Thinking Mountains 2018


Just last week, the mountains in ancient literature and culture project team had the pleasure and privilege of attending Thinking Mountains 2018, a four-day interdisciplinary summit in mountain studies. Of course, such an event couldn’t happen just anywhere: it was based at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, right in the midst of the Canadian Rockies. The conference opened with what the organisers swiftly termed ‘the snowpocalypse’, with 40cm of unseasonal October snowfall settling in the course of just a few hours. This made for a particularly eventful journey for Jason, whose bus from Calgary airport perfectly coincided with 7-hour long delays on the Trans-Canada Highway. (I had travelled in the day before, and felt ever so slightly guilty as I enjoyed the Banff Upper Hot Springs watching the troublesome snow come down).

Thinking Mountains is one of the many excellent results of the Mountain Research & Initiatives centre at the University of Alberta. Among other things, they also run a MOOC (massive open online course) titled ‘Mountains 101’, offering a 12-week overview covering everything from the geological development of mountains to their modern-day cultural impact. The 2018 meeting marked the third instance of Thinking Mountains: I attended the second summit, in 2015, mid-way through my doctorate, and to say it changed the course of my PhD would not be an understatement. Why? Because it offered me the first chance to stop trying to explain to historians of other subjects why mountains mattered, and instead to get feedback from an audience full of people studying mountains on why (or if) my particular historical perspective on them mattered. (In terms of memorability, it also helped that the 2015 meeting was in Jasper, another beautiful spot in the Rockies, and featured my first ever experience of walking on a glacier).

During my interview for the postdoctoral fellowship with the mountains project here in Classics at St Andrews, I flagged Thinking Mountains 2018 as something I specifically wanted to do if I were to get the position: I wondered from the outset what the anthropologists, sports scientists, and mountaineering historians I had met in 2015 would make of classical mountains. We were fortunate enough to be allocated a full panel session just to our project, enabling us to spend 45 minutes going into the details of our project and sharing a few case studies, and then giving over the final 45 minutes to general discussion and feedback. This was led by our three ’roundtable’ members, Carolin Roeder, who works on modern Alpinism from a transnational perspective, Dan Hooley, who works on classics and classical reception, and Sean Ireton, who is currently co-editing (with Caroline Schaumann) a frankly excellently-titled book, Mountains and the German Mind: Translations from Gessner to Messner, 1541-2009Their very astute comments were followed up by challenging questions and ideas from the wider audience. We left our session with a lot to think about.

Just as thought-provoking, however, was the rest of the conference, from the formal academic papers to the more laid-back evening events (this included an ‘evening of story and song’ with Sid Marty, an ex-park warden with plenty of eye-raising tales to tell about bears). When Thinking Mountains calls itself an ‘interdisciplinary’ summit, that isn’t just lip-service to the latest buzzword: it is what, at least from my perspective, the event is all about. ‘Mountains’, after all, can be studied from the point of view of geology, conservation, sport, film, history – and classics. Throughout the conference, different disciplines were challenged to think about how they ought to relate to each other within the field of mountain studies. We found ourselves challenged by the question of where our project fits in: which other disciplines should it be speaking to and, equally importantly, where do we draw the line in the sand regarding our own disciplinary distinctiveness? What is it about this project which gives it cross-disciplinary potential, and what is it about the approach of an early modernist and a classicist that gives it something unique?

Questions did not just swirl around the issue of disciplinary definition: both in our panel, and in several other papers which we attended, challenges were launched against terms such as ‘mountain literature’, ‘mountaineer’ and ‘mountaineering’. The latter two terms (and, frequently, the first as well) are all too often equated with the modern sport of mountaineering, and amidst debates about commercially-led expeditions the definition of ‘real’ mountaineering is constrained into ever narrower boundaries. If we expand these definitions – perhaps with a reversion to the pre-modern usage of referring to anyone dwelling on a mountain as a ‘mountaineer’ – would this make different stories, both present and past, more visible? Or, as one fellow mountain-thinker suggested, are these questions of definition really the most useful ones we can be asking? We hope to explore some of these questions in more depth – and other thoughts and ideas inspired by our week of Thinking Mountains! – in blog posts over the coming weeks and months.

Oh, and, of course – we climbed a (very small) mountain whilst we were there.

Illustrations: The view looking west from the Banff Centre, and on top of Tunnel Mountain (also known as Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain).

