This project has investigated spaces of action in ancient Greek and Roman fictional art, both in literature and in visual representations. Space found as a place of imagined action contributes both to fictionalization and to the construction of how space is perceived and presented in many ways, ranging from almost complete disappearance to personalized presence.


Proceeding from the impression that imaginary space has not been sufficiently worked upon in Greek literature, Asper’s and Poiss’s work has focused on three aspects: (a) typological approaches to ‘backgrounds’ in imaginary space in Greek literature, (b) the political imagination of space, and (c) bucolic spaces.


(a) While ‘background’ is of course a category at home in visual arts, it has nevertheless been used in order to analyze literature in various ways. A survey of Greek literature has demonstrated that the notion of ‘background’ to narrative action covers a whole range of phenomena, e.g. functional contexts (the ground on to which Homeric heroes fall when being killed) which can unfold into a Trojan theater (Strauss Clay), the documentary role landscapes and topography play in Thucydides and historians in general, the causative potencies that Hippocratic authors ascribe to climate and soil in order to explain certain endemic diseases, moving landscapes in Hellenistic poetry (Callimachus), and personification (e.g. of the river Scamandrus in Iliad 21 who pursues Achilles). In accordance with the work of Nina Ogrowsky on the ‘background’ in Greek literature, it comes to light how much the presentation of backgrounds in Greek literature follows concerns of functionality. It follows that the ‘discovery of landscape’ (Ulmer 2010), which is usually discovered by art historians in early modern painting and conceptualized as part of a history of knowledge, has to be re-calibrated.

(b) Political imagination of space: while in the beginnings this project was geared towards fictional spaces, it very soon became clear that fictional space is comparatively well-researched, but that the manifold constructions of how politically charged perceptions of space are presented, provide new opportunities for research. The ‘empire’ was chosen as the field in which political space comes to the fore most persistently. Thus, a conference on “Imagining Spaces of Empire” was organized in May 2013 that not only explored the field, but also brought a range of discussion-provoking results: Focusing on Greek hellenistic and Roman late-republic literary discourse, the participants showed how political space is constructed as a series of mappings in which actual geography plays an actually rather insignificant role. In Greek literature, the literary heritage and the contemporary landscapes of political power always form a complex unity, in which traditional ways of expression and actual political concerns usually merge because the latter’s expression needs the former’s conventionality. In Roman literature, however, the writers are more conscious of political pressure and have much less of an overpowering literary past to engage with, which sets them free to experiment with perceptions of political space. To the amazement of the researchers involved, many of the international contributors found it helpful to engage with post-colonial approaches to space perception. As well as offering innovative interpretations of key texts from the third century BC to the second century AD, the volume attempts to respond critically and imaginatively to the still-burgeoning body of work on space across the humanities in the wake of post-colonialist and post-structuralist thinking. Therefore it is to be expected that the collection of the research group will provide starting-points for further explorations of this field, both in our field and beyond.

(c) Thomas Poiss has focused on bucolic landscape in ancient literature, Roman wall painting and ancient transhumance. He investigated the interaction between different artistic media and the reality of ancient farming. Vergil’s Bucolics always has been a privileged playground for theorists of fiction, and ‘Arcadia’ has become a synonym for an imaginary, utopian landscape in general. Yet on a closer look things become more complicated. On the one hand, pastoral farming was objectively the closest environment surrounding urban centers in both the Greek (Syracuse, Kos in Theocritus) and Roman world (Rome in Virgil). Not only the members of the upper class with their extra-urban villas got into contact with farming, but even the inhabitants of Rome saw, heared, and smelled thousands of sheep that two times a year had to be brought across the Tiber next to the forum Boarium, when the shepherds left the summer pastures in the Appenine valleys and drove their herds to the marshlands near Ostia (Santillo Frizell) to pass the winter there. The ‘pastoral’ world was a very tangible reality, starting at, as it were, or even passing through the city-gates. On the other hand, no poet ever visited the historical landscape of Arcadia, and the Hellenized Roman society of the 1st century BC was fond of wallpaintings depicting imaginary landscapes (Esquiline frescoes, Villa Boscotrecase, Villa Farnesina). Thus, scholars of Bucolic literature should take into account both viewpoints: the ’real’ and the imaginary one.

While dealing with the Esquiline frescoes in the collaborative essay on perspective of the Topoi research group (C-4) Pictorial Construction of Space, Thomas Poiss showed how the effect of a realistic framing (via a painted porticus of pillars) of scenes drawn from the Odyssey ‒ Panofsky called this effect a “look through the wall“ ‒ collides with the content of the pictures that are not only shown from a different (i.e. higher) viewpoint, but blend together different scenes of the Odyssey’s narrative. The narrative logic of the texts and that of the pictures have both to be analyzed separately and to be combined anew retrospectively in order to reach an all-encompassing understanding of what is in front of us.

In a paper presented at the retreat of research group (C-4) Pictorial Construction of Space in May 2016, Thomas Poiss argues that Vergil’s entire Bucolics (or eclogues) draw on the realistic and on the imaginative side of the pastoral representation. Hints on spatial movement progressively scattered in the text, evocations of haptic and olfactory qualities of the pastoral world, integration of contemporary historic events and places (confiscations in the Transpadana, Rome, Syracuse), naming of contemporary politicians (Pollio) and poets (Gallus), all this suggests the reality of things evoked. In contrast to these effects, also several poetic stratagems were found appealing to the imagination only: divinization, looking down from heaven, the magical effects of song that can animate persons as well as things. Both strategies culminate in the last eclogue (ecl. 10), the only one taking place, within its fictional frame, in Arcadia. Only in this ‒ imaginary ‒ place songs and landscape, language and space correspond exactly to each other. The Bucolics, when read through this interpretive framework, are no longer an escapist’s hobby-horse, but a thorough investigation into the relation between language and reality, mediated through spatial metaphors.

Related Publications (Selection)

Markus Asper and Victoria Rimell (Eds.), Imagining Empire: Political Space in Hellenistic and Roman Literature, Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2017

Tina Bawden, Dominik Bonatz, Nikolaus Dietrich, Johanna Fabricius, Karin Gludovatz, Susanne Muth, Thomas Poiss and Daniel A. Werning, “Early Visual Cultures and Panofsky’s Perspektive als ‘symbolische Form’, in: Space and Knowledge. Topoi Research Group Articles, eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies, Special Volume 6 (2016), 525–570