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Mountains in ancient literature and culture and their postclassical reception

This project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust Research Project grant scheme. It will run for three years from 1 July 2017.

There has been a large volume of recent work on the role of mountains in modern western culture. Much of it is focused on the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and charts the way in which this period saw the development of new kinds of emotional and aesthetic response to mountains, linked with the development of notions of the sublime and the picturesque, and of mountain-climbing as a leisure pursuit. Those new ways of interacting with mountains are frequently taken, with some justification, as defining features of modern identity. Much of that work characterises earlier periods in oversimplified terms: ancient and medieval responses to mountains are often viewed as stereotyped and simplistic, focused on the idea of mountains as objects of fear and disgust.

One problem with that narrative is that it understates the degree to which modern responses to mountains have often been rooted in classical precedent. That is apparent especially when we look at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts by British and Irish travellers in Greece, Italy and Asia Minor, which were often heavily influenced by ancient models.

At the same time, and paradoxically, the view outlined above can also lead us to understate the differences between ancient and modern, by preventing us from assessing ancient interactions with mountains on their own terms. If we discuss ancient views only insofar as they provide a point of comparison for modern responses that can easily lead us to underestimate the qualities that make them distinctive. Within the discipline of Classics the mountains of the ancient Mediterranean have had more more attention, but even so there is a need for a wide-ranging religious, military, economic and environmental history of ancient mountains and especially for a study of ancient literary and visual representations. 

In response to that situation, this project explores the hypothesis that ancient experience and representation of mountains were vastly more sophisticated and varied than we usually assume. It also explores the hypothesis that the continuities between ancient and modern responses to mountains are more significant than is usually acknowledged, especially for the mountains of the Mediterranean, where links between mountains and the past have often been viewed as particularly important, just as they were for the ancient world.

The project will be recruiting for a three-year postdoctoral researcher. For more information on that post and on the project more broadly please contact the Principal Investigator, Professor Jason König (jpk3@st-andrews.ac.uk).

The Centre for Landscape Studies will be hosting a related conference on ‘Mountains in Antiquity’ on 8-9 June 2017.

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