Scottish Mountains and the Classical Tradition

Not as unconnected as you might think: Jason traces some initial connections between classical literature and imagery and the mountains of Scotland. 

I have been trying to work out recently in some spare moments how far travellers’ accounts from Scotland from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are influenced by the classical tradition in their portrayal of mountains (and in that sense this post follows on from my previous one on Edward Dodwell and travel writing in Greece).


On the face of it the answer is ‘not very’. Samuel Johnson was famously unimpressed by the mountainous terrain of the Highlands during his visit in 1773. There are very few classical resonances in his descriptions of the landscape he travels through.

One rare exception is the following, from fairly early on in the work:

Of the hills many may be called with Homer’s Ida abundant in springs, but few can deserve the epithet which he bestows on Pelion by waving their leaves. They exhibit very little variety; being almost wholly covered with dark heath, and even that seems to be checked in its growth. What is not heath is nakedness, a little diversified by now and then a stream rushing down the steep. An eye accustomed to flowery pastures and waving harvests is astonished and repelled by this wide extent of hopeless sterility…It will very readily occur, that this uniformity of barrenness can afford very little amusement to the traveller… (A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland [1775], 84)

For Johnson the point of the Homeric quotations is their comical inappropriateness, not just in the point about treelessness, but also it also in the initial reference to abundance of springs: presumably we are meant to suspect that watery nature of Scottish mountains fall far short of the beauty and fertility of Mt Ida as it is envisaged in that Homeric epithet. (Johnson notoriously exaggerated the treelessness of Scotland in his description of St Andrews too: ‘from the bank of the Tweed to St Andrews I had never seen a single tree… At St Andrews Mr Boswell found only one, and recommended it to my notice’ (15-16); Boswell in his later version refers to the fact that Johnson’s account had been ‘violently abused’ on publication for that assertion and feels the need to defend his companion from criticism: ‘when Dr Johnson talks of trees, he means trees of good size’ (The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785) 67).


Byron is another interesting case. Unlike most of his fellow travellers in Greece in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Byron was quite ambivalent about the antiquarian exercise of identifying classical sites and in some respects he seems to find the landscape of Albania exhilarating precisely because it is less encumbered by classical associations. Stephen Cheake talks about that phenomenon in his 2003 book Byron and Place, and about the way in which Byron represents Albania as ‘untrodden ground’ (Cheake p. 30). He also talks about the way in which Scotland is linked with Albania in Byron’s writing, and the way in which it stands in contrast with Greece in some respects (Cheake pp. 36-7).

One might therefore take the lack of classical reference points in Johnson’s account as typical, just as some have taken his lack of enthusiasm for Scottish mountain scenery as typical of pre-Romantic scorn for mountains more general. If we look a bit more closely, however, it becomes clear that that is an oversimplification: there are many examples of artists and tourists taking an interest in both Greek and Scottish landscape and even seeing the two as connected with each other.


Plain of Orochemnos from Livadia

Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat

The work of H.W. Williams is a case in point. He was born in 1773. He visited Greece and Italy, returning in 1818, and was famous for his drawings of Greek landscape, especially in his publication Select Views in Greece a decade later, which earned him the nickname ‘Grecian Williams’. But he also published scenes of Scottish landscape which at least as far as I can see echo the style of his Greek images closely.


For a classically inclined example of late eighteenth-century travel-writing from Scotland one might look at the work of William Gilpin, especially his 1789 publication Observations, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, made in the Year 1776, on several Parts of Great Britain, particularly the High-Lands of Scotland. Gilpin travelled the year after Johnson’s account was published. He was one of several writers who were intrigued by Johnson’s negative representation of the Scottish landscape and went in part to see whether they agreed. His experience was clearly rather different: he shares some of Johnson’s negativity, but he also sees the Scottish landscape as having ‘a peculiar power and poetry of its own’, as Malcolm Andrews puts it in volume 1 of his sourcebook, The Picturesque (1994) (p. 385). And it is striking that Gilpin includes fairly regular classical quotations, especially from Virgil.

At II, 123, for example, he discusses tree coverage (implicitly contradicting Johnson):

we met with many a plantation of pine, many a

      –––– plaga pinea montis;

mountains covered with fir, which when fully grown, and their uniformity a little destroyed by the axe, may hereafter have a fine effect.

