be administered by the city, and probably in law that was correct. Standardly there was a division, in Greek cities, between three different categories of productive land beyond the city—cultivated land, grazing land and woodland (with sacred space as a fourth)—each of which had its own dedicated laws and officials. Outside those spaces was the category of wilderness, which is what the hunter and his family occupy, but cities often asserted their sovereignty over wilderness too, given the valuable resources it could contain.

Even the second speaker, who speaks in the hunter’s defence, seems unable to break away from a viewpoint that has economic productivity as its ultimate goal:

I too own many acres, as I think some others do also, not only in the mountains but also in the plains. If anyone were willing to farm them I would not only give them for free, but would gladly offer them money in addition. For it is clear that they are of more value to me like that, and land which is inhabited and under cultivation is a pleasant sight, whereas wilderness is not only a useless possession to its owners, but also very pitiable, and a sign of the misfortune of its owners…So let them have it for free for the first ten years, and after that let them pay by agreement a small contribution from their produce, but nothing from their cattle.

It is as if Dio is telling us that his fantasy of mountain self-sufficiency is precisely that—an impossible dream that cannot possibly be maintained in the face of the economic realities of the Roman empire.

Illustrations: North coasts of central Evia panorama, C. Messier, CC0 1.0; Karystos, public domain.

Why study mountains? a question for a 21st-century historian

Dawn discusses what brought her to the study of premodern mountains.

Last time I posted, I wrote about why a seventeenth-century traveller might choose to visit a mountain. Today, I want to turn that question on its head – why did I, a twenty-first century historian, choose to study such mountain interactions?

I grew up in Suffolk, an English county which, if you’ve ever visited it, you’ll know is not exactly renowned for its rugged hills (the highest point in Suffolk is Great Wood Hill, at a giddy 136m tall). When I was very small, I liked drawing mountains: upturned triangles with jagged hats of snow at their tops. Aged 9, my parents took my to Wales, where they promised I would see mountains. I was vocally disappointed to be met with green-brown, wooded round hills rather than with blue-white, sharp Himalayan ridges.

At some point during my teens, I became fascinated with mountaineering, and particularly with the ‘mystery of Mallory and Irvine’: the disappearance of two climbers near the summit of Everest in June 1924. George Mallory’s body has since been found, but the mystery remains that we do not know whether he and his climbing partner died going up the mountain, or coming back down from the top. If the latter, he and Sandy Irvine would be the first people to have ever climbed Mount Everest, almost thirty years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s recorded first ascent in 1953.

I started to read everything I could get my hands on about the history of that expedition, and of mountaineering in general. At the same time, I started climbing: rock climbing in the small local leisure centre, undertaking a winter mountaineering course in Scotland in February, and generally becoming incapable of passing a peak without wanting to reach its summit. Later, I joined university mountaineering clubs, and dreamed of saving up to take an Alpine skills course.

My undergraduate thesis was firmly rooted within the narratives of modern mountaineering, considering the nature of cultural encounters between the British members of the 1921, 1922, and 1924 Everest expeditions, and the people of Tibet who played involuntary host to them. When I came to consider Masters-level and doctoral research, however, I wanted to turn to the early modern period – the era dating roughly (and it depends very much on which early modern historian you ask!) from 1450 to 1750. And of course, like most mountaineering enthusiasts, I knew full well that no one liked mountains before the late eighteenth century: before the sublime, before the first ascent of Mont Blanc, historians generally agreed that Europeans feared and avoided spaces of high and rugged wilderness.

I found this thought quite amazing, in some ways. Such an emotional response was so at odds with my own feelings – of muscular joy in ascent, of aesthetic admiration of the shapes and scenery of mountain landscape – that I felt compelled to investigate further. What did it look like for people who felt so markedly different about mountains to have to travel through them? What did they think and write about their experiences amongst places that were, to them, horrible and fearful?

There certainly were early modern descriptions of the cold, uncomfortable nature of mountain travel, but the deeper I looked the more complex I realised the story was. There were numerous pilgrims who made their way to the summits of Mount Sinai (where Moses received the Ten Commandments) and Mount Quarantine (or the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus fasted in the wilderness) in order to stand at the site of great moments of Scriptural history; diplomats who journeyed over mountain passes and sang hymns to the glory of God from the top of a peak on Christas Day; and natural philosophers who wrote, at length, of the numerous benefits that the mountain landscape brought to the wider environment of the world.

It was undoubtedly true that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a shift in the way people viewed and engaged with mountains – the overwhelming drive to claim the summit of a mountain, in particular, developed simultaneously with the inauguration of the modern sport of mountaineering – but to say that mountain attitudes were straightforwardly opposed between the premodern and modern periods seemed to me to be far too simplistic a story. Which is precisely how I ended up writing a PhD on early modern mountain attitudes, and then leapt at the chance to pursue postdoctoral research into the even deeper, classical roots of those early modern ideas.

So, it was my distinctly modern love of mountains – by which I mean an appreciation for them tied up in the climbing of them, a fascination rooted in twentieth century histories of heroism and imperialism – which brought me to where I am today, intellectually roaming the hills of early modern period, and physically located only a short drive from some of the most fabulous mountain landscapes the British Isles has to offer. The irony is, however, that my increasing familiarity with early modern mountain attitudes – which admired and appreciated mountains without feeling the need to conquer them – has prompted a waning of my enthusiasm for tramping to the summits, ice-axe in hand. In becoming a historian of premodern mountains, I have found I can no longer call myself a modern mountaineer.

