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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Robert Hannah

“The Institute itself provides an extraordinary academic environment in which to work and learn from others. ”

Professor Robert Hannah, University of Otago

IAS Fellow at St. Mary's College, Durham University (January - March 2013)

Robert Hannah is a professor of Classics at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. After gaining his BA in Greek at Otago, he studied classical archaeology at Oxford, and has been a member of staff in the Classics Department at Otago since 1980, gaining a personal chair in 2006.

He began his research career writing about works of Greek and Roman art and he continues to do so, particularly in his capacity as Honorary Curator of the Classical Collections of the Otago Museum. But he found himself early on drawn into explaining some well-known works of art which incorporated astronomical symbols of time, and these in turn attracted him to the study of the means and meanings of measuring time. His most recent publications include the books Greek and Roman Calendars: Constructions of Time in the Classical World (Duckworth: London 2005), and Time in Antiquity (Routledge: London 2009), the latter a product of a three-year Marsden Grant from the Royal Society of New Zealand (2004-2006).

Professor Hannah has sought to increase understanding of the everyday perception of time in ancient Greece and Rome (with an eye also on Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures). His work explains in detail the various instruments of time - calendars, sundials, water-clocks - which relied on often complex interrelationships between the cycles of sun, moon and stars and it seeks to demonstrate the intimate social relationships between agricultural life, religious cult and political time. Thus his research synthesises humanistic and scientific approaches to the ancient world. His work has been recognised by the academy through his election in 2008 to a Fellowship in the Society of Antiquaries of London, the oldest Learned Society for heritage in the English-speaking world.

His current interests are in the ways in which the ancient Greeks and Romans situated and understood themselves in their natural and built landscapes, especially in the context of religious cult. While at the IAS at Durham, he will be working on two projects. One examines conceptions of the relationship between time, eternity and the afterlife in antiquity. His working hypothesis is that conceptions of time and eternity are intimately linked at certain temporal nodes in the solar cycle, and he will seek to test this through an analysis of Roman monuments and beliefs, cosmological theory and philosophy. While this project will focus on the idea as it is presented in antiquity, it is a matter of continuing interest to the present day, with the modern hypotheses of parallel universes or multiverses, which imply a notion of places before or after our time, some with 'membranes' for passage (if only for gravity) from one world to another, and the possibility of sempeternity (perpetual time).

The second project, funded by a second Marsden Grant (2011-2013), is 'Myth, Cult and Cosmos: astronomy in ancient Greek religion', in which he is collaborating with Dr Efrosyni Boutsikas (University of Kent in Canterbury). The project uses astronomy as an innovative tool to help elucidate and explain Greek religious belief and practice. The project studies selected sanctuaries in the Greek world, from the perspective of their terrestrial and celestial landscapes and in conjunction with the content and timing of religious cult, all combining to provide us with a richer understanding of the interplay between science and religion in ancient Greece.

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - From here to the hereafter: genesis and apogenesis in Roman art and architecture

29th January 2013, 17:15, Kenworthy Hall, St Mary's College, Professor Robert Hannah

In this paper Professor Robert Hannah proposes that in both public and private, élite and plebeian contexts, the pivotal times of the equinoxes and solstices in the solar year were regarded as providing liminal ‘passageways’ between the time-bound, mortal world of the ‘here and now’ and the timeless or perpetual, immortal world of the ‘hereafter’.

According to the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry, in the Roman mystery cult of Mithras the midsummer solstice was regarded as the point of entry for souls from heaven into this world (genesis), while at the midwinter solstice there lay the point of re-entry to heaven (apogenesis). The sun-god Mithras oversaw this migration of souls from his seat at the equinoxes. The cult’s meetings and rituals took place in a cave-like setting, whose form was regarded as a symbol of the cosmos. Professor Hannah argues that this conception pervaded ancient society well beyond the boundaries of this esoteric cult. It may be found, for example, in particular Roman monuments, such as the imperial palace of Nero; Hadrian’s Pantheon; and the Antonine Column. All of these highlight the pivotal solar times of the equinoxes or solstices as liminal passageways for the emperor’s soul between this world and the next. But the notion also occurs in other contexts, notably the meeting rooms of Mithraism, and the domed churches of the Byzantine empire, eastern descendants of the Pantheon. These last are additionally significant for ‘democratising’ the road to eternity, by making it open also to the non-élite, plebeian members of society.

Listen to the lecture in full.


“The Institute provides an extraordinary academic environment in which to work and learn from others.”

Professor Robert Hannah, University of Otago

Professor Robert Hannah Publications

Hannah, R. (2017) 'The Intellectual Background of the Antikythera Mechanism' , in Doering, L., Ben-Dov , J. (eds.) The Construction of Time in Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hannah, R. (2016) 'Roman Calendar', in G. L. Irby (ed.) Companion to Greek Science, Medicine, and Technology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 906-922.

Hannah, R. (2016) 'Time-telling Devices', in G. L. Irby (ed.) Companion to Greek Science, Medicine, and Technology. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 923-939.

Hannah, R. (2014) ‘Light at the Pantheon' in Ruggles, C.L.N (ed) Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy. Heidelberg: Springer, pp. 1651-1658.

Hannah, R.
(2014) ‘Ancient Greek Calendars’ in Ruggles, C.L.N (ed) Handbook of Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy. Heidelberg: Springer, pp. 1563-1571.

Hannah, R. (2013) ‘Time in Written Spaces’ in Sears, G., Keegan, P., Laurence, R (eds) Written Space in the Latin West, 200 BC to AD 300. London and New York: Continuum Press, pp. 83-104.

IAS Insights Paper


From the third-century-CE Platonic philosopher, Porphyry, we learn that the midsummer solstice was regarded as the point of entry for souls from heaven into this world, a process called genesis. Its opposite, apogenesis, the return of souls to heaven, occurred at the midwinter solstice. Midway between the solstices lie the equinoxes, which were regarded as the points of cosmic balance, where the lord of genesis took his seat to oversee the processes of genesis and apogenesis. Porphyry taught in Rome, and it is in that city, I argue, that we find major buildings which instantiate this world view. I argued the case for the Pantheon in this regard in my book, ‘Time in Antiquity.’ Here I extend the argument to the palace of the emperor, Nero.

Insights Paper