The quotation here is from Virgil, Aeneid 11.320: ‘Let all this tract, with a pine-clad belt of mountain height, pass to the Trojans in friendship’. The Latin king Latinus is here proposing that a tract of land be offered to the Trojans; it is characterised as rough land that is difficult to work, but also associated positively with the beginnings of the city of Rome.

At II, 131, similarly, Gilpin tells us that the rivers of Scotland

Are in general very beautiful. They are all mountain-streams; and their channels, as we have seen in the course of this journey, commonly fretted in the rock. Their descent of course is rapid, and broken. They are true classical rivers,

                                    –– Decurso rapido de montibus altis

                                    Dant sonitum spumosi ––––––––

This quotation is from Aeneid 12.523-4: ‘as when in swift descent from mountain heights foaming rivers roar and race seaward, each leaving its own path waste: with no less fury the two, Aeneas and Turnus, sweep through the battle’. Here the image has destructive and intimidating connotations, but it is also linked with the grandeur and high status of the two great warriors of the poem.

There are many other examples: over and over again Gilpin reaches for classical reference-points (as well as frequent quotations from English poetry) to make sense of the forbidding but impressive landscape he encounters.


My impression, then, is that the Scottish mountains are not so cut off from the classical tradition as we might initially imagine. Those are my first thoughts, at any rate, but I should stress that a lot of this material is quite new to me, and I’m still finding my way through it. What else should I be looking at? If you have any suggestions I would love to know…

Illustrations: Plain of Orchomenos from Livadia, engraving by William Miller after H.W. Williams, 1829; Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat, engraving by William Miller after H.W. Williams, 1826.

Approaching Landscape: Panel Report

As mentioned in a recent blog post, one of the big events of the summer for our mountains project was the ‘Celtic Conference in Classics’, taking place at St Andrews in July, and for which we hosted a panel on ‘approaching landscape in the classical tradition’. As anticipated, the three-day panel proved to be an immensely rewarding and thought-provoking opportunity to discuss issues of landscape and methodology from a wide variety of angles and with reference to a range of different sources, periods, and localities.

Our intention, ever since we conceived of the panel, was to produce a report which would serve both as a record of the ideas and issues raised but also as a starting-point for further work and discussion in classical landscape studies. We are extremely pleased to now be able to distribute that report, which brings out the key themes – memory and time, social consensus, imagination, embodiment – connecting the twenty diverse papers which formed the panel. The report also incorporates a brief bibliography provided by each speaker, identifying a select series of theoretical works which informed the development of their ideas. We hope that this bibliography will form a valuable resource to any scholar or student wishing to develop their own methods for ‘approaching landscape’.

The report was produced by Chloe Bray, a PhD student in the School of Classics at St Andrews currently writing a thesis on the representation of liminal space in Greek tragedy. The report can be downloaded here. The report is licensed under Creative Commons – CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 – which means you are welcome to freely distribute it, but only for non-commercial purposes, and must provide attribution. The report, as linked, will not be subsequently edited: please consider the ‘publication’ date to be September 2018 for citation purposes. The report contains reflections, insights, and bibliographies from the following scholars:

  • Rebecca Batty
  • Jeremy Brown
  • James Calvin Taylor
  • Maria Combatti
  • Julia Doroszewska
  • Katharine Earnshaw
  • Esther Eidinow
  • Ben Felderhof
  • Andrew Fox
  • Isabel Köster
  • Dawn Hollis
  • Jason König
  • Elizabeth Minchin
  • Josie Rae
  • Caleb Simone
  • Estelle Strazdins
  • Ryan Warwick

We very much hope that readers with an interest in classics, landscape, and methodology will find the report both interesting and useful! We would like to take this opportunity to extend our thanks to Chloe Bray for so ably capturing the panel, and to all of our participants for making it such a rewarding experience.


The Ascent of Jumbo: Twentieth Century Mountaineers on the Search for Hannibal’s Pass

Dawn considers the surprising story of a twentieth-century elephant and Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps.

I am currently beginning to make the first cautious steps into a new area of research. During my PhD, which focussed on sixteenth- and seventeenth- century responses to mountains, I trawled through the first thirty or so volumes of the Alpine Journal in search of references by modern mountaineers to early modern (c.1500-1750) mountain engagements. Along the way, I noticed a considerable number of references not only to early modern accounts of mountain endeavour, but also to classical ones. With my copies of the Alpine Journal now sitting happily alongside various Loebs, it occurs to me that it may well be time for me to revisit the ways that mountaineers from the mid-nineteenth century onwards thought and wrote about classical mountain engagements.

