Mountains in ancient literature and culture and their post-classical reception

Recent work on mountains in modern European culture tends to emphasise the way in which everything changed in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The standard story is that mountains had before then been viewed as places of fear and ugliness; now they came to be linked with beauty and sublimity, and became places of leisure through the development of mountain climbing as a sport.

One consequence is that classical and medieval engagement with mountains tends to get lost from view and treated only in very cursory fashion: there is a standard assumption that the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean were just not interested in mountains, and that they responded to them in stereotyped and simplistic ways. That view vastly underestimates the variety and sophistication of ancient responses. 

The book I will be working on for the project addresses that problem by looking in turn at four key areas: religious uses of mountains; military conquest of mountainous regions and historiographical and geographical representations of that process; the status of mountains as objects of contemplation, with reference to visual representations, aesthetic assessments and scientific investigations; and finally the role of mountains as spaces linked with human habitation and economic productivity. 

An important inspiration for the project has been my experience of visiting a wide range of mountain sites across Greece, especially the many remains of mountaintop ash altars which were used for millennia as places of sacrifice. These are some of the most spectacular of all ancient archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, but they are hardly ever visited. If you walk around the summit of Mt Lykaion, in Arkadia (pictured here), you can see burnt bone fragments scattered everywhere in the grass, the remains of sacrifices from thousands of years ago, and you can look down at the remains of the stadium high on the mountainside that was used for the athletic festival of the Lykaia by surrounding communities.

The other big problem with that standard narrative is that it can lead us to underestimate the continuities between ancient and modern thinking about mountains. In response I will be working myself, along with the project’s postdoctoral research assistant, on a series of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travellers’ accounts from the Mediterranean: we want to use those accounts to explore the possibility that modern engagement with mountains has often been more firmly rooted in ancient ways of thinking about landscape than we realise.

We will be looking among others at the writings of Edward Dodwell, who travelled in Greece in the early-nineteenth century and climbed several mountains in the Peloponnese. Dodwell was an artist, interested in aesthetic judgements of landscape which do not have precise parallels in classical literature but at the same time, like many of his contemporaries, he was deeply influenced by Strabo and Pausanias in viewing mountains as places of special connection with the past. The idea that mountains are places of memory is one of the things that ties together ancient and modern responses most powerfully.

Professor Jason König
University of St Andrews
Research Project Grant