Illustrations: Mount Everest, North Face (the side attempted by Mallory and Irvine) by Luca Galuzzi, CC BY-SA 3.0; Tibetan monks visiting Britain in 1924 (after the British Everest expedition, and controversially brought from Tibet by the expedition film-maker, John Noel, in order to raise publicity), Edinburgh Evening News, 3 December 1924.


Jason considers both ancient and modern responses to one of Greece’s most enigmatic mountains.

Mytikas summit from the Agapitos refuge.

One of the projects I have been working on for a while now is a biography of Mt Olympus. Olympus is the highest mountain in mainland Greece, at just under 3000 metres. It’s a complex mountain, with multiple peaks and steep cliffs beneath the highest summits.

It had a central role in Greek mythology. In the Homeric poems and for centuries later Olympus was the home of the gods: the Iliad and the Odyssey describe the divine palaces and banqueting halls on its summit.

But in some ways it’s an unusual mountain in the responses it has provoked in both ancient and modern culture.


That may have something to do with its height. Many mountain summits in the Greek world were places of sacrifice, but it is striking that most of the mountains where we have the best evidence for that, most often in the shape of enormous ash altars on the peaks, were relatively small by Greek standards: mountains like Mt Lykaion or Mt Arachnaion in the Peloponnese which were relatively accessible to the surrounding communities. In most of those sites the evidence for sacrifice (mainly in the form of burnt bone fragments and broken pottery) comes above all from the archaic period (8th-6th centuries BCE), and in some cases even further back into the Mycenean period.

On Olympus the pattern is quite different. Solinus (Polyhistor 8.6.) writing probably from the third century CE, talks about an altar on the summit, and tells us that offerings left there are found again undisturbed a year later. But there is no evidence at all for sacrifice on the highest summit, Mytikas. That’s maybe not surprising. It would have been perfectly possible to get goats or sheep up there—when I climbed it with friends a few years ago a dog from the refuge lower down the mountain followed us all the way up over the cliffs to the summit—but it’s not an obvious place for an altar: there isn’t much flat ground.

Instead the crucial evidence—really very little of it—was found on the southern peak of St Antonios between 1961 and 1965 during the building of a meteorological station: ash, bone fragments, fragments of pottery, two bronze statue-bases, three inscriptions to the god Zeus Olympios, and a set of coins, some of them Hellenistic, but most of them dating from the fourth or fifth century AD. Remarkably it seems that the summit was visited most of all in late antiquity, well after the christianisation of the Roman Empire had begun. There’s not much sign of anyone going up Olympus in the archaic period when the Homeric epics were composed.


Oddly that neglect is replicated in the mountain’s modern history. Olympus wasn’t on the standard 18th– and 19th-century travellers’ circuit, and that was partly because many northern European travellers from that period were following the ancient travel writer Pausanias, whose work doesn’t stretch to northern Greece, and who was interested primarily in those mountains that had shrines and statues stretching back to classical and archaic Greece.

The geographer and traveller Henry Fanshawe Tozer gives an account of climbing the mountain in the 1870s: he reached the lower peak of Profitis Elias, with its summit chapel, but his porters refused to go further because of the cold. He admires the view from the summit not just for aesthetic reasons but because of the way in which it gives him a glimpse of some of the landmarks of ancient history:

at our feet was the entrance of the deep defile forming the pass of Petra, through which Xerxes entered Greece, with yawning chasms and impassable precipices descending towards it, the ‘barrier crags of precipitous Olympus’ of the Orphic poet of the Argonautica…Athos rose majestic above all. A magnificent view indeed it was, together with the wide expanse of sea, which on this day was in colour a delicate soft blue…The heights on which we were standing were no unworthy position for the seat of the gods. [1]

But Tozer was very unusual in even attempting the journey.


The other factor was the way in which Olympus was associated with bandits. The complexity of the mountain made it an ideal stronghold for the klephts during the struggle for Greek independence in the 1820s and 1830s, and then again for robbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The German Edward Richter was kidnapped by bandits in 1911 in his attempt to reach the higher summits and the Ottoman guards travelling with him were killed.

Adelaide Evening Journal, 24 August 1911

The first recorded visit to the summit was remarkably late, in 1913. The second highest peak Stefani, with its dramatic cliffs, wasn’t climbed until 1921.

Today you can follow the paint splashes over the rocks to Mytikas, and it’s a relatively easy scramble, with no need for a rope, if you’ve got a head for heights. But it’s easy to see why it might be a daunting prospect if you’re looking over your shoulder for kidnappers.


I think it’s quite wrong to imagine that the mountains of the ancient Mediterranean were viewed simply as wilderness spaces. Instead, ancient viewers were fascinated precisely by the tension between mountains as places of human culture and mountains as places beyond human control and human knowledge. That contradiction is surely one of the key ingredients in the fascination we feel for mountains in the modern world too.

Today Olympus is a place of tourism much more than most other Mediterranean mountains—in summer it is crowded with trekkers going up to the summit. Until the second half of the twentieth century, by contrast, it was an enigmatic, inaccessible place, more so than most of the other mountains of mainland Greece—but for all that still marked by a story of human presence.

[1] Henry Fanshawe Tozer, Researches in the Highlands of Turkey, London, 1896: 220-21.

Illustrations: Mytikas summit from the Agapitos refuge; View from the Mytikas summit; page from Adelaide Evening Journal, 24 August 1911.

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.