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.

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!