The rich history inside ancient texts

  • December 20, 2022
The rich history inside ancient texts

Daniel Hanigan on the rich information about life in ancient Greece contained in ancient texts previously seen as nautical guidebooks

The periploi texts represent a coastal tour through the memory and history of the region.

Daniel Hanigan

The ancient Greek texts Daniel Hanigan [2019] has been studying for the last three years have been seen as a kind of ancient lonely planet guide, but he found something much more interesting which went to the heart of the ancient Greek experience and how it evolved over time.  

He says: “The periploi have often been thought of as nautical guidebooks designed to operate as navigational schematics for ancient sailors. On close inspection, however, it becomes clear that these texts communicate far more than sparse literary geographies of ancient coastlines. Rather, they varyingly comprise ethnographic records of coastal communities, philosophical attempts to capture in words the scope of the known world, geopolitical dossiers written at the behest of emperors, and more.” 

He adds: “If there is one conclusion to draw from reading the periploi it is that the Greeks were a coastal people. The coastal areas were where they sailed, fished and traded. The primary experience of life in Greek antiquity is that most people would be on the coast and texts are one means by which they made sense of their environment.” 


Daniel himself has experience of living in a coastal area. Born on a dairy farm in rural Australia, his father, who had been in the Navy for over 20 years, then decided to buy a big dairy farm on the East coast. Daniel, the oldest of three children, lived on the farm until he was five, spending some time being homeschooled when he broke his arm which left him free to explore any area of knowledge that appealed to him. Being an early reader, thanks to his mother, he read his way through a large number of adventure novels.  

When the dairy industry was deregulated his Dad moved on to the prison industry and the family moved first to Sydney and then to the Blue Mountains where his mother worked in schools for students with learning difficulties. Daniel, whose parents became Roman Catholics, attended a Catholic high school.  

He describes himself as “a disinterested student” who behaved “poorly”. “I was more interested in being outside school than in it,” he says. “I was allergic to being bored.” He was very into sport, particularly basketball, cricket and soccer, and debating and continued to read voraciously, getting into religion and philosophy at secondary school, including the New Atheists.  

He says he “ran screaming” from maths and science. History, however, was a subject that fascinated him and he took an extension course in it and other subjects, including music, another subject he enjoyed, having played guitar in school bands. His history extension course introduced him to historiography. That meant he could re-read texts and consider them from the particular historical position of the author. “It meant history became a historical artefact,” he says. That realisation was to prove a formative driver of his intellectual curiosity. 

Discovering antiquity

After leaving school, Daniel wasn’t sure what to do next so he enrolled at the University of Sydney on a broad double degree in science and arts, but found himself spending a lot of his time on maths, which he didn’t enjoy. He discovered, however, that he could do an elective course in ancient history alongside his degree. He took to it straight away and then realised that there were careers that he could pursue that were related to it. Immediately he reorientated his studies, inspired by a wonderful teacher who was a Homer scholar and expert in early Greek culture. “He was so good at bringing the subject to life. It was like going down an endlessly fascinating maze of discoveries,” says Daniel. He was able to shape his degree according to his interests, taking classes in everything from the ancient Mediterranean area and Greek and Latin to history. 

Despite not having any background knowledge of Latin and Greek unlike many of his fellow students, Daniel devoted himself “unblinkingly” to the classes and says they opened up an enormous world of literature and history. “So much has not yet been translated,” he said. For someone like him who was always looking for the next adventure it was quite a discovery.  “It’s impossible to become bored,” he said simply. 

Daniel did his dissertation on the relationship between theatre and autocracy in Hellenistic Athens, particularly how tragedy became a propaganda tool of tyranny. He won the university medal for his work. 


For his two-year master’s, which he began in 2016, he again turned to the theatre working with Professor Peter Wilson and Professor Eric Csapo, who had inspired his first dissertation. He focused on drama under the generals who succeeded Alexander and who had been patrons of the theatre. However, true to form, Daniel changed course halfway through the study and ended up diverting his attention to Clement of Alexandria, a Christian convert who was more influenced by Greek philosophy than any other Christian thinker of his time, under the supervision of Professor Julia Kindt. Clement wrote the Protrepticus, an exhortation to the Greeks to convert to Christianity and opened up a new period of Greek literature. Daniel also studied other Christian apologetic literature and other imperial Greek literature written under the Roman empire.  

While doing his master’s he met Professor Tim Whitmarsh, who was to become his supervisor at Cambridge and was inspired to follow him to Cambridge for his PhD. After being selected for a Gates Cambridge Scholarship following “a spirited intellectual discussion” during his interview, Daniel worked for six months as a college librarian at the University of Sydney cataloguing an antiquarian book collection. 


He began his PhD in 2019, managing to catch the last flight back to Australia in March 2020 before the Covid lockdown in the UK. In Australia there was no lockdown at that time so he was able to go to the Australian National University and to do much of his research online. He hopes to be finished in December, just over three years since he started. 

He had originally petitioned Professor Whitmarsh about a different idea for his PhD: the Christian reception of Greek literary culture, an emerging emerging area of scholarship. But Professor Whitmarsh told him that, if that was trending at the time, it might be well covered when he was due to finish his PhD. So he changed track and “hunted for untramelled land” – texts which were not typically read by anyone. “It had to be interesting and untouched,” he says, relishing the sense of discovering something new. 

He found the periploi (“Circumnavigations”), texts about Greek voyages to the extremes of the Mediterranean and beyond. During his PhD, he has been able to publish a few articles based on his research, mostly about prose texts, although one was a verse account of the coastlines North of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.  

Daniel also collaborated with another Gates Cambridge Scholar, Grant Kynaston, on piecing together the missing lines in some a damaged manuscript of Pseudo-Scymnus’ Periodos to Nicomedes.  

The texts were about sailing and discovery, but what they really portrayed was a sense of the coastal geography of the area – the space between land and sea and the precarity of living there against a background of frequent stormy weather. “Through the conceit of a voyage they represented literary geography,” says Daniel.  

He picked the three most interesting texts which covered the Thracian Bosporus, the Black Sea and the voyage from Gibraltar to West Africa and show how attitudes to the coast changed over time. He says: “My interest was in what kind of space was being imagined and how the writers thought about and gave meaning to the coast as a boundary restricting access to the land – as a place of wild people who pelt you with rocks, as an island of hairy women, as a strange boundary zone full of danger at the fringe of the world; as a space of cultural memory, of monuments damaged by the Barbarians, a space that needed to be transformed into a proper Roman zone’. The texts represent a coastal tour through the memory and history of the region.” 

Daniel, who has been teaching undergraduate students at his college Corpus Christi, plans to continue with his research and to study late antique cosmology next – how it transformed from the days of the early Greek cosmologists and was co-opted by Christian writers who had a different view of how the Earth originated. 

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