Unsurprisingly, the ancient mountain incident to attract most modern attention was that of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps – complete with a massive army and a number of elephants. According to Livy, Hannibal began the journey over the Alps by exhorting his men to believe in their ability to overcome the challenges of nature:

What else did they think that the Alps were but high mountains? They might fancy them higher than the ranges of the Pyrenees; but surely no lands touched the skies or were impassable to man. (History of Rome 21: 30.7-8).

The journey that followed, as described by Polybius and Livy, was trying in the extreme, with the army fending off attacks from local tribesmen, and facing a narrow, snow-choked pass at the high point of their route. Although Hannibal was ultimately defeated, his crossing has gone down in history as a remarkable military – and mountaineering – achievement.

The precise route which Hannibal took has long been a subject of debate – not just among historians, but also among historically-minded mountaineers. In 1883, Douglas Freshfield, who would later become president of the Alpine Club, dedicated thirty-three dense pages in the Alpine Journal to the question of the location of Hannibal’s pass, reading Polybius’ account against his own first-hand experience of the Alps. [1] The discussion rumbled on down the decades, with Sir Gavin de Beer, in his Alps and Elephants (1955), reserving special criticism for the ‘false argument, special pleading, sheer absurdity, and… specious statements’ uttered by writers in the Alpine Journal in response to an earlier volume on the subject. [2]

It was, of course, only a matter of time before the debate left the confines of the written page and moved into the mountains themselves, which leads me to the curious episode of Alpine history which I stumbled upon this morning whilst seeking out engagements between Alpinists and the ancient past. That episode is none other than the ‘British Alpine Hannibal Expedition’ which took place in 1959. The expedition set out to test the assumption that Hannibal’s route led him up the Col de Clapier, a route which matched many of the topographical elements described in Polybius. They wished to test the route to see whether the timings recording in Polybius between key waymarkers – namely a patch of ‘bare rock’ which they believed they had identified, and the summit of the pass – matched those of a modern reconstruction. The difficulty, as expedition-member A. Richard Jolly put it in his report to the Alpine Club three years later, was that

Consideration of this… was obviously a matter of elephant climbing speeds and of relative distances along the valley and up the slopes. While distances are easily measured, understandably little is known about elephant climbing capabilities above 5,000 feet! [3]

The solution to this was none other than to acquire an eleven-year old female Indian elephant named Jumbo, to train her, and to take her on a trans-alpine march along the supposed route of Hannibal’s pass. Although they stopped five miles before the pass, wary – as, they argued, Hannibal might not have been – to take undue risks with their elephant, her performance gave ‘no reason to doubt’ that the theorised route ‘would be quite consistent with the climbing capabilities of Hannibal’s elephants’. The expedition also resulted in several book-length publications, including the groan-inducing pun of a title by John Hoyte, the expedition leader, of Trunk Road for Hannibal (1960). An account of the expedition, along with photographs including one of Jumbo, charmingly, dressed in ‘boots’ and ‘jumper’, can be found on Hoyte’s website.

In some respects, this episode could be cited as an early and ambitious example of experimental archaeology. It could also be shrugged off with a smile as a fairly amusing, impressive, but not particularly meaningful incident, representative of the lengths to which scholar-mountaineers might go to prove their pet theories. However, I think it is also representative of a long-standing and fascinating theme within nineteenth- and twentieth-century mountaineering discourse: of mountaineers, for all their modernity, enthusiastically engaging with the classical past. Precisely what other forms that engagement took – in addition to taking an elephant named Jumbo 7,000 feet up a mountain – is what I hope to spend the next few months finding out.

[1] Douglas W. Freshfield, ‘The Pass of Hannibal’, The Alpine Journal Vol.XI, No. 81, 267-300.

[2] Sir Gavin de Beer, Alps and Elephant’s: Hannibal’s March (London, Geoffrey Bles, 1955).

[3] A. Richard Jolly, ‘Hannibal’s Pass: Results of an Empirical Test’, The Alpine Journal Vol.LXVII, 243-249.

Illustrations: John Leech, ‘Hannibal Crossing the Alps’ from The Comic History of Rome (c.1850); the Col de Clapier, by Edward Boenig, CC BY-SA 2.5